Veteran remembers Coral Sea Battle

Published on CAPT James Hook (author), LSIS Jo Dilorenzo (photographer)

Location(s): Darwin, NT

Topic(s): HMAS Hobart (I), Battle of the Coral Sea

Mr Gordon Johnson, retired Royal Australian Navy sailor and veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea, passes by members of the Marine Rotational Force - Darwin before delivering his speech at the 2014 Battle of the Coral Sea commemorative service in Darwin. (photo: LSIS Jo Dilorenzo)
Mr Gordon Johnson, retired Royal Australian Navy sailor and veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea, passes by members of the Marine Rotational Force - Darwin before delivering his speech at the 2014 Battle of the Coral Sea commemorative service in Darwin.

Gordon Johnson was 19 years old when he fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Earlier this month, the 91-year-old Canberra man was guest of honour at a commemorative service in Darwin to mark the battle’s 72nd anniversary.

“The Battle of the Coral Sea is not getting the level of recognition it deserves,” Mr Johnson told those gathered for the service.

“It was equally as important as Kokoda and Gallipoli, and stopped the Japanese from invading Port Moresby by sea.”

Commanding Officer of HMAS Coonawarra, Commander John Navin, and guest speaker Mr Gordon Johnson, retired Royal Australian Navy sailor and veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea, stand together after the 2014 Battle of the Coral Sea commemorative service in Darwin.

Commanding Officer of HMAS Coonawarra, Commander John Navin, and guest speaker Mr Gordon Johnson, retired Royal Australian Navy sailor and veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea, stand together after the 2014 Battle of the Coral Sea commemorative service in Darwin.

Mr Johnson was a telegrapher aboard the light cruiser HMAS Hobart (I) during the battle, which saw ships from the United States and Australian navies take on the Japanese between 4 and 8 May 1942.

It was the first aircraft carrier battle ever fought, and the first in which the opposing ships never fired at each other - all attacks were carried out by aircraft.

“We couldn’t see anything because we were below decks,” Mr Johnson said.

“But when the bombs dropped it reverberated. You’d hear “That was close!”, but apart from that, we didn’t speak.

“We were under very high tension and stress. As a 19-year-old, I thought I handled it very well. I don’t believe I was scared, but I really didn’t have time to be frightened.”

The US lost three ships in the battle, including the fleet carrier USS Lexington, while the Japanese lost five ships, including the light carrier Shoho.

The Japanese claimed a tactical success, but the strategic victory belonged to the Allies, who destroyed the Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway the following month.

Hobart survived the battle and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese instrument of surrender was signed in September 1945.

The Darwin service was held at the memorial to the USS Peary, a US destroyer sunk with the loss of 88 men during the bombing of Darwin in February 1942.

The service was attended by Australian Navy personnel, Darwin-based US Marines and members of the local community.

Wreaths were laid, and messages from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and President Barack Obama were read out.

Imagery is available on the Navy Image Library at http://images.navy.gov.au/S20141343.