I rise today to deliver to this place an address from the Australian American Association Battle of the Coral Sea Commemoration Service held on 6 May 2018, at the Remembrance Columns in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. It was presented by Commander Andrew Burnett, the Commanding Officer at Navy HQ South Australia. He has graciously allowed me to share it in this place, and I thank him for the opportunity. The address reads as follows:
To truly understand the importance of the Battle of the Coral Sea to Australia, we must revisit the fateful days of late 1941 and early 1942 – a devastating period for the Allies and a tense and uncertain time for Australians.
War had erupted in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor had been decimated, with terrible loss of life and the destruction of much of the United States Pacific Fleet.
Hong Kong was lost to the Allies very shortly after. Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Rabaul were captured.
Singapore fell, a devastating military defeat. Days later, Darwin was bombed.
The Allies were defeated in the Java Sea, Timor was lost, then Indonesia.
By May 1942, the threat of isolation or invasion was very real for Australia. This incredible string of defeats or, from the Japanese point of view, magnificent victories, had taken place only six months after Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese empire stretched from Manchuria in the north to New Guinea's Owen Stanley Range in the south. In the west the empire began at the borders of India's Assam and continued east to the Gilbert Islands in the South Pacific.
Japan's next inevitable advance was to seize Port Moresby in New Guinea, from where it could isolate Australia, take us out of the war, to be invaded as and when it suited them.
In doing so, it would deprive the United States of the forward base from which to mount its counterattack.
These were dark days indeed.
It was imperative for the Allies to stop the perilous southern advance towards Australia.
Then, finally, came news of a great breakthrough. Victory for the Allies in a ferocious naval battle in the Coral Sea. As a result, the enemy had retreated from its planned invasion of Port Moresby. A beacon of hope had emerged through much fear and insecurity.
What of this great battle?
Admiral Nimitz sent two carrier task forces led by the carriers USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown into the Coral Sea to intercept the Imperial Japanese Navy task force bound for Port Moresby.
They were joined by another task force, code named Task Force 44, led by the Australian cruisers HMAS Australia and HMAS Hobart – and the USS Chicago and three US destroyers.
For the first time, Australian ships were under the overall command of the United States Commander Rear Admiral Fletcher, and within Task Force 44 itself, Australian Rear Admiral John Crace commanded American ships.
This battle was, of course, historically significant for a few reasons.
It was the first sea battle in history where opposing ships were not in visual range of one another during actual fighting. All damage to the ships was inflicted by aircraft.
Second, it represented the first time that the enemy advance in the Pacific was halted.
And, finally, because of the battle's impact, it afforded the Allies in the Pacific a very much-needed confidence boost when our nations needed it.
The battle was fought over five days between 4 and 8 May. The first days were mere skirmishes compared to the battle's climax on 8 May when aircraft struck blows against each other's capital ships.
Allied dive-bombers inflicted heavy damage on the enemy carrier Shokaku, and the enemy carrier Zuikaku lost nearly all its aircraft. Japanese aircraft attacked USS Yorktown and USS Lexington.
Lexington was eventually lost, and the Japanese assumed so too was Yorktown. But, much to their surprise, Yorktown showed up one month later during the Battle of Midway—she fought with distinction until her tragic loss in that battle.
Both sides withdrew after the 8th of May in what might have appeared to a casual observer as a draw.
Tactically it was, but strategically it was a resounding victory for the Allies.
Unity of purpose, unity of command and shared collaborative signals intelligence had all combined for victory. Churchill called this time the 'hinge of fate' and he was so right.
But it had a high price. As I have mentioned, the carrier Lexington was lost, as was the destroyer USS Sims and the tanker USS Neosho and 69 aircraft. Over 600 American and Australian sailors and airmen died to secure that victory.
Today we remember the brave Australians and Americans who fought this important battle, an air and sea engagement so decisive that 76 years on we continue to honour those who changed the course of the war in the Pacific, and were the first to defeat the Japanese Imperial Navy.
Their sacrifice will always be remembered. It is appropriate that we are gathered at the Australian American remembrance columns in the beautiful Adelaide Botanic Gardens.
This military action is recognised as that which 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.
Again, I thank Commander Burnett for his very well chosen words.