One of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II, which has forever sealed the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea, began 61 years ago
It was on July 21, 1942, that Japanese troops landed on the northern coast of then New Guinea and unexpectedly began to march over the Owen Stanley Ranges with the intent of capturing Port Moresby.
Had they succeeded, the mainland of Australia would have come under dire threat.
July 23 – Remembrance Day – marks the 61st anniversary of the first engagement between the opposing troops on July 23, 1942, and from that engagement, as the Australian force was progressively outnumbered, began the long fighting withdrawal over the Owen Stanley Ranges.
The 21st Brigade, commandeered by Brigadier Potts DSO MC, was rushed to New Guinea and within days, its 1500 men were closing into the precarious Owen Stanley Ranges in an attempt to position themselves to stop the advance of the Japanese forces – now building up to over 10, 000 men.
The Brigade also engaged the ill – trained but gallant militia 39th Battalion at Isurava in the foothills on the far side of the range.
Kokoda was arguably Australia's most significant campaign of the Second World War.
More Australians died in the seven months of fighting in Papua, and the Japanese came closer to Australia, than in any other campaign.
Many of those young Australians, whose average age was between 18 and 19, now lie buried at the Bomana War Cemetery outside Port Moresby.
The famous photograph of ‘fuzzy wuzzy angel’ Raphael Oimbari leading a blindfolded wounded Australian epitomizes the close relationship between Australians and Papua New Guineans which has come about because of the battle of Kokoda.
To read between the lines of ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, the celebrated poem by Australian digger Bert Beros, will drive you to tears.
The poem, which whilst sentimental, touches a chord that has endured to this day in the hearts of both Australians and Papua New Guineans.
It tells of the prayers of worried Australian mothers, whose young sons are fighting the Japanese on that rugged trail, and how their prayers are answered in the form of ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’.
Many a mother in Australia when the busy day is done
- Bert Beros
Kokoda Trekking Packages :
In 1942, a seldom-used track climbed from the small village of Buna on the north coast of Papua, over the Owen Stanley Ranges and on to Port Moresby.
The track was fairly easy up the slopes through Gorari and Oivi to the village of Kokoda, which stood on a small plateau 400 meters above sea level, flanked by mountains rising to over 2000 meters.
It then climbed over steep ridges and through deep valleys to Deniki, Isurava, Kagi, Ioribaiwa, Ilolo and, at Owers' Corner, linked with a motor road leading from plantations in the hills above Port Moresby down to the coastal plains.
Between Kokoda and Ilolo, the track often climbed up gradients so steep that it was heartbreaking labor for burdened men to climb even a few hundred yards.
Much of the track was through dense rain forest, which enclosed the narrow passage between walls of thick bush.
At higher levels the terrain became moss and stunted trees, which were often covered in mist.
On January 23, 1942, the Japanese landed at Kavieng on New Ireland and at Rabaul on New Britain where they quickly overcame the Australian defenders.
On March 8, the Japanese established themselves firmly at Lae and Salamaua in Morobe.
However, the Battle of the Coral Sea from May 5 to 8 averted a Japanese sea borne invasion of Port Moresby and the American success at the Battle of Midway in June not only destroyed Japan's capacity for undertaking long range offensives but also provided the Americans with the opportunity to move from the defensive to the offensive.
The Japanese, who were regularly bombing Port Moresby with twenty to thirty bombers with fighter escort, decided on the overland attack across the Owen Stanley Range.
On the Kododa Trail the Australian 7th Division resisted the Japanese General Horii's overland attempt to capture Port Moresby, and the advance was halted within 30 miles of the city.
A small force of Australians known as "Maroubra Force" arrived at Buna on July 21st, 1942, as the first Japanese force of 1500 men landed at Gona, eight miles to the west.
What followed will forever go down as one of the most heroic defensive actions in the annals of military history.
The first engagement between the opposing troops was on the July 23, 1942, and from that engagement, as the Australian force was progressively outnumbered, began the long fighting withdrawal over the Owen Stanley Range.
Kokoda is a small plateau on the north-east slopes of the Owen Stanley Range and possessed a small airstrip the retention of which, for at least as long as it would take Australia to fly in supplies and reinforcements, was of great importance.
However, the remnants of "Maroubra Force", exhausted by a month's constant fighting, were unable to achieve this.
Valiant though their effort was, they even recaptured the plateau after being driven out, the Japanese need was of equal importance as they required a forward base at Kokoda for their drive over the ranges along the "Kokoda Trail" to Port Moresby and they struck before the Australians were able to muster sufficient strength.
The initiative now remained with the Japanese and Australian withdrawal began again - through Isurava, Alola, Templeton's Crossing, Myola, Efogi, Menari and Nauro until at Ioribaiwa Ridge, beyond which the Japanese could not be permitted to penetrate, a final stand was made.
From August 26 to September 16 in 1942 Brigadier Potts’s Maroubra Force, consisting of the 2/16th Battalion, together with the 2/14th, the 2/27th and the militia 39th and scattered elements of the ill – trained 53rd Battallion - outnumbered and outgunned by an estimated 5 to 1 - fought the Japanese to an eventual standstill on the ridges overlooking Port Moresby.
Two main battles were fought during that period (Isurava August 26 to 29 and Brigade ‘Butchers’Hill from September 6 to 8).
In the main, the desperately tired but determined force kept themselves between the Japanese Major General Horri’s South Sea Force and Port Moresby – defending, retreating and then counter – attacking in a masterly display of strategic defence.
Conditions were almost indescribable.
It rained for most of the time, the weary men endured some of the most difficult terrain of the world and they were racked by malaria and dysentery.
But they kept on fighting, making the enemy pay dearly for every yard of ground.
They bought time for those being prepared to come up from Port Moresby to relieve them.
The Australians, however, had a surprise in store for the enemy.
This was in the form of 25-pounder guns brought from Moresby to the road head at Owers’ Corner and then laboriously dragged into position at Imita Ridge, opening up on the enemy's barricades and it was now the turn of the Japanese to suffer what the Australians had suffered in the preceding two months.
Australian shelling smashed Japanese defences and aggressive patrols inflicted severe losses.
On the morning of September 28th the Australians were closing in and it became evident then the Japanese were withdrawing.
The chase, with the Australians the pursuers, was now on.
The Japanese, despite sickness and hunger, were still formidable and tenaciously defended all the places in their withdrawal as the Australians had in their retreat some weeks earlier.
Kokoda was entered on November 2 and this was the beginning of the end of Japanese hopes in Papua.
The campaign now entered a phase known as "The Battle of the Beaches".
The Japanese were bottled up in the area from which they had commenced their drive on Port Moresby some months previously - Buna, Gona, Sanananda.
This final campaign commenced on November 19, 1942, and ended on January 22, 1943, when all organised resistance by the Japanese in Papua ended.
Lt Col Honner DSO MC, who commanded the gallant 39th in the campaign, later wrote of these men in the foreword to Peter Brune’s book ‘Those Rugged Bloody Heroes’: “They have joined the immortals.”
Of those that did not survive, he wrote: “Wherever their bones may lie, the courage of heroes is consecrated in the hearts and engraved in the history of the free.”
To walk in the footsteps of these heroes, click here
© 2005 by Geoff Doherty
Note: Sources have been quoted in a condensed form (Author, p No.) in the text at end of relevant passage, for reasons of space. A bibliography giving full details of all works consulted, including other recommended works, appears at the end.
With the trek you will soon be, or are now, undertaking, you will retrace the footsteps, made over sixty years ago during the Second World War, of the soldiers who fought to conquer, or defend, Papua New Guinea and Australia. The defenders won a hard fought battle that was often in the balance. In doing so, they created a legend. A legend you are here to re-live and experience, as best you can, compressing some three months of fierce campaigning (the part which involved the fighting for the Kokoda Trail) into a six or nine day trek. This booklet provides a condensed history of the campaign, and a place to record your thoughts on your trek.
What is today known as the Kokoda Trail had a long genesis. Kokoda Station was established in June 1904 (Hawthorne, p101). Roughly six month’s after the station’s establishment, an overland route, direct from Kokoda to Port Moresby, was inaugurated (Hawthorne, p101). While it was not the first overland route to be pioneered, it was the first truly viable one. It became part of a 200 kilometre long walking track that stretched north to south and linked Buna to Port Moresby. Over time the extremities of the track became proper roads, and now only the 96 kilometre central, and most difficult, section remains as a walking track. Europeans took almost thirty years to establish permanent overland communication from the south to north coasts of eastern Papua New Guinea following the arrival of the first permanent European residents at Moresby Harbour in November 1874 (Hawthorne, p4).
This thirty year delay was not from want of trying. Many expeditions, from both the north and south coasts, set out to find a way through to the other side (Hawthorne, maps pp17, 33, 43, 46, 56). The main reason for the delay in establishing an overland route was the terrain itself. The Owen Stanley Range in general, and the 4072 metre high Mount Victoria, in particular, presented a formidable barrier to would-be travellers. An overland route was first pioneered by Sir William MacGregor in 1896, building on the work of previous exploratory attempts. However, this route was acknowledged as being very difficult, (even more so than the route that became the Kokoda Trail) and had its southern egress on the coast well away from Port Moresby (Hawthorne, pp52-5).
One of the driving forces behind the continued search for a viable overland route was the average six week timeframe for mail, and goods and people also, to travel by sea, then human porterage, from Port Moresby to Kokoda and other northern coast areas (Hawthorne, p102). With the establishment of an overland route, it was thought that mail would take as little as one week to reach Kokoda from Port Moresby (Hawthorne, p102).
Another driving force towards an overland route, as with much other European colonial development elsewhere in the world, was the discovery of gold. Gold was first found in 1876, and the first prospectors began arriving in 1878 to try their luck along the Laloki and Goldie rivers on the southern coast (Hawthorne, pp7-9). These southern strikes soon petered out, yet prospectors persisted, and, over the years, slowly worked their way east along the coast to Milne Bay, and then along the northern coast (Hawthorne, pp 12 & 39-44). In 1895 prospectors reached the Mambare River, on the northern coast, and pushed inland along it. Around what was to become the Tamata Station area, located roughly halfway between Kokoda and Mambare Bay on the north coast, they found useful deposits of gold, and the rush was on (Hawthorne, p44).
The finding of gold in Papua New Guinea never generated the type of rushes experienced earlier in Victoria (Australia), or in California (North America), where tens of thousands of people responded to the lure of gold from across the globe. In Papua New Guinea only hundreds were involved at any one time. This was due to three main factors: the terrain, in the form of the rugged Owen Stanley Range; the tropical climate, and the types of thick jungle or forest vegetation or swampy lowland associated with it; and the native tribes-people themselves.
The Papuan natives had a fierce reputation, which followed from a warrior ethos which included, in places, a penchant for head-hunting – the literal kind, not the corporate type of today. Early explorer Carl Hartmann, a Victorian botanist, noted in 1887 that ‘a great difficulty is to get through the mountain tribes; very hostile, guarding the mountain range very carefully against intruders’ (Hawthorne, pp28-30). The natives did adapt, over time, to the controls introduced by Western, white governance, and were to play a pivotal role in turning the tide against an Eastern power when it chose to invade their homeland in 1942.
Trek Day One: Port Moresby to Kokoda
As this first day of the trek is largely taken up with travel to, and sight-seeing in and around, Kokoda, this section will be used to summarise Second World War events leading to the start of your trek. Also, please note that the campaign comprised two distinct phases: the first phase, July-September 1942, when the Japanese were in the ascendant, and pushing towards Port Moresby, and the second, in October-November, when the Allies gained control and began forcing the Japanese back to their landing points. This means that each section of the track you will be walking was fought over twice. Sub-headings in bold will be used in each trek day’s description to distinguish the separate phases that occurred.
July 1942 (Aust. Retreat) Japanese troops first came ashore near Gona, on the northern coast, on 21 July 1942 to begin the invasion of Papua New Guinea (Ham pp 3 & 7). However, this was not their most preferred invasion point, which was to have been a full-blown sea-borne assault on Port Moresby (Brune, pp. 7-8). Over 5-8 May 1942 the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought and, whilst considered inconclusive in terms of numbers of ships lost by either side, resulted in the turning back of the Japanese invasion force destined for Port Moresby (Brune, p8). Then, over 4-6 June 1942, the Battle of Midway was fought and the Japanese Navy was soundly beaten (Brune, p8). These naval actions forced the Japanese to consider an overland attack to capture Port Moresby as they no longer had sufficient naval strength to support an invasion force travelling directly by sea to attack that town. The best they could do was to get to the north coast. At this stage of the war the Japanese plan was to isolate Australia, as a usable base for the Allies, by occupying PNG and interdicting the air and sea lanes from Port Moresby. They did not intend to invade Australia (Ham p12).
The Allied force initially allocated to the defence of New Guinea in 1941 consisted of 39th, 49th and 53rd Militia Battalions of the Australian Army, all relatively newly raised for home service only and poorly equipped and trained, and a regiment of field artillery. There were no naval ships, and the air cover consisted of flying boats, old bombers and armed trainers (McAulay pp 3-5). Port Moresby was not prepared to receive them – there were supply problems, training problems, ammunition shortages, no mail and low morale (McAulay p8). In May 1942, the Australian 3rd, 36th and 55th Militia Battalions were ordered to Port Moresby, and the American 32nd and 41st Divisions had arrived in Australia. In June 1942, the 39th Battalion, and the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) was detailed to defend Kokoda and became known as ‘Maroubra Force’ (McAulay p14-5). Defences and man-power were slowly being built up.
However, the initial Japanese landing force, while only 2000 strong but soon to be followed by another 10000 men in mid-August (Ham pp13-4), was quicker and quite strong enough to deal with the ill-organised Australians it found facing it. This small force, made up of veterans of previously successful Japanese attacks in Malaya and Rabaul, moved inland quickly and engaged platoon sized Australian forces at Awala on the 22nd July, and pushed them back, then moved on towards Kokoda (Hawthorne p190). Further skirmishing continued as the Australian infantry continued to withdraw towards Kokoda, where they planned to make their first substantial stand against the Japanese. Initially, to the fight for Kokoda and beyond, the Japanese outnumbered the Australians about 10-1, yet what they had in man-power, they lacked in man-portable firepower. The Japanese had nothing to match automatic weapons like the Bren and Tommy guns which were effective and portable by a single man. They did have heavier firepower in their mountain artillery, which could be carried in pieces from place to place, and heavy machine-guns, and these weapons caused many Allied casualties, but they were not easily, or quickly, moved from one position to a new one (Ham p45).
The first battle for Kokoda was fought in the early hours of 29 July 1942. At 2am the Japanese attacked with 400 men against positions held by less than 80 Australians (McAulay p52). Although the Australians fought bravely, and at times hand-to-hand, they were outclassed and out-positioned, their commander was one of many killed and before dawn the remainder, with their wounded, were in full retreat through the Kokoda rubber plantations to the next defensive position, at Deniki (Ham pp49-53). For now, Kokoda, and its strategic airfield, belonged to the Japanese. Kokoda is where you will start your trek, following in the path of the retreating Australians as they fell back from their first serious encounter with the Japanese, and the place where the defence of New Guinea really began.
At Deniki, the Australians regrouped. A new commander arrived for the 39th Battalion. More importantly, the rest of the battalion arrived with him. The new commander, Major Cameron, now with about 500 men under his command, decided to attack, and retake, Kokoda. He devised a bold, three-pronged attack plan, each attack force consisting of about company strength, which almost worked (McAulay pp70-1). On 8 August 1942, just ten days after the loss of Kokoda, he put his plan in motion. Unfortunately, two prongs of the attack force soon ran into Japanese forces, and after sharp engagements, eventually withdrew back to Deniki again (McAulay pp73-5). The third prong of the attack, A Company of the 39th Battalion, actually walked into Kokoda unopposed, and reoccupied it (Ham pp54-7). Because of their aggressive military ethos, the Japanese had pushed all their available strength forward to harass what they thought were the retreating Australian forces at Deniki and had left no-one to defend Kokoda (McAulay p76).
These events highlight the folly of splitting forces. The Australian companies, individually, were not strong enough to deal with the Japanese forces they encountered, and so two were turned back. The force that did occupy Kokoda could hear ‘distant sounds of battle’ (McAulay p76), but had no nearby support on which they could call for assistance. Nor were they able to assist their comrades, not knowing their situations. Once they had settled themselves in Kokoda, the men of A Company sent up a flare, the agreed signal to indicate their success to those remaining at Deniki, but it was not seen (Ham p57)! Not only did Cameron split his forces, he failed to reinforce the success of one of them. The men of A Company had no way of knowing that no assistance was coming their way, but assumed it was, so, obedient to their orders, they stayed where they were – for two and a half days!
The Japanese quickly responded to this surprise situation. In 24 hours they launched four assaults at the dug-in Australians. The advantage of being on a ridge-top and falling torrential ran aided the defenders. In a foretaste of the future, the slope and the mud and the jungle proved too much for the Japanese. The fighting closed to hand-to-hand at times, but the Japanese could not exploit these small break throughs or did not see them in the dark or rain. The Japanese finally took the position at dusk on 10 August, only to find the Australians had again retreated to Deniki (Ham pp58-9). Kokoda belonged to the Japanese once again, but the Australians had shown they could fight.
November 1942 (Aust. Advance) Just three months later, on the first day of November, but after long weeks of heavy fighting in sometimes horrendous conditions, the Australians were back in Kokoda – their entry unopposed. The Japanese were by now in full retreat. The air-strip, which the Japanese had not used and allowed to become overgrown, was cleaned up, and Kokoda quickly became a central part of the next stage of the campaign, the thrust to the sea and victory in Papua New Guinea (Ham pp383-5).
Trek Day Two: Kokoda to Isurava
August 1942 (Aust. Retreat) In the 5-6 hours walk you complete today, you cover a distance that the Australians took several days to cover in fighting retreats. Sometimes in torrential rain, sometimes in clinging, damp mists, sometimes in darkness, and always with the menacing pressure of the Japanese behind them, and at times on their flanks, and in their rear. It was a tactic of the Japanese to send forces out to either side to constantly probe the strength of their adversary’s flanks, pinpoint heavy weapons positions, and to find their enemy’s rear areas if possible. The one great advantage of the terrain, as you may already have noticed, or will notice as the trek goes on, is concealment. The jungle provided cover for both the hunter and the hunted, and a soldier could be either one or the other, depending on how well he used the available foliage to conceal himself and his movements (Ham p141). As one noted author says, ‘Papua New Guinea was made for war’ (Brune p1).
On 13 August 1942 the Japanese attacked the Australian position at Deniki. A Company of the 39th Battalion were still making their way back from Kokoda at this stage. To avoid the Japanese they had taken a long, looping route via Naro when they left Kokoda. With little ammunition they were unable to support their comrades at Deniki, so again made a detour around the battle area and continued on to Isurava (McAulay p92). For the rest of that day and into the next the men of C, D and E Companies, 39th Battalion, gamely held their positions at Deniki against constant probing attacks from the Japanese (McAulay pp92-4). At dawn on the 14th, with the Japanese beginning to slip behind E Company’s position, it was time to go again, and by mid morning, the Australians had again broken contact with the Japanese and slipped away. Unfortunately, so great was the Japanese pressure, some men of two platoons did not get word of the withdrawal and were left behind. None of those left behind survived, as the Japanese killed all European prisoners during the campaign in Papua New Guinea, apart from a Father Benson (McAulay pp97-9).
On 15 August 1942, a Japanese patrol ran into an ambush party set by D Company, 39th Battalion which was holding a radio transmitter site about 20 minutes walk from Deniki. This short skirmish, in which the Japanese suffered three men killed and several wounded, seems to be the last such clash for several days in the Kokoda-Isurava area (McAulay pp101-4). This was just as well, as two platoons of the 39th, separated from the main group during the withdrawal from Deniki, came straggling into the Isurava position over the next two days. The 39th Battalion needed the time this break in the action gave them to rest and regroup, as the unit was in a bad way (McAulay pp103-6). For three weeks the battalion had been almost constantly fighting the Japanese. Even though casualties were relatively light, this was a militia battalion – a home defence unit deemed unworthy to join the ranks of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) units, the cream of Australian manhood, sent to the conflict in Europe. For such a unit, poorly trained and equipped, to absorb the casualties, the constant contact and withdrawal with and from the veteran Japanese, the exhaustion, the heat, mud and wet of the tropical jungle terrain and climate and the lack of regular food supplies, and still be able to keep fighting is a tribute to their own spirit and unit cohesion. And they received another new commander at Isurava – Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner (McAulay p104).
Honner was ordered to hold the Japanese on the far side of the Owen Stanley Range – basically at Isurava – until relieved by 21 Brigade, a force made up of 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions of the AIF. Real soldiers, brought back from the Middle East, were coming at last! Unfortunately, they did not leave Port Moresby till 16 August, and the track took a week or more to traverse (McAulay p107). Honner had at his disposal the tried, but tired 39th, elements of the PIB – those men who had not run away – and the untried 53rd militia Battalion which had just made its way over the range from Port Moresby. At the same time, the Japanese started to land their main force, the 10,000 strong Nankai Shitai (South Seas Detachment) at Buna (McAulay p106). It was to be a race to see who could concentrate the most force first, and bring it to bear against their opponent.
Supply problems in the Australian rear were about to surface. On 20 August 1942, the commander of 21 Brigade arrived at Myola and found far fewer supplies stored there for his troops than he had been promised. This was due to a number of reasons. Supplies were being carried over the range by native workers, but there were never enough of them, and simply not enough to carry all the supplies required, all the way across – so some were being parachuted in by air at a drop zone in an old dry lake bed high in the range named ‘Myola’ by the man who had recently discovered it, Lieutenant Bert Kienzle, who had been a plantation owner at Kokoda before the war. Kienzle, due to his knowledge of the country and the natives, was also organising the native carriers used by the Allies and doing a sterling job of it (Ham pp39 & 55). If not for Kienzle the Allies lot on the Kokoda Trail could have been far worse. Unfortunately, some of the pilots who were inexperienced at air dropping may have delivered their supplies to the wrong locations, and a Japanese air-raid on Port Moresby on 17 August destroyed the entire aircraft transport fleet (five planes) then available, preventing any further drops until replaced. Inclement weather at Myola also often stopped drops being made. For these reasons, enough supplies weren’t available for all the men at the top of the range, so the men of 21 Brigade [about 1200 men] could not all be used at the same time (McAulay pp104, 113 & 116). The Allies were slow to respond to this problem as first mention of ‘unbalanced delivery’ problems in the war diary of the Supply and Transport section of HQ New Guinea Force was 23 August (McAulay pp120-1). This was to have dire consequences at Isurava.
By forced marches, the main Japanese forces reached the Kokoda-Deniki areas, and by 24 August, patrols by both sides were clashing regularly (McAulay pp122-3). By 26 August these skirmishes had built up to almost constant fighting, and probing, around the Australian positions at Isurava, with the Japanese capturing outlying points, and moving onto Naro ridge (Ham p167). Luckily, the Australians had a very strong defensive positions, as you will notice on your approach, with very steep, thickly wooded, slopes up which the Japanese had to climb. Even steeper slopes had to be surmounted if the Japanese hoped to flank the Australians (Ham pp162-3). Also luckily for the Australians, the men of 21 Brigade [2/14 & 2/16 AIF Battalions] had begun to arrive and reinforce the weary militia troops. Sadly, the untried 53rd militia battalion broke, and many ran away, after contact with the Japanese and the ambush deaths of their commander and almost the entire command group – they had to be replaced (Ham pp168-9). But the other units held, and it was here that some 1800 Australians were to confront almost 6000 Japanese, lose a battle and create a legend.
Although the battle of Isurava is credited to have lasted four days, major Japanese assaults – men attacking in massed waves – only began on 28 August (Ham pp167 & 9). In the mud and rain at Isurava the Japanese fired artillery, heavy machine guns and mortars into the Australian positions. When the Japanese charged, fighting devolved to wrestling matches with rifles, bayonets, fists and grenades at close quarters. In the dark of night, men were bayoneted, and never saw their attackers (McAulay p135). One Australian summarised these days at Isurava in his diary, ‘Heavy fighting. Held enemy, pushed him back in places. Fighting very fierce, casualties very heavy. 2100, Ordered to make complete withdrawal before daylight’ (McAulay p. 152) Once again the Australians were forced into retreat. Japanese losses in the fight were 550 killed and over 1000 wounded. The Australian casualties were 250 dead and hundreds wounded (Ham p180).
Trek Day Three: Isurava to Eora/Iora Creek
August/September 1942 (Aust. Retreat) The battle of Isurava was not confined solely to the village area. As the Japanese pressure built against the Australians over the course of the battle, they were pushed back to the area around Alola (Ham p174). You will be passing through this part of the battle area during the first part of this day’s trek. As todays walk is a continuation through the battle areas so, this discussion will also continue with the events of the Isurava battle and its aftermath.
One writer has described this victory as ‘truly pyrrhic’ for the Japanese, as it had put them a week behind in their timetable for the taking of Port Moresby and cost them much ammunition, supplies and many lives (Ham p180). The same could be said for the defence mounted by the Australians – it also was truly pyrrhic. The Japanese lost about a quarter of the strength they committed to the battle, yet the Australians lost a third, or more, of their committed battle strength in casualties, and whilst fighting in a strong position that should have favoured the defenders.
The desperate Australian defence of Isurava – one AIF platoon [30 men] fought off eleven separate attacks, each of company [120 men] strength – produced more military decorations than any other battle in the entire war in the Pacific (Ham p175). One man, Bruce Kingsbury, won a Victoria Cross for single-handedly halting a Japanese advance with the fire from his Bren gun. By selflessly rushing forward and inflicting a high number of casualties on the Japanese, he saved his battalion headquarters from being overrun. Japanese success in this one attack would probably have doomed a leaderless Australian force. Kingsbury was awarded his medal posthumously (Ham p176-7). The bren gun was the great force equalizer for the Australians – there are many accounts of a single man armed with a bren gun assaulting groups of 20-30 Japanese, decimating them and disrupting their attacks, thus gaining valuable time for their mates to regroup and either follow up the bren-gunner’s attack or to withdraw.
During the fighting for Isurava, the Australians found the situation to be always ‘fluid’. Sections of men, even whole platoons, totalling some 170 men, were cut off from their companions by sudden Japanese attacks, and thought lost as casualties (Ham p219). Yet many of these men, singly and in small or larger groups, simply walked around the fighting, and the Japanese positions, and came back to the Trail further in the rear, a day or so later, then returned to the battle after a meal and a short rest (McAulay pp150-1 & 156-7). Those caught by the Japanese died. The Australian diarist quoted earlier wrote, ‘Afternoon. Enemy broke through new position suddenly. Fought until nearly surrounded. Withdrew through jungle in darkness’ (McAulay p159).
On 31 August 1942, about 2000 metres south of Alola 2/16th Battalion set up a defensive position across the trail, intending to hold the Japanese there and allow the rest of their comrades to withdraw to Eora/Iora Creek, or further. Luckily for them, they had little contact with the Japanese, as their position could be easily bypassed. The Battalion changed positions twice more that day, always moving back, looking for a better position. The Japanese seemed more intent on consolidating their possession of Isurava, and dining on potatoes and biscuits left behind by the Australians (McAulay pp161-2). Food was not the only form of supplies left by the Australians at Isurava and Alola. The Japanese also captured many thousands of rounds of ammunition and 2000 rations (McAulay p159). It was just as well for the Japanese that they captured Australian food supplies at Isurava, one of them noted in his diary, ‘our food supply is quickly diminishing’ (McAulay p161). Both sides were experiencing severe supply problems, imposed on them by the climate and terrain they were operating in, but the Japanese also had other problems elsewhere in the Pacific which impacted on their ability to sustain their advance on Port Moresby.
At the same time that the Japanese were winning the battle of Isurava, they were losing the fight for Milne Bay, at the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea. Both sides considered Milne Bay to be of strategic importance for the placement of airfields. The Japanese, particularly, sought to further threaten Port Moresby and northern Australia, and to support their infantry attack across the Owen Stanley Range, by placing airfields there. So, on 25 August, 2,400 Japanese troops landed at Milne Bay. Unfortunately for them, they came up against a garrison of 4,000 Australians, and two squadrons of RAAF fighters. The next week saw fierce fighting in awful swampy, jungle conditions, in which the Japanese made initial gains. But the numerical superiority of the Australians, and their complete command of the air, pushed the Japanese back. On 6 September 1942, a Japanese convoy entered the bay and evacuated about 1400 survivors, many of whom were wounded. It was at Milne Bay that John French won his Victoria Cross for single-handedly destroying three Japanese machine gun positions, thereby saving the lives of the men of his section. Again, it was a posthumous award. Milne Bay exploded the myth of Japanese invincibility, being their first defeat on land – and it was Australian forces that inflicted it (Ham pp182-195).
Japan was also fighting, and losing, the battle of Guadalcanal at the same time as they began the action at Milne Bay, and continued to prosecute the overland attack on Port Moresby. Now it was the turn of the Japanese to suffer the folly of dividing their forces. All three of their campaigns were being controlled from one headquarters in Rabaul. As the Allies were gaining control of the air, and the Japanese forces relied on a long sea-borne chain of supply, one writer described the Japanese situation as, ‘a recipe for disaster’ (McAulay pp127-8). He was right.
Back on the Kokoda trail the situation was still very fluid on 1 September 1942. The Australians were trying to protect their crossing of Eora/Iora Creek, by having the remains of 39th Battalions’ A, B and C companies establish positions that would prevent the Japanese firing on the crossing, before all remaining Australians had crossed. This proved to be a too hopeful proposition, as a Japanese force, armed with a heavy machine gun, arrived before the last of the Australians, which were the 2/16th Battalion. Unable to counter the machine gun, the men of the 39th had to retire up a steep slope under its fire. Our favourite diarist said, ‘Went forward to cover withdrawal of 2/16th. Suicide job. Japs right on their heels’. Attempting to hold the creek crossing was the last involvement the 39th Battalion had in the Kokoda campaign. In fact, they couldn’t hold, and the 2/16th Battalion men, numbering men from three separate platoons had to find different crossing points. They eventually managed to rejoin the Australian force further back along the trail. The 39th battalion was so reduced in numbers, and exhausted by continuous combat with the Japanese, that it was taken out of the front line and returned to Port Moresby (McAulay p166-7). They had made an incredible contribution.
From this point on, the Australians began fighting a string of delaying actions designed to force the advancing Japanese to gather strength of numbers, scout further, deploy and then attack to take each defended feature – and the Australians always pulled back to avoid a larger battle. All this activity cost the Japanese precious time, and forced them to use more of their dwindling supplies of food and ammunition.
October 1942 (Aust. Advance) On 30 October 1942 the Australians once again entered Isurava and found that the Japanese had broken contact and pulled back rapidly. In their retreat they destroyed bridges and what road works they had managed to accomplish, and left a litter of discarded equipment and a large amount of ammunition that the Australians found useable (McAulay p364). This was all as a result of the Japanese being defeated at their holding position further along the trail at Eora/Iora a few days previously.
Trek Day Four: Eora/Iora Creek to Templeton’s Crossing
September 1942 (Aust. Retreat) The Australians finally pulled back from Eora/Iora Creek before dawn on 2 September 1942. They struggled back for about 3.2 kilometres on a steep and slippery trail to their next blocking position. It was hard going, a fact not helped by rain that fell almost continuously day and night, and took them till about 8am to reach it, and they were still an hour’s march from Templeton’s Crossing (McAulay p170, Ham p199). This is the walk you face today.
The 2/16th Battalion AIF were performing this job of rearguard. For three hours they had some respite, then at 11am a forward patrol ran into a Japanese patrol of 12 men, all moving along the trail with their rifles slung over their shoulders and acting like their enemies were miles away. They weren’t, and the Japanese paid the price for carelessness. Thus alerted, the Japanese deployed and began to probe around the Australian positions, trying to find their flanks, or any weak spots that could be exploited. These attacks were to continue for the rest of the day, yet the Australian positions held (McAulay p171). Just after 6pm, as the unit began to withdraw for the day, the Japanese attacked in strength again, and caught two Australian companies out of position, and moving back. Fortunately, the platoon tasked with covering the withdrawal was ready and in position. They waited until the Japanese were very close before they fired. This sudden volley and grenades was too much for the attackers. The Japanese tried twice more, urged on by sword-wielding officers, but to no avail. Apparently this fight, in the close confines of the jungle, was very noisy, with firing, grenade explosions, shouting of orders, and much shouted abuse from both sides (McAulay pp171-2). The fight was becoming, if it had not already done so, very personal. The fight also provided the cover needed for the rest of the unit to break contact, and they fell back till it became too dark to see and they stopped (McAulay p172).
Unfortunately for the battalion this action had forced them off the main trail. So during the darkness, and for most of the following day, the unit had to make its own track, cutting through trees and vines along a ridge-top. It was tiring, dirty, wet work. Still, they arrived at Templeton’s Crossing at 3.30pm. This gave them just enough time to set defences before the Japanese began probing attacks on the forward positions. Again, the 2/16th held the Japanese at bay all night, but on the following day (4 September) a patrol found a Japanese telephone cable running through the jungle around the left of their positions. There were also signs that at least a company of soldiers had passed that way. Fearing being encircled and cut off, the battalion had to move to a new position. This they found about 2.5 kilometres to the rear. Templeton’s Crossing had to be abandoned (McAulay pp174-5).
At this time, the first week in September 1942, the 2/27th Battalion AIF left Owers’ Corner to join what was left of Maroubra Force still holding the Japanese off at Templeton’s Crossing with the remnants of 39th Militia and 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions AIF. The 53rd Militia Battalion had been sent back to Port Moresby in disgrace, though they had not been prepared properly for the fighting expected of them. The 2/27th Battalion had been held longer than expected in Port Moresby, as those in charge there feared a Japanese seaborne thrust from Milne Bay. With that fear ended by the Japanese defeat there, the battalion was released for duty on the Kokoda Trail (Ham p226). Their journey to the front would be much shorter than the treks of those that had preceded them, as the front was contracting back to meet them, under steady Japanese pressure.
By now, the Kokoda Trail was becoming very busy indeed from the Australian point of view. As the battles had progressed at the front, wherever that may have been at any given time, a continuous stream of humanity was moving forward along the trail towards the fighting. This stream consisted of the soldiers moving forward, usually in company sized blocks, and the native carriers who were moving the army’s supplies. Travelling against this stream of fresh men there was by now another tide of men, heading towards the rear. This counter-stream consisted of the sick and wounded, units that had been relieved, and the carriers who had delivered their loads and were going back for more. Some of the natives carried back men who had been immobilised by their wounds. Those with lesser wounds had to make their own way as best they could with occasional help from someone going forwards. They all kept moving as best they could, as being left behind to be found by the Japanese was unthinkable (McAulay pp176-7).
One place that these two streams of humanity converged and coalesced was at Templeton’s Crossing. The Crossing had been a forward storage area, and to lose it, and the supplies stockpiled there, to the Japanese was a bitter blow. The Australians destroyed what could not be carried away, by slashing open rice bags, puncturing bully beef tins, and throwing supplies into Eora Creek. Being denied these supplies was as damaging, to the Japanese, as the bullets the Australians were firing at them. The Japanese were now really beginning to feel the pinch of being at the end of an extremely extended supply line that was continually under Allied air attack, and which did not have the same support by native carriers as did the equivalent supply line of the Australians. Already the Japanese troops were supplementing their own supplies with those captured from their opponents (Ham p225-7). At the beginning of September the Japanese commander, Major-General Horii, issued an order that those in authority should ‘exercise the most painstaking control and supervision, so that every bullet fells an enemy and every grain of rice furthers the aim of the formation.’ A few days later he was forced to issue an ‘Instruction Bulletin’ forbidding the consumption of any found food or forage without authority from the supply organisation (McAulay pp 169 & 182). The Japanese were getting very hungry. This was partly due to their combat strength still being greater than 3000, whereas the Australians opposed them with only about 500 effective men (Ham p228).
October 1942 (Aust. Advance) It was at Templeton’s Crossing, and then at Iora Creek, that the Japanese tried to make serious stands against the now advancing Allies. They had fortified a 600 metre length of the Trail area with machine gun pits heavily protected by logs and other camouflage. Each position supported others and they were connected by trenches allowing movement between them (Ham p349). It was a very strong position. The Australians repeatedly tried attacking the position frontally and from the flanks over several days, with no real success (Ham p350). Again, it was constantly raining and the main fighting was conducted in a steep valley where daylight only penetrated to the floor in the middle hours of the day. If it wasn’t raining there was cloud and mist, and always mud – by now, you yourself may be very familiar with these conditions. Only by constantly chipping away at the Japanese defences and reducing them one by one, over the days of 13-15 October, did the Australians force the Japanese out (McAulay pp306-312).
A week later, the Australians faced an even stronger position at Iora Creek. The plan was for part of the Australian force to outflank the Japanese to the west, while the rest would attack from the front. This plan did not impress the commander of the battalion doing the frontal attack. The plan did not go well, many Australians died in the various attempts, and the Japanese officers toasted their success in holding off a now larger and fitter army than their own. For almost a week the Japanese held the Australians at bay. It was only when a much stronger flanking attack was again made from the west, numbering about 600 men, that the Australians broke the Japanese and drove them out. The Australians lost 291 men killed or wounded at Iora Creek, more than in any other battle on the Kokoda Trail, other than at Isurava (Ham pp357-69).
Trek Day Five: Templeton’s Crossing – Kagi
September 1942 (Aust. Retreat) If losing Templeton’s Crossing was bad for the Australians, supply wise, losing Myola was to be far worse. It was also a cruel blow to their morale. The two dry lake beds that made up the Myola position afforded the only true break in the close jungle conditions along the whole length of the Kokoda Trail. Here soldiers had been able to rest and recuperate, and get away from the congestion on the track. It was also the Australian’s major supply depot because the lake bed areas were the only large clear breaks in the jungle where aircraft could drop supplies. Myola was a godsend to the Allied cause, but things did not go smoothly there.
For the Allied aircrews ‘air-dropping’ of supplies was a very new concept, and they literally pushed the stuff out the doors and it would freefall all the way to the ground – no parachute drags here. In this way thousands of pounds of food, clothing, bedding and ammunition rounds in the hundreds of thousands rained onto the lakebeds, earning the aircraft the nickname of ‘Biscuit Bombers’. But less than half of it survived the fall. Packages were lost (as in delivered to the wrong place by aircrews that were lost themselves – American navigational ability was a joke among Australians at this time – or who could not see for cloud-cover in the mountains, or the impact drove them deep into the soft lakebeds, never to be found), damaged, or stolen. Some packages were simply never collected into the central supply dumps through a lack of native carriers to go and get them!
The native carriers were an essential part of the Allied effort to defeat the Japanese – they were indeed ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels’ – but there were simply never enough of them to do all the work that needed doing. Reasons for this ranged from being poorly paid, underfed, and under-appreciated. Some carriers did desert when exposed to the fighting, or when they realized the mammoth task they were being asked to perform. Those that were willing to stay were then simply overworked. Kienzle, in charge of the carriers, estimated that 2,000 were required for work at Myola alone. Yet there were less than 950 available which included the sick, and those working on the trail between Myola and the battlefront (Ham pp 152-3).
Faced with this sort of situation – inhospitable, unforgiving terrain; a ferocious, tenacious and apparently unstoppable enemy; and a supply system in which aircraft got destroyed, or lost, and which literally didn’t have the legs required to move the stuff on the ground – you would have to begin to wonder how the Australians ever managed to win this battle. But there was even worse in store for the Australians. The Japanese still had surprises for them!
The very openness of the area around the Myola lakebeds, whilst perfect for supply from the air, was to prove its downfall in defence. The Australian’s, when pushed back from Templeton’s crossing simply did not have the manpower required to defend the open supply staging area. The officers in the command-chain in successively senior head-quarters linking back from Port Moresby to Townsville and then Brisbane, having no grasp of the territorial situation at all, ordered that Myola should be defended ‘at all costs’. In a move that at the time saved many of his men’s lives, though he incurred the ire of those above him, the Australian commander sent back the message ‘country utterly unsuitable for defended localities. Regret necessity to abandon Myola intend withdrawing Efogi. Men full of fight but utterly weary’. Then he gave the order to leave Myola to the advancing Japanese (Ham pp 228-9).
Once again the Australians had to hurriedly spoil the supplies they could not eat, wear or carry away with them. The Japanese by this time knew that the Australian supply depots must be somewhere not far ahead of them, and pressed the retreating Australians closely, looking forward to making them theirs (McAulay p179). This time the incessant rain aided the Australians, helping with the spoilage of the supplies they left behind. However, this did not stop the Japanese having an impromptu feast on the abandoned rations they found on taking over the Myola area – an indicator of just how hungry the ordinary Japanese soldier was becoming. One Japanese officer’s diary entry on reaching Myola attested to this ‘discovered large quantities of enemy rations such as corned beef, milk, jam etc. First taste of milk for a long time.’ The hungry Japanese had naturally stopped to assess, and sample, the wares they had finally found. Being hungry, they overindulged, and paid the price the next day, with stomach pains and diarrhoea causing even further delays (Ham p229). These delays allowed the Australians to slip away.
At Efogi, the retreating Australians were at last joined by the advancing 2/27th Battalion. These reinforcements, already at half strength due to the problems of the mountain crossing and sickness, went straight into the front position on the Trail – in reality the rearguard facing the Japanese. Higher command still had no grasp on the situation, sending orders stating, ‘Absolutely essential you give no further ground and that you lose no opportunity to hit the enemy with strong, offensive patrols. Contact will be regained at earliest.’ At this point in the campaign the Australians faced odds of about five to one – and their HQ was telling them to attack! Fortunately the Australian commander on the spot had the tactical sense to stick to his plan of a fighting withdrawal (Ham p229-30).
By 6 September 1942, the Australian force was in positions on Mission Ridge, just south of, and overlooking, Efogi. The peak of the ridge is now known as Brigade Hill, and is a natural citadel, commanding a strong defensive position along the length of the ridge. The Australians were dug into positions along about two kilometres of the Trail running across the ridge top. They concentrated on defence in depth and did not worry much about their flanks which were the steep sides of the ridge, cliff-like and jungle clad. This was to prove to be a very costly mistake.
October 1942 (Aust. Advance) The retreating Japanese did not linger very long in the Efogi – Kagi area. This may have been due to the large number of bodies still lying unburied from the battles during their advance of the previous month. While the Japanese buried or carried away their own dead, they left those of their opponents where they lay. The advancing Australians had to pause for two days to carry out the unpleasant task of searching for and finding the bodies of their comrades, collecting them and burying them. One padre carried out more than ninety burial services in one day (McAulay pp293-4). These scenes were to be repeated many times as the Australians retook the sectors of the Trail where the fiercest fighting occurred – Templeton’s Crossing and Isurava were two such areas.
It was from about this point on in their retreat that the mental and physical condition of the Japanese troops really hit rock bottom. Racked by diseases and physical complaints like malaria and dysentery, and frankly starving to death while still attempting to mount a defence, many snapped under the strain. Cannibalism reared its ugly head. Whilst apparently not widespread, there are accounts of Australian troops finding the bodies of their comrades missing strips of flesh that had been carved from them; and there are captured Japanese diary accounts that record some companies as ‘eating the flesh of captives’. When these, and other similar accounts, were circulated amongst the Australian troops and added to the stories of the Japanese killings of prisoners and civilians, the Allied concept of the Japanese soldier was ‘reduced to that of an evil beast, an enemy of humanity’ (McAulay pp325-7, 362). As always, the actions of a relative few individuals served to destroy any last vestige of respect held overall for a tough and skilled opponent.
Trek Day Six: Kagi – Menari
September 1942 (Aust. Retreat) After a day of probing attacks and aggressive patrols by both sides, the Japanese attacked the Australian positions in strength from 4.30am on 8 September 1942. The initial Japanese attacks came in onto the Australian positions from straight ahead down the trail, and from both sides of it. The Japanese committed about a battalion’s strength to these attacks and casualties were heavy on both sides (Sublet pp71-2). Facing the Japanese at this point was the 2/27 Battalion, the freshest part of the Australian force. They withstood all the Japanese assaults. At daylight, their positions again came under heavy fire from Japanese rifles, mortars, machine-guns and mountain artillery. It became difficult to move in the battalion area due to the weight of fire delivered by the Japanese, who kept up their pressure till midday. They were, however, unsuccessful in moving the Australian unit (McAulay p189).
Yet, they did not have to be successful! For all their fierceness in attack, the Japanese move directly along the trail was a feint, designed to fix the Australian’s attention firmly to the front. This they succeeded in doing. The real Japanese attack came from up the steep slope of the ridge, and out of the thick jungle that clothed it, on the Australian’s left flank. It was a complete surprise! The Japanese flanking force, numbering about 100 men, had spent the night cutting their own path through the thick jungle, up forty-five degree slopes, laden with their own equipment, and a heavy machine-gun (Ham p235). It was an incredible achievement. One Australian private wrote ‘you’d have to be a qualified mountain goat to be able to do physically what they did’ (Ham p237). At about 6.00am, the Japanese burst out of the jungle onto the unsuspecting Australians (Sublet p73)!
Whether by design, or sheer good luck, the Japanese force emerged onto the trail adjacent to the Australian headquarters, and cut the Australian commander off from contact with his three battalions of fighting men. The Australian force had literally been decapitated, then and there!
The first piece of luck for the Australians that day was that the Japanese force did not seem large enough then to exploit its advantage. Whilst it had the strength to hold the ground it had seized, it was not strong enough to assault the Australians directly (Sublet p73). This appeared to be borne out by the fact that whilst, at the time of the initial break-in, almost every man in the Australian headquarters – including cooks, signallers, clerks and officers – took up weapons and engaged the enemy, the pressure soon eased as the enemy decided to dig in and strengthen their position (Ham p237 & Sublet p73). The Japanese were waiting for their own reinforcements to arrive, and meanwhile waited for the Australians to come to them – and come they did.
The second piece of luck the Australians had was that the two parts of the severed force were still able to communicate by radio, as the Japanese had quickly cut the field telephone lines normally used by the Australians, and so were able to coordinate the actions made to dislodge the Japanese, although this took some time to organise. It was not until after 2pm that the Australian battalions were in a position to counterattack. Four companies from the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions made the afternoon attack and the men were confident of success (Sublet p74). Unfortunately for them, the counter-attack had been delayed too long, and the Australians ran into Japanese reinforcements, as well as the original Japanese blocking force. In fact, the Japanese now mustered superior numbers on that section of the trail. The fighting was very fierce, and small groups of Australians actually managed to break through to the Brigade headquarters position around both the Japanese flanks. However, the main attack failed in its objective to open a path through to the Brigade headquarters unit, although the Australians were able to fight the now stronger Japanese force to a standstill. At the same time, a scratch force put together from the Brigade headquarters side of the Japanese blocking force attacked as well, but was beaten back losing twenty men killed, including the captain who led the attack. Casualties on both sides were high, as if both sides realized that the culmination of the campaign might be at hand, and battled on desperately (McAulay pp193-4). In all, some 75 Australians died in the battles on Mission Ridge, along with over 200 Japanese. While the area of the battle officially became known as ‘Brigade Hill’, the Australians soon came to call it ‘Butcher’s Hill’ and it is one of the most hallowed sites along the entire contested length of the Kokoda Trail (Ham p238 & McAulay p193).
The third piece of luck that befell the Australians that day was the existence of an alternative route to Menari, the next fall-back point along the trail, and that there was an Australian officer present, a Major Watson, who knew of it. This alternative route was to the east of the main trail and was harder going, therefore less rarely used. After the failure of their afternoon attack to clear the trail of the Japanese blocking force, the three Australian battalions began to withdraw towards Menari, using the alternative route. The 2/27th Battalion performed particularly well at Brigade Hill – it did not give ground in the face of repeated enemy assaults, it maintained its position until forced to leave as the result of Japanese success elsewhere in the flank and rear of the Australian force, and it brought out all its wounded, including many stretcher cases, its weapons and equipment (McAulay pp192-5).
Probably because they were the freshest, therefore strongest, of the three Australian battalions, the 2/27th was given the task of carrying out all of the wounded who were stretcher cases, plus given the task of acting as rearguard for the force using the alternative track to Menari (Sublet p79). This was to prove very problematical for them. In the meantime, the Australian Brigade headquarters unit, once they realised that the Australian battalions had started to withdraw via the eastern track to Menari, and that the Japanese were not making any threatening moves against either part of the Australian force, did the same along the main Trail (Sublet p75).
The Japanese victory at Mission Ridge was their most decisive of the Kokoda campaign (Ham p240). Yet, by the vagaries of warfare, the Japanese commander did not realise what a truly crushing victory he had achieved. With little further effort, his exhausted troops could have pushed through the Australian Brigade headquarters unit, virtually the only troops then available on the direct trail for its defence, and advanced on to Port Moresby (McAulay p195). There was nothing left to stop the Japanese before then! That the Japanese did not make use of their advantage then and there is the fourth, and greatest, piece of luck the Australians had that terrible day.
October 1942 (Aust. Advance) During this part of the campaign the Japanese fell back quickly from the Australian advance, in a bid to break contact with their pursuers and gain time to establish a defensive position further in their rear (McAulay p285). Australian patrols, advancing cautiously as they did not realize that the Japanese were gone from the area completely, found plenty of evidence of the dysentery plaguing the Japanese troops from eating grass, fruits and roots that the natives had told the Australians were inedible. The Australians also found large amounts of ammunition hidden in trees, but no food. It appears that the Japanese, at the last, had brought forward the means to feed their weapons, but not themselves (McAulay pp281-2). Strangely, the Japanese appeared not to have disturbed the Australian dead from the Brigade Hill battles in their search for food, as they were found ‘sitting in their trenches, with the bones of their fingers clutched around the triggers of their weapons. The equipment and haversacks were still on the dead men’s backs’ (Ham p330).
Trek Day Seven: Menari – Naoro
September 1942 (Aust. Retreat) The night and day after the battle for Brigade Hill was the lowest ebb for the Australian’s spirits. One man wrote that he ‘was not the only man to fall deeply into a great gulf of despair and gloomy introspection … weighed down by premonitions of coming disaster: that we would never reach Menari; the Japs would get ahead and cut us off; that tomorrow would see the end of everyone of us’ (Ham p242). In fact, the Australian force had disintegrated directly following the battle. The Brigade headquarters unit fell back to Menari and the men of the three battalions (2/14th, 2/16th & 2/27th) toiled along the alternate track which was not well defined, with the 2/27th Battalion, burdened with the stretcher cases, falling further and further behind. Command and control of the entire column was lost when contact between the individual battalions was lost. The 2/27th Battalion never regained the main trail as the conflict had passed them by and the Japanese were ahead of them (Sublet p77). They had become ‘the Lost Battalion’ (Ham p242). The battalion struggled on through the jungle for a further 13 nights, mostly managing to avoid the Japanese, finally to emerge – thin, starving, disease ridden and close to exhaustion – at the Allied supply camp at Jawarere where they enjoyed a meal of tea, biscuits chocolate, stew and sweets. It was their first proper meal in fourteen days (McAulay p255).
Back at Menari the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions made it back to the main trail the day after the battle. But as they emerged from the jungle the Japanese were already attacking the village and surrounding areas with mortar, machine-gun and artillery fire from the high ground they held on Mission Ridge. The Australians could not stay in Menari. As soon as it became clear that 2/27th Battalion was not going to show, the withdrawal to Naoro began (McAulay p 199). The Allied generals, especially MacArthur in Brisbane, safe in their comfortable headquarters well away from the fighting, still had little or no grasp on the realities of the situation unfolding in the Owen Stanley Ranges and were issuing orders to the Australians to ‘establish a firm base’ at Menari, attack the Japanese and not withdraw further. With only about 300 sick and battle-weary troops at his disposal, the Australian commander, Brigadier Potts, had no hope of doing so. The Japanese he faced then were probably in much the same condition as his own men, but there were 3000 of them (Ham p242). Numbers told there own story.
But there was some good news for the Australians at this time. Reinforcements, in the shape of the three AIF battalions of 25 Brigade had arrived in Port Moresby by 9 September and would begin moving up the Trail the next day. As well, the 3rd Militia Battalion, already in Port Moresby, had recently begun its advance along the Kokoda Trail to join what was still left of Maroubra Force, and was at Ioribaiwa on 6 September (McAulay pp189 & 207-8) . But these men were still several days to more than a week away from the fighting and a lot could happen in that time.
Between Menari and Naoro the trail climbs steeply to a peak and then just as steeply falls away – as you will find out. You will be lucky if it does not rain. Unfortunately for the men fighting on the trail in 1942, it was raining – heavily. The Australians found the track to be simply a ‘mud and water-filled drain, up to knee-deep in places, but never less than 15 centimetres (six inches) in depth’. These conditions were tough on all the men who slogged through it, but they particularly affected the men of the rearguard who had to also fight off the Japanese advances as well as move as fast as they could between defensive positions. When they reached the Brown River near Naoro some men jumped in fully clothed just to gain some relief from the ever present mud (McAulay pp205-6).
At Naoro, on 10 September 1942, Brigadier Potts learnt that he was to be replaced as commander of Maroubra Force. Rather than admit their orders to the effect of ‘hold at all costs, drive the enemy back and to not retreat’ had been wrong, the generals, safely ensconced in their command bunkers, decided to replace the officer who had consistently not complied with their orders, with another who would get results. Potts’ replacement was a Brigadier Porter, who took one look at the situation at Naoro, decided he did not have enough troops to hold it against an outflanking movement, a situation which Potts had already pointed out in a signal to headquarters, and promptly ordered a retreat to Ioribaiwa (Ham pp243-4)! So much for results.
Porter did not endear himself to the men he now led. During their handover briefing Potts told him that the men were not fit for further fighting. Porter examined the passing line of ‘exhausted, sick, half-dressed men, stumbling along in a bleary-eyed gaze. Many could hardly walk’, and stated that they were only in a state of ‘general demoralisation’ – which did not go over very well. Elsewhere, the men of the reinforcing 25th Brigade had been ordered not to assist any wounded man – they were to be left to fend for themselves as best they could. This shattered the one small piece of security gripped deeply in ever man’s mind: that his mates would be there for him if he got into trouble (Ham pp243-4 & 251). Just when they were being expected to fight their hardest, possibly for their nation’s very existence, their own officers were seemingly doing their level best to undermine their effectiveness! This sort of stupidity went to the very top of the command structure. The Australian general, Blamey, told a press conference held during his visit to Port Moresby about this time that the khaki coloured uniform worn by the Australian troops was ‘designed in India as the ideal camouflage for the jungle. This jungle is no different from that of India’. The reporter asking him the question replied that he had ‘several thousand witnesses who thought otherwise’. Australian troops were even then changing their uniforms for ones dyed jungle-green (Ham p250). The die had already been cast – so to speak – and Blamey was shown to be out of touch. To the ordinary soldier, on hearing about comments and orders like these, it must have seemed that the command structure was fighting in a completely different war.
During the move from Naoro to Ioribaiwa the remnants of the gallant 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions were reorganised into a single composite unit. So depleted were their numbers that they could only muster a combined strength of about two normal companies. These men were nowhere near full fitness – yet they were still expected to fight (McAulay p209).
Having forced the Australians to abandon Naoro, the Japanese now seemed to slow their advance, as the Australians had at least one relaxed day in which there was very little contact with the Japanese. The Japanese paused to ‘replenish fighting strength’. How they were to do this, when at the same time their ration was reduced from a pint to just over two-thirds of a pint of rice per day, is unknown (McAulay p212). Just at this moment Brigadier Eather, commander of 25 Brigade coming along the Trail from Uberi, called Porter, at Ioribaiwa ahead of him, by landline to discuss the situation. Because the enemy seemed quiet, Eather decided to split his Brigade in passing through Porter’s position. One battalion was to go round the right flank, and one around the left, and the third was to go through Porter’s position, sticking to the Trail (Sublet p81). Again an Australian was splitting his command, and again, it was to be a mistake.
October 1942 (Aust. Advance) The Japanese, having just begun their retreat, did not pause long on this section of the trail. Their first halt was to be in the Menari area, and even then, they did not stay long (McAulay pp271-3). Their plan was to rest, regroup and then keep moving back towards Kokoda. They had no intention of engaging the Australians in battle at this time. Their supply situation was too precarious. If they could contract their supply lines, perhaps their situation would improve. The Australians, knowing none of this for certain, advanced cautiously.
Trek Day Eight: Naoro – Va’Ule Creek
September 1942 (Aust. Retreat) As the Australians retreating from Naoro settled into their positions on Ioribaiwa Ridge, they were joined by the 3rd Militia Battalion, the first of the reinforcement units advancing up the Trail. This battalion, unlike its predecessor, the 53rd Battalion, had been given some time to train in and be accustomed to, jungle conditions in the Port Moresby area. Even so, the sight of the AIF veterans of 21 Brigade bloodied and emaciated as they moved past made them pause and think (McAulay p210).
Also during the retreat from Naoro, the first use of deliberately baited traps by the Australians was recorded. Australian troops would open tins of preserved meat, and scatter them around a clearing and then settle back and wait for a Japanese patrol to come along. When the enemy patrol paused, and gathered together to investigate the food – and they apparently always did due to their, by this time, severe rations situation – the Australians would open fire, causing many casualties (McAulay pp 210-1 & Ham p244 & 253).
On 14 September, the three battalions of Eather’s 25 Brigade split up to carry out his plan to pass through the Ioribaiwa position held by the remnants of 21 Brigade and 3rd Militia battalion. The 2/31st Battalion was proceeding around the right flank of the holding force when it ran straight into an enemy attack advancing up the ridge. They immediately pulled back from the Japanese and assumed a defensive position for the night. On the right flank the 2/33rd battalion did not encounter any Japanese, but were defeated by the harsh terrain and thick jungle. They, to, assumed a defensive position. The Japanese peppered the Australians for the rest of the day with artillery, mortar, machine-gun and rifle fire, causing many casualties (Sublet p83). To make things worse, torrential rain fell began to fall in the afternoon and continued into the night (McAulay p222).
Encountering the fresh Australian troops, in new and differently coloured uniforms, had been a surprise for the Japanese commander, and, no doubt, for his troops also. Because his own men were tired, worn out, and almost starving due to the problems faced by the Japanese supply system; because of the hundreds upon hundreds of battle casualties his force had suffered during the advance; and because his force was now carrying with it many wounded and sick men, he decided that he would take Ioribaiwa Ridge and then halt and regroup his forces (Sublet p83). The Japanese were caught in a vicious circle of diminishing returns. Because they had insufficient native bearers to bring up supplies, troops and labourers had been detached to aid in this task, to help with the wounded and help with other tasks. The troops remaining then faced larger problems in bringing forward the food, ammunition and equipment they required to prosecute the attack on the Australians (McAulay p225). Still, they were determined to press on and take Port Moresby.
The Japanese force that the 2/31st Battalion had run into on the 14th was the right wing of a double pincer movement by the Japanese to attack the Australians around both their flanks. Brigadier Eather was to report later that he ‘arrived just in time’ to foil the attacks (Sublet p84). In reality it was a case of being in the wrong place at the right time – the Australians really had no idea at the time of the Japanese intentions. This seems strange, as their experiences of the past weeks should have forewarned them as to likely Japanese actions.
The 15th of September saw the Japanese begin to press the Australians along the whole length of the Ioribaiwa Ridge front. Fighting was fierce and casualties were correspondingly high. Patrols of opposing forces were intermingled in the jungle. One Australian patrol was twice targeted accurately with mortar and automatic weapons fire – but could see no Japanese! They reported that they experienced problems with sound – they could hear the Japanese officer ordering the mountain gun to fire, but could not determine the direction the order was coming from, or the gun’s location (McAulay p228).
At about 2pm in the afternoon, the Japanese gained a significant lodgement within the Australian position. On the Australian right, a group of Japanese troops surprised17 Platoon, D Company of 3rd Militia Battalion as they were digging in at a new location. There is some controversy over what actually happened, as some men said they were having lunch, others said they were improving their positions, when some 20 Japanese were suddenly amongst them, forcing the platoon out of their position, and then rolling up the entire company position. For this to have happened, it appears that the men digging in did not have their weapons in easy reach, and that the company sentries were either not posted, or not keeping a proper watch. That they were able to drive a wedge into the Australian position, and at a significant point between the junctions of two separate battalions which made coordinating counterattacks harder, heartened the Japanese (McAulay p226-7). During the fighting on the 15th, the 2/14th and 2/16th composite battalion suffered a further 40 casualties (Sublet p84).
Slowly, but especially on the 16th, the Australians were forced to give ground. From the first moment the 2/31st Battalion had encountered the advancing Japanese on the 14th September, Brigadier Eather had lost control of the situation, with his battalions spread across a ridge top that he was not expecting to have to fight over. He was simply reacting to Japanese moves whilst trying to regain a firm footing for a renewed attack. With that in mind, Eather decided to retreat back to Imita Ridge (McAulay p227 & 236). That the high command was fast losing patience with the constant retreats is evident in the reply Eather got when he informed Port Moresby of his decision: ‘There won’t be any withdrawal from the Imita position. You’ll die there if necessary.’ (Ham p254). Strong words were all that seemed left to the high command. They had just seen their four freshest battalions committed to the fight against the Japanese and seen them, if not defeated, then tied up, and run around by the enemy in constant, draining, small fire-fights and mortar duels. They must have wondered what they could do next. And so the Australians retreated to Imita. The men were unhappy as they thought they’d had a good chance of winning in a position ‘considered able to stop a brigade of enemy’ (Sublet p85). Only, it didn’t.
October 1942 (Aust. Advance) The Australian advance from Imita Ridge was slow getting under way. This was partly due to another change in the Command structure in Port Moresby. General Blamey returned to Papua New Guinea and took command of the theatre just as the advance was about to begin, probably so he could take credit for it and not be associated with the retreat phase of the campaign. His association with U.S. General MacArthur probably taught him much about political general-ship. As a result, 25 Brigade’s advance was held up in case new orders were forthcoming. The last of the Japanese had left Ioribaiwa by 26 September, but the Australian advance did not begin until, possibly, late on 1 October, after the new command structure had sorted itself out. One writer has described the Australians as ‘pussyfooting around Ioribaiwa’ (Sublet p92-3).
This is probably partly due to the fact that this was a new situation for the Australians – they were unused to the Japanese sitting in one place and holding a position for days on end, and they were unaccustomed to being the aggressors. It took them some time to realise that the Japanese were actually gone. The Japanese had stolen a march on the Australians and were days ahead of them. Even in retreat, the Japanese seemed to be controlling the situation.
Trek Day Nine: Va’Ule Creek – Owers Corner
September 1942 (Aust. Retreat) On the ridge-top at Ioribaiwa the Japanese were able to see the far-away glint of the sea that was their objective (McAulay p233). At this stage, though, the Japanese were not thinking of capturing Port Moresby, as such. For them, victory meant food. Japanese private Tetsunosuke thought that if they fought for a few more days he would be able to eat to his hearts’ content (Ham p255). But this was as far as they would get. The final Japanese attack that had decided Eather to withdraw the Australians had been a cover for the withdrawal of the first Japanese regiment to Kokoda. The Japanese commander had finally called enough. The rest of the Japanese troops were soon to follow in retreat (Sublet p86).
As you begin your last day’s trek, not only are you retracing the footsteps of the Australian’s final retreat, you are covering ground the Japanese never marched over. Never again in the Papua New Guinea campaign, or the entire Pacific campaign for that matter, were the Australian or Allied troops to retreat before the Japanese as they had done in the Kokoda Trail campaign to date. As you toil towards the summit of Imita Ridge, you will probably be feeling quite happy and justifiably triumphant, having made it through the course of the trek to this final day. You have achieved a great goal. Yet the Australians who made the trek in 1942 were not happy – they didn’t know then that it was to be their last retreat. The retreat must have been especially galling for the troops of the fresh 25 Brigade. Their introduction to jungle warfare had not gone as they had wished, and they seemed to have lost the initiative once again (Sublet p89).
On 18th September 1942, the Japanese Imperial GHQ in Tokyo handed the initiative back to the Australians when they decided that the battle of Guadalcanal was to be given priority in receiving troops and supplies. They ordered the Japanese in Papua New Guinea to fall back and hold the Buna-Gona area until the battle in the Solomon Islands had been concluded in their favour (it wasn’t), and then once again the advance on Port Moresby could be resumed. In issuing these instructions, the Japanese High Command seemed to utterly ignore the changed conditions since July, and thought that the Australians would be pushed back again. The battle experience gained by the Australians; their knowledge of the terrain; the build up of Allied reinforcements; the growing ability to provide supplies from the air; the increase and dominance of Allied air power – all these were swept aside (McAulay p245). It now seemed to be the turn of the Japanese commanders to be issuing orders with little basis in reality.
In the meantime, it seemed that the Australians and Allies were finally learning that jungle and mountain warfare was different, with a much higher proportion of troop wastage. They were also learning that the previous training conducted in Queensland and the Port Moresby area was far from adequate and not at all realistic. During the Kokoda campaign the three battalions of 21 Brigade (2/14 – 248, 2/16 – 163, 2/27 – 88) had suffered 499 men killed, wounded or missing. More than 900 men were on the sick list. From this the Allies concluded that reinforcements for units engaged in combat would be needed in large numbers, or the units would literally waste away (McAulay pp 247 & 253). Showing that they had learned from their Kokoda experiences, the Allies equipped the men of the Australian 16 Brigade, which arrived in Port Moresby on 21 September, with shovels, torches, folding saws and other items deemed useful in the jungle (McAulay p256).
Having mentioned, above, the losses suffered by 21 Brigade, their achievements, and those of the 39th Militia Battalion, should also be summarised. Some in the Australian and Allied command structure sought to hold these units to blame for the constant success of the Japanese advance, blithely ignoring the supply disasters of their own making that hampered them from the very beginning. But these units, despite the handicaps foisted on them by their own side, successfully and repeatedly held up a much larger force and inflicted at least three times the number of casualties as those suffered by them. Between Iora Creek and Efogi their withdrawal had been tactically and strategically well conducted, ever bleeding the advancing Japanese of time, men and supplies. The Japanese plan had called for the capture of Port Moresby by the start of September, and now, by almost the end of that month, weeks behind schedule, they were stuck on Ioribaiwa Ridge, some sixty kilometres from their target, at the end of a rickety and failing supply line stretching 330 kilometres from the northern coast, with little food and having lost most of their fighting strength (Ham p260). The Japanese were a spent force – this is what the Australian retreat had achieved.
Back at the positions on Imita Ridge, the Australians rested and recuperated. They were further heartened from seeing the amount of supplies and ammunition being built up for the coming advance. In the air they could see the overwhelming numbers of allied aircraft – and none of the Japanese (McAulay p258). The biggest boost to their morale came from the 25-pounder field artillery that was now firing at the Japanese positions on Ioribaiwa Ridge. These guns had been hauled up the Golden Stairs by Australian sappers: by hand, using a strong pulley system. It was a magnificent piece of engineering – and sheer determination (Ham p314). Now the Australians had heavy weaponry that could easily outrange the puny Japanese mountain artillery. The damage done was not great as there were only a few guns involved, but it was a great psychological booster.
The Australians on Imita Ridge were not militarily idle while they awaited the order to advance. Strong attacking patrols were sent out to disrupt the, assumed, Japanese advance almost from the moment they returned from Ioribaiwa Ridge. The men carried enough rations for five days and were heavily armed with automatic weapons and grenades (Sublet p89). As far as the Australians knew at the time, the Japanese were planning on staying on Ioribaiwa Ridge for some time, as they continued to work on developing the defences of the position, and the Australians could hear them doing it (McAulay pp 250 & 262).
For the ordinary Japanese soldier, sitting in his fortified dugout on top of Ioribaiwa Ridge and in sight of the sea and his objective, the order to retreat came as ‘a bolt from the blue’. The order came as a great shock and the men were stunned. Some officers demanded that one last do-or-die attack into Port Moresby be made. The South Seas Detachment had never before retreated, and ‘no one knew what was going to happen’ (Ham p313).
In that moment, the Australians won the campaign for the Kokoda Trail. No one knew it at the time, and many months of hard and desperate fighting were still to come. Many men who had survived the campaign up to this point would die in that time. But in that moment on Ioribaiwa Ridge ‘the purpose, dreams and desires of the officers and soldiers of the South Seas Force vanished in an instant’ (Ham p313).
The Australians, unaware on Imita Ridge, had won a rare and wonderful victory. Soon they would advance to put it into practice, and go into the history books – everyone would know of their remarkable achievement of defeating the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail.
I hope you have enjoyed the trek you have made, and I also hope that this history and journal space has been of use to you throughout the trip. Of course, when writing such a condensed history such as this, much has to be left out; although I hope I have retained the interesting parts that pertain directly to what happened along the length of the Kokoda Trail. If you are interested in finding out more of what happened in other areas of the war zone, in the air or naval campaigns, or what happened politically, or behind the lines in Australia, America and Japan, I recommend the following books to you. It, too, is a condensed list, but their bibliographies are a good guide – there are many good books available.
Bibliography (Books consulted for this work are marked with an * )
Brune, Peter, A Bastard of a Place: The Australians in Papua, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004.
Brune, Peter, The Spell Broken: Exploding the Myth of Japanese Invincibility, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997.*
Ham, Paul, Kokoda, Harper Collins, Pymble, 2004. *
Hawthorne, Stuart, The Kokoda Trail: A History, Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 2003. *
Lindsay, P, The Spirit of Kokoda: Then and Now, Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2002.
McAulay, Lex, Blood and Iron: The Battle for Kokoda 1942, Hutchinson Australia, Milsons Point, 1991. *
Sublet, Lieutenant Colonel Frank, Kokoda to the Sea: A History of the 1942 Campaign in Papua, Slouch Hat Publications, McCrae, 2000. *
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