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Coral Sea Islands

Scattered over more than three-quarters of a million square kilometers of ocean, the Coral Sea Islands were declared a territory of Australia in 1969. They are uninhabited except for a small meteorological staff on the Willis Islets. Automated weather stations, beacons, and a lighthouse occupy many other islands and reefs.

The Coral Sea Islands Act 1969 was amended in 1997 to extend the boundaries of the Coral Sea Islands Territory around Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs. There are no indigenous inhabitants. There is a staff of three to four at the meteorological station on Willis Island (July 2007 est.) Unmanned weather stations, beacons and a lighthouse are located on several other islands and reefs.

The Coral Sea Islands Territory was established as a Territory of the Commonwealth in 1969 under the Coral Sea Islands Act 1969. The Coral Sea Islands Territory is made up of the islands situated in an area of approximately 780,000 square kilometres of the Coral Sea extending from the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The coral and sand islands are quite small with some grass and low vegetation cover. The Coral Sea Islands Act 1969 was amended in 1997 to extend the boundaries of the Coral Sea Islands Territory around Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs. The reefs are approximately 150 kilometres north of Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea.


On 20 July 1788 Lieutenant John Shortland discovered Middleton Reef on his return journey from Australia to Batavia (Jakarta). It was named Middleton Shoal in honour of Admiral Sir Charles Theodore Middleton. The discovery of Elizabeth Reef is assumed to have been by that of ships Claudine and Marquis of Hastings, which reported the existence of a reef to the south of Middleton Reef in 1820.

Historically, it had been thought that the islands and reefs in the Coral Sea were deemed to be British possessions in virtue of Captain Cook's annexation of the east coast of Australia and the off-lying islands on 22 August, 1770; Australia's acquisition of the Coral Sea Islands began at federation in 1901. A manned weather station has been in operation on Willis Island since 1921; however, the territory is otherwise uninhabited. In 1936 increased Japanese fishing activities, reawakened French and German territorial interests, developing trans-oceanic air services and Australia's growing naval effectiveness gave the Islands a distinct potential value.

The Australian and United Kingdom Governments exchanged a number of letters during 1930 and 1960, concerning the ownership of the islands in the Coral Sea. In 1968, the United Kingdom Government advised that it did not: "claim any right or interest in [them] which is inconsistent with the exercise over them by the Australian Government of effective government, administration and control. The United Kingdom Government accordingly recognise that Her Majesty's Sovereignty over the islands, and effective government, administration and control over them, is exercised by the Australian Government."

On 30 September 1969, Australia officially acquired its tenth external territory with the Coral Sea Island Bill coming into force in accordance with the normal procedure. It is Australia's only external territory that was neither transferred to Australia by the UK nor administered by Australia under a mandate or trusteeship agreement.

Coringa-Herald and Lihou Reef were declared Marine National Nature Reserves on the 16 August 1982. In December 1987 Middleton and Elizabeth Reefs were declared Marine National Nature Reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975. In 1997 the Coral Sea Islands Act was amended to extend the territory to include Elizabeth and Middleton reefs.

Battle of the Coral Sea

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands and eastward from New Guinea, was the first of the Pacific War's six fights between opposing aircraft carrier forces. Though the Japanese could rightly claim a tactical victory on "points", it was an operational and strategic defeat for them, the first major check on the great offensive they had begun five months earlier at Pearl Harbor. The diversion of Japanese resources represented by the Coral Sea battle would also have immense consequences a month later, at the Battle of Midway.

The Coral Sea action resulted from a Japanese amphibious operation intended to capture Port Moresby, located on New Guinea's southeastern coast. A Japanese air base there would threaten northeastern Australia and support plans for further expansion into the South Pacific, possibly helping to drive Australia out of the war and certainly enhancing the strategic defenses of Japan's newly-enlarged oceanic empire.

Before dawn on 8 May, both the Japanese and the American carriers sent out scouts to locate their opponents. These made contact a few hours later, by which time the Japanese already had their strike planes in the air. The U.S. carriers launched theirs' soon after 9AM, and task force commander Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher turned over tactical command to Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, who had more carrier experience. Each side's planes attacked the other's ships at about 11AM. At that time the Japanese were partially concealed by thick weather, while the Americans were operating under clear skies.

Planes from USS Yorktown hit the Shokaku, followed somewhat later by part of USS Lexington's air group. These attacks left Shokaku unable to launch planes, and she left the area soon after to return to Japan for repairs. Her sister ship, Zuikaku, was steaming nearby under low clouds and was not molested.

The Japanese struck the American carriers shortly after Eleven, and, in a fast and violent action, scored with torpedoes on Lexington and with bombs on both carriers. For about an hour, Lexington seemed to have shrugged off her damages, but the situation then deteriorated as fires spread through the ship. She was abandoned later in the day and scuttled. Yorktown was also badly damaged by a bomb and several near misses, but remained in operational condition.

By the end of the day, both sides had retired from the immediate battle area. The Japanese sent Zuikaku back for a few days, even though her aircraft complement was badly depleted, but they had already called off their Port Moresby amphibious operation and withdrew the carrier on May 11th. At about the same time USS Yorktown was recalled to Pearl Harbor. After receiving quick repairs, she would play a vital role in the Battle of Midway in early June.

Preliminary operations on 3-6 May 1942 and two days of active carrier combat on 7-8 May cost the United States one aircraft carrier, a destroyer and one of its very valuable fleet oilers, plus damage to the second carrier. However, the Japanese were forced to cancel their Port Moresby seaborne invasion. In the fighting, they lost a light carrier, a destroyer and some smaller ships. Shokaku received serious bomb damage and Zuikaku's air group was badly depleted. Most importantly, those two carriers were eliminated from the upcoming Midway operation, contributing by their absence to that terrible Japanese defeat.

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