This Day in History: Heroism at the Battle of the Coral Sea

On this day in 1942, the multi-day Battle of the Coral Sea is waged. Three United States Navy officers would receive the Medal of Honor for their bravery during the intense battle.

The Japanese were then on offense, trying to establish bases in and around New Guinea. They had just one small problem: The United States had cracked a part of the Japanese Naval code. U.S. interceptions of Japanese transmissions were incomplete—but the intelligence was enough to push U.S. forces toward the area.

When the two sides finally clashed in early May, one U.S. Navy pilot scored an early hit. Lt. (j.g.) William E. Hall dive-bombed the Japanese carrier, Shoho. His actions helped destroy it! The next day, Hall took to the air again. His aggressiveness in the air that day “against a superior number of enemy planes” was noted. He’d personally destroyed three Japanese aircraft, but he’d also incurred serious wounds.

Maybe he was (sort of) happy about those wounds? The nurse who helped him recover in the hospital later became his wife.

Another Navy lieutenant was less fortunate. He was manning a battle station aboard USS Yorktown as that vessel was being bombarded. A bomb hit and exploded near Milton E. Ricketts, mortally wounding him. Yet Ricketts refused to abandon ship. The dying man worked to open a fire plug; he pulled out a fire hose, and he directed a much-needed stream of water into the fire. He’d barely accomplished his mission when he dropped dead next to the hose.

His actions helped save the ship—and the ripple effects of Ricketts’s action would be felt a month later when Yorktown was repaired and able to participate in the crucial Battle of Midway.

But for Ricketts would that battle have turned out so well for Americans?

One last Navy pilot participated in several heroic acts during those days, but the final one may get the most attention. Lt. John James had given a lecture to his squadron the night before on the dangers of a certain low-dive bombing technique. Then he proceeded to use it the very next day.

Just before the mission, he’d told his fellow pilots: “Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.”

He was true to his word. He led his dive bombers from an altitude of 18,000 feet, heading straight toward the deck of a Japanese carrier. Antiaircraft guns did not deter him. He was determined to get as close as possible before releasing his bomb. He made it “almost to the very deck of an enemy carrier,” his citation describes, “and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit.” Unfortunately, he could not recover from his steep dive, nor could he avoid being hit by the bomb that he’d just dropped on the Japanese. “He was last seen,” his citation concludes, “attempting recovery from his dive at the extremely low altitude of 200 feet, and amid a terrific barrage of shell and bomb fragments, smoke, flame and debris from the stricken vessel.”

The Battle of the Coral Sea proved to be a strategic victory for Allied forces. Americans took losses, but they also inflicted serious damage. The Japanese Navy would be unable to recover in time for the critical Battle of Midway, just one month later.

P.S. The photo is of USS Lexington exploding on May 8.