Battle of the Coral Sea


Chaplin  Richard Quadrio

US Naval Attache Captain Tony De Frias

 Commander David Hannah from HMAS Cairns

Mayor Cassowary Council John Kremastos

Deputy Mayor Hinchinbrook Council Mary Brown

Councillors Glenn Raleigh and Jeff Barnes

Bob Katter MP

Nick Dametto MP

Veterans and Serving Defence Force personnel

Ladies & Gentlemen, Boys & Girls

On this day 77 years ago, about 500 miles east of this spot, hundreds of young men were saying their prayers before clambering into the cockpits of fighters, bombers, torpedo and reconnaissance planes for missions to seek and destroy the battle fleets of their enemies.

The Battle of the Coral Sea started yesterday 77 years ago, with two fleets mobilising – one to capture Port Moresby and isolate Australia and New Zeeland – the other to stop this invasion and so keep open the vital supply lines between Australia and the United States. 

Neither fleets were destined to meet each other in what was to be the first time in naval history a major sea battle was fought without the capital ships of each navy engaging directly with the other.

 

In those dark days 77 years ago, Singapore and Malaya  had fallen and the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines had been taken by the enemy, the major US Naval Base in the Pacific at Pearl Harbour had been decimated along with much of the American Pacific Fleet, Rabaul in New Britain had become a major Japanese base, a seaplane operation  had been established on the Island of Tulagi in the Solomons, and there were reports of Japanese landings on the Northern shores of the Australian Mandated Territory  of New Guinea.

 

Australian and New Zeeland stood alone in east and south east Asia and the Western Pacific, facing a seemingly unstoppable Japanese military advance.

 

Women and children were being evacuated from northern coastal Australia as rumours spread of an imminent Japanese landing and of a military plan to abandon Australia, north of a so called Brisbane line.

 

 

It is difficult  all these years later to comprehend the feelings of those still living in these parts, as even the heavily censored news of the time reported  of Japanese advances and of atrocities on civilian populations.

It was commonly believed at the time that the major invasion force being assembled off Rabaul was heading for Australia.

 

However, US, British and Australian code breakers and Coast Watchers had alerted allied commanders to operation MO – the Japanese plan for the seaborn invasion of Port Moresby.  The Plan was to isolate Australia and New Zealand completely and to at will bomb northern parts of Australia with the goal of having Australia and New Zealand withdraw from the war.

On May 4, Allied naval Taskforces were mobilised to halt the Moresby invasion fleet. For three days warships and planes from the opposing sides searched for each other. 

 

Strangely, both navies had separated their fleets in the South West Pacific, the Japanese dispersing theirs with the invasion fleet for Moresby and an Attack fleet heading towards the Solomons.  The allied Carriers fleet was divided with one group searching for the Japanese fleet, the other heading to thwart the Japanese landing in Tulagi before re-joining to find and defeat the Japanese major fleet. A third part of the fleet lead the heavy cruiser  HMAS Australia commanded by Vice Admiral Jack Grace, and including the HMAS Hobart was dispatched to the Lombard strait to intercept the Moresby invasion fleet. But radio silence and uncertainty as to the location of the enemy lead to a deal of confusion.  Indeed US  historian Vice Admiral Duckworth later commented “without a doubt May 7th 1942 in the vicinity of the Coral Sea was one of the most confused battles areas in world history”.

 

The allied Oiler Neosho and the destroyer Sims after having completed the refuelling of the battle ships were heading south, but on May 7th Japanese bombers attacked both ships and the Sims was hit broke in half and sank immediately and the Oiler Neosho was hit by 7 bombs, was badly damaged and  drifted for days and eventually sank.

On the same day the Japanese light carrier Shoho was bombed and sunk by US aircraft after an accidental sighting.

 

  But confusion reigned in both camps as to exactly where the enemy fleet was.

On May 8 reconnaissance planes from both Navies eventually located their enemies and both launched attack aircraft. The fight involved Japanese sea and land-based aircraft, and sea based planes from USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. 

The Japanese carrier Shokaku was heavily damaged by US bombs and torpedos forcing it to retire.

At the same time Yorktown and Lexington were subjected to repeated attacks by waves of Japanese aircraft. Yorktown was hit in the centre of her flight deck causing structural damage and killing or wounding 66 men.  Later that day Lexington was badly hit and at about 5pm the Lexington’s crew began abandoning ship. And so the Battle of the Coral sea raged throughout the day of the 8 may 1942.

 

 

Both sides subsequently claimed victory in the battle and in terms of ships lost the Japanese won a tactical victory by sinking a US fleet carrier, an oiler and a destroyer. The Japanese lost a light carrier, a destroyer and several smaller war ships and one carrier damaged to the extent it was forced to return to Tokyo for repairs.

From the strategic perspective however the battle was allied victory as Admiral Graces Taskforce although attacked by Japanese aircraft had by its mere presence in the area, diverted the sea invasion of Port Moresby . 

 

And the major battle fleet has been turned back – the first time in the war so far that the Japanese advance had been thwarted.

This was a great lift for the morale of the allies.  Port Moresby remained in allied hands.

But this battle did have a significant impact on the subsequent and game changing battle of Midway some weeks’ later. The loss of one Japanese carrier and the damage to the other necessitating its withdrawal and the loss of so many aircraft and pilots in the Coral Sea which the Japanese were finding increasingly difficult to replace, turned the tables in the Battle of Midway.  Midway was the first defeat for the Japanese any where in the War to that time.  It was the beginning of the end for Japanese Imperial aspirations.

The battle of the Coral Sea importantly consummated the strong and growing partnership between the United States of America and Australia, that continues to this very day.

 

Over 700 American and Australian sailors and airmen paid the supreme sacrifice in the battle of the Coral Sea

And as we mourn those who lost their lives and commemorate the courage and determination of all those United States servicemen who took part, we also recognise the significant action by the 2 Australian cruisers HMAS Australia and the HMAS Hobart. The heroism of the crews reinforced the reputation of the Australia’s fighting men and women, originally identified by that militarily disastrous battle in the previous war at Gallipoli, and that spirit and determination has defined Australia and Australians since.

 That spirit and doggedness over the years has permeated all parts of Australia and is perhaps no better identified than in the surroundings in which we have conducted this commemoration service for the past 29 years.

This specially designed and dedicated Park will forever stand as  a memorial and testament to the courage and sacrifice of those who took part in that momentous Battle offshore in this spot 77 years ago this week.

The small group of people involved in this Park and Commemoration also deserve our recognition and thanks for ensuring the service and sacrifice of so many is never forgotten.

Their work from humble beginnings 30 years ago have turned this insignificant scrub on the shores of the Coral Sea  into this magnificent memorial Park where on every Anniversary of the Battle we can reflect on those who played their part in maintaining in our country the freedoms and liberty for which our Nation is so proud.

 

  While there were only a few who had the vision and determination to see this Memorial concept though to its significant state today, there are too many to mention by name but I did want to specially thanks Noelene Byrne and Ann Mealing whose enthusiasm, courage and doggedness have lead this project  - and the services we commemorate every year since 1991.  They have also ensured the assistance of originally Cardwell Shire Council and now the Cassowary Coast Regional Council who now provide much of the basics, and Ex Service Groups, Veterans and (by ways and means  which may never be disclosed), the support of the United States  Embassy, US Veteran Group and the US Navy over many years -  and the critical support on each occasion of HMAS Cairns.

 

To those who paid the supreme sacrifice in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and to those who later toiled to ensure that their sacrifice will never be forgotten we extend our heartfelt thanks and appreciation.

Lest we forget.

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