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Sunday, 24 April 2022
Kokoda Memorial Walkway, Concord
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

Thank you for this invitation to join you on the eve of our nation’s ANZAC Day commemoration.

I pay my respects to the traditional owners of the lands and waterways that surround us and to Elders of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.  

Today, we gather to remember all those who have served our country and, in particular, at this service, those who served in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War as we move towards the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought between 4-8 May 1942, 1,000 kilometres north-east of Cairns. 

But let me start two years earlier. Between the 26 May and 4 June 1940, Allied forces were desperately evacuated from the French port, Dunkerque. What followed became known famously as the Battle for Britain.  

On 15th February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese, Prime Minister Curtin describing that tragic outcome as “Australia’s Dunkirk… [opening up] the Battle for Australia”[1].  

These were frightening times.  After the fall of Singapore, Colonel Ohira, Chief of the Imperial Headquarters Press section at Tokyo had asserted that: “Japan is in a position to control the fate of India and Australia ... In addition to the Japanese military might, British and American smugness and over confidence are responsible for their successive setbacks,”[2]  which as we know included the disastrous Battle of Java. 

Three days after the fall of Singapore, Darwin was bombed.  Eight ships were sunk in Darwin Harbour[3], 270 lives were lost. Two weeks later Broome experienced the first of four Japanese air raids.  89 lives were lost.  

The strategic position of Darwin and the use by Allied forces of Broome as a flying boat and aircraft refuelling depot made them obvious targets. But what was the strategic value of the Coral Sea, an area of some 780,000 square kilometres located off the Great Barrier Reef whose tropical beauty includes reefs and atolls, is home to turtles and unique bird and plant species and, except for a tiny population on Willis Island, consists of a number of uninhabited Islands? Was it the passage-way for an invasion of our country – as it seemed at the time to a dispirited Australia?

Although sometimes described as ‘the battle that saved Australia’[4] there was no such invasion plan.  Rather, Japan’s strategy was to occupy Port Moresby, providing it with a secure operating base which would interfere with lines of communication between Australia and the United States. A base at Port Moresby would also strengthen Japan’s Pacific perimeter.

Planning was also underway for an attack on Midway Island, a US atoll halfway between the west coast of the United States and Asia with the aim of enticing an ambush that would effectively annihilate the American Fleet. This strategy was based on the successful Japanese victory over Russia at the Straits of Tsushima in 1905.  

In what has been described as ‘much haggling’ within the Japanese command, the capture of Port Moresby was given priority over the occupation of Midway Island. It was the planned naval led attack on Port Moresby which explains the strategic relevance of the Coral Sea. The Japanese planned to conduct patrols of the Coral Sea to protect the flank of the Moresby invasion force.

US Naval Intelligence became aware of this as early as 28 March 1942, when it decoded a Japanese message which read: ‘The objective of MO [the planned invasion of Port Moresby] will be first, to restrict the enemy fleet movements and will be accomplished by means of attacks on the North Coast of Australia’. 

This and other intercepted intelligence during April and the first days of May alerted Allied naval forces of the proposed invasion of Port Moresby and enabled them to concentrate forces in the Coral Sea.  

Despite this forward knowledge, the Allied forces experienced a number of difficulties, not the least of which was the existence of two commands within the Allied operations. The Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific fleet was headquartered at Pearl Harbour.  However, the Coral Sea lay within the newly designated South-West Pacific Area and was under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.

The Pacific Fleet was thus dependant on intelligence from General MacArthur’s command. General MacArthur’s intelligence units were not only charged with intercepting intelligence. They made the decisions as to what intelligence was relevant to Fleet command, and when to send it. There were other difficulties.  General MacArthur had responsibility, including surveillance responsibility within the South-West Pacific Area, hampering the Pacific Fleet’s own search and reconnaissance operations.  

The Japanese were aware of an Allied presence in the Coral Sea, at least by the 4 May, when US Forces attacked Tulagi, a small island within the Solomon Islands, recently occupied by the Japanese as a flying boat base from which to conduct patrols into the Coral Sea.  This attack destroyed the Japanese surveillance capability out of Tulagi and reduced the number of long-range aircraft available to the Japanese in the Coral Sea. 

HMAS Australia and HMAS Hobart joined the US forces on 4 May.  The succeeding days, 5, 6, 7 and 8 May over which the battle was fought were marked by significant losses on both sides. 

Japan lost a light carrier a destroyer and a number of smaller warships and just over 1,000 sailors. Almost 550 US sailors were lost. It lost one destroyer, one light carrier, and one other vessel were sunk, another destroyer and a fleet carrier were damaged, and 69 aircraft lost. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington, which was one of the ships lost in the battle, represented 25% of the US carrier strength in the Pacific at that time. 

The Japanese and US losses were suffered in circumstances where the Battle of the Coral Sea was the first aircraft carrier battle in history[5] - and the first naval battle in which the opposing ships never entered each other’s visual range. It was also a battle where both sides claimed victory.

Mercifully, there was no loss of Australian lives and our two warships were unscathed.

Despite the loss of a significant part of the Allied naval capability, the significance of the Allies’ achievement in the Battle of the Coral Sea was soon realised when, on 18 May, staff at FRUMEL – the joint signal intelligence unit located in Melbourne - intercepted and decrypted a Japanese message which indicated that the Japanese had given up attempting to capture Port Moresby by seaborne assault and intended to mount an overland assault.[6]

In thwarting the plan, the Japanese, for the first time, had been turned back without achieving their objective.[7] The battle also repudiated the disastrous Allied loss at the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February.[8] This was closely followed, one month later, by the United States victory at the battle of Midway,[9] Japan’s seaborne invasion of Port Moresby abandoned, its forces retreated to Rabaul.

In informing the Australian public of the Coral Sea battle on 4 May, Prime Minister, John Curtin had declared: “Events that are taking place today are of crucial importance to the whole conduct of the war in this theatre . . .  This battle will not decide the war; [but] it will determine the immediate tactics which will be pursued by the Allied forces and by the common enemy.

And, so, it was to be. In showing that the Japanese forces could be repelled, the Battle of the Coral Sea shaped the course of the battles to come and provided a much-needed boost to morale and confidence. As the United States navy continued to hold Japan at bay in places such as Guadalcanal,[10] and Australians fought tenaciously in the jungle and mountains of New Guinea, amid scenes described by one Private as “hell on earth amongst the clouds in the mountains”,[11] the immediate legacy of the Battle of the Coral Sea was an enduring bond with the United States as a Pacific partner.

There are other enduring legacies of this Battle and of the war. Our ties with the United States, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea remain strong. And, today, our relationship with Japan demonstrates not only that war is futile for everyone but, importantly, that governments and their peoples can overcome the deep distrust and even hate that war engenders and become trusted friends.  This requires a great generosity of spirit.  We thank the peoples on both sides of that war, and particularly, those involved in the Pacific theatre, for their constant expression of that generosity.

As we resume the physical commemorations at this Memorial, we pay tribute to all who served, to the nurses who tended the wounded, including nurses who served here at Concord Hospital,[12] as we remember all lives lost as we continue to reflect on war’s wider impact.

[1] Commonwealth Government, Digest of Decisions and Announcements and Important Speeches by the Prime Minister (the Hon. John Curtin), No. 19, 16 February 1942, p. 7.

Reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February 1942

[3] With loss of 270 lives. 8 ships sunk in Darwin harbour.

[9] Battle of Midway: 4-7 June 2022

[10] 7 August 1942- 9 September 1943


Concord Repatriation General Hospital was established in November 1940 as the 113th Australian General Hospital:


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