Allied ships were
instructed to steam to the area to prevent this move and the lines
were set for the Battle of the Coral Sea
which was fought from 5-8 May. United States forces were the
main protagonists on the Allied side but Australian ships and aircraft
also participated in the fighting.
On 29 April Operation
MO, commanded by Admiral Inouye, was ordered to attack Port Moresby.
The Japanese force consisted of seven transports, five destroyers,
a light aircraft carrier, the Shoho, and the fleet carriers Shokaku
and Zuikaku. There were also three heavy cruisers, a light cruiser,
a squadron of submarines and six destroyers. They were based at Rabaul
and the recently occupied Tulagi in the Solomon Islands The Allied
forces numbered thirteen destroyers, eight cruisers, four light cruisers
and two aircraft carriers, the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. Rear-Admiral
Frank Fletcher was the fleet commander. The overall commander of the
Allied Pacific Fleet was Fleet Admiral C.W. Nimitz.
The Allied ships
had the advantage of being fitted with radar, an invention unknown
to the Japanese.
in the battle consisted of the heavy cruiser, HMAS Australia, the
light cruiser HMAS Hobart, and aircraft flown from bases in Queensland
by both Australian and American crews. The Australian squadron was
commanded by Admiral Sir John Gregory CRACE (Commanding Australian
Squadron (Coral Sea) 1939-1942), an Australian-born member of the
British Navy. The American cruiser, USS Chicago, and the destroyers,
USS Perkins, USS Walker and USS Farragut, were also under Crace's
of 5-8 May 1942, was the first sea battle in history where none of
the opposing ships was within gunfire range. All damage to the ships
was inflicted by aircraft. Some planes, of course, were downed by
guns on the ships. Both sides had difficulty in finding and identifying
Early on 7 May
the American oiler, Neosho, and its accompanying destroyer were sunk
by Japanese planes. The Japanese mistakenly believed the Neosho, because
of its unorthodox superstructure, was an aircraft carrier. Meanwhile,
about noon, American search aircraft sighted the Shoho and planes
from the US carriers attacked and sank the Japanese carrier and its
escorting light cruiser.
In the meantime
Crace's Squadron, away from the main scene of battle, had been ordered
to cruise the Jornard Passage, near the Louisiade Islands. This was
the sea route through which the Japanese force was headed towards
Port Moresby. Crace's ships were vulnerable as they had no air cover.
He adopted an anti-aircraft diamond formation for his ships. In the
late morning a Japanese reconnaissance plane sighted the squadron
and reported its position to Rabaul
In the early afternoon
eleven Japanese torpedo bombers attacked Crace's ships with bombs,
torpedoes and intense strafing. The Allied squadron fired a strong
barrage at the enemy and probably more than five Japanese bombers
failed to return to base. Skilful steering by HMAS Australia's commander,
Rear-Admiral H.B.Famcomb RAN, helped the ship to escape being hit.
The first attack was over in less than five minutes.
partly because of inaccurate shooting by the Japanese, none of the
ships was severely damaged. The Americans suffered three casualties
including two who were mortally wounded, and the Australians suffered
six casualties. A second attack was mounted almost immediately, this
time with accurate pattern bombing from a high altitude. Such bombing
caused giant columns of water and seemed to threaten HMAS Australia
with sinking. The ships, although drenched with sea-water, managed
again to evade the enemy bombs. The high-level bombers quickly departed.
As often happens
in closely fought battles, 'friendly fire' might have been a factor
in some of the damage incurred. A less excusable incident took place
minutes later when three planes flew over and narrowly missed hitting
Farragul and Perkins. They were US Army Air Force B-17 bombers whose
crews reported that they had badly damaged a squadron of Japanese
The Japanese bomber
pilots, for their part, believed that they had sunk one battleship,
severely damaged another battleship and a cruiser. In fact Crace's
squadron, largely undamaged, and was able at nightfall, to cruise
away and await events. Nevertheless his situation was unsure as radio
silence prevented him from knowing what was happening among the main
Allied flotilla. Back in the main area of the battle Allied pilots
were returning at nightfall to their carrier Yorktown. In another
of the bizarre quirks of warfare, they were joined by eighteen Japanese
bombers whose tired pilots had mistaken the American carrier for one
of their own. When an American pilot waiting in the queue opened fire
the Japanese were alerted and flew off, unable to attack the carrier
as they had already dropped their bombs. During the night Inouye decided
to delay the invasion of Port Moresby by two days.
USS Lexington - On Fire and Sinking
J.J. Powers, USN- Congressional Medal Of Honour
The end of the
battle came on 8 May when aircraft from the opposing carriers were
engaged in fierce fighting. Lieutenant
J.J. Powers (click to read official Congressional Medal Of Honour
Citation, hit the back button to return to this page), one of the
American pilots of the Allied dive-bombers, inflicted heavy damage
on the Japanese carrier Shokaku by waiting until the last minute to
release his bomb on the flight deck. He was, of course, killed and
won a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honour. In the subsequent
blaze on the Japanese carrier 150 men were killed or wounded.
aircraft attacked the American carriers. The USS Yorktown was damaged
and USS Lexington suffered several direct hits and was ablaze from
stem to stern. The carrier had to be abandoned. About 2,700 men were
picked up. To prevent any attempt at salvage by the enemy the ship
was sunk by USS Phelps.
On the Japanese
side the Shokaku was severely damaged and the Zuikaku lost nearly
all its aircraft. Both sides withdrew with the score of losses about
equal. The word 'victory' is perhaps not applicable to the result
for either side. Nevertheless the objective of the Japanese naval
task force, the taking of Port Moresby, had been thwarted. This was
an important factor in building the morale of the overstressed Allies.
Naval Supremacy In the Pacific
HMAS AUSTRALIA under attack Coral Sea 7th May 1942 - Painting
by Frank Norton
Just under a month
later a much more crucial sea battle in the war against Japan took
place outside the South West Pacific war zone. This was the 4-6 June
engagement between US and Japanese ships off the central Pacific island
of Midway. By mid-May Allied Intelligence had detected that the Japanese
intended to attack the United States territories of Midway Island
in the Central Pacific and the Aleutians in the North Pacific. This
would give the Japanese strategic superiority in the Pacific. Accordingly,
the Americans sent the carriers, USS Enterprise, USS Hornet and USS
Yorktown to an area north of Midway.
The Japanese commander,
Yamamoto, ordered his four large carriers, Kaga, Akagi,Hiryu and Soryu
south from Japan to attack Midway Island. Both sides sighted each
other on 3 June. On 4 June US aircraft sank all four Japanese carriers.
The main American loss was the Yorktown.
Survivors being taken onboard a US Destroyer
the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway effectively ended Japan's
The setback of
the Coral Sea battle and the decisive loss at Midway, however, did
not stop the Japanese war machine from making attacks on the eastern
coast of Australia. On the night of 31 May-1 June, as a diversionary
tactic in preparation for the Midway offensive, midget submarines
entered Sydney Harbour. Two of the submarines were sunk, but not before
one of their torpedoes had hit the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul. Nineteen
Australian naval ratings on board were killed.
Townsville, which had an important airfield, was also bombed on 26
The Battle for
the Solomons, in August 1942, was significant among the many sea battles
in the South West Pacific Area. It was fought mainly by United States
naval forces as they attempted to land troops and supplies on the
island of Guadalcanal. Three Australian ships, HMAS Australia, HMAS
Hobart and HMAS Canberra, were part of the force supporting the US
supply ships. HMAS Canberra was sunk off Savo Island, north of Guadalcanal,
during this operation. (For
an account of this battle click here)
The Battle of
the Coral Sea prevented a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby, but is
still perceived by many to have saved Australia. Each year since 1946
Coral Sea Week has been celebrated in Australia with marches by servicemen
from both countries and social functions welcoming American dignitaries.
The celebrations express gratitude to the United States for its part
in the battle, and the support given to Australia by America in
World War II.