- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- WWII operations, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Perth I, HMAS Australia II
- December 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Of the ships which sailed that month only two have survived unscathed and only Australia has remained continuously in the South-west and South Pacific. In the middle of the night two days out from Sydney, in a heavy Tasman storm, HMAS Perth turned about, left Australia and set out on her way to the Java Sea. USS Chicago, an old friend from visits in the time before the Japanese war, and which proved more than a friend in perilous times, a boon companion and sharer in all fortunes, was hit at Guadalcanal and later sunk while defending the same island – a bitter loss indeed. The destroyer USS Perkins, which with USS Lamson for so many months provided the whole destroyer screen, was sunk off New Guinea. The New Zealand Ships Leander and Achilles (the latter the hero of the River Plate) have suffered variously in Pacific actions.
Wide and lonely seas
Four cruisers and two destroyers were charged with the defence of the South and South-west Pacific. When a carrier appeared in the area for a time and later the squadron joined a force of two carriers and several cruisers, it seemed that phenomenal naval strength had been established. Still the seas were very wide and very lonely in those days of brilliant and unbroken Japanese success. After so many disasters and defeats, it seemed impossible that so puny a force could hold the enemy. It was with a good deal of courage that it was decided to patrol a line between Suva and Noumea with the proviso of withdrawal in the face of superior numbers.
Yet there were straws in the wind. There was the day the task force rejoined USS Lexington and learnt that sixteen of seventeen bombers had been shot down. There was the carrier raid across the mountains of New Guinea on Japanese shipping at Lae and Salamaua. New Caledonia and the New Hebrides were occupied with that astonishing efficiency for which the Americans are now famous in the Pacific.
Battle of the Coral Sea
And then came the Battle of the Coral Sea. The task force was detached to cover the passages through the Louisiades through which the Japanese convoys were to pass. Its share of the battle was fought in half an hour. The famed Betty torpedo and high-level bomber was met there for the first time and got its deserts. The attack failed, though for many a day Australia was known as the ‘ghost ship’ – the ship that was surrounded by the entire pattern of nineteen high-level bombers and disappeared for a whole minute in a mighty cloud of spray, the ship which for a minute was given up for lost by every ship in company. For many, it had been the first occasion of being in action; for all it was the first meeting with the Japs. No one faced the action without some trepidation. No one emerged without the exhilaration of victory and the conviction that the Japs could and would be licked. And the Japs knew they were licked. They turned back, never again to pass from the Islands into the Coral Sea.
So the Coral Sea became the home of Australia and the ever changing group of ships with her. For a time the force still could not operate safely from a base further north than Brisbane. In July 1942, came the glorious day when it was known that the attack was at last to be taken against Japan. No one who took part will ever forget how the armada of transports and escorts sailed from Wellington and then, on a brilliant Pacific afternoon, met up with an even more spectacular armada of carriers and other warships. After that the carriers were rarely seen but their proximity was never forgotten.
On 7th August, the attack was launched on Guadalcanal. First in the line went Australia, flagship of the escorting force. In the darkness men ate hurriedly, put on helmets and anti-flash gear and waited like actors in the wings for the curtain to rise. Barely distinguishable, Australia led the line past Savo Island, grim sentinel of a dozen battles, through now famed Iron-bottom Sound, past the western mountains where unsuspecting Japanese patrols were lighting their morning fires, until at dawn the entire fleet lay ready off the beaches of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. The Japanese ashore have suffered many a naval bombardment since and many a beach they have abandoned undefended but it was at Guadalcanal all that began.