In early 1942 the lines of communication and trade between Australia and the United States of America were under threat by the Japanese. By April 1942 the Japanese were ready to launch attacks to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea, Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. Many in Australia were also worried about invasion.
On 3 May 1942 the Japanese successfully invaded and captured Tulagi. The next phase of the operation would be to land troops at Port Moresby. To the south Allied forces prepared to meet the enemy and stop the impending invasion.
“Today, many Australians are unaware that the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought in waters that lap Queensland’s coast. However, in 1942, with fears that Australia was facing invasion, our population understood all too well the importance of it,” Director of Strategic and Historical Studies at the Sea Power Centre - Australia, Mr John Perryman, said.
“Had the Japanese succeeded in capturing Port Moresby, Australia would have been cut off from America and prevented from actively participating in the Pacific War,” he said.
The Allied fleet heading north to intercept the enemy was Task Force 17 lead by United States Navy Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher. Task Group 17.3 was the main support group with Cruisers and Destroyers, was commanded by Royal Navy Rear Admiral John Crace on the Cruiser HMAS Australia (II).
“HMA Ships Australia and Hobart (I) were part of the blocking force detached from the main USN Task Force to counter the Japanese Port Moresby invasion force,” Mr Perryman said.
Over four days from 4-8 May 1942, the combined allied fleet fought the enemy to a draw with both sides suffering similar losses in ships and aircraft. For Task Force 17.3 the result was significant as it contributed to a strategic victory by preventing the enemy from landing forces at Port Moresby.
“Their presence, along with several US Navy ships, in the Coral Sea at the right time and place, in the face of intense enemy air attack, was instrumental in causing the enemy invasion force to turn around or face destruction.
“That then forced the Japanese to attempt to take it using their army which of course was prevented from doing so by Australia’s soldiers on the Kokoda track.
“In both cases it was a delicately balanced contest,” Mr Perryman said.
The ships and aircraft lost by the enemy during the battle of the Coral Sea would impact directly on the outcome of the next major fleet engagement of Midway Island.
This battle would mark the beginning of the Allies turning the tide against the Japanese and pushing back the enemy in the Pacific.