Remarks at 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea
Your Excellencies; Premier, Air Chief Marshal Binskin, Chief of the Defence Force, Vice Admiral Barrett, Senator Brandis, Amanda Rishworth, shadow minister for Defence Personnel and Senator McDonald. Mrs Valerie Fowler, the US Consul General, and Chargé D'Affaires James Carouso, Minister Miyashita from the Japanese Embassy, Admiral Scott Smith, Commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Mayor Jenny Hill and Mr Williams, President of the Townsville and District Naval Association.
75 years ago the Japanese seemed unstoppable.
The pride of the US Navy had been sunk in a surprise attack at Pearl Harbour.
The great imperial garrison of Singapore had fallen - the worst defeat in British military history, as Churchill described it.
The Royal Navy’s battle ship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse had been sunk by Japanese bombers.
As Admiral Barrett just reminded us, the Australian Navy had lost eight ships.
Most of Australia’s army was either fighting in the Middle East or prisoners of the Japanese.
Darwin was bombed. The Dutch East Indies was taken, as was the north coast of New Guinea and the naval base of Rabaul.
And Japan’s next inexorable advance was to seize Port Moresby, from which it would isolate Australia and take us out of the War to be invaded at the convenience of the new masters of the Pacific.
These were dark times indeed.
The Japanese plans were discovered by American and Australian code-breakers at the Fleet Radio Unit in Melbourne, coast watchers on the Solomons and surveillance flights from Queensland and Port Moresby.
Over four critical days in May 1942, the fate of our island continent hung in the balance.
Australians and Americans fighting side by side, just as they had for the first time 99 years ago at the Battle of Hamel.
Admiral Nimitz sent two carrier task forces led by the Lexington and the Yorktown into the Coral Sea. They were joined by a third task force 44 led by the cruisers HMAS Australia, HMAS Hobart and USS Chicago and commanded by the Australian Rear Admiral John Crace.
The Japanese were turned back, but not without a heavy price.
The mighty aircraft carrier USS Lexington was lost, as was the destroyer USS Sims and the tanker USS Neosho.
The US Navy’s commitment of two of its precious carriers into this battle, showed a total commitment to the defence of Australia.
And it showed a total unity of purpose. For the first time, Australian ships were under the overall command of the United States Commander, Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, and within Task Force 44 itself an Australian Rear Admiral John Crace commanded American ships.
For the first time a naval battle was fought entirely from the air. Neither of the fleets saw each other or exchanged shell fire.
The Moresby invasion force was turned back in large part because of Admiral Fletcher’s decision to deploy Crace’s Task Force 44 to block the Jomard Passage and Crace was able and the Captain Farncomb of the Australia were able with superb seamanship and without air cover to dodge the Japanese bombs and torpedoes and avoid the fate of the Prince of Wales and Repulse.
By sinking the light carrier, the Shoho and damaging the two fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku the Japanese navy was materially diminished in advance of the coming Battle of Midway, another aerial sea battle which saw the loss of four Japanese fleet carriers and irreversible damage to their naval forces only a few months later.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first setback to the Japanese in the Pacific War, it laid the foundation for the victory at Midway- it was a turning point in the war.
Our freedoms were secured by the bravery of the fighting men on those ships and the pilots who flew through everything the enemy and the weather could throw in their way.
We will never know the grim anxiety of the ships’ companies scanning the skies for incoming enemy bombers, but also hoping and praying to see their own pilots returning safely from raids and reconnaissance missions.
We will never know what it was like to be trapped above deck as enemy aircraft strafed the ship, or to be caught below deck as engines caught fire and explosions shut off escape from the flooding sea.
We will never know the courage of the pilots who spent the last of their fuel in battle, knowing they would never make it back to their ship.
We will never know the anguish of those sailors listening intently to radio communications who heard the heartfelt farewells from these brave men as they prepared to meet their death.
It is a great honour to welcome today the families of the USS Lexington’s crew who have travelled here to pay their respects. I reserve an especially warm welcome for 93 year-old Cecil Wiswell who proudly served on board the Lexington as a 17 year old, Seaman Second Class.
Today, the ashes of his friend and fellow Lexington crew member, Harry Frey and Harry’s wife will be scattered in the Coral Sea.
Today, Australia and the United States continue to work with our allies to address new security threats around the world.
Together, we are taking a strong message to North Korea that we will not tolerate reckless, dangerous threats to the peace and stability of our region, and we are united in our efforts to defeat the terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
We must be forever grateful to those who have put their lives on the line, and those who do so today, so that we might have a free and peaceful world.
I thanked our servicemen and women in the Middle East for their service only last week, serving like the ships’ companies of Australia and Hobart did 75 years ago with our American allies in freedom’s cause.
It’s a message I repeat today as we pay tribute to the Australians and Americans who served and the more than 600 who died in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
To each of you, I offer the thanks of the grateful generations which came after you.
And to all men and women who have served in our defence forces—and who serve us today— and the families that support them - we thank you and we honour your courage, your service and your sacrifice.
Lest we forget.