Down but Not Out

Against all odds, as Japan marched to one overwhelming triumph after another, the U.S. scored a memorable victory

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The raid on April 18 proved such a surprise that Tokyo schoolchildren waved cheerily at the bombers as they roared overhead. Aiming for military targets, factories and power stations, Doolittle's planes dropped bombs on the Japanese capital and made symbolic strikes on five other cities. Lacking fuel to return to the Hornet or to reach any safe haven, the American pilots had to head for Nationalist-held areas of China, bail out and hope for the best. Most of them made it, but three were killed in crashes and eight captured.

Though the damage was not great -- about 50 civilians killed and 90 buildings wrecked -- the demonstration of vulnerability infuriated the Japanese. ENEMY DEVILS STRAFE SCHOOL YARD, cried a headline in the Asahi Shimbun, which excoriated the "inhuman, insatiable, indiscriminate bombing." Several of the eight captured airmen were tortured to tell where they had come from, and three were executed by firing squad. Worse, the Japanese army tried to punish all Chinese who might have helped the downed pilots, and the slaughter in Chekiang and Kiangsu provinces took a toll estimated at more than 200,000. As often happened in this hate-filled era, each side angrily denounced the other's actions as atrocities.

Despite Doolittle's feat, the Japanese victories throughout the South Pacific could now be halted and reversed only by the U.S. Navy, and the Navy had been badly wounded. On top of the losses at Pearl Harbor, it had to abandon its base at Cavite, outside Manila, and it lost a cruiser and two destroyers in the Battle of the Java Sea (Feb. 27-March 1, 1942).

The Navy still had one great secret weapon, though: its code breakers could read Japanese naval messages. From those, Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz knew that the Japanese planned to seize the eastern approaches to Australia by attacking Port Moresby, on the tail of New Guinea, in the first week in May. Nimitz stripped bare Pearl Harbor's defenses to mount an all-out attack on the Japanese invaders as they entered the Coral Sea.

It was the first naval battle in history in which the rival fleets never saw each other. The two carrier forces maneuvered between 100 and 200 miles apart while their planes attacked. The result included some absurd errors. Several Japanese planes tried unsuccessfully to land on the deck of the Yorktown; several American pilots tried unsuccessfully to bomb the cruiser Australia. In the first U.S. attack on a major Japanese warship, though, bombers from the Lexington and the Yorktown trapped and sank the 12,000-ton light carrier Shoho; nearly 700 of her 900 crewmen went down with her. Lieut. Commander Robert Dixon triumphantly radioed, "Dixon to carrier, scratch one flattop."

At dawn the next morning, both fleets sent off their planes again. The Yorktown's bombers started a fuel fire on the Shokaku, but were chased by fighters. Though the Lexington and the Yorktown similarly fought off Japanese bombers, a mysterious explosion in the generator room crippled the 42,000-ton Lexington. THIS SHIP NEEDS HELP, said the banner run up her mainmast. In late afternoon, the captain gave the order to abandon ship.

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