75th Anniversary of Kokoda
“The Australians who served here in Papua New Guinea fought and died, not in the defence of the old world, but the new world. Their world. They died in defence of Australia and civilisation and values which had grown up there.”
Prime Minister Paul Keating, Anzac Day 1992, speech at Port Moresby
The Kokoda action lasted from July until November 1942 and is remembered as one of the most difficult operations by Australian troops in World War II.
The Kokoda Track is 96 kilometres long and traverses the Owen Stanley Range of Papua New Guinea; it is regarded as some of the most difficult terrain over which Australian soldiers have ever fought that was compounded by appalling conditions including stifling heat and humidity, monsoonal rainfall and cold mountain evenings. Much of its 96 kilometres can only be travelled on foot, which meant that during the conflict all supplies and heavy equipment had to be carried.
In a despatch that was banned by Commander-in-Chief Sir Thomas Blamey’s headquarters the Track was described as:
‘…a series of muddy footholds in the mountainside…so slippery
that you had to sling your rifle and leave your hands free to grab
the nearest vine or branch as your feet slid from under you… so
steep that in some places you could scale the mountain face
only by using both hands and both feet… so muddy that at times
you sloshed through a quagmire more than ankle deep and felt
the cloying mud suck your feet back at every step.’
Initially, the Japanese were successful in their drive towards Port Moresby. Supplies to Australian troops ran short and tropical diseases such as malaria reduced the fighting ability of the men. Despite winning some hard-fought battles, Australian troops were forced to withdraw in a series of delaying actions back towards Port Moresby. There were few stretchers to carry the wounded, and badly wounded men were forced to walk. The indigenous Papuan population had suffered badly at the hands of the Japanese. As a result many were fiercely loyal to the Australian forces: they cared for the withdrawing wounded Australian soldiers, who nicknamed them ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels.’
Early September 1942 saw the Japanese advance to within 48 kilometres of Port Moresby. Although they could see the City’s lights, they were still far from their supply base on the northern coast. They faced the difficult task of moving supplies and weapons along the narrow, mountainous track, their men suffering from the same debilitating hunger that had effected the Australian troops.
The island of Guadalcanal, east of Papau, was occupied by American forces. This island was used as a base to attack Japanese shipping lanes. In response to the American attack, the Japanese, despite their forces being close to their objective of Port Moresby, withdrew to concentrate their efforts on Guadalcanal.
Australian and American troops pushed forward towards the Japanese, who were, in their own words, forced to ‘advance to the rear’ towards their base at Buna-Gona. The Japanese were eventually defeated but at an extremely high cost to the Australians.
More than 600 Australian troops died throughout the Kokoda campaign with a further 1600 wounded.
November 2, 2017 marked 75 years since the end of the campaign. This date is representative of when Australian forces re-entered the village of Kokoda finding the Japanese troops withdrawn.
On the afternoon of 3 November, Major General George Vassey, commander of the Australian forces at Kokoda, led a flag-raising ceremony on the Kokoda plateau. A brand new nylon-weave Australian flag had been air-dropped by an American fighter pilot earlier that morning.
The occasion was described by Lieutenant Herbert Kienzle as sombre:
“There was no band, no cheering, just hundreds of weary Australians standing silently to attention in the rain.”