The Kokoda Track

 

The Kokoda Track is hard enough to walk in peacetime let alone during a war. The steep inclines are so demanding that people not used to it find their backs aching and their legs shaking uncontrollably afterwards from using muscles they don't ordinarily use. At places there is barely enough room for a person to place their feet, let alone walk with safety, many of them above a five or even a 10 metre drop. The rain falls frequently turning dirt into quagmire, at places the jungle is so dense that it seems like an eternal twilight, or even night. By day the heat keeps a person saturated in their own sweat and in the afternoon rain falls to keep them drenched throughout the night.

Yet in 1942 the soldiers fighting along the track not only had to contend with the geography and climate, but also the snipers, the strafing from planes, the artillery and the huge weight of their packs and equipment. It was nothing short of nightmarish. Especially considering that many of the young men who served in New Guinea had been barely trained and were part of a militia drawn in part from conscripts and regular army rejects who were only meant to defend their homeland.

By a quirk of fate they found themselves beating the Japanese back from Port Moresby. If the Japanese could take Port Moresby they would be ideally placed to launch more severe attacks on the Australian mainland and possibly even invade. A cursory look at the difficulties of Japan launching a full-scale invasion- raising the number of troops, maintaining supply lines- shows that it was out of the question. However the Japanese, flushed with their success in the first months of 1942 had already overreached themselves and it is possible (though unlikely) that they may have attempted the impossible.

Whatever the Japanese plans, the fact that Japan had reached what was mandated Australian territory in New Guinea was enough to cause panic in Australia. The Australian Government demanded the recall of troops from overseas to organise the defence of Australia, and decided to send troops to New Guinea. But they would not be the best troops- the highly trained or battle-tested AIF divisions. The AIF troops were to be reserved for the defence of Darwin should the Japanese invade. Instead they sent troops from the Citizens Military Force (CMF)- the militia, which was made up of soldiers rejected for service in the AIF and conscripts who were under equipped, undertrained and mostly under 20. These men were dubbed "Chocolate Soldiers" by the disdainful AIF. The name derived from the title character of Lehar's operetta The Chocolate Soldier (which was based on G.B. Shaw's Arms and the Man) who kept chocolates instead of bullets in his gun belt. The militia mostly bitterly resented the name, but some used it to chide the AIF after the Kokoda campaign because in the case of most the militia the chocolate did not melt.

They were also known as Koalas, because, like Koalas they were not to be shot at, not to be exported and were protected by the Government- there was a law protecting the militia from overseas service. But New Guinea was mandated Australian territory so the government argued that they could serve there and they were released for what was really overseas service.

The 39th Battalion were among the first troops to meet the Japanese along the track from Port Moresby over the Owen Stanley Ranges to the north-east coast. The Japanese had landed at Lae and Salamaua in February, and on July 12 landed an advance party. On July 21 they landed more substantial forces to take Gona and Buna on the north-east coast and to scout the track and build a road in preparation for a major thrust to Port Moresby. Shortly before the 39th had been sent to secure Kokoda. Company B of the 39th had been sent on ahead to unload stores sent to unload stores sent to Buna by sea. By July 23 the enemy had been engaged by the Papuan Infantry Battalion, a group of native Papuans led by Australian officers. B Company then also met the Japanese on July 24th and soon had to fight a rearguard action along the track to Kokoda to join up with the rest of the 39th.

Kokoda was soon taken, but not without cost to the Japanese. The Australians then launched a counter offensive on August 8, but continued to fall back along the track until they reached Isurava where they entrenched themselves to hold on until reinforcements could arrive. On August 23 troops from the AIF came into the front lines and despite previous animosity between them and the militia they fought alongside them like a well-drilled team. But it was the determination of the 39th that proved to be the decisive factor in the battle. When the 39th held out at Eora creek on August 31 they prevented the Japanese breaking the lines and allowed the Australian troops time to regroup.

But not everyone was pleased with the efforts of the Australian soldiers. Not fully apprised of how difficult the battle against the Japanese had been General Blamey accused the men of being cowardly saying the rabbit who runs is the rabbit who gets shot. The men of the 53rd Battalion AMF were also criticised, unfairly, for scattering during a counter-attack on August 26. But their moment of disarray was due not only to a lack of training, but also the hasty manner in which the troops were gathered and despatched to New Guinea as well as bad leadership. Most of the men individually fought with great courage and the 53rd would rescue its reputation fighting effectively through the remainder of the war. An attempt by the Japanese to capture bases at Milne Bay was repelled from August 26-September 6, preventing the Japanese from establishing another base from which to supply their own troops and attack troops on the track.

By September 14 the Japanese advance could go no further. They had reached the limit of their supplies and endurance and the Japanese high command was now diverting resources to the battles taking place at Guadalcanal. But the campaign was far from over. The Australians did not dislodge the Japanese from Kokoda until November 2 (this time General MacArthur complained of the slow progress of the Australian soldiers) and from November until January 1943 they fought costly battles to finally dispel the Japanese from Gona, Buna and Salamaua.

Activities:

Websites

Battle for Australia

http://www.battleforaustralia.org.au

Good brief narratives of some of the important battles that took place in 1942 and involved Australia's security. The site is posted by the organisation Battle for Australia, whose aim is to remind Australians of their history.

Australian War Memorial- Kokoda Trail

http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/kokoda.htm

A brief description of the battle, with links and a list of documents to be found in the War Memorial.

Department of Veterans Affairs

http://www.dva.gov.au/commem/mainco.htm

The official website of the government department that looks after returned service people. You can find news of commemorations of battles such as Kokoda, as well as links to some of the best sites on particular battles.

Australians at War

http://www.australiansatwar.gov.au/

The website companion to the TV show about Australians in battle from the Boer War to Timor based in part on the recollections of those who were there.

Kokoda Track by Shane Thew

http://www.jahitchcock.com/kokoda.html

A good brief account of the battles on the Kokoda Track. E-mail the author for more information.

Books

Kokoda Track

By Sylvia Clark

A children's book telling in simpler terms what happened on the Kokoda Track and what was the significance of the battle for Australians.

The Spirit of Kokoda

By Patrick Lindsay

The Spirit of Kokoda celebrates the remarkable achievements of the Diggers who fought battles along one of the most difficult pieces of terrain on earth.

Those Ragged Bloody Heroes

By Peter Brune

The best comprehensive book on the Kokoda Campaign looking at all aspects of one of Australia's most significant battles.

Milne Bay 1942

By Clive Baker and Greg Knight

A comprehensive look at all aspects of the Battle for Milne Bay.

The Miracle of Kokoda

By Capt Bill Phillips

A good brief account of the details of the battles over the Kokoda Track. Great for school students.

The Anzac Spirit

By Michael Andrews

Looks at the history of Australians at war, with a brief account of soldiers at Kokoda and Milne Bay in New Guinea during WWII. Suitable for younger readers.

Australia's War 1939-1945

By Joan Beaumont

One of the best single volume accounts of Australia during World War II. Looks at social, economic, political and military aspects and relates them to one another.

When Australians Went to War

By Robert Hillman

A brief introduction to all of the wars (up to Vietnam) in which Australia has had a major involvement. Some great facts and other historical tidbits.

The Pacific War 1941-1945

By John Costello

A one volume look at the clash of American air superiority versus Japanese naval might. A great backgrounder to the Kokoda campaign.

Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles

By Chris Coulthard-Clark

Contains brief entries of almost every battle, skirmish, or attack involving Australian troops or civilians from the arrival of troops on the First Fleet in 1788 to the recent Australian involvement in East Timor.

Places

Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The War Memorial has a special gallery devoted to World War II. Look in the "Year of Crisis" exhibition, which details the year Australians fought on the Kokoda Track.

http://www.awm.gov.au/aboutus/galleries/ww2.htm