Battle of the Coral Sea (1959)




Director:     Paul Wendkos.

Starring:     Cliff Robertson (Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Conway),  Gia Scala (Karen Philips),  Teru Shimada (Commander Mori),  Patricia Cutts (Lt. Peg Whitcomb),  Gene Blakely (Lt. Len Ross),  Rian Garrick (Al Schechter),  L. Q. Jones (Yeoman Halliday),  Robin Hughes (Maj. Jammy Harris),  Gordon Jones (torpedo man Bates),  Tom Laughlin (Ensign Franklin),  George Takei (Japanese Radio Officer, uncredited).

Cliff Robertson plays the role of a submarine captain trying to get information to the US fleet in the area in the build up to the Battle of the Coral Sea


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"One of the greatest and most significant battles in the history of naval warfare occurred in May 1942.  The Place:  Coral Sea, South Pacific.  The Participants:  the Japanese Fifth Carrier Division and the United States Pacific Fleet.  The issue at stake was simple and clearcut.  The enemy was moving rapidly towards Australia and had to be stopped.  He was stopped.  The Allied victory in the South Pacific will stand in world history as a noble monument to the memory of the gallant men and officers of the United States Navy who fought and won the Battle of the Coral Sea."  Rear Admiral, John J. Bergen, USNR. 

March 14, 1942.  Three days after the fall of Corregidor.   In an American submarine off the coast of the Philippines, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Conway looks for Japanese ships.  They also have to worry about Japanese airplanes.  The skipper spots three men in a rubber life boat and decides to pick them up.  The men are put in a rubber life boat and rowed back toward the submarine.  And here comes some Japanese aircraft to attack the submarine.  One of the submarine sailors is hit in the leg during the strafing operation.  The plane comes back around and drops two bombs, but neither one of them hit the submarine. 

The submarine continues its journey of two and a half days to Sydney on the southeastern coast of Australia.

Back in Sydney, Conway's senior officer, Rear Admiral Paul Gibney, scolds him for rescuing three men while risking the lives of all his men, a top general and the submarine.  He stresses this because the officer is sending Conway on a very important mission.  Conway will be sent into the Coral Sea area to find out where is the Japanese fleet.  He stresses that the Japanese must not discover the American's rendezvous point.  If there is a danger of being discovered by the Japanese, Conway will do everything possible to prevent this, including the sacrifice of his entire crew.   

Conway finds a Japanese aircraft carrier.  Lt. Ross takes a picture of the carrier with his camera which is latched onto the periscope.  Ross develops the film and then rushes it over for Conway to look at it.  The skipper is ecstatic because this means that, as Lt. Rosss says:  They can ". . .give the Admiral a picture of every Japanese coastal installation from here to the rendezvous point."

Conway reads his orders.  The USS Dragonfish will conduct an undetected photo-reconnaissance patrol in Rabaul Harbor to determine enemy disposition.  Upon completion of the mission, rendezvous with Task Group 17.5 . . .  This operation is assigned special code name  --  FANCY FREE."  . . .  It is expected that the Japanese Port Moresby Invasion Group will sail for Rabaul on 4 May.  . . ."  [Rabaul is located on New Britain Island at the northernmost end of the island, which somewhat separates the Bismarck Sea to the northwest from the Coral Sea to the southeast.]  [Ports Moresby is found on the southern side of  a peninsula that juts out a long ways on southeastern Papau New Guinea.]

Conway finds the whole carrier division of the Imperial Japanese Navy.   So they are going up for some close-up pictures of the aircraft carriers and other ships.  To do so they have to go through mine fields.  The submarine does pass many mines.  When they get close Ross starts taking photos of the various ships.  On their way back, they run into a mine but it doesn't go off.  The Japanese, however, pick up a disturbance in the mind field.  Japanese destroyers rush out to the area and start dropping depth charges. 

The Dragonfish is moving parallel to the bottom of the sea and has prepared itself for a depth charge attack.  The men in the submarine get knocked around quite a bit.  The torpedo room develops a leak.  The main power has gone out.  Forward torpedo room flooding.   A destroyer is sitting right on top of them so the sub waits at the bottom of the sea. 

Japanese divers attach two mines to the Dragonfish.  They also attach equipment that can be heard through the walls of the sub.  The message is about the mines and gives the skipper five minutes to surrender.  The skipper has a message tapped out saying that they got the message and they should stand by for an answer.  The skipper now tells his staff that the men will surrender, but they will then blow up the submarine.  A message is tapped out that the sub is ready to surface. 

The sub surfaces.  Then men get into the rubber life boat and row across to the Japanese destroyer.   Japanese sailors ride in a boat over to the submarine.  They come on board, but skipper tells them they better leave now because the ship is going to blow up.   The Japanese contingent gets back in their boat and head back to the destroyer.  Conway pushes the button rigged up to blow the submarine and then dives into the sea. 

Japanese Commander Mori tells his POWs that their skipper is okay.  The skipper comes in for a little reunion with some of his men.  The rest of the sub crew is below deck. 

Mori wants to get more information from the sailors, but Conway says Mori has already gotten all the information he is entitled to under the Geneva Conventions.  Mori says they don't pay any attention to that foolishness.  [The Japanese did not sign the Geneva Conventions.]  He adds that the enlisted men have all been sent to a regular Japanese POW camps.  He then looks out the porthole and shows the men where they are going.  They are going to an interrogation center. 

The men are placed in a holding pen complete with a barracks.  Major Jammy Harris of the Australian air force greets the newcomers.  Next to come up is Lt. Peg Whitcomb of the Australian nursing corps.  But now arriving is Capt. Yamazaki and the lovely, but pro-Japanese, interpreter Karen Philips.  The interpreter only has to translate a few sentences for the POWs because Yamazaki doesn't really say much.  He turns to leave, but at the gate he tells Karen to talk with the POWs.

Karen tells Conway he is to follow her to see Commander Mori.  When Conway asks, she tells him that this land has been in her family for many years.   She says she is neutral, but Conway won't accept that.  If she is not on his side, then she's on the side of his enemy the Japanese.  She says the Japanese can't be beaten and, anyway, they have already beaten the USA. 

Mori tells Conway that he spent many years in the United States and he likes the Americans.  Moreover, he thinks he cares less for this war than Conway does.  He adds:  "This war you're not going to win."  He takes Conway and the others to a place where they will be working, walking on a water wheel to provide water for irrigation purposes.   

Nurse Whitcomb tells Conway that Lt. Ross has pneumonia.  The next day Conway asks Philips to tell the Japanese captain that Lt. Ross is too sick to work.  The captain says the lieutenant must continue to work. 

At night Nurse Whitcomb puts more pressure on Conway by telling him that he should tell Mori what the man wants to know, otherwise all his men might die. 

A wrestling match is set up between Bates and the Japanese sergeant.  The sergeant is a dirty fighter, but Bates still wins.  The sergeant is angry and he shoots Bates in the back.  Conway jumps on the sergeant and gives him a sock in the face, but then his own men pull Conway off the surviving wrestler. 

Commander Mori admits that the fight was his idea.  He wanted to show the superiority of the Japanese soldier, but it kind of back-fired on him.  He apologizes now to Conway for the way the match turned out.  Mori informs Conway that since his psychological methods seem not to work, he is being transferred and a very severe camp commander will take over.   

At the burial of Bates, Conway asks Philips to get some weapons for them.  She says she can't do that.  Then she thinks a bit and says she can get him some knife blades to use in an escape attempt.  Conway says:  "Get 'em!" 

Philips comes over to the barbed wire while talking to a Japanese guard.  Conway asks the nurse to come for a little stroll with him.  They go out and Philips calls the nurse over to her.  She scolds the nurse for earlier touching her hat and pushing her.  She then tells the nurse to come over and grab her hat.  The nurse comes over and spits in Philips' face and grabs her hat.  Lt. Whitcomb puts the hat on her head and she and Conway slow walk back into the barracks.

Examining the hat, the guys find the knife blades hidden inside the hat lining.  The men are going to use thread to place around the bottoms of the knife blades.  The lieutenant with pneumonia says he can make a bow out of the hard wood of the bunks.  They can make arrow heads out of some metal plates. 

Yamasaki and Kate Philips come over to the barracks.  Kate translates the message that Commander Mori will be replaced by Colonel Takahish. 

On the night of the escape attempt, Kate knocks out all the electricity to the camp.  When a guard comes to investigate and finds Kate there, she knives him in the mid-section.  A guard in the tower is hit with an arrow to the chest.  Another guard rushes over to check on the tower guard and Conway runs up behind him and knifes him in the back.    Conway holds up the barbed wire so two men can go through easily.  Then another man holds the wire for Conway and Conway gets out easily.  The man left behinds finds the keys to the gate on the guard, takes them and rushes over to unlock the gate.  Now four men and the nurse wait for their chance to run. 

With an automatic weapon Major Harris kills three guards coming out of a tent.  Now he turns his attention to the main house.  Japanese soldiers start running out of the house and down the steps, but Harris is able to knock out three.  But four more guards jump out of the house's open windows.  Harris now gives a whistle for the five people waiting to burst out of the gate.  They come out running hard and fast.  Capt. Yamasaki fires a flare up into the air to light the night up.  He now can see the runners and he tosses a grenade at them.  One man appears to be dead, while the nurse helps a wounded comrade. 

Harris tells Len it's time for them to go and he runs off.  Len is determined to get the automatic weapon of one of the downed guards.  He gets the weapon alright, but he coughs and then gets mowed down.   Capt. Yamasaki comes over to Len's body and he is shot down by Harris.  While trying to catch up to the other escapees, Harris is shot down, but he is able to get back up and keep going.    Another guard wounds two men.  The nurse and Ensign Franklin stop to try to help Jammy.  Peg cries over him.  He tells them to get going.  The guard with two notches on his belt, now goes to shoot Franklin and Peg, but he is shot in the back by an escapee.  Conway throws a grenade that knocks out two more guards.   He now asks his guys if any of them have seen Karen?  Karen is hiding from the sergeant who is chasing her. 

Conway tells everyone to take off.  He is going to find Karen.   He finds her about the same time that the sergeant shoots at her.  He misses, but Conway does not.  The sergeant is hit and rolls into a pond.  Conway helps Karen down to the boat.  The boat takes off. 

A US seaplane comes bearing down on the small boat.  Thinking the boat belongs to the Japanese, the pilot strafes the boat.  Conway grabs a signaling light and flashes Conway, USN, Fancy Feet.  The plane sets down by the boat and picks up the boat crew. 

Conway gives his information to the Navy top brass.   He says there are three carriers of the Shoho class, part of the 5th Carrier Division.  Planes are now sent up to find the Japanese ships in the Coral Sea. 

7th of May, 1942.  The Battle of the Coral Sea begins.  There are dog fights up in the air.  It's hard to tell whose airplanes are going down and whose ships are being hit.   

"When it was over the 5th Carrier Division of the Imperial Japanese Navy had been stopped.  Australia was saved.   All three of the largest enemy carriers were destroyed or disabled.  The United States' greatest loss in the battle was the carrier Lexington  --  the Fighting Lady.  It was the greatest naval engagement in history and the victory laid the ground work for the even greater sea victory at Midway where the backbone of the Imperial Japanese Navy was broken." 



The film is good entertainment, but it deals with the build-up of the Battle of the Coral Sea, not the actual battle.  A submarine and its crew are send out to find out where is the Japanese fleet.  They find the fleet alright, but in doing so they get in a very dangerous situation.   There is the possibility that the submarine could be sunk.  Cliff Robertson (as Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Conway) does a good job of acting, along with the pretty Gia Scala (as Karen Philips) and Teru Shimada who plays Japanese Commander Mori who is a much less harsh camp commander than the usual ones. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

The Coral Sea is located off the northeastern coast of Australia (directly east of Townsville, Australia).  Clockwise from Papau New Guinea at the 11 o'clock position is the Solomon Sea and the Solomon Islands at twelve to one o'clock;  the island of Vanuatu is at two o'clock; and New Caledonia at four o'clock. 

In 1942 Japan tried to capture Port Moresby on the south side of the eastern end of the island of New Guinea. The battle of the Coral Sea was the result. Shortly before the battle, the US Navy broke the Japanese code. The battle itself proved a turning point for the United States in the war.

A US carrier task force was searching for the enemy fleet. On May 4 the planes were prepared for an attack, but most stayed overhead the carriers. The attack was not well organized or synchronized. But the command to hit the Japanese naval unit was carried out on schedule. Yorktown and Lexington were the carriers. They searched for several days. A group of Japanese planes were in turn searching for the US warships. They met in combat. Units of the Japanese fleet were discovered. They zigzagged to avoid being hit, but the American planes sank a Japanese carrier.

The Japanese planes did well. May 8 they attacked the Lexington. It was lost.

Losses were almost evenly divided but the Japanese invasion fleet was routed. The Americans lost 66 planes and the Japanese 80.



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