The Kokoda Campaign is a story of a series of battles that changed Australia forever.
On 21 July 1942, Japanese forces landed at Gona, a northern beach head of Papua New Guinea. Their objective was Port Moresby, then the main Australian base on the Island. Initial intelligence suggested to the Japanese that a track through the Owen Stanley Ranges would allow passage by horse and vehicle, which of course was not at all possible.
Australia’s trained forces, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was heavily concentrated at that time in the Middle East – predominantly Egypt and Syria – supporting Great Britain in the war effort. Here they acquitted themselves magnificently and with honour, however their deployment left Australia largely unprotected.
And so it was that a Militia Battalion raised in Victoria found itself to be the first unit sent up the Kokoda Track to halt the advance of the Japanese. Raised in Melbourne in 1921, the so-called ‘Hawthorn-Kew Regiment’ initially consisted of only a few volunteers. After Japan entered the Second World War, a new 39th Battalion was raised and sent to Port Moresby at the beginning of 1942. Their military training was limited – to say the least.
Initial engagements with the Japanese occurred at Awala only two days after the Japanese landing and, undermanned, the Australians withdrew to Kokoda. On 29 July, the Japanese took Kokoda, forcing an Australian withdrawal to Deniki. On 8 August, the Australians launched a counter attack, which though briefly successful, ended in a further withdrawal to Isurava as the Japanese re-took Kokoda.
On 26 August, the Japanese engaged with the forward platoons of the 39th Battalion at Isurava. This was indeed the signal that the attack was about to begin. Undermanned, under resourced and under trained, the Australians knew they were about to feel the full fury of the mighty Japanese Army, who at this stage of the war had known nothing but victory.
The Japanese however, were about to experience the stubborn resistance of the Australians. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, contributing as it did to the success of the brilliantly executed strategic withdrawal to Imita Ridge. Had the Australians been over run, the fall of Isurava would have brought about the most terrible consequences.
It is interesting that General Horii failed to exploit his position fully at Isurava. If there was an opportunity to inflict maximum damage, surely this was it and we can only surmise what his mindset was. It is possible he thought the Australian force was larger than it was, perhaps there were communications issues. And maybe he simply underestimated the courage and tenacity of the Australians.
The five days of fighting at Isurava have been described by some historians as the Battle for Australia, such was its importance. Peter Brune in ‘Those Ragged Bloody Heroes’ said:
‘If its achievement in the Great War of 1914-18 was a proclamation of the nationhood of Australia, then the war of 1939-45 was to be a harsh and exacting test for its survival.’
Under great hardship, stories of heroism emerge. Private Bruce Kingsbury was the first Victoria Cross to be awarded – posthumously – in the South West Pacific Area. His citation reads:
Kingsbury rushed forward firing the Bren-gun from his hip through terrific machine-gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy for the platoon; a courageous action that made it possible for us to recapture the position. Continuing to sweep enemy positions with his fire and inflicting an extremely high number of casualties on them, Private Kingsbury was seen to fall to the ground, shot dead by a sniper hiding in the woods. Private Kingsbury displayed a complete disregard for his own safety. His initiative and superb courage made it possible for my platoon to retake the position, which undoubtedly saved Battalion Headquarters and at the same time inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. His coolness, determination and devotion to duty in the face of great odds was an inspiration to my men to which they could not fail to respond.
There are many names that have become synonymous with bravery in the history books of the Kokoda Campaign. Charlie McCallum, Breton Langridge and Butch Bisset are just a few. For every one of these, there are many more who are not named with their own stories of courage under fire. Many others did not survive to tell their stories, and each of those is no less important than the last.
On 30 August, the Australians withdrew to Alola to re-group. Though the short few days of this battle may not seem significant, in the brutal jungle and appalling conditions presented by the Kokoda Track, these were days that contributed to the overall conclusion of the campaign.
Sickness and supply issues were as much the enemy as the forces each side faced, the frustrating and delaying tactics successfully employed by the Australians saw the Japanese eventually run out of supply at Ioribaiwa, within sight of Port Moresby.
The Japanese were ordered to ‘advance to the rear’ there being no word for ‘retreat’ in the Japanese lexicon. Thus began the Australian pursuit of the Japanese back across the track. Fierce and bloody engagements saw losses on both sides before the Australians eventually re-took Kokoda on the 2nd November.
But it wasn’t over yet. The Japanese had moved out to Gona, Sanananda and Buna on the northern coast, the site at which they had landed. There, their superb defensive skills were brought into play again as they dug in in, expectation of an Australian assault. They weren’t disappointed.
With their backs to the water and little means of re-supply, the Australians could have just waited – and starved them out. Why didn’t they? To consider that question, one needs to look at the orders given by the Allied command and the political motivations behind them. But that’s another story for another day.
It is a little known fact that Australia lost twice as many diggers on the northern beaches as on the Kokoda Track. It is a tragic fact that many of those losses were avoidable. The Battle for Gona and Haddy’s Village cost 379 Australian lives, 649 died in the Battle for Sanananda and Sanananda village, and 313 fell at Buna. On 23 January 1943, just over six months from the Japanese landing, it was over.