We rendezvoused with the most magnificent thing I had even seen – the American fleet which had survived the Pearl Harbor problem... What a sight and what a wonderful feeling I had until I realised 'My god they’re not here to play games, we are all here for fair dinkum trouble'.
Able Seaman Roy Scrivener, of the HMAS Hobart, interviewed by Daniel Connell 10 February 1989. Listen to his account.
The Coral Sea lies off the coast of Queensland, flanked by Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
On 7 December 1941 (US time), the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They also attacked Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Later that day, they declared war on the US and the British Empire.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor led to the US and Australia declaring war on Japan. The US also declared war on Germany and Italy, effectively joining the Second World War.
During the first few months of 1942, Japanese forces attacked and took control of the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, the Gilbert Islands and Guam.
The Japanese planned to occupy Tulagi in the south-eastern Solomon Islands and Port Moresby in New Guinea. This would put Northern Australia within range of Japanese land-based aircraft. The plan was known as Operation MO.
In late March 1942, US intelligence decoded a message that read: “The Objective of MO will be first to restrict the enemy fleet movements and will be accomplished by means of attacks on the north coast of Australia."
At the time, the Commander-in-chief of the Japanese Fourth Fleet at Rabaul, Vice-Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, had 12 troop transports and 51 warships to use.
Allied Commander Rear-Admiral Jack Fletcher was in charge of less than half that number. Among these were two large aircraft-carriers, the USS Yorktown and the USS Lexington.
The Japanese, however, thought most of the U.S. Navy's carriers were still in the central Pacific. They did not expect a U.S. carrier response to MO until the operation was well underway.
In April 1942, the United States Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, ordered Task Force 17 (TF 17) to the Coral Sea.
Rear Admiral Fletcher USN had TF 17.2, 17.3. 17.5 and 17.6 under his command. HMAS Australia, a heavy cruiser, and HMAS Hobart, a light cruiser, were allotted to Task Group 17.3. They became the TF 17 Support Group and under the command of Australian-born Rear Admiral Crase RN. They were to join TF 11, commanded by Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch USN. Fitch commanded the carrier USS Lexington, two cruisers and five destroyers, which was between Fiji and New Caledonia.
On the morning of May 1, TF 17 and TF 11 united about 560 km northwest of New Caledonia.
From there, TF 17 headed northwest.
TF 11 headed south to meet Task Force 44, a joint Australia–U.S. force that was on its way from Sydney and Nouméa.
On 3 May, the Japanese occupied Tulagi, undefended.
The Battle of the Coral Sea
The Battle of the Coral Sea was a series of separate but connected naval battles.
Taskforce 17 turned to the northeast towards Tulagi. On the morning of 4 May, in a surprise attack, aircraft from the USS Yorktown sank or damaged several of the Japanese supporting warships.
The Japanese were now aware of Allied ships in the area and turned their fleet toward the Coral Sea.
On 5 May, TF 17 rendezvoused with TF 11 south of Guadalcanal.
Over the next few days, opposing forces carried out a series of air attacks on each other's fleet.
The main battle began and ended on 8 May, with an exchange of blows that damaged both American carriers. The damage caused the USS Lexington to catch fire and sink, losing 216 crew. Damage to Japanese carriers forced them to retire.
Neither side sought a protracted battle. It was effectively over by midday.
The Battle of the Coral Sea is historically significant as it was the first action in the Second World War that involved aircraft carriers engaging with each other. The opposing ships never saw or fired directly upon one another.
The US fleet suffered greater losses in the battle. The USS Lexington was destroyed and the USS Yorktown was damaged. The Japanese also sank one oiler and one destroyer. In total, 66 aircraft were lost.
Allies destroyed one small Japanese carrier and damaged another. They sank one destroyer and three small naval ships. The Japanese lost 77 aircraft.
Both sides, however, claimed victory.
Japan won a tactical victory, but the Allies won a strategic victory because they stopped the Japanese from occupying Port Moresby. The battle also reduced the availability of Japanese forces for the forthcoming Midway operations in the Central Pacific. The Japanese Navy suffered a decisive defeat at Midway, which was a turning point of the Pacific War.