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The Battle of the Coral Sea in Two Books

7 November 2022

Much has been written about the World War II’s epic Battle of Midway (June 1942) but not much has been addressed regarding the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and this is odd. Most odd.

This is will not be a shallow hit piece dramatically stating one battle is more significant than another—all battles are significant. Most know of the few minutes when dive bombers attacked and sank three Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway as it was quite a dramatic moment in history—though most aren’t aware of the piecemeal attacks by U.S. forces which occurred more-or-less continually earlier during that day. Jabs which fortuitously set up the heavy weight knock-out dive bombing blow. The battle’s outcome halted Imperial Japan’s invasion plans for Midway and subsequent ensuing threat to the Hawaiian Islands. Halted those plans as sure as pulling the plug at a rock concert. Many books and academic papers have been written about Midway but recent works have outshined the past ones. To best understand this battle I suggest, Shattered Sword: the Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. 

The Battle of the Coral Sea similarly made Imperial Japan’s immediate plans in the Southwest Pacific come to a bone-jarring stop. Yet, this battle is usually and singularly known for being the first naval battle where the combatant ships were not within sight of each other. A bit of a longwinded way to say this battle was the acid test of naval carrier aviation war fighting over battleship shoot-outs. But that is the 30,000 foot perspective—that is not so much the immediate impact of the U.S. Navy’s achievement at the time. The immediate effect, the effect which permitted the Allies to take a moment to breathe, was to halt the invasion of New Guinea which would have isolated Australian and New Zealand from the world by severing their logistical supply chain with the United States.

For the Battle of the Coral Sea I recommend two books. For ship movements and strategic decision making by the commanders of both sides readers should rely on, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway which is by another renowned author, John B. Lundstrom. Here, in the title, Lundstrom takes the term “naval air combat” literally by concentrating on the actions of the fighter forces (i.e. Zeros and Wildcats) and their leaders. For a complete perspective readers should also read Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower which is by the uniquelly qualified author, Thomas Wildenberg. Unique since Wildenberg addresses logistics of both sides and how they weighed on commanders strategizing. The book concentrates on the history of dive bombing, and does not ignore torpedo bearing aircraft or horizontal bombing by torpedo bombers, as one would imaging from the title. It is the superb writing by Wildenbrerg of the moment-by-moment attacks by these attack aircraft which is vibrantly enlightening.

Both The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway as well as Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower were heavily used to research and fact check the ambitious proposal recently submitted to the U.S. Navy to recover especially historic aircraft which were flown into the carrier-vs-carrier actions during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The three books mentioned are available, and reasonably so, as the Naval Institute Press.

The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway by John B. Lundstrom, 1984, 547 pp.
Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing. Midway and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower by Thomas Wildenberg, 1998, 258 pp.
Shattered Sword: the Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, 2007, 612 pp.
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