Our expert guide to one of World War 2’s most famous conflicts
Flying out of Port Moresby to the north or east, you’ll cross the Owen Stanley Range, a spine of green, jungled mountains and ridges splitting the south-eastern tail of Papua New Guinea in two. Several tracks wind between 3000-metre peaks from the southern coast to a plain, which runs to the north coast at Buna. One of these tracks is named after a village that it passes through – Kokoda.
For the average middle-aged person, such as myself, it’s a 10-day walk from Port Moresby to Kokoda. ‘Walk’ is probably not the right word, as you’ll need your hands to climb up a steep ridge, then make an ever so careful descent down the other side to a roaring, rocky stream, crossing it on a log. Repeat four times with a rate of progress of one kilometre per hour and that’s an average day on the trail.
In 1942, during World War 2, a Japanese army advanced along the Kokoda Trail, intending to capture Port Moresby. They were opposed, held, then driven back by Australians and Papuans.
Look down and spare a thought for over 2000 men who died in those battles in the Owen Stanleys. Many of their bodies have never been found. Down there somewhere still is Masanoru Honda, a carpenter from the Japanese island of Shikoku, and Des Smith, a bus driver from Deniliquin in Australia.
WHY PORT MORESBY ?
Armies need a base from which to launch and sustain military operations. The base should have a harbour, docks, airfields, storage sheds for supplies and a reliable source of fresh water.
Much of this did not exist when the Australians first arrived in Port Moresby early in 1941, but within a year the town was transformed into the only site in mainland PNG capable of supporting a large army. It was vital for the Australians to hold Port Moresby if they were to advance northwards through the islands. Similarly, even if the Japanese did not intend to invade the east coast of Australia, holding Port Moresby allowed them to threaten to do so one day. Without Port Moresby the Japanese threat to invade Australia was a hollow one.
WHY DID TH E JAPANESE APPROACH PORT MORESBY ALONG THE KO KO DA TRAIL?
At the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, a Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby by sea failed. By July, a repeat of the seaward option was rejected as hundreds of Australian and American aircraft now operating from bases in Far North Queensland could bomb Japanese ships rounding the eastern tip of New Guinea heading for Port Moresby. Instead, the Japanese decided to land on the north coast at Buna and attack Port Moresby from there, by land along the Kokoda Trail.
WHO FOUGHT IN TH E KO KO DA CAMPAIGN?
Australians, Papuans and Americans fought on the Allied side. The vast majority were Australian infantry, some poorly trained militia, and some from experienced units that had returned from fighting the Italians and Germans in Africa.
The Papuans carried the supplies without which the Australians could not fight and survive in the mountains, and a small number fought as infantry; the Americans flew the majority of the aircraft. American infantry arrived towards the end of the campaign.
Most of the South Seas Force came from the Japanese island of Shikoku. One of them, Sadashige Imanishi, told me: “I thought, being from the village of Motoyama in the highlands of Shikoku, that I knew all about mountains, but I had never seen anything as rugged or forbidding as the Owen Stanley Range.”
Aiding the Japanese were Papuan scouts as well as labourers and supply carriers from Taiwan and Korea, both then under Japanese rule.
THE JAPANESE ADVANCE
On July, 22, 1942 a Japanese battalion of the 144th Infantry Regiment, 500 men, landed at Buna, 130 kilometres north-east of Port Moresby. The first opponents the Japanese encountered were Australians Tom Grahamslaw and John Chalk, of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB).
The Japanese came to the front door of Sangara Mission, where the two officers were having breakfast. Grahamslaw and Chalk fled out the back door, so this cannot truly be considered the first military action of the Kokoda campaign.
That happened the following day at Awala, where 38 men of the PIB fired on the Japanese. Private Daera Ganiga said: “Each man fired eight or nine times, then major Watson told us to run for our lives. We did.”
If they stood and fought for long, the small Australian and Papuan force would be surrounded and annihilated, so a policy of delay was adopted – shoot and scoot. At, Wairopi, Gorari and Oivi, this was repeated, but at Oivi it nearly didn’t work. They would have been surrounded but for corporal Sanopa of the Royal Papuan Constabulary. Sanopa found an unguarded track and led the force to safety.
The first serious attempt to halt the Japanese was made at Kokoda. It failed and the Australian commander, colonel William Owen, was killed.
Then, a battalion-sized Australian force arrived from Port Moresby. They briefly recaptured Kokoda on August 8, but were unable to maintain their hold on the village.
At Deniki, on the northern slopes of the Owen Stanley Range, the Australians were defeated again and driven back.
By the end of August, the main bodies of both armies were approaching one another. A veteran Australian brigade, brought from Queensland, formed the core of a 2300-strong force with which brigadier Arnold Potts was ordered to halt the Japanese drive on Port Moresby.
His opponent, general Tomitaro Horii, had been frustrated by Allied air attacks on his shipping, which delayed the arrival of his main force. Now, however, the two forces were assembled on both sides of a steep gorge leading into the Owen Stanleys, nine kilometres south of Kokoda, near a village called Isurava.
The battle began on August 27 and continued for four days. The Japanese artillery, eight light guns, decided the outcome. Potts, with no artillery, was unable to deal with the Japanese bombardment; he fell back to Eora Creek on August 31.
By now, the extraction of the Australian wounded and sick along the trail was a serious problem. The care shown to these men by the Papuans who carried them on stretchers over the mountains saw the Papuans dubbed the ‘ fuzzy wuzzy angels’.
Falling back slowly, the Australians fought rear-guard actions at Eora and Templeton’s Crossing. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied forces, continued to reinforce the Kokoda front and ordered Potts to try once again to halt the Japanese advance.
On September 8 at Efogi (Brigade Hill), Potts was defeated. The Japanese pinned his force by a frontal attack while sending a battalion of infantry to cut the trail in the Australian rear. Once again, the Japanese artillery played a key role. The Australians were driven from their position in one day with heavy loss.
The final battle of the Japanese advance took place at Ioribaiwa. Potts was replaced after Efogi by brigadier Ken Eather, who planned something more than a defensive stand. He had his own 2000 fresh veterans of 25th Brigade, together with 1000 survivors of the retreat from Kokoda. As the Japanese approached, Eather intended to counter-attack.
But from September 14 to 16 the Australians, as yet unable to match the Japanese in jungle fighting, saw their plan unravel. Eather ordered a retreat. The Australians fell back to Imita Ridge, only 40 kilometres from Port Moresby. Eather’s superior, general Arthur Allen, told Eather: “There won’t be any withdrawal from the Imita position, Ken. You’ll die there if necessary.”
But, instead of attacking, the Japanese dug in on Ioribaiwa Ridge.
WHY DID TH E JAPANESE HALT ?
On August 9, 1942, the day after the Australians had briefly retaken Kokoda, US Marines captured a Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, 900 kilometres from the eastern tip of PNG at Milne Bay. This came as a great surprise to the Japanese, disrupting their plan to capture Port Moresby.
The first Japanese attempts to recapture their Guadalcanal airfield failed. Then a Japanese landing at Milne Bay, in early September, was repulsed by Australian infantry and the Royal Australian Air Force. It was the first time during World War 2 that a Japanese amphibious landing had been comprehensively defeated.
The Japanese realised that they hadn’t the resources to continue the advance on Port Moresby as well as to recover Guadalcanal. The South Seas Force on the Kokoda Trail was ordered to stop and dig in at Ioribaiwa Ridge, while fresh troops from Rabaul attempted to retake Guadalcanal.
Extraction of the Australian wounded and sick was a serious problem. The care shown to these men by the Papuans who carried them on stretchers over the mountains saw the Papuans dubbed the ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’.
THE AUSTRALIAN COUNTER-ATTACK
On September 27, the Australian counter-offensive began when 4600 men assaulted Ioribaiwa Ridge – to find that the Japanese had retreated the previous night. The Japanese had pulled back 30 kilometres along the Kokoda Trail to a stronger position.
From October 13, the Australians battered their way through continuous bunkers and trenches from Templeton’s Crossing to Eora Creek. Australian losses were heavy and progress slow, but after two weeks the Japanese, conceding defeat, retreated from the Owen Stanley Range and fell back to Oivi, 10 kilometres east of Kokoda village on the trail across the plains leading to Buna.
In early November, the Australians, having learned many lessons from their reverses, outmanoeuvred and soundly defeated the South Seas Force at Oivi. To general MacArthur the way to Buna seemed open. A rapid advance might capture the Japanese base and end the enemy invasion of Papua at a stroke.
THE BATTLE OF BUNA-GONA
MacArthur planned a two-pronged move: the Australian 7th Division, victors at Oivi, advanced east from Kokoda along the KokodaSanananda Trail. At the same time the United States 32nd Division, now deemed sufficiently well trained for battle, struck northwest from Milne Bay along the coast towards Buna. However, the opportunity MacArthur saw to capture Buna quickly did not exist.
Since July, the Japanese had constructed an elaborate fortress of coconut tree log and concrete bunkers and trenches, which stretched for eight kilometres along the coast from Gona to Buna. Recent reinforcements from Rabaul also brought the garrison’s strength up to 11,000, half the number of the Allies who opposed them.
From November 19, repeated Allied infantry assaults, without artillery support, found the Buna nut impossible to crack. Neither the veteran but tired Australians who had fought their way along the Kokoda Trail, nor the fresh but inexperienced Americans, could make any headway.
Realising a prolonged effort was required, the Allies brought up artillery and tanks by air and sea. Additional bomber squadrons were deployed to Port Moresby.
When the Australians captured Gona on December 9, the Japanese supply line – now reduced to small ships landing supplies at night along the coast north of Gona – was cut. The Japanese began to run out of food and medical supplies.
At the end of December 1942, Australian infantry and tanks reinforced the US 32nd Division, breaking the deadlock in the south at Buna village, which fell on January 2, 1943. The Japanese could see the writing on the wall and ordered a breakout from the Buna perimeter. Abandoning their weapons and equipment, 3000 of them escaped through the jungle. By the end of January 1943, all organised Japanese resistance in Papua had ceased.
AFTER THE BATTLE
From July 1942 to January 1943, 17,000 lives were lost in the fighting along the Kokoda Trail, at Milne Bay, and at Buna. Almost 13,000 were Japanese; the rest were Australians, Americans and Papuans.
The six-month Japanese invasion of Papua was over. Australia no longer needed to fear an invasion and the Allies could now turn their attention to recovering the rest of New Guinea.
Now, few who remember the campaign remain. For Des Moran of Yeppoon: “It was the greatest disaster and tragedy of my life.”
Yukiko Tsukamoto, wife of a Japanese survivor, told me: “My husband is still frightened by the sound of thunder. It makes him remember the enemy and the artillery. He still wakes me up at night.”
Peter Williams is a military historian in Canberra, Australia. He has visited the battlefields in PNG, interviewed Australian, Papuan and Japanese veterans and researched in all three countries. He has written books, websites and articles on World War 2 in PNG. His books include The Kokoda Campaign 1942: Myth and Reality, and Kokoda for Dummies.
Firepower ... Australian soldiers with captured Japanese weapons.
At the ready ... Papuan carriers at Kokoda receiving their instructions from Australian officers (opposite page); fuzzy wuzzy angels carrying a wounded Australian across Brown River (left).
Shoulder to shoulder ... an Australian soldier receives assistance during the 100- kilometre trek back to Port Moresby.
Taking a breather ... exhausted Australian infantry after the battle of Gorari.
In good hands ... a Papuan shading a wounded Australian soldier from the Kokoda sun.
Now and then ... modern trekkers crossing a creek on a log bridge on the Kokoda Trail; general Tomitaro Horii (front left) with his men.