Battle of the Coral Sea

I spoke yesterday at a Canberra ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was an special honour to meet navy veteran Gordon Johnstone, who served as a telegrapher in the Battle of the Coral Sea (picture by Peter McDermott).

Speech to the Australian-American Association Canberra Division Battle of the Coral Commemorative Service

9 May 2013

Andrew Leigh
Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister

[Acknowledgements omitted]

The Battle of the Coral Sea was a unique battle in history.

It was the first time aircraft carriers engaged one another, never sighting their enemies.

It remains the largest naval battle in to have taken place off Australia’s coast.

We stand here in front of the Australian-American memorial. It is not the most modest piece of architecture in Canberra.

Neither are aircraft carriers. This was brought home to me when visiting New York recently, where the decommissioned USS Intrepid sits at anchor. There is something awesome about walking on the deck of a ship that can carry 100 aircraft.

The importance of the Battle of the Coral Sea was not lost on Australians in May of 1942. Prime Minister Curtin described the battle in a speech at the time: ‘Events that are taking place today are of crucial importance to the whole conduct of the war in this theatre . . . I should add that at this moment nobody can tell what the result of the engagement may be. If it should go advantageously, we shall have cause for great gratitude and our position will then be somewhat clearer. But if we should not have the advantages from this battle for which we hope, all that confronts us is a sterner ordeal and a greater and grave responsibility.’

Able Seaman Roy Scrivener of HMAS Hobart described his impression of the Australian and American forces massed to meet the Japanese Navy as: ‘The most magnificent sight I had ever seen.  There were two aircraft carriers, there were battle ships, there were cruisers, there were destroyers and trailing astern and a little separated, were the tankers with their destroyer escorts. And what a wonderful feeling I had until I realised, my God, they’re not here to play games. We’re all here for fair dinkum trouble!’

Fair dinkum trouble they found. Thankfully, the Australian and American naval forces were successful, and the Japanese Navy never reached as far south as they did on this occasion.

Today, we honour the successes of the Australian and American forces. But we also recognise the valour of their Japanese foes.

It is also worth noting that throughout the early-1940s, the German naval forces were urging the Japanese to adopt a policy of targeting merchant ships. But the Japanese, under Admiral Suetsugu, resisted, arguing instead that their principal target were naval vessels, not civilian ships.

We honour our Japanese opponents in World War II with the same spirit of those Australians who, after the midget submarine attacks on Sydney Harbour in May 1942, gave the deceased submariners a full military funeral on Sydney heads.

As member for Fraser, I have a direct connection with the Battle of the Coral Sea. The suburb of Crace in my electorate is named after Edward Kendall Crace, whose son Vice Admiral John Crace commanded the Australian fleet in the Battle of the Coral Sea. I am reminded of the battle each time I visit the suburb of Crace.

We are also reminded of it through the ANZUS treaty, a lasting partnership with the United States. The treaty would not be finalised until 1951, but it was forged in the crucible of World War II.

Lest we forget.

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