Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea · May 4, 1942

On this date in 1942 the five-day Battle of the Coral Sea began. A Japa­nese in­va­sion fleet was steaming toward the capital of Aus­tra­lian Papua New Gui­nea, Port Mores­by, which had the poten­tial of becoming, after Rabaul’s cap­ture ear­lier in Janu­ary, another major Japa­nese staging point and air base in the South Pacific (see dotted line on map below). If the Japa­nese gained a foot­hold in Papua New Gui­nea, they would strengthen their de­fen­sive posi­tion and sever Allied sea lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the South Paci­fic, and their air­craft would be with­in striking dis­tance (1,124 miles) of Darwin, Northern Australia, a strategic port and air base for the Allies.

Naval and air force units from the United States and Aus­tra­lia, under the over­all com­mand of Amer­i­can Adm. Frank J. Fletcher, set out to stop the Japa­nese. The resulting en­gage­ment south­west of the Solo­mon Is­lands was the first of five car­rier ver­sus car­rier sea battles in naval his­tory and the first naval battle in which two opposing fleets were never in visu­al con­tact. Though losses were about equal on both sides (the U.S. lost the car­rier Lexing­ton, Japan the heavy cruiser Miku­ma and the light carrier Shōhō), it was the first time the Japa­nese had expe­ri­enced failure in a major oper­a­tion. Further­more, the damage the Allies in­flicted on the Japa­nese carriers Shō­kaku and Zui­kaku pre­vented their par­ti­ci­pa­tion in the Battle of Midway the following month (June 4–7, 1942). That pivo­tal battle was a clear-cut vic­tory for the U.S. Navy, and the ini­ti­a­tive, both at sea and in the air, now lay squarely in Amer­ica’s court.

But not on land. The Japa­nese still attempted to take Port Mores­by via the moun­tain­ous Koko­da Track (July 1942 to Janu­ary 1943), staging from Buna and Gona on the north coast of the is­land. During the New Gui­nea cam­paign (January 1942 to August 1945), more than 33,000 Amer­i­cans and Aus­tra­lians fought the Japa­nese, suffering a casual­ty rate of 1 in 11. The U.S. 2nd Bat­talion/126th Infan­try Regi­ment (nick­named Ghost Bat­talion) was espe­cially hard hit. Out of 1,400 men who went into action on Novem­ber 21, 1942, only six officers and 126 troops were standing when Buna was retaken six weeks later. By com­par­i­son, 60,000 Amer­i­cans fought the Japa­nese on Gua­dal­canal (August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943), where 1 in 37 GIs died.

Sea and Land Campaigns in the Pacific, 1942–1943

Port Moresby Invasion/Battle of Coral Sea

Above: Map showing the movements of the Japanese Port Moresby invasion force and the plan for the force’s landing, which the Japanese called “Operation Mo” (dashed lines in center). Port Moresby, on the south­eastern coast of the Papuan Penin­sula of the island of New Guinea, was the last Allied base between Aus­tra­lia and Japan. The map also depicts the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 4–8, 1942 (solid lines in right half).

USS Lexington, May 8, 1942Girau River, Buna, New Guinea, 1942

Left: Carrier USS Lexington, burning and sinking after her crew aban­doned ship during the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 8, 1942. Some 216 crew­men were killed and 2,735 evacuated.

Right: In 1942 three members of the U.S. 32nd In­fan­try Divis­ion move supplies by boat on the Girau River, Buna, New Gui­nea. With no roads through the jungle, the only way to keep the troops fur­nished with the food, am­mu­ni­tion, and other goods neces­sary to oper­ate against the Japa­nese was via water and airborne supply.

Dead GIs on Buna Beach, February 1943Australians attack near Buna, January 1943

Left: Three GIs lay dead on Buna Beach. This image, taken by George Strock in Febru­ary 1943 for LIFE magazine, was not pub­lished until Septem­ber 20, 1943, when Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt autho­rized its release, the first image to depict Amer­i­can sol­diers dead on a battle­field. FDR was con­cerned that the Amer­i­can pub­lic was growing com­pla­cent about the cost of the war on human life.

Right: Australian forces attack Japanese positions near Buna, Janu­ary 7, 1943. Members of the 2/12th Infantry Battalion ad­vance as Stuart tanks from the 2nd Bat­talion/6th Armored Regi­ment attack Japan­ese pill­boxes. An up­ward-firing machine gun on the tank sprays treetops to clear them of snipers.

Battle of the Coral Sea, May 4–8, 1942: An Australian Tribute