There are a number of photographic images that show the moment when, on 7 May 1942, the mixed Australian-American squadron under command of Rear Admiral Jack Crace, RN, came under Japanese air attack in waters off the eastern tip of Papua, during the first day of the battle of the Coral Sea. Crace’s flagship, the RAN heavy cruiser Australia, and light cruiser Hobart constituted Australia’s naval contribution to the allied victory won at this battle, which is often – but erroneously – still called the battle that ‘saved’ Australia from Japanese invasion in World War II.
Regardless of the debate over whether or not the Japanese planned to invade Australia, it is clear that the Japanese operation which triggered the battle of the Coral Sea had only a more limited goal of making an amphibious landing on the southern coast of Papua aimed at capturing Port Moresby. The role given to Crace’s six-ship squadron (comprising the American heavy cruiser Chicago and three US destroyers, Walke, Perkins and Farragut, in addition to HMAS Australia and HMAS Hobart), was to intercept the enemy troop convoy heading from Rabaul as it attempted to exit the Jomard Passage before steering west along the south coast of Papua to reach Moresby.
While the feature of the battle that always captures the attention of historians and commentators was the clash on 8 May between Japanese and American aircraft carrier forces, it was in fact Crace’s mission that was central to frustrating the Japanese operation. As it happened, the detection of his small force early on the morning of 7 May had precisely the effect that the American admiral commanding the allied forces hoped it would; although no-one on the allied side knew for some time, at 9 am the Japanese admiral in overall command ordered the Moresby attack force to turn around and delay entering the Jomard Passage until Crace’s blocking force had been eliminated.
The threat posed by the presence of Crace’s squadron undoubtedly explains the ferocity of the attack made on his force, first by about 12 Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” twin-engine torpedo bombers (using the last dozen aerial torpedoes which the 25th Naval Air Flotilla at Rabaul still had available), and – moments after the torpedo bombers departed – by a formation of 19 Nells making a high level bombing attack.
While researching my 1991 book Action Stations Coral Sea: the Australian commander’s story, I found photos in the collections of both the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Imperial War Museum in London that recorded the opening moments of the Japanese attack. These depict the low level approach of the first (fortunately the only) wave of torpedo bombers, at a distance of less than three miles off the port bow at 3.06 pm, during which the ships immediately mounted a barrage of defensive fire while undertaking ‘radical manoeuvres’ aimed at putting the attacking aircraft off their aim as they prepared to drop torpedoes.
The photos are quite rivetting. In nearly all, black shell bursts appear spattered across the lower horizon as ship’s guns fill the air with a curtain of shrapnel. In several there are identifiable shapes of aircraft visible among the shell bursts, and in others there are smudges of fiery black smoke actually on the water, marking where an aircraft has been destroyed and crashed. What particularly caught my attention back in 1990 was that the IWM captions mentioned that these images were possibly taken from movie coverage of the attack filmed from USS Chicago. That seemed entirely plausible, since there was a uniformity about the IWM images that marked them as different from the few photos held by the AWM, which were described as having been taken by several individuals in HMAS Hobart using personal cameras.
One of the Hobart images depicted what happened after the Japanese bombers had dropped their torpedoes. Instead of breaking away from their attack path, the aircraft continued directly towards the target ships, passing alongside them at low altitude. Many allied seamen were presented with unexpected sights; one man in Hobart described being startled at seeing a Nell flash by ‘as large as life a stone’s throw away’, with the pilot’s face clearly visible through the perspex hood of the cockpit. Even Admiral Crace was surprised to observe a Japanese bomber pass down the port side of his flagship at a distance of only 100 feet and level with the upper deck, not realising that many of the aircraft were strafing the ships with machine-gun and cannon fire as they passed.
The tactic adopted by the Japanese pilots was clearly intended to minimise the target they provided for the anti-aircraft guns aboard the allied ships. Allied gunners who continued firing at the aircraft as they passed alongside risked hitting other ships of the squadron with ‘strays’ from cross-fire. Undoubtedly some of the nine allied casualties in Crace’s squadron were victims of so-called ‘friendly fire’; there were three wounded in Australia, three in Hobart, and three in the American ships – including two in Chicago who died from their injuries.
Imagine my surprise when, in about 1992, I was watching a television program at home in Canberra one night that featured filmed images associated with events of the Second World War. The program was actually called ‘The Australian Image’ and sought to highlight the way that the collection of the National Film and Sound Archives (NFSA) in Canberra helped preserve our knowledge of Australia’s modern history. The episode I had caught just happened to feature the Second World War years, and the commentary said nothing that particularly identified the footage that grabbed my attention apart from the fact that it portrayed Australia at war in the Pacific. And yet, what I was seeing on screen had a strangely familiar look about it.
The brief segment, lasting only nine seconds, appeared in reverse order to what I imagine would have been its original running sequence. It began with the image of a large twin-engine Japanese bomber zooming parallel to a ship’s deck lined with seamen watching as it passed, then cut to ship’s anti-aircraft gunners blazing away at an off-screen aerial target, before switching to a distant shot showing the blooming pattern of an anti-aircraft barrage fired against a low-level air attack at sea. Apart from the middle scene (which could have been filmed anywhere, not necessarily at the Coral Sea), what else could this be but footage of the attack on Admiral Crace’s squadron on 7 May 1942, as captured on movie film from the deck of USS Chicago? (View the actual footage at the end of this blog.)
When I visited the NFSA soon afterwards and told a couple of executives there about what I believed they had in their collection, I found them interested – but not that interested. To this day I cannot find that the Archives’ catalogue shows any recognition that they hold actual footage of the battle, and nor does the AWM. The Archives, though, was happy to sell me a copy (then on video cassette) of the TV episode I had watched, and it was discovering that I still had this in the records I unpacked after the 2016 move to Melbourne that brought all this reflection back to mind.
It is nice to know that the movie footage of the Coral Sea has survived somewhere, even if the NFSA does not recognise the significance of what it is that they have.