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The Battle of the Coral Sea
4 - 8 May 1942

May 4-8, 1942 - The Battle of the Coral Sea was a major air and naval engagement during World War II, fought between the Americans, Australians and Japanese on May 7-8, 1942. 

It marked a major turning point in the Pacific war because it effectively stopped the Japanese advance to the south towards Australia.

 In the first naval engagement of history fought without the opposing ships making contact, U.S. carrier forces stopped a Japanese attempt to land at Port Moresby by turning back the covering carrier force. 

In the battle, the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho and the U.S. lost the carrier, USS Lexington (CV 2).


The action was precipitated by Japanese attempts to send an invasion force by sea to capture Port Moresby, the major Allied airbase in the region. This would have prevented the Allies using land based air power against Japanese forces in the island regions and allowed Japan to extend its air power over North Queensland.

To accomplish the task of securing Port Moresby Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue had at his disposal a dozen troop transports and 51 warships (including 3 carriers) to provide for their protection. Combat vessels available to the Allies numbered less than half that available to Japan, but included 2 major American carriers.

Coral Sea Celebrations May 1966 plaque.

Task Force 17 (Rear Adm. Fletcher) with the carrier USS Yorktown (CV 5), bombed Japanese transports engaged in landing troops in Tulagi Harbor, damaging several and sinking one destroyer. They then joined the other Allied naval units, including Task Force 11 (Rear Adm. Aubrey W. Fitch) with USS Lexington (CV 2). On 7 May, carrier aircraft located and sank the light carrier Shoho.

The next day, the Japanese covering force was located and attacked by air, resulting in the damage of the carrier Shokaku. Simultaneously, the Japanese attacked task Force 17, scoring hits on Yorktown. Lexington was struck by a torpedo to port. Seconds later, a second torpedo hit to port directly abreast the bridge. At the same time, she took three bomb hits from enemy dive bombers, producing a 7 degree list to port and several raging fires. By 1300 her skilled damage control parties had brought the fires under control and returned the ship to even keel; making 25 knots, she was ready to recover her air group. Then suddenly Lexington was shaken by a tremendous explosion, caused by the ignition of gasoline vapours below, and again fire raged out of control.

At 1558 Capt. Frederick C. Sherman, fearing for the safety of men working below, secured salvage operations, and ordered all hands to the flight deck. At 1707, he ordered, "abandon ship!", and the men began going over the side into the warm water, almost immediately to be picked up by nearby cruisers and destroyers. Adm. Fitch and his staff transferred to the cruiser USS Minneapolis (CA 36); Capt. Sherman and his executive officer, Cmdr. M. T. Seligman insured all their men were safe, then were the last to leave their ship.

Lexington blazed on, flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air. The destroyer USS Phelps (DD 361) closed to 1500 yards, fired two torpedoes into the carrier's hull and, with one last heavy explosion, USS Lexington slid beneath the waves.

Battle of the Coral Sea
May 4 - 10, 1942

John Crace

1902 A young Australian lad of 13 years and some 19,000k from home and family entered the Royal Navy's midshipman training college moored on the river Dart in Devon. He was admitted as a "Colonial Cadet" and rated 76 out of a total intake of 77. Each morning on rising, the lads were doused with a bucket of cold seawater. After a very stringent course, John graduated 47th some 18 months later.

Crace served in the Navy during World War 1, with distinction, including sea time in HMAS Australia. Between wars, he specialised in torpedo warfare and was the author of some excellent instruction manuals on the subject of Naval warfare.

1939 John Crace, now Rear Admiral R.N., was seconded by the Admiralty to take command of the Royal Australian Navy (Rear Admiral commanding Australia Squadron).

At the outbreak of World War 2, the government of Australia placed our Navy under the direction of the British Admiralty, thus giving Rear Admiral Crace a most difficult task. He was on the point of asking for a transfer back to the Royal Navy but a dramatic event forced him to reconsider.

In December 1941, without any warning, the Imperial Japanese Navy, one of the most formidable in the world, attacked and destroyed the U.S. Fleet moored in Pearl Harbor. This was an act of unexpected aggression because, at the time, the U.S.A. was not at war with anybody.

The U.S. Navy

1942 The U.S.A. immediately declared war on the Axis powers and assumed command of "Anzac Area". The U.S. Navy high command awarded Rear Admiral Crace sea going command of

H.M.A.S. AUSTRALIA (Flag Ship)
H.M.A.S. HOBART (Cruiser) - the first R.A.N. vessel to have radar fitted
H.M.A.S. CANBERRA (Refitted at Sydney Naval Dockyard)

U.S.S. PERKINS (Destroyer)
U.S.S. FARRAGUT (Destroyer)
U.S.S. WALKE (Destroyer)

U.S. Intelligence code breakers were able to confirm reports coming in from the Australian coast watchers in the islands that the Japanese were planning a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby, intending to isolate Australia from the U.S.A.

The Crace command

May 7th, 1942

Rear Admiral Crace's ships were ordered to repel the Japanese invasion group of 12 Transports, 5000 troops and Carrier Shoho at Jomard Passage, the gateway between Japan's base at Rabaul and the Coral Sea entry. [Refer to Map reference 151* East - 12* South and to Map reference 152* East - 10* South]

The U.S. Carrier Force under the overall command of Admiral Fletcher proceeded up the Eastern coast of Bougainville to attack the Japanese Carrier force, Shokaku & Zuikaku, stationed there to screen the Japanese invasion force from U.S. Carrier attack.

The Background HMAS Sydney had disappeared without a trace, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, without any air cover, were obliterated in Asian waters. This meant the staggering loss of 65,000 tons of fighting ships and the loss of life of 1540 Officers and Seamen.

As if this loss was not terrible enough, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had ripped the heart and soul out of the U.S.Pacific Fleet. U.S. losses at Pearl Harbour included 18 Capital war ships, 350 warplanes, 2,403 killed and 1,178 injured.

Japanese losses at Pearl Harbour included 185 killed, 1 prisoner of war and one midget submarine lost.

The Australian response

In the days and weeks prior to May 7th 1942, the morale of the ships company and the character and integrity of Rear Admiral Crace was to be sorely tested. It seemed as though the Japanese would overrun the whole of the South Pacific including Australia, India and the Aleutians, although Prime Minister Togo, hours before his execution at wars end, as a War Criminal, swore that the occupation of Australia was never a serious option. Even so, North Queensland Railways saw fit to keep their locomotives under a constant head of steam to ensure a quick evacuation of women and children to safer regions down south.

In the wake of the Pearl Harbour bombing, Rear Admiral Crace realised that Japanese Admiral Inoue had detected his presence at Jomard Pass and that Inoue would be determined to wipe out the Australian Squadron completely, using the Japanese base at Rabaul.

On the Bridge of HMAS Australia were Rear Admiral Crace, Flag Captain Harold Farncomb, the ship's specialist Gunnery Officer, Torpedo Officer, Navigating Officer and Officer of the watch. Captain Farncomb was to be the fighting, aggressive and skilled seaman, at one with the ship and complement, leading by example, into battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Crace's squadron, now known as Anzac Force, was exercising with New Zealand's cruisers Achilles and Leander off the coast of Noumea when word came through that HMAS Yarra and HMAS Perth had disappeared in Indonesian waters without a trace.

Action stations - May 7th, 1942

A ship's company is worked out on the number of Officers and men in various categories needed to fight the ship. On hearing the summons of the Bugler, Seamen, Stokers, Cooks, Stewards, and all the other crew members close up at their allotted station, ready to face the enemy.

At 1030 on May 7th, 1942, Rear Admiral Crace orders Action Stations and the Bugler sounds this call over the Ship's broadcast system. Battle stations - first degree of readiness - would have been about 10.30 am (in Navy time that would show as 1030).

The first degree of readiness is assumed by closing all watertight doors and hatches. The turrets, pom poms, machine guns, cordite and shell rooms, first aid posts are all manned and ready for action. Damage Control stations are under the control of the Damage Control Officer.

Doctors, male nurses and stretcher-bearers are on standby in the sick bay forward and the Ward Rooms are converted into surgical theaters. In the Boiler and Engine Rooms, the "Black Gang" are ready to convert Bridge orders into more speed. On board is a Chaplain, ready to support any personnel who may be wounded or dying. Meals are served under battle conditions. Orders are transmitted via a bugle call to the crew e.g. "Repel aircraft" will be sounded at the approach of enemy aircraft, while Wheel and Engine room orders are transmitted by voice pipe and telegraph.

The Officer of the watch, the Chief Gunnery Officer and the Navigation Officer are all on high alert. The ships are steaming at 25 Knots (47 kph) towards Jomard Passage to be there before sundown. Crace's squadron, having re-fueled from the huge U.S. oil tanker, U.S. Neosho, two days earlier on May 5th. were now completely alone, the U.S. Ships painted battleship gray, and the Australian ships camouflage pattern, as a background to the shimmering Coral Sea.

The Japanese war machine

To the north of Jomard Passage, the Japanese Imperial Navy had assembled a force of

13 Transports
17 Destroyers
2 Mine Layers
10 Mine Sweepers
2 Submarine Chasers
5 Gun Boats
3 Air Craft Carriers
2 Oil Tankers
6 Submarines
150 Military Planes based at Rabaul

U.S. Intelligence was able to decode Japanese signals that this fleet would be deployed south from New Britain early in May 1942. Some of these ships would be deployed towards Jomard Passage and some would engage U.S. forces closer to Bougainville.

Meanwhile Japanese Admiral Inoue made ready to fly his attack planes down from Rabaul to destroy Crace's Squadron, and two of the enemy Carriers was less than 300k from Crace's position

The Battle

Late afternoon that day a fleet of planes came into view, flying some 20 meters above the waves. Estimates were 21 Torpedo bombers usually armed with one 800Kg. bomb or a torpedo having a war head of 500 Kg of TNT and powered by a mix of liquid oxygen and air. They had an underwater speed of 90 kph and traveled a range of 20 kilometers with enough explosives to sink almost any vessel.

As the Japanese bombs rained down on the squadron, Captain Farncomb was skillful enough to manoeuvre HMAS Australia away from spots where enemy bombs fell 10 seconds later. Steaming in a diamond pattern, head on to the attackers, the squadron presented a difficult target. Each Captain took his own evasive action with tremendous stress demanded from the ships' engines. The call from the bridge for more revs from the engine room, and calls for violent turns to port and starboard, almost reached the ships overturning moment at times.

The engine room artificers soon realized that the popping sound they could hear was of rivets failing in the ships side and seams opening up under the machine gun strafing from above. The seamen on deck realized that the buzzing sound about them was enemy bullets. The Anzac force retaliated with every piece of firepower available. Soon the big 200mm guns were also trained down low and hurling 120 Kilogram shells in the face of the attack planes, creating huge walls of water in front of the low flying enemy planes. This made their pilot's job almost impossible.

Most of us think that a gun turret is a nice smooth addition to a ship with a couple of guns sticking out of it. Not so, a turret is a small world of its own with up 10 men inside, bringing up shells from below, cordite propellant taken from the wooden racks, loaders, a breech man & Gunnery officer.

The right gun fired, belching smoke and fire out of the barrel as well as the projectile. The gun recoils as the man sweat and ventilation needs ran high. The left guns projectile had come up from below, and was eased into the loading tray and the rammer did the rest, and the charge went in - left gun ready, gun layer firing salvos.

The enemy planes roared in, to be repelled by anti aircraft Guns, pom poms firing 40mm rounds and Oerlikon six-barrel 13mm rounds. All the while air borne torpedo attacks were mounted against the Australians watching in horror as the wake of the torpedoes swished past the ships, one actually passing under the U.S.S. Chicago. HMAS Hobart had a huge hole blasted in her smoke funnel and suffered casualties.

The Japanese planes had barely retired as ineffective, when suddenly a flight of high-level bombers appeared. These rained down 225 Kilogram high explosive bombs on the Australians. This caused massive waterspouts, higher than the bridge level when the bombs fell close by, but missed their targets thanks to the skill of the ships seamen. Men on the bridge were drenched to the skin but no real harm was done.

As the skies cleared, it was realized that the bombers were Queensland based American B17's. The US forces denied that this ever happened. Strict radio silence prevailed throughout the Allied forces with the result that the Battle of the Coral Sea was over before the rest of the Allied forces knew anything about it.

Further East, U.S. Carrier forces were engaging the Japanese Carrier screen [Refer to Map reference 156* East - 11* South], planning to protect Port Moresby from any Japanese invasion.

An Australian Victory

The Japanese Port Moresby Invasion group (Operation M.O.) were now thoroughly confused by Anzac Forces' stubborn refusal to be "done away with". Uncertainty about the fate of their Carriers caused Admirals Tagaki and Goto to withdraw from battle, possibly for the first time in 1000 years.

Rear Admiral Crace continued to patrol the Jomard Passage area until May 10th, 1942. At this time he received a congratulatory signal from U.S. Admiral Fletcher on his forces great victory. Crace then returned south in order to provision and refuel. In the meantime the Japanese Commander in Chief Admiral Yamamoto, furious at his Admirals retreat, ordered them back into battle. Too late, the Anzac force had moved on, the Japanese plan to capture Port Moresby was in chaos.

Japan was later to mount an overland assault on Port Moresby and the rest is history!

We are grateful for American intervention in the Battle of the Coral Sea but the fact is that only the ANZAC force stood in the way of a Japanese capture of Port Moresby and the complete isolation of Australia from the rest of the world. Not only that, this action and the Coast Watchers, together with our Intelligence staff and support teams, weakened Japanese strengths at the later Battle of Midway.

Copyright 2001 Gavan Casey



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