- Historic Sites
The Biggest Theater
Revisiting the seas where American carriers turned the course of history, a Navy man re-creates a time of frightful odds and brilliant gambles.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
I knew, of course, about the landings on Guadalcanal. The ships were there to protect the U.S. Marine amphibious force that had gone ashore the day before. I had also read all I could find about the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Doolittle raid on Tokyo; but the accounts were less than full at the time, and my own personal appreciation of the relationship between these events and the rest of the war always seemed inadequate. Historians do not generally describe feelings, though they are frequently more important than anything else, and for a time I was unsure where to begin the reconstruction that seemed necessary. Once started, however, it was not hard at all. No facts needed to be changed, only the point of view.
Our two cruises were to take us to the islands where some of that terrible fighting took place. Battles on the sea cannot be evoked, however, merely by viewing the sites, for nothing remains there—only the unceasing sea. We knew the circumstances and details, but these were not enough. We were to sail over the invisible graves of mighty ships and brave men of both sides, and something more was needed: the personal impact. Oddly enough, we found this elusive ingredient before our cruises even began. There were clues everywhere in Australia, where no fighting occurred at all.
During a week’s touring between Sydney and Melbourne prior to the arrival of the Royal Viking Star, we met some of the people and saw many of the sights. Even after all those years we would sometimes hear the comment “We’ll never forget what your country did for us.” Once, the statement was accompanied by a matter-offact look at an ordinary road map showing Australia’s north coast; it also showed the Torres Strait and, only one hundred miles away to the north and east, the southern coast of New Guinea. New Guinea is shaped roughly like a huge bird, looking west. The bird’s tail, with a mountainous and heavily forested spine, droops southeast toward the east coast of Australia. The Coral Sea is the constricted body of water between the “tail” of the New Guinea “bird” and the Australian mainland, bounded on the west by the island-studded Torres Strait. For Australians the Coral Sea will forever symbolize sudden, terrible danger from the rapacious empire to the north and an American navy that stretched itself to the utmost to stand between.
The personal memories pervade all Australia. Besides the strong memories of the peopie there are numerous monuments. In Canberra, the capital city, a tall obelisk faces across the city’s central lake and park toward the new capitol building. Emblazoned on its near side, under the official Australian crest, is an inscription in burnished letters readable from a hundred feet away:
Things seemed desperate in Australia in 1942, far more desperate than in the United States. We had experienced the shock of our national life, but we had no thought of losing this war. There appeared no immediate threat to the territorial security of our country, despite Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto’s purported boast (a misrepresentation of that thoughtful man’s actual words) that he expected to dictate peace on the steps of the White House. In Australia the exact opposite was true. Australians lived with the knowledge that a Japanese invasion of their continent could happen almost any time.
Great Britain, with its back to the wall against Nazi Germany, had already marshaled all the forces it could field, not the least of which were the Aussies, excellent soldiers, who had been mostly deployed to the sands of North Africa. The flower of Australia’s military strength—army, navy, marines, and air—had been gone for two years. To a lesser degree much the same had happened to the Dutch East Indies, while the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, based in the Philippines, and our Pacific Fleet, based in Hawaii, both were finding a major percentage of their expected support and reinforcements diverted to the European theater.
The speed and ease with which Japan achieved its initial conquests should consequently have been no surprise to anyone, but even the Japanese high command was amazed at the absence of effective opposition. Manila was occupied on January 2, about three weeks after the surprise attack that began the war. In February Japan put Australia’s principal northern harbor, Port Darwin, out of action by heavy bombing. By the end of that month the combined American, British, Dutch, and Australian naval force—the ABDA—which included the handsome U.S. cruiser Houston, had been wiped out. Two weeks more, and Java, the principal island of Dutch Indonesia, was totally occupied. Apparently irresistible Japanese forces were only a few hundred miles northwest of Australia’s north coast, and going strong.