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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


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."  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.



"Schools at War - Memories of schooldays during World War II"
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"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 05 May 2013