Memories of the early days of WW2 By John Philip Stevenson

When the War broke out I was on exchange with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean as a very lowly Midshipman.

We immediately sailed for our war station in Simonstown in South Africa. Our main task was to keep lookout for two German Battlecruisers, namely the Graf Sree and the Scheer which had sailed from Germany well before war broke out. It turned out to be mostly a long and boring search in the South Atlantic until Holland was overrun at which time we were ordered to take as prizes any Dutch ships encountered.

Some days later we sighted a large ship which turned out to be Dutch and we ordered it to heave to and await inspection. A prize crew of twenty sailors was formed and to my surprise, and some horror I was ordered to take charge. We were armed to the teeth and we went over the side to one of our large whalers and fortunately in fair weather climbed up the side of the Dutchman. As I clambered over the ships side I was greeted by a large Dutch captain who scowled and demanded what I was there for. I confirmed the fact that Holland was now overrun and that they were to be taken as a prize and taken into Dakar, and await further instructions. He was not happy but invited me to go below and have some breakfast. We sat down at a large table and were served greasy fried eggs and two glasses were placed in front of me, one filled with Dutch Gin and the other with red wine. He raised his glass and the toast and I replied:” Thank you but I do not drink” . He scowled and said:” You do now!”  I managed to get some of the red wine down but could not handle the Gin.

Four days later I turned him over to the harbour master in Dakar and went ashore to await the news of what was to become of me. Word came that in the next few days I would be picked up by HMS Shropshire’s seaplane and taken to Freetown. Finally, I rejoined Shropshire a few weeks later.


The search for the German cruisers intensified and we had word that it was likely that the Graf Spee was in the vicinity of the sea lanes off South America. We set off in that direction and shortly got word that she had been sighted and was being engaged by three British cruisers. We opened up to full speed and headed for them, fortunately, only about one hundred miles away. Two hours later we caught sight of the smoke and noise of battle but by the time we arrived the Graf Spee had withdrawn and had entered Montevideo harbour. Like any foreign warship they were only allowed 24 hours sanctuary and after that time, we saw her steaming out. We all went to action stations ready for the final battle, but she hove to and blew herself up, having taken all of the sailors off.


 We steamed in and went past the burning wreck and witnessed the final sinking, A few days later we were given permission for a 24 hour break into Montevideo. We had some leave and met some of the German sailors on shore. They were unhappy but pleasant enough, though sad that their Captain (Langsdorff) had committed suicide.

After the mandatory twenty four hours we sailed for the Falkland Islands where the largest of the three British ships (HMS Exeter) was being repaired as much as possible. We were ordered to escort her to England. Many days later, we left her at Plymouth and proceeded to Scapa Flow.

News had just come in that the Germans were about to invade Norway. We set out to sweep down the coast of Norway. Fortunately, we sighted no one and we returned to Scapa and thence to Liverpool. Here we were discharged (ashore) to attend our Sub Lieutenant courses in Portsmouth.

These lasted for three months – mostly under heavy bombing, and I was given the task of

manning a twelve pounder anti-aircraft gun with a very limited supply of ammunition. Fortunately, very few aircraft came low enough to take aim at and so I had ammunition enough to be useful and was sent off to the South coast, to prepare to repel the German invaders who were about to come ashore. If they had succeeded, we would not have lasted long. Fortunately Hitler changed his mind and went to Russia instead.

With courses completed, I joined the destroyer HMAS Nestor and that is another story.



US Ambassador Berry’s remarks at Coral Sea commemoration lunch at Australian National Maritime Museum



US Ambassador John Berry lays a wreath commemorating the Battle of the Coral Sea on the  bow of museum ship HMAS Vampire.

Veterans and members of the Australian and the American Militaries,

Distinguished guests, Ladies and gentlemen:

On May 8, 1942, the Allied strategic victory of the Coral Sea changed the course of history. Without Coral Sea, there could have been no Midway, no Guadalcanal, and no victory in the Pacific. The last 70 years of stability and prosperity in the Asia pacific region would have been unimaginable.

We won because of the strength of character, dedication, and sacrifice of the US and Australian defense forces. The story of the USS Neosho is one of many stories of courage from the Coral Sea.

A survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, this vitally important fuel tanker sustained the American ships engaged in the battle. It retreated hundreds of miles away from the battle to preserve its precious cargo. But, the battle found Neosho. It suffered seven direct hits from Japanese aircraft and a suicide dive – shooting down three of its attackers in the process. Superb seamanship kept Neosho afloat; though lost and defenceless.

Four days after the battle, the Royal Australian Air Force found the Neosho, with 123 surviving seamen aboard. Another four men from the Neosho survived nine days in an open life raft without food, water, or shelter. Hundreds of men were lost.

Only upon rescue, did the Neosho’s crew learn that the American and Australian forces had turned back the Japanese, ending their southward expansion in World War II.

The cost – the USS Lexington, three other ships and 69 US and Australian planes; 656 brave men, Americans and Australians. But, most importantly, Japan suffered its first defeat of the war– losing its two newest fleet carriers, eight smaller ships, 92 planes, and the strategic and offensive initiative in the Pacific.The cost – the USS Lexington, three other ships and 69 US and Australian planes; 656 brave men, Americans and Australians. But, most importantly, Japan suffered its first defeat of the war

The cost of our victory in the Pacific is also personal for me. I am the second generation of my family to serve here. My father fought on Guadalcanal as part of the 1st Marine Division, and my uncle, my namesake, was a fighter pilot who was among the many who did not return home. My dad told me that the Marines landed on Guadalcanal with few supplies, and received very little more due to Japanese victories at sea. They were short of food and ammunition. They lived in foxholes and dugouts. They fought in mud and rain and heat. They suffered from malaria and malnutrition. They endured constant assault, and were hit by some of the heaviest naval barrages of the war. But those Marines held that rock. And, in doing so, like those who battled in the Coral Sea, they helped turn the tide of the war – and of history.

In conditions like those – after nine months of hard fighting – it would be incredibly easy to lose hope. But my father and his mates were lucky enough to come to Australia to rest and recuperate. After the hell of Guadalcanal, Australia must have seemed like a paradise. Indeed, my father told me that the people of Australia were so good, so generous, and so warm-hearted and true it reminded him not only that there was good left in the world,  but that it was damn well worth fighting for.

When the ships came to Australia, there was a band there to meet them, playing “Waltzing Matilda.” General Vandegrift reportedly remarked that it was the best sound he had ever heard. To this day, the 1st Division Marines always ship out to the sound of “Waltzing Matilda”.

Whenever I hear this song, I give thanks to the brave and noble few who forged in blood an alliance second to none. Their sacrifice is the  unshakeable foundation upon which our alliance stands. An alliance dedicated to shared values – duty, courage, mateship, and above all, freedom. God bless them and their families.

God bless Australia and the United States of America.

Lest we forget.

(US Ambassador John Berry – 7 May 2016)



Address by Rear Admiral James Goldrick AO CSC RAN at the Australian  National Maritime Museum Sydney

We think of the face of naval battle as grey warships on a blue horizon, with the flash of guns and the splash of shells. We imagine it as very frightening but at the same time intensely exciting, as ships weave and turn, engaging the enemy as they seek to avoid being hit. The battle ensigns fly overhead, shell splashes rise around and dump vast amounts of water on the deck, while the smell of cordite and the sting of gun smoke hit the senses.

We know that the Battle of the Coral Sea saw a new form of naval warfare – in which the surface forces never came into contact with each other, but fought their battle with the aircraft of the enemy. That battle was as much in the sky as on the sea, yet, although the electronic eye of radar played a part, it remained a visual conflict. Our image of this new -form of naval combat remains largely unchanged from the old, indeed it is reinforced by the film footage so often shown in the media and online.

But this was never the face of naval battle for the great majority and it was not for the great majority during the Battle of the Coral Sea. This face is very different. It is even more challenging and even more frightening. It is an experience of confined spaces, of being shut down under armoured hatches and within small compartments.  Most

often, it is a group experience – the stokers tending their boilers, the damage control and medical teams distributed around the ship, the turret and magazine crews ready to work their weapons and push the ammunition supplies up to the guns. But it can be a solitary experience, for the individuals who have to tend a piece of machinery in a small compartment – sometimes in spaces in which it is impossible even to stand upright. The shaft tunnel of even the largest warship is not a pleasant place to be.

We have not spoken enough in naval history, nor in our commemorations of the war at sea about these experiences and, in particular, of the challenges that so many had to face in overcoming their fear – and which they may still have to face in future conflicts. For the crew below had little idea of what was going on around them. Even when ships were fitted with internal broadcast systems and senior personnel had the time to pass the word about events, those systems did not extend to many of the spaces that I have described – some had no internal communications at all. The sailors within them had to rely upon the occasional visit from their supervisors, visits which might not take place in the heat of action, or if the ship had been hit. Between these times, all they knew was what they heard.

Being inside a shut-down compartment closes down the visual horizon to almost nothing. It is sound that matters and sound that frightens. Midshipman Dacre-Smyth of HMAS Australia,

in the Transmitting Station that housed the gun control computers, wrote a few days later of ‘listening to the guns, shaken by the bombs and wondering if there was any chance of us getting out from down there if the ship did cop it.’ A cook in the forward magazine, Cliff Hemming, recalled, ‘During the Japanese bombing attack, the shrapnel hitting the ship’s side sounded like chains dragging across a steel plate.’

Consider the other effects of a near miss by a bomb or shell – for near misses were themselves often enough to open up the hull. Cliff Hemming remembered that ‘The explosions of the bombs also loosened a few rivets so that water and oil began to seep in, and in our sand shoes we were skating along the deck.’ Machinery that was not shock-mounted could leap off its mountings. Lighting could shatter and electricity fail. If the ventilation was still running – and it might not in action – then it could well stop. Flooding would bring on a list, machinery damage might bring the ship to a halt.

A catastrophic hit effectively meant no chance of survival for the personnel below, even if they did not become casualties from the outset. Yet no matter how terrible the damage, each man had to keep doing his job until he was told otherwise. And all the evidence is that they did. In retrospect, it is extraordinary that so often so many did survive ships sinking in action – a tribute in itself to internal discipline and mutual support when so many hatches and doors had to be opened up, often with little or no lighting, and escape routes found. During the Coral Sea engagements, that sort of self-discipline and mutual support was there in the Lexington, as it was in the Neosho and the Sims. And, as proved so important, it was there when the Yorktown was saved for another battle.

We also need to understand that there were other miseries to be managed. The ships’ companies of the Pacific War did not experience the numbing cold of the Arctic Convoys, but in many ways heat stress was as much a problem and certainly inescapable in ships that were not air conditioned and which were shut down for action. It is no accident that the normal clothing of officers and ratings in the tropics was shorts and sandals, with or without a shirt. But action stations forced everyone into flash-resistant and


fire-retardant clothing covering the entire body. In compartments with an ambient temperature well over 30 degrees centigrade – and sometimes more – and high humidity, this was a purgatory in itself.

And, as the Battle of Savo a few months later was to prove, the longer people remained at their action station, the more tired and stressed and the less effective they became. The Coral Sea battle allowed some respite, with sailors being allowed up to get ‘fresh air’ between air raids, and some lessening of the risk of attack at night. But it went on for several days and the crews were very, very tired when the task forces turned for home.

And, as we too often forget, the watch for the enemy and the readiness to fight had to be maintained all the time until the ships were safe in harbour. This was the reality of the naval war, a reality that continued day after day, week after week and month after month, for nearly six years for the Australians and nearly four for the Americans.

We should indeed reflect on and honour the achievements of those who fought at the Coral Sea and the other bitter engagements of the global war – so many of which had an Australian presence. But we also need to reflect on what happened between those encounters as well. For nearly six years.

Let us then remember, as we honour the memory of the Coral Sea, both the ‘far distant ships’ of the Second World War and the men inside them, and understand that what goes on out of sight to others is often the most important achievement of all. As Francis Drake wrote more than 400 years ago of another naval campaign, ‘the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.’ The Americans and Australians who fought, often unseeing and unseen, in the Battle of the Coral Sea deserve their share of that ‘true glory’ for what they did then and what they had to endure in the years that followed. For, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s verdict on El Alamein, the Coral Sea marked not the beginning of the end of the Pacific war, but the end of its beginning.