May 4 — known colloquailly as Star Wars Day — is practically a holiday for Star Wars fans. We celebrate with movie marathons, special announcements, merchandise sales, and more. Yet as a historian, I think of May 4 for some very different reasons — as a day that marked some important milestones during the Second World War.
While many remember the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 as the start of the war for the United States, many forget how tenuous the conflict was for America and the Allied Powers in the months after the attack. The Allies were on the defensive for months, losing territory to Japan in the Philippines, Guam, Burma, and more. Even Singapore, thought (or lauded) to be impregnable just as the Death Star was in Star Wars, fell to the Japanese onslaught. For six months, the Allies were losing the war badly.
That is until May 4, 1942.
On that day, the newly rebuilt US Pacific Fleet concentrated its forces in the Coral Sea. The American fleet, working alongside the Australians, included the famous carriers Yorktown and Lexington. They were pitted against the Japanese Navy that was advancing towards Port Moresby, New Guinea. Capturing the port would cut off Australia from the United States and signal a major strategic victory for the Japanese.
When the two forces met on May 4, it was both a turning point for the war and a pivotal moment in naval warfare. Aircraft launched from carriers did all the fighting, meaning it was the first time that two fleets had engaged without ever seeing each other. Naval warfare had evolved.
Dive-bombers — the real-life equivalent of the Y-wing — did most of the damage for both sides. They exchanged blows for days, and eventually Japanese dive-bombers delivered a fatal hit to the Lexington and badly damaged the Yorktown. But although it had lost fewer carriers than the United States, Japan lost its tactical advantage and abandoned the attack on Port Moresby.
The Coral Sea was now secure from Japanese invasion, and the losses suffered by the Japanese fleet contributed significantly in the Battle of Midway a month later. May 4 was a crucial day in the history of the war.
Many years later, footage from these sea battles in the Pacific served as inspiration for Star Wars creator George Lucas. He said, “I loved the war. It was a big deal when I was growing up. It was on all the coffee tables in the form of books, and on TV with things like ‘Victory at Sea.’ I was inundated by these war things.”
On the other side of the world, May 4 holds a different significance for the European front. On the evening of May 4, 1945, Denmark and the Netherlands were effectively liberated from German occupation. In a scene reminiscent of the celebration at the end of Return of the Jedi, citizens took to the streets waving flags and celebrating their freedom. To this day, the Dutch hold a Remembrance of the Dead on May 4 and mark the end of Nazi occupation on May 5.
I love that the unofficial Star Wars holiday shares a date with these important historical events. Long before we were saying, “May the Fourth be with you,” this one day held special significance around the world. It’s just another reason why May 4 is one of my favorite days of the year!
Cole Horton is a historian and co-author of the upcoming book, Star Wars Absolutely Everything You Need to Know from DK Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter, @ColeHorton.