THE FACE OF NAVAL BATTLE: THE CORAL SEA

ANNUAL COMMEMORATION AND LUNCH SYDNEY, 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.