battle of the coral sea

Battle of the Coral Sea Memorials in Cairns

Few Australians are aware how close their country came to invasion in May, 1942 because of the passage of time. The Japanese Navy had Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea firmly in their sights. Besides, this was a mere 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) away from our naval base at Darwin across the Arafura Sea, so within striking distance too. To complicate things further Cairns was only half that distance, although our harbour was fortunately too small to sustain a large invasion force. We wrote this post to highlight the Battle of the Coral Sea memorials in Cairns. Because this stopped the Japanese in their tracks. Moreover, we know these monuments are of great interest to our American visitors, especially ex service personnel.

Japanese Advances from December 1941 to April 1942

Australia was lightly defended by the “Malay Barrier” under South West Pacific Command at the time. This was an imaginary line reaching through the Malayan Peninsula to Singapore, and all the way to the southernmost islands of the Dutch East Indies. Japan began testing Australia’s resolve after this cordon proved ineffective. On 19 February 1942, 242 aircraft  attacked Darwin in several waves, and bombed ships in the harbour as well as its two airfields.

battle of the coral sea

Japanese Advances from December 1941 to April 1942: MacArthur’s General Staff

Japanese Advances from December 1941 to April 1942

Bombs also fell on the coastal towns of Broome and Wyndham, 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) to the west. And seaside Townsville too, 350 kilometers (200 miles) south of Cairns in July.  Finally, a lone bomb fell near a house in Cairns itself on the night of 30 April 1942. We got away lightly. Because a second bomber lost its way, found the wrong river, and dropped its load in scrubland near Mossman, 77 kilometres (48 miles) north of us.

For the first time it dawned on Australians that Japan was planning a seaborne invasion, and was exploring the light defences of our coastal cities in preparation for the onslaught. The current balance of power suggested their forces would be difficult to dislodge once they entered our territory, and established their presence. Therefore, challenging times lay ahead for the allied navies. But they had the will to win – and they would for the first time in the war – in the legendary battle of the Coral Sea although things did not always go their way.

battle of the coral sea

Sinking of USS Lexington: US Navy Employee: Public Domain

We Shall Always Rember Those Gallant American Sailors

Strategists believed their only hope lay in breaking the back of Japanese naval power far out in Coral Sea. A series of naval engagements followed between American, Australian, and Japanese forces from 4 May to 8 May 1942. The allied goal was to prevent the invasion of Papua New Guinea and then  Australia. For its part, Japan hoped to weaken Allied naval resistance further. The world held its breath as Australia and her allies stood firm with their back against the wall.

The overall Japanese strategy relied on aerial superiority. However they depended on aircraft carriers to refuel and rearm their planes far out on the ocean. The allies came up with an audacious plan to break through their cordon of surrounding ships. And then sink their aircraft carriers using saturation aerial bombing. After several false starts they finally engaged fully on 8 May 1942.

Both sides fought the battle with great bravery and determination. However that day luck was on the side of the Australians and Americans. And so they were able to destroy Japanese naval superiority in the Pacific Ocean. Japan abandoned its plans to invade New Guinea and Australia. As the tide of war turned, both sides prepared for the deciding sea battle at Midway. We give thanks for this achievement, and we commemorate it with three war memorials of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Battle of the Coral Sea Memorial at Cardwell, North Queensland

Cardwell is a quiet coastal town 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of Cairns the home of Wangullay where we invite you to stay. The town hosts the Battle of the Coral Sea Memorial Park on a peaceful village green featuring a white wall with round metal plaques . The link to a ship’s portholes is as inescapable as the Stars and Stripes that flutters overhead. A simple notice reads:

This memorial commemorates the Coral Sea Battle during WWII. When American and Allied Forces defeated the Japanese in an air and sea battle to save Australia. Elsewhere a poet wrote: You may say it’s an old piece of bunting, You may call it an old coloured rag. But freedom has made it majestic, and time has ennobled the flag.

There are two other bitter sweet memorials nearby. The Cardwell Library Roll of Honour recalls the names of “our gallant boys and nurses’ who perished in the First Great War. While the Cardwell War Memorial pays tribute  to those who participated in South East Asian campaigns. At the going down of the sun we shall remember them. And in the evening when the night bird streaks across the sky. HMAS Brisbane saw sterling service in the Vietnam War hence her valediction.

Cardwell Battle of the Coral Sea Memorial: Queensland War Memorial Register

Cardwell, Queensland – The Small Town with a Big Heart

Beyond the memorial itself, Cardwell is a peaceful haven of some 1,200 souls. Although it is set in an enclave of great natural beauty on the Coral Sea.  The battle was 800 kilometres (500 miles) away. We have no idea why they chose to place the Memorial here. Although the immediate area is an outstanding spot to be alone in nature, and meditate on these things.

Take Hinchinbrook Island for example, across a narrow strait from the mainland in the Great Barrier Reef National Park. This isolated, uninhabited spot is accessible by boat, but then only with a permit. It is a blend of sandy beaches, lush rain forest reaching up to misty, heath-covered mountains, paperbark and palm wetlands, and extensive woodlands. Overnight camping is permitted.

The area is renowned for sightseer cruising, outrigger canoeing, sailing,  sea kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The climate is warm to mildly cool by Australian standards. The 32 kilometre (20 mile) Thorsborne Trail follows the east coast of the island for those in search of  soul food. Inquire in advance because the going is not easy in some places. The reward is seeing nature in the wild from crocodiles, dolphins, dugongs and sea turtles, to bright butterflies and birds hovering over waterfalls.

battle of the coral sea

Zoe Falls on Thorsborne Trail: Pattercakes: Public Domain

Lovely Murray Falls in Girrimay National Park, North Queensland

Our warm moist tropical climate fills torrents in season creating the lovely waterfalls that are a hallmark of the Cairns region. There’s a rare beauty awaiting your discovery 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Cardwell just off Bruce Highway. This makes it a great place to pause on the way back to Cairns.  Of course, the Girrimay people who are the traditional owners would have had no idea of the Battle of the Coral Sea raging at the time.

The area around Murray Falls is noteworthy for lush tropical vegetation, and soaring rugged mountain ranges. Access roads are navigable by car although some are dirt. There is a wheelchair-friendly camping area with toilets, showers, picnic tables, gas barbque, and fire rings. The grassed campsite is suitable for tents, camper trailers, caravans, and motor homes. Pay a fee in advance for a permit. Try to get their by midday because there are no defined sites.

The Queensland Government Department of National Parks, Sports and Racing describes Murray Falls as ‘one of the prettiest waterfalls in north Queensland, with spectacular water-sculpted rocks and crystal clear pools.’ It is popular with daytime visitors owing to an easily-accessible viewing platform. The more energetic may follow a walking trail through forest to a lookout, offering splendid waterfall views, and a fine vista across the Murray Valley.

battle of the coral sea

Murray Falls: Infotech Monkey: CC 3.0

The Kuranda Memorial of the Battle of the Coral Sea

On 3 December 1952 a group of Rotarians gathered on the Kuranda Range Road at 3 p.m. in the afternoon. This was a high spot in the mountains on the tableland escarpment above Cairns that seekers for closure after the Battle of the Coral Sea still visit. The Rotary President placed a military direction-finder atop  a simple concrete cairn overlooking a wide panorama.

“This is to perpetuate the memory of U.S. and Australian men who lost their lives its the [then] last war,” he said to a representative of the United States. “We hope it will help to cement friendship between our two peoples.” 

The upper surface was a round plaque pointing to significant places where there were battles during the war recently past. The base of the Cairns monument bore a second plaque reading:

“Erected to honour the victory of our gallant Australian and Allied forces in the Coral Sea battle, May, 1942, Pacific Theatre of World War II, 1939-45, and to perpetuate the friendship of Australian and American people.”

This simple statement has been through the wars too owing to a local tribe not understanding its purpose. But you can still visit it, and reach out a virtual hand to our girls and boys who died so valiantly in outposts remote from anywhere. Who knows what the world would have been like without their valiant sacrifice of youth.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.” We will remember them. Let us never forget. We understand  this was once a world map.

Battle of the Coral Sea

Battle of The Coral Sea Memorial Kuranda: Image Monuments Australia

Obtaining Closure with St Monica’s Cathedral Peace Windows

Cairns people were often visibly moved by the sight of Battle of the Coral Sea casualties, and opened their hearts and their minds to help them recover. After the last service-people returned to America, and the last Australian boys and girls came home, they tried to forget what happened and get on with the lives.

The traumatic days Cairns lived through soon became distant memories forgotten by many. Construction of the huge St Monica’s War Memorial Cathedral helped obtain final closure when it opened in 1968 as a dedication to the fallen many of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The reinforced concrete frame created huge openings admitting masses of natural light and inviting swirls of decoration.

battle of the coral sea

St Monica’s Cathedral Chapel: Image Catholic Church

In 1952 the great church unveiled a magnificent set of stained glass windows commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. These face east to welcome in the morning light heralding a new day. The windows incorporate layers of natural, historic, and spiritual meaning. Whatever your religious leaning you will surely find meaning here.

The ‘Chaos’ window depicts the historic sinking of the Shoho submarine tender that took three torpedos, and the USS Sims which three bombs split in two.  The ‘Rest’ window shows an Aichi bomber, and the USS Lexington resting on the ocean bed. The ‘Peace’ window shows the smoke of battle and the  Hiroshima nuclear cloud dispersing. Calm has returned to the tranquil Coral Sea as white doves fly over whales and dolphins frolicking below.

Battle of the Coral Sea

Memorial Peace Windows: Cairns Catholic Diocese



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