The 70th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign will be the last significant commemorative period for our veterans from the war in the Pacific. Whilst the world as moved on and times have changed we must ensure their sacrifice is never forgotten. We must ensure that their experiences are judged through the world as it was in 1942 and not from the perspective of armchair commentators and politically correct historians.
In 1942 the reality of the situation our veterans confronted was dire and they were unprepared for the missions they were assigned by a government that had neglected its responsibilities for the defence of Australia. It wasn’t as if they weren’t aware.
General Vernon Sturdee, director of military operations and intelligence at Army Headquarters in Melbourne, warned in 1933 that Japan would pose the major threat to Australian security.
He predicted: ‘the Japanese would act quickly, they would all be regulars, fully trained and equipped for the operations, and fanatics who like dying in battle, whilst our troops would consist mainly of civilians, hastily thrown together on mobilization, with very little training, short of artillery and possibly of gun ammunition.’ He was ignored.
As the stormclouds of war gathered over the Pacific in late 1941 the only troops available to defend our homeland at the time were training with broomsticks because they had no rifles.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 sent shockwaves through America, Asia and the Pacific. Australia was suddenly vulnerable to invasion.
As the Japanese launched attacks in the Philippines, Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Rabaul a ‘war of wills’ between wartime Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and John Curtin was being waged. Churchill wanted Australian troops to fight the Germans in the Middle East but Curtain wanted them home to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. Curtin prevailed but our troops faced a long and perilous voyage home before we could count on them to engage the Japanese.
In the meantime a small band of inexperienced young soldiers dug in around a remote jungle village high in the formidable Owen Stanley Ranges. They formed Australia’s ragged last line of defence against a seemingly invincible Japanese war machine that had swept unchecked down through Asia and the Pacific.
The village was Isurava. The narrow jungle trail winding through it was Kokoda.
The Battalion was the 39th. They had been hastily trained and were ill-prepared for combat. They were young, inexperienced, heavily outnumbered and seriously outgunned. They had already been fighting the Japanese for six weeks in some of the most hostile jungle terrain imaginable. But they were all that stood between the fanatical Japanese army and their families.
The fight that was about to erupt has been likened to the ancient Greek battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans held a mountain pass against thousands of invading Persians nearly 2,500 years ago. Unlike the legendary Greek Spartans our diggers remain largely unremembered and unhonoured.
When the Japanese army burst from the cover of the surrounding jungle on August 26, 1942, all hell broke loose.
But the bravehearts of the 39th Militia Battalion held their ground and after three days of savage hand-to-hand combat fewer than 200 gaunt figures were left standing. Machine gun fire cascaded through the jungle; grenades and mortars ripped bodies apart; steel bayonets clashed and fists lashed out as men died where they stood rather than yield ground.
“I later found some of my boys lying against enemy positions with unexploded grenades in their hands. They were riddled with wounds but struggled as they died to get to the enemy . . . if ever blokes had earned a decoration . . . one lad was shot twice in the same action . . . flesh wounds . . . ‘Sir’, he said crying, ‘Every time I move some bastard shoots me!’ . . . he was only eighteen!”
Annihilation seemed inevitable. They were beyond exhaustion. Ammunition was low. As they prepared for their final stand familiar voices were detected above the din. The men of the 2/14th Australian Infantry Battalion had arrived!
But it was not long before they too were in trouble.
At this point a motley group of about 30 wounded, sick and starving stragglers were being evacuated back along the track when they heard of their plight. Slowly they turned and limped back along the track to help their mates – just one of the many selfless acts of sacrifice that came to typify the spirit of Kokoda.
History records that our diggers lost the battle of Isurava - but they never lost their fighting spirit!
Desperate battles continued along the track until the Australians rallied on the last line of defence on Imita Ridge and began the offensive which drove the Japanese back into the sea at Buna and Gona. By this time the names of Butchers’ Ridge, Brigade Hill, Ioribaiwa Ridge, Templeton’s Crossing, Eora Creek, Deniki , Kokoda and Kokoda Trail had been emblazoned on the battle honours of proud Australian and Papuan army battalions.
These battle honours symbolise the spirit of Kokoda – a spirit of mateship, courage, trust, respect, loyalty, honour, endurance, selfless‐sacrifice and strength in adversity – enduring human qualities that inspire ordinary men to achieve extraordinary results against all odds.
This spirit was evident in later campaigns at Milne Bay, Buna, Gona, Sanananda, Lae, Finschafen, Wau, Shaggy Ridge and Bougainville as our soldiers, sailors, airmen, coastwatchers and Papuan infantry fought alongside our American allies to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.
Now, as time slowly steals these veterans from our midst we must commit to honouring their legacy on Anzac Day each year.
But what of the legacy of the New Guinea Wartime Carriers immortalized as ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’?
To Australia’s great shame we have never honoured their contribution to our war effort or their selfless sacrifice for our diggers. They have never been issued an official medal to commemorate their service. Some 50,000 New Guinea Carriers struggled to get supplies to the frontline across dangerously rugged jungle terrain. Without them we would have been defeated.
Their pay was a pittance. Rations were meagre. They had no medicine. No boots. Many were marched from villages at gunpoint to support a war they didn’t understand. Afterwards they were unceremoniously dispatched back to their villages without any memento to show their kinfolk.
It’s not as if their contribution was insignificant. Without them many of our diggers would have died a foul and lonely death in the stinking mud along the Kokoda Trail. A soldier-poet immortalized their selfless care after being carried over the track in 1942:
‘Many a lad will see their mothers, and husbands their wee ones and wives,
just because the fuzzy-wuzzies carried them out and saved their lives . . .’
Our history books are littered with moving quotes from diggers who shared their purgatory on the Kokoda Trail. Today, young Australians who meet the few remaining survivors are reduced to tears as they try to express their gratitude.
“The days go on. You are trying to survive, shirt torn, arse out of your pants, whiskers a mile long, hungry, and a continuous line of stretchers with wounded carried by ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’ doing a marvellous job…”
Without them the Australian flag would never have been raised on the Kokoda plateau on the 3rd of November 1942 – the day after it was recaptured.
Whilst Anzac Day will ensure the legacy of our diggers is never forgotten a day to honour our wartime carriers - Kokoda Day is yet to be proclaimed!
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THE SPIRIT OF KOKODA – 70 YEARS ON