SEVEN SHIPS OF THE ALLIED TASK FORCE BOMBED
IN THE CORAL SEA BY AMERICAN B-17 BOMBERS ON 7 MAY 1942

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On the 7 May 1942 the Allied Task Force led by HMAS Australia was attempting to intercept a reported Japanese invasion group headed towards Port Moresby.

The Allied Task Force included:-

HMAS Australia
HMAS Canberra
HMAS Hobart
USS Chicago
USS Perkins
USS Walke
USS Farragut

The Japanese Invasion Group was reported to comprise a battleship, two aircraft carriers and 17 transports.

On the afternoon of the 7 May 1942, the Allied Task Force was attacked by twelve twin-engined Japanese torpedo bombers. They dropped their torpedoes and strafed the ships causing minimal damage. Five of the Japanese aircraft were shot down in the encounter.

Not long after this attack, the Allied Task Force was again attacked by nineteen heavy bombers flying over at 18,000 feet. But this time they were not Japanese! They were American B-17 Flying Fortresses, of the 435th Bomb Squadron, 19th Bomb Group, based at Townsville. That were returning to Townsville after a bombing raid in New Guinea. Their bombs straddled HMAS Australia, whose upper decks were swamped with water from the explosion. Some minor damage was reported by bomb shrapnel. A further three aircraft then dropped bombs from 25,000 feet near the USS Perkins. Harry Spieth was one of the pilots involved in this accidental bombing incident. HMAS Australia returned fire with its anti-aircraft guns.

These B-17's had formerly been part of a US Navy Task Force in "Southern Bomber Command". Six of the aircraft in this Task Force had been members of the 88th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 7th Bomb Group. The Navy Task Force was then transferred to the 40th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 19th Bombardment Group, which was later redesignated to become the 435th Bomb Squadron.

 

Description of this event by Dick Graf

 

The War Diary for USS PERKINS has the following entry for the 7 May 1942:-

"1513 Sighted a formation of approximately 15 high level bombers at approximately 20,000 feet altitude approaching formation from from astern when sighted planes were above thin layers of clouds, almost directly overhead. Opened fire immediately and almost simultaneously bombs began falling around ships in formation. HMAS AUSTRALIA seemed to be main objective. No ships were hit but all ships could claim near misses. No damage to planes resulted from our A.A. fire as they were above effective range. Planes disappeared and did not return."

In a separate report the Commanding Officer of USS PERKINS dated 9 May 1942 from, it stated:-

"At 1515 while on course 295, speed 30 knots with the ships attempting to keep the same relative stations in formation, firing on the remaining torpedo planes (Japanese) have ceased a few seconds earlier, a flight of about 20 high level bombers were observed overhead approaching from astern. Fire was opened immediately. The planes were at about 20,000 feet and bombs began dropping in the vicinity of all ships in the formation on our port hand. The ship's course was changed radically to starboard and shortly thereafter the Commanding Officer observed a near miss close aboard on our port hand. This was apparently a fortunate change of course. Many near misses were observed in the vicinity of the AUSTRALIA and FARRAGUT but no direct hits were observed. The AUSTRALIA reported four bombs dropped close to this vessel. Shrapnel fell on the port side aft and on the director platform and bridge. Twenty 500 pound bombs and a number of smaller bombs were dropped."

"The damage was slight. The TBS antenna was severed above the bridge. A small amount of shrapnel fell in the vicinity of the director and around the after deck house. There was a large dent in the director in the vicinity of the position occupied by a man who was wounded in the arm and chest, apparently by a 20 MM shot." (most likely from the earlier Japanese dive bombers or an Allied ship rather than the B-17s).

"One hundred two rounds of five inch, four hundred twenty rounds of 20 MM, and two hundred fifty rounds of .50 caliber were expended. The only material casualty was a shell jamming in Number One 20 MM, after about fifty rounds had been fired, and this gun was thus temporarily out of action until the barrel could be shifted."

The War Diary for USS FARRAGUT has the following entries for 7 May 1942:-

1508  "Ceased firing. Ammunition expended 120 rounds 5" / 38 AA service; 750 rounds 20 mm ball, and 750 rounds 20 mm tracer, total 1,500 20 mm rounds and about 200 rounds of small arms ammunition." (This is action involving the Japanese Dive Bombers)

1526  "Sighted 19 twin engined bombers (actually four engined B-17 Flying Fortresses) making high level approach on AUSTRALIA and CHICAGO at elevation of 15,000 to 20,000 feet, flying in massed "V" formation."

1526 "1/2  Opened fore on bombers with 5" / 38 guns and expended 49 rounds. Other ships opened fire at same time, no hits were observed. These planes dropped a number of bombs close to AUSTRALIA."

1527  "2  4-engined land bombers (B-17 Flying Fortresses) appeared making approach on FARRAGUT followed by another lone plane at elevation about 20,000 feet. Increased to emergency flank speed and came hard left. Five bombs missed 200-300 yards on starboard quarter about where FARRAGUT would have been if no change in course and speed had been made. Bombs were apparently delayed action and exploded underwater, three of them giving about the water disturbance usually caused by a 600 lb. depth charge set at 50 feet, the others appearing lighter or else exploded deeper. No damage to ship although shock of explosion was noticable."

Dick Graf was the Radio Operator on Captain Lewis's B-17 in the 435th Bomb Squadron. He went on to become Radio Operator on "Sally", the private B-17 used by General George C. Kenney. Dick had earlier been involved as Radio Operator in Captain Lewis's B-17 in the rescue of General Douglas MacArthur from the Philippines.

The B-17's took bomb site photographs immediately after dropping their bombs and on return to their Townsville base, it was confirmed that they had inadvertently tried to sink the Allied Task Force. The incident was hushed up at the time.

Rear Admiral Crace commented "Fortunately, their bombing, in comparison with that of the Japanese formation a few moments earlier, was disgraceful."  And of course the anti-aircraft fire from the Allied ships did not hit any of the B-17 Flying Fortresses!! HMAS Australia was the flagship of Rear-Admiral Jack Crace.

Apparently the Navy had told the 435th Bomb Squadron that everything north of a certain Parallel would be Japanese, and everything south of a certain Parallel would be friendly. As it turned out, they were north of the nominated Parallel. A squadron of B-26 Marauders had also accompanied them on the mission that day. Spieth and his flight were flying at about 18,000 feet and could see some planes flying below and diving for a low level to attack on some Naval ships. Spieth and his flight thought these other aircraft were the B-26s, so they assumed that the ships were Japanese. So they lined up on the battleship that the other aircraft had just attacked and dropped their bombs on it. It turned out that that they had just attacked the Australian flagship HMAS Australia just after some Japanese torpedo bombers had also made an attack.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

"Schools at War - Memories of schooldays during World War II"
By Greg Logan and Rosemary Mammino"

"Action Stations Coral Sea: the Australian Commander's Story"
by C. D. Coulthart-Clark.

 

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This page first produced 10 June 2001

This page last updated 11 March 2017