MacArthur and the Battle of the Coral Sea 1942

Senior Allied commanders in New Guinea in October 1942. Left to right: Mr Frank Forde (Australian Minister for the Army); MacArthur; General Sir Thomas Blamey, Allied Land Forces; Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, Allied Air Forces; Lieutenant General Edmund Herring, New Guinea Force; Brigadier General Kenneth Walker, V Bomber Command.

MacArthur’s PR machine needed no cover: it was already on the offensive. In fact, under the auspices of Pick Diller, with heavy contributions from MacArthur himself, it had continued its Manila and Corregidor practice of cranking out ubiquitous press releases from the moment the Bataan Gang landed at Batchelor Field. On the one hand, Japanese propaganda boasted verbosely about the triumphs—real and imagined—of the Japanese army and navy, and MacArthur appears to have felt that part of his charge was to counter this stream with propaganda of his own. But on the other hand, his communications were released so quickly that they frequently did not have all the facts straight. In addition, they sometimes reported results for operations over which MacArthur had no direct command, and their revelations threatened to undercut the top-secret code-breaking operations being performed not only by the US Navy but also by his own intelligence unit.

Marshall called MacArthur to task for just those reasons after a press release datelined “Allied Headquarters, Australia, April 27,” reported in great detail on the buildup of Japanese forces at Rabaul. The Japanese had to suspect, Marshall told MacArthur, that reconnaissance alone could not have gathered such information and that their codes were compromised, if not broken. “This together with previous incidents,” Marshall admonished, “indicates that censorship of news emanating from Australia including your headquarters is in need of complete revision.”

MacArthur replied that after what he termed had been “a careful check,” the material in question had not been announced “by direct communiqué” from his headquarters. He professed to have Marshall believe that the term “Allied Headquarters, Australia,” had been loosely appropriated by reporters—despite MacArthur being so particular about such things—and that its use did not imply his control or approval. MacArthur blamed an Australian censor for the release, then pointedly noted, “As I have explained previously, it is utterly impossible for me under the authority I possess to impose total censorship in this foreign country.” But then the stakes got higher.

The US Navy’s code-breaking unit in the Philippines, code-named Cast, had been a high-priority evacuation from Corregidor early in February. A similar army unit, Station 6, delayed leaving until after MacArthur’s departure but was partially evacuated late in March. Both units reassembled in Melbourne and continued deciphering signal intelligence. The center of Pacific intelligence against the Japanese, however, was Station Hypo, located at Pearl Harbor under the leadership of Lieutenant Commander Joseph J. Rochefort.

Based on Rochefort’s intercepts, Commander Edwin T. Layton, Nimitz’s chief intelligence officer, sent a message through channels that advised Sutherland that the Japanese appeared to be preparing to extend their reach from Rabaul and that Port Moresby might be attacked by sea as early as April 21. MacArthur ordered an aerial reconnaissance of Simpson Harbor at Rabaul, but General Brett’s pilots found no concentration of ships that would suggest a major amphibious operation.

On April 22 in Hawaii, Layton reaffirmed his suspicions to Nimitz: despite the reconnaissance results, he still anticipated an imminent Japanese offensive from Rabaul, either against southern New Guinea or eastward into the Solomons. Given the predilection of the Japanese navy to advance under the protection of land-based air—the Battle of Midway was soon to be a major exception—Layton suggested that the target was Port Moresby.

Willoughby read the same decoded message and came to a different conclusion. Noting the reported presence of four Japanese carriers, Willoughby predicted an attack beyond the cover of land-based air, either against the northeastern coast of Australia or on New Caledonia, the critical link in the West-Coast-to-Australia lifeline. When Port Moresby remained quiet, additional naval intelligence convinced Sutherland that the attack had only been delayed a week or two. Willoughby backed off his appraisal and revised it: thereafter he expected a landing in division strength at Port Moresby between May 5 and May 10.

In response to Layton’s intelligence, Nimitz ordered the carriers Lexington and Yorktown, under the command of Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, to rendezvous and venture into the Coral Sea. Convinced by Layton that the Japanese were making a major offensive thrust, Nimitz also ordered the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, which were returning from the Doolittle Raid under Bill Halsey’s command, to join Fletcher. Bunching the only four American carriers in the Pacific into one force marked a major shift in the way the US Navy deployed its carriers—even though Enterprise and Hornet would arrive too late to engage—and, to Nimitz’s credit, it signaled his emergence as an aggressive theater commander. Nonetheless, it took Nimitz’s muscular lobbying with King to persuade him to do the bundling—and to do it without the millstone of lumbering battleships slowing him down.

The Japanese sortied three main groups: a battle, or “striking,” force from Truk under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi, including the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku; an invasion force from Rabaul bound for Port Moresby containing seven destroyers, five transports, and several seaplane tenders; and an escort, or “covering,” force that shadowed the invasion force and included the light carrier Shoho along with four heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a squadron of submarines.

The architect of the Japanese attack was Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, the commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Fourth Fleet, based at Truk. In addition to Port Moresby, Inoue had his eye on a seaplane facility at tiny Gavutu, near the island of Tulagi, at the far eastern end of the Solomons. Capturing Gavutu and Tulagi would allow Japanese seaplanes to patrol the eastern reaches of the Coral Sea while an airfield for land-based air was constructed nearby on the larger island of Guadalcanal.

As a small force wove its way through the Solomons from Rabaul and made the Tulagi landings, Takagi’s striking force would sweep around the eastern end of the islands, sprint westward across the Coral Sea, and launch a surprise attack against the Allied airfields at Townsville, on the Australian mainland, crippling a chunk of MacArthur’s air force prior to the Port Moresby landing. Inoue did not expect that Takagi would encounter American carriers until Takagi moved northward after the Townsville raid to cover the Port Moresby landings. At least that was the plan.

On May 2, the small Royal Australian Air Force detachment at Tulagi learned of the advance of the Japanese landing force and escaped to the New Hebrides after demolishing some facilities. The following day, the Japanese force, landing unopposed, was observed by SWPA reconnaissance planes. MacArthur passed the report to Admiral Fletcher, who, unbeknownst to Inoue, was cruising on the Yorktown in the Coral Sea south of the Solomons. Fletcher ordered Yorktown north and launched a raid against Tulagi that returned with high boasts but did little actual damage to the invasion force. The result, however, was to warn Takagi of the presence of an American carrier and expedite his approach with the Shokaku and Zuikaku around the eastern end of the Solomons and into the Coral Sea by midday on May 5.

General Brett’s bombers, flying out of Townsville and Port Moresby, caught glimpses of the Port Moresby invasion force slowly making for Jomard Passage, between the New Guinea mainland and the Louisiade Archipelago. Repeated air attacks over the course of three days ended with little damage to the Japanese ships, but inexplicably, Brett, or perhaps it was MacArthur, did not relay any of these sightings or actions to Fletcher—just one consequence of a less-than-unified command.

Carrier USS Lexington under Japanese Attack.

MacArthur’s Navy

Elements of what would come to be called MacArthur’s Navy were, however, on the scene. Admiral Leary had sent the bulk of his SWPA naval forces—two Australian and one American cruiser and three destroyers—to assist Fletcher, but on the morning of May 7, Fletcher detached them westward to protect Port Moresby from any force steaming out of Jomard Passage. Successive waves of Japanese medium and heavy bombers found the ships and pressed attacks dangerously close, at one point straddling Rear Admiral John G. Crace’s Australian flagship with a spread of bombs. Barely had these planes departed when three more medium bombers dropped bombs from twenty-five thousand feet on one of the destroyers.

“It was subsequently discovered,” Crace later reported, “that these aircraft were U.S. Army B-26 from Townsville.” Photographs taken as the bombs were released left little doubt that they had attacked their own ships. “Fortunately,” Crace concluded, “their bombing, in comparison with that of the Japanese formation a few moments earlier, was disgraceful.”

Records showed only eight Allied B-17s then engaged anywhere in the vicinity. General Brett flatly denied that his planes—B-26s, B-25s, or otherwise—had attacked Crace’s command and rejected an offer from Leary to work on improving the air forces’ recognition of naval vessels. MacArthur seems to have stayed above this fray, but he held conferences with both Brett and Leary the next day, and the affair likely did not improve his regard for either man.

Meanwhile, both Fletcher and Takagi launched search planes to find each other’s carriers. They found targets, but not the ones they were looking for. The first strike from the Japanese carriers mistook the destroyer Sims and oiler Neosho, idling by themselves waiting for a refueling rendezvous, for a carrier and cruiser and sank them after a furious onslaught. The Americans fell victim to a similar problem of misidentification and launched full complements of aircraft from Yorktown and Lexington against reports of “two carriers and four heavy cruisers” 175 miles to the northwest. The nervous pilot had meant to encode “two heavy cruisers and two destroyers,” but dive-bombers from the Lexington stumbled upon the light carrier Shoho in the covering force, sinking it to one pilot’s cry of “Scratch one flattop.”

Finally, on the morning of May 8, planes from the two principal carriers on each side found their targets, leaving the Lexington and the Shokaku the most heavily damaged of the four and proving that carrier aircraft could fight major encounters without surface ships ever coming into direct contact with each other. The Americans made headway to save the Lexington, but gasoline vapors from ruptured fuel lines ignited and started a series of chain explosions. Sailors lined the flight deck in a calm evacuation, and Fletcher had the grim duty of ordering a destroyer to sink the flaming wreck to avoid any chance of its salvage by the Japanese.

Having already been instructed by Admiral Inoue to abandon the raid against Townsville, Takagi turned northward with the Zuikaku to follow the wounded Shokaku. The loss of the Shoho prompted a similar recall as both the Port Moresby invasion fleet and the remnants of its covering force turned around and sailed back to Rabaul. Tactically, the Americans had sustained heavier losses, but strategically, they had dealt the first major setback to Japan’s unchecked post–Pearl Harbor romp and managed to blunt the Japanese drive to cut Australia’s lifeline. King would never forgive Fletcher for the loss of the Lexington, but five months after Pearl Harbor, Fletcher had taken on a slightly superior force and, at worst, emerged with a draw. At best, he had saved Australia.

But the Battle of the Coral Sea was not quite over. There was to be a secondary fight of press releases between MacArthur and the American navy. During the course of the running naval battle, the Australian Advisory War Council had taken the unprecedented step of granting MacArthur just the sort of supreme censorship over SWPA operations that MacArthur had just told Marshall was “utterly impossible” to enforce. News was to come only from Diller’s SWPA communiqués. The first two dispatches of May 8 reported ten enemy ships sunk and five badly damaged in the Coral Sea action, with MacArthur’s bombers playing a leading role and without any mention of specific American losses, including the Lexington. It was an egocentric way for MacArthur to show he was “in the know,” but it had just the opposite effect. Such shabby reporting sparked criticism from the Australians and outrage from the American navy.

The Lexington had barely settled beneath the warm waters of the Coral Sea when Marshall told MacArthur that King and Nimitz were quite disturbed by his “premature release of information” concerning forces under Nimitz’s command because it imposed “definite risks upon participating forces and jeopardize[d] the successful continuation of fleet task force operations.” King decreed that thenceforth, news of Nimitz’s forces would be “released through the Navy Department only.”

Predictably, MacArthur took affront and immediately dispatched a characteristically lengthy reply: “Absolutely no information has been released from my headquarters with reference to action taking place in the northeastern sector of this area except the official communiqués. By no stretch of possible imagination do they contain anything of value to the enemy nor anything not fully known to him.” The forces so engaged, MacArthur noted, included a large part of his air force, a major portion of the Australian navy, and his heavily Australian ground forces at Port Moresby and elsewhere. The battle involved “the very fate of the Australian people and continent,” MacArthur maintained, “and it is manifestly absurd that some technicality of administrative process should attempt to force them to await the pleasure of the United States Navy Department for news of action.”

In response to this tirade, Marshall took his usual calm approach—he did not reply. It is difficult to imagine that Marshall would have brooked such insolence from another subordinate. Far from being cowed by MacArthur, Marshall was simply following the party line. The president had decided that MacArthur’s worth as an asset outweighed his liabilities, and Marshall would do his best to follow suit. That did not mean, of course, that Roosevelt did not share Marshall’s frequent exasperation.

“As you have seen by the press,” Roosevelt wrote Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King on May 18, “Curtin and MacArthur are obtaining most of the publicity. The fact remains, however, that the naval operations were conducted solely through the Hawaii command!”

Far from shying away from Nimitz, MacArthur complimented the admiral on the manner in which his forces were handled and announced he was eager to cooperate. “Call upon me freely,” MacArthur wrote. “You can count upon my most complete and active cooperation.” Meanwhile, MacArthur regaled his staff with stories of how his planes had discovered the Japanese invasion fleet. “He told it all in the most wonderfully theatrical fashion,” Brigadier General Robert H. Van Volkenburgh, his antiaircraft chief, remembered years later. “I enjoyed every second of it.

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