Critical battle of Coral Sea remembered 75 years on

At a dawn service in the Queensland city of Townsville, a bugler sounds the Last Post.

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull led the first of many commemorations of the World War Two Battle of the Coral Sea.

He thanked the Australian and United States servicemen and women involved in the battle.

“Over four critical days in May 1942, the fate of our island continent hung in the balance. The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first setback to the Japanese in the Pacific War. It was a turning point in the war. Our freedoms were secured by the bravery of the fighting men on those ships and the pilots who flew through everything the enemy and the weather could throw in their way.”

By that time, the Japanese had struck the US naval base at Pearl Harbour, taken the British garrison of Singapore and bombed Darwin.

As the Prime Minister recalled, their next aim was to seize Port Moresby and isolate Australia.

“The Japanese were turned back, but not without a heavy price. The mighty aircraft carrier Lexington was lost, as was the destroyer USS Sims and tanker USS Neosho. The US navy’s commitment of two of the carriers into the battle showed a total commitment to the defence of Australia. And it showed a total unity of purpose.”

Cecil Wiswell was a 17-year-old seaman on the USS Lexington when the Japanese torpedoed it.

The now 93-year-old is in Australia for the commemorations and spoke to the ABC about his survival.

“Brings back memories when I look out there on the sea. I stayed aboard the ship. I helped the doctor with patients for a while, and then I went around the ship trying to fight fire and whatnot. We stayed aboard for quite a while after the ‘Abandon ship’ was sounded, and, all of a sudden, it dropped what felt like two or three feet more. I said, ‘It’s time to leave now.’ I went to a life raft, but the life raft had so many men in it and around it that it was submerged. I said, ‘This is no place for me,’ so I lit out alone.”

The ashes of his fellow Lexington crew member Harry Fry have been scattered in the Coral Sea.

Official History project author Dr David Stevens says the battle represents a pivotal moment in Australian history.

“The Battle of the Coral Sea was very significant just for the fact that it was one of the first reverses that the Japanese suffered after their initial victories following Pearl Harbour and the attacks on Malaya and Singapore.”

And he says, within that significant battle, the Australian role was truly vital.

“The Australian role was very important in that, part of the code-breaking that was done, the Americans had moved their … the Japanese had invaded the Philippines earlier in the war, and an American code-breaking team had escaped and moved to Melbourne, where they joined up with Australian code-breakers, and they were the ones who broke the Japanese codes and were able to determine exactly where the Japanese were going to invade.”

Later this week, Malcolm Turnbull will attend a commemorative dinner in New York, where he will have his first face-to-face meeting with US president Donald Trump.

“We must be forever grateful to those who put their lives on the line and those who do so today so that we might have a free and peaceful world.”