75TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA COMMEMORATION SERVICE
SUNDAY 7 MAY 2017
ADDRESS BY COMMANDER ANDREW BURNETT ADC RAN COMMANDING OFFICER NAVY HQ- SA
Today we gather to remember a significant moment in the history of both Australia and the United States of America, the Battle of the Coral Sea, which was fought over five days between the 4th and 8th of May 1942.
The battle was a series of actions fought between Imperial Japanese Forces and a coalition of U.S. and Australian Naval Forces, supported by U.S. and Australian land-based air forces in Queensland. It proved to be one of the most important naval actions of the early pacific war and was to have far-reaching strategic consequences for the Japanese.
With the United States entering the Second World War on the 7th of December 1941 following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the simultaneous Japanese invasion of the Malayan Peninsula, the world entered a truly world war.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later recalled:
‘in all the war I never received a more direct shock. As I turned and twisted in bed, the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor, who were hastening back to California. Over this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme and we everywhere were weak and naked.’
Churchill had good reason to be shocked. By the end of 1941 Singapore and Hong Kong had fallen, the Royal Navy had all but been defeated in the Pacific with the loss of the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse and the U.S. bases on Guam and Wake were also lost to the advancing Japanese forces.
With this in mind, I recall an unsubstantiated quote by the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Iso-Roku Yamamoto, who commented after the attack on Pearl Harbor:
‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve’. Little was he to know that the battle of the Coral Sea was to be the first of many instances when his greatest fear would come to reality.
With the grave threat to Australia, the United States was acutely aware of the strategic importance of Australia and therefore, a stand had to be made.
With the breaking of the Japanese signal codes, the allies had prior warning of the impending arrival of several Japanese invasion fleets bound for Port Moresby and the Solomon Islands.
With this in mind two U.S. carrier task groups consisting of the fleet carriers Yorktown and Lexington were dispatched to the Coral Sea to rendezvous in the vicinity of the New Hebrides under the command of Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher.
In addition to the fleet carriers and their escorts, there was Task Group 44, consisting of the Australian cruisers Australia and Hobart and the US cruiser Chicago, with three U.S. destroyers. It was commanded by the Australian Squadron Commander, Rear Admiral Jack Crace, RN. They all entered the area to seek out the Japanese invasion forces.
The first days of the battle resulted in minor engagements between the opposing forces fought by air – sea engagements. No decisive engagements occurred. That was until the 7th of May when the carrier forces from both sides exchanged airstrikes for two consecutive days.
On the first of those days, the US sank the Japanese light carrier Shoho while the Japanese sank the destroyer USS Sims and heavily damaged the fleet oiler USS Neosho – which was later scuttled.
The next day, the 8th of May, proved to be the last and most significant day of the battle. The Japanese fleet carrier Sho-Kaku was heavily damaged, the US fleet carrier Lexington was mortally wounded, to be scuttled later that night, and the carrier Yorktown also heavily damaged. Following these engagements both fleets withdrew from the fight.
Later, while the Japanese successfully landed their invasion force in the Solomon Islands, the efforts of the U.S. and Australian naval forces successfully forced the hand of the Japanese to turn around the Port Moresby invasion force.
To that end, the Japanese had won a tactical victory, inflicting comparatively heavier losses on the allied force, but the allies, in stemming the tide of Japan’s conquests in the South and Southwest Pacific, had achieved a strategic victory.
It can further be argued that the losses inflicted on the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea also weakened their position during arguably the most decisive naval engagement of the Second World War, the Battle of Midway which was fought 4 weeks later.
Unfortunately, the Yorktown was lost during the Battle of Midway. But fortunately, she was the only U.S. fleet carrier lost in that engagement.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval engagement in history in which the participating ships never sighted or fired directly at each other. The battle was entirely fought by carrier borne aircraft from opposing fleets.
Australia, while not entirely saved from the invading Japanese by the outcome of this battle, was, with her allies, given time to re-group and consolidate in order to launch counter offensive actions to drive the Japanese back to their home islands and ultimately, unconditional surrender in 1945.
Today we honour the over 600 U.S. personnel who gave their lives and remember the many more wounded in this conflict.
This military action, fought 75 years ago, gave rise to the relationship our two great countries share today.
We express gratitude to our American friends who stood by us, as we stood by them, and who remain our staunchest allies today.