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Aussies to Commemorate Battle of Coral Sea


OLD mates will relive their ride to northern Queensland on rattling troop trains. Platoons of "Yanks" will walk along beaches where they picnicked with young Australian women.

And the lonely trumpet solo of the "Last Post" will remind everyone of May 4-8, 1942, when Allied pilots engaged the Japanese in the Battle of Coral Sea, one of the turning points of World War II.

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Yet the 50th anniversary of this battle comes at a time when Australia is shifting its focus from "Mother England" and the United States toward the Asian region.

"Just as Great Britain some time ago sought to make her future secure in the European Community, so Australia now vigorously seeks partnership with countries in our own region.

Our outlook is, necessarily, independent," Prime Minister Paul Keating said in a controversial welcoming speech to visiting Queen Elizabeth in February.

Australia conducts more than 60 percent of its total trade with the Asia Pacific region.

"The need to live in Asia strategically has led us to realize that we must seek security with Asia rather than from it," says Sen. Gareth Evans, minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. But the shift is not likely to change Australia's military relationship with the US, he adds.

A commemorative council, under the patronage of Mr. Keating and US Ambassador Melvin Sembler, plans to spend the year educating the public about the battle's significance. The council, funded by business interests, is paying for the distribution of a video and other World War II education materials for every school in Australia.

Festivities will begin on May 1 when Australian and US warships, including the USS Independence, sail into Sydney's harbor. Australians will honor veterans by participating in parades, wreath layings, ecumenical services, a Coral Sea Yacht Race, and a ceremony at sea aboard the USS Blue Ridge. US Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney is expected to attend the Sydney events.

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The Coral Sea commemoration is part of a series of nationwide events marking the 50th anniversary of major World War II battles. On Feb. 15 many Australians recalled the fall of Singapore and the imprisonment of 16,000 soldiers in Japanese prison camps. Four days later they recalled the Japanese bombing of Darwin, an Australian equivalent of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

In hindsight, the Pacific war "brought us to understand our location as a nation, and our destiny as a part of the Asia-Pacific region," says former Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

The Battle of Coral Sea, in a series of engagements over eight days, took place about 700 miles northeast of Townsville in northern Queensland. During the war Townsville became a garrison town, largely populated by the US Fifth Air Force.

"There were three Americans for every Australian citizen," says Bob Reynolds, president of Valor Tours, Ltd. of Sausalito, Calif.

Aerotours, a New York tour operator, says many of the 100 vets it has signed up are senior officers. "One man had ships which kept going down under him," says Min Carroll of Aerotours.

Townsville will seem like it has gone through a time warp. Troop trains will be arriving, 1940s music playing, even Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to the town will be re-enacted. The Museum of Tropical Queensland will mount an exhibition of the actual battle.

Naval air veterans will be on hand to recall the frantic event, the first battle where the enemy fleets never saw each other.

The Japanese intended to capture Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and Port Moresby, now in Papua New Guinea. After consolidating those gains, some historians believe the Japanese might have made a push into Australia. From Port Moresby they could have controlled the skies over northern Australia and from Tulagi they could have cut off Australia's links with the US.

The encounter was costly for both sides: Each side lost an aircraft carrier. Coral Sea set the stage for the battle of Midway, a US victory one month later that changed the course of the war.

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