The first week of May in 1942, exactly seventy five years ago, marked an extremely eventful time for the United States in the early days of World War II. The Doolitttle Raid against Tokyo and other Japanese cities, just days before, had boosted the morale of Americans everywhere. Now, in this fateful week, there would be both extremely discouraging and guardedly encouraging news.
Although Doolittle’s Raiders had definitely shocked, embarrassed and unnerved the Japanese with a surprise attack on their homeland back on April 18, overwhelmingly powerful Japanese military forces were still moving like a steamroller across Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. Empire-thirsty Japan already occupied a far-reaching realm of nations and peoples, including Manchuria, vast portions of China, Korea, Hong Kong, Formosa (Taiwan), French Indochina, Thailand (Siam), Burma, the Dutch East Indies, most of the Philippines, northern New Guinea and a host of islands in the Southwest Pacific.
Except for a force of some 13,000 U.S. and Filipino soldiers pinned down on the Philippine island of Corregidor, American resistance throughout the occupied territories had essentially vanished. The U.S. contingent on Guam, greatly outnumbered and overwhelmed, had fallen to the Japanese back on December 10, 1941. Following a legendary defense, American Marines on Wake Island had finally capitulated on December 23. Then, after four months of incredible resistance on the Philippine peninsula of Bataan, more than 70,000 U.S. and Filipino troops had laid down their arms on April 9. It was the largest surrender in American history. At sea, the story was much the same. With the sinking of its flagship, the USS HOUSTON (CA30), on the first day of March, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet had effectively ceased to exist as a fighting force. Only the soldiers on Corregidor remained in the fight.
Corregidor, a heavily fortified rock-like island, was part of a group of four islands believed by some to be virtually unconquerable. Laced with an extensive underground tunnel system and covered with a formidable array of artillery and other weaponry, it stood watch over the entrance to Manila Bay, considered to be the finest natural harbor in the Far East. Such a prize was, obviously, very coveted by the Japanese. After the fall of Bataan a month earlier, the invaders had turned the full fury of their collected military might in the Philippines on Corregidor. Under constant shelling and air bombardment, life for the U.S.-Filipino garrison there had become more than intolerable. Critically low of food and water, and living in the tunnels like rats, the end was near for the weakened and sickly defenders of Corregidor. Nevertheless, when the actual invasion came on May 5, the soldiers and Marines on the “Rock” fought with amazing ferocity. Despite their unforgettable courage, the end came on May 6, when Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright sent a white flag of surrender into the Japanese lines. Just prior to that, he had transmitted a poignant radio message to President Roosevelt back in Washington, D.C. It included the memorable words, “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.” As the last group of American servicemen who had been stationed in the Far East at the beginning of the war surrendered, the murderous tide of Japanese imperialism continued to spread.
On the same day that Corregidor fell, some 2500 miles away, the Imperial Japanese Navy was locked in a major sea battle with combined naval and air forces of the United States and Australia. It would become known as the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in the northernmost areas of that sea, with Australia to the west, New Guinea to the north, and the Solomon Islands to the northeast. It marked the first time in history that aircraft carriers had engaged and fought each other solely by means of their warplanes, and the first sea battle in which opposing ships had never actually sighted or fired directly upon each other.
Japan, already occupying much of northern and central New Guinea, had decided to also take the critical seaport of Port Moresby in southern New Guinea. At the same time, they were also moving on Tulagi in the nearby Solomon Islands. Success in these concurrent thrusts would significantly strengthen the southern perimeter of Japan’s burgeoning empire, make Australia considerably more vulnerable, and enhance Japanese ability to impede American access to Australia. On the other side, the Americans and Australians, thanks to a growing capacity to decipher coded Japanese message traffic, were aware of and intent on thwarting these invasion efforts, particularly those directed against Port Moresby.
Although the Battle of the Coral Sea officially took place from 4-8 May in 1942, the most intense part of the action took place on the 7th and 8th days of the month. On those two days, aircraft from each navy’s carriers lashed out at opposing planes and ships in waves of ferocious attacks. In the end, each side suffered significant losses of aircraft and incurred damage to and the loss of key naval vessels. America brought two carriers to the fray, with the USS LEXINGTON being lost and the USS YORKTOWN badly damaged. The Japanese, on the other hand, experienced the sinking of one of their light carriers and extensive damage to the larger fleet carrier SHOKAKU. Based on the numbers of ships and aircraft either lost or damaged, along with the numbers of casualties, military experts give the Japanese a slight tactical victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea. However, those same experts credit the U.S. and Australians with an all-important strategic victory, due to the fact that the Japanese had now decided to abandon their attempted takeover of Port Moresby until later. The Americans and their allies had, for the first time in the Pacific war, halted a Japanese thrust. They had not yet turned the tide of aggression, but they had now stopped that tide, at a critical place and at a critical juncture in the war. In another month, the tide of the war would indeed turn, when a miracle would take place at a tiny coral atoll in the Pacific called Midway.
In the final defense of Corregidor, almost 1000 Americans and Filipinos lost their lives, with another 1000 wounded. More than 11,000 were carried away as POWs. Many of them would not survive the war, dying under horrific conditions in inhuman camps. Another 656 sailors and naval airmen would pay the ultimate price in the Coral Sea struggle. Young Americans were still laying down their lives in defense of liberty, and would continue to do so for over three more years. As we experience daily the blessings of our American way of life, it is so easy to forget those who gave everything to preserve and protect our cherished freedoms. Remember those who fought so valiantly at Corregidor. Remember those who, for the first time in the war, checked the spread of Japanese aggression in the Battle of the Coral Sea…75 years ago.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are….” Ronald Reagan