Les’s Kokoda force helped de­lay Ja­panese

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Last of SA’s Kokoda Trail vet­er­ans

Born: Jan­uary 10, 1924; Ballarat Died: Oc­to­ber 19, 2019; Ade­laide

LES Arnel was among the first to fight the Ja­panese at Kokoda, set­ting the story of an Aus­tralian bat­tle leg­end in mo­tion.

Born the third son of four, he grew up on the fam­ily’s sol­dier set­tler farm at An­nuello, in the Vic­to­rian Mallee. Drought would even­tu­ally force the fam­ily to sell and move to Stawell.

Les was over­ac­tive and ad­ven­tur­ous. Often barefoot, he would ride his bike into the Grampians to ex­plore its spec­tac­u­lar ridges.

At 13, he left school and worked with his fa­ther clean­ing out ir­ri­ga­tion trenches.

He was a keen Scout, and joined the lo­cal mili­tia when he was 13, in 1937. When they asked his age, Les said he was turn­ing 18 in Jan­uary – but didn’t say which year. The army duly recorded his year of birth as 1920.

Fol­low­ing the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, he joined the 39th Bat­tal­ion, which, un­der-strength and not fully trained, was shipped out to Pa­pua New Guinea on Box­ing Day 1941, aboard the Aqui­tania. Les cel­e­brated his 18th birth­day on the jour­ney.

The 39th was put to work de­fend­ing Port Moresby. Based at Ack Ack Hill at Seven

Mile Aero­drome, where they ex­pe­ri­enced con­stant straf­ing and bomb­ing by the en­emy. Les was in­jured when a bomb col­lapsed his slit trench.

In June 1942, he was among four pla­toons from his bat­tal­ion to join the hastily thrown to­gether Maroubra Force, sent to the Kokoda Track to counter con­cerns that the Ja­panese might ad­vance over­land to Port Moresby.

The heat, hu­mid­ity, rain and steep ter­rain meant they were thor­oughly ex­hausted by the time they reached the Kokoda Plateau – the first white men to cross the Owen Stan­ley Ranges to get there.

Just a week later, Les could hear thun­der­ous sounds in the dis­tance. It was the Ja­panese land­ing at Gona, plan­ning to cross PNG and cap­ture Port Moresby.

The poorly pre­pared Maroubra Force would do its best to slow the ad­vance of the over­whelm­ing Ja­panese force.

Sup­plies were few and they were re­duced to chew­ing sugar cane for en­ergy.

Les was ap­pointed a run­ner for his com­pany, which was the first to en­counter the en­emy on July 23, de­stroy­ing the bridge over the Ku­musi River to slow the Ja­panese ad­vance.

His pla­toon had spread out in a de­fen­sive po­si­tion 10m apart but, af­ter think­ing it was eerily quiet, Les whis­pered to his next mate.

When he heard no an­swer, he moved over to dis­cover that he had gone. Wor­ried they might be out­flanked, the com­man­der had or­dered a re­treat, but Les had not heard it.

Les reck­oned he could have won the Stawell Gift in his mad dash to catch up with his pla­toon. He came face-to-face with the en­emy again in a suc­cess­ful am­bush on the banks of Go­rari Creek on July 25.

When they came un­der mor­tar at­tack at Oivi Village, they had to with­draw in the mid­dle of the night down a near-ver­ti­cal slope, led by a lo­cal po­lice con­sta­ble. Les said that there was no way he would have at­tempted the de­scent in day­light.

He was now af­flicted by a whole com­pen­dium of trop­i­cal dis­eases and, in a delir­ium, wan­dered off the track and col­lapsed. He was later found to also have acute ap­pen­dici­tis.

The Fuzzy Wuzzy An­gels came to his res­cue and car­ried him out to Port Moresby.

De­spite all the con­fu­sion, his ad hoc force had man­aged to hold up the Ja­panese ad­vance, find­ing pre­cious time for re­in­force­ments and sup­plies to ar­rive to con­tinue the Kokoda cam­paign.

The Ja­panese were forced to re­treat from late Septem­ber. Af­ter six months of ac­tion, the 39th could only muster 32 men and would be dis­banded.

Les had been packed back to Aus­tralia. His Kokoda ex­pe­ri­ence would cause a men­tal break­down and it af­fected him for many years. Af­ter work­ing on non-com­bat du­ties, he was dis­charged a cor­po­ral.

He soon met Doreen, a friend from his school years. They mar­ried and had chil­dren Wayne and Ch­eryl, although Wayne died at the age of eight from mul­ti­ple heart is­sues.

Les and Doreen had moved to Port Pirie where he man­aged the Cox Foys store for 20 years, and was an en­thu­si­as­tic com­mu­nity mem­ber, a lay preacher for the Port Pirie Church of Christ and a keen am­a­teur ac­tor.

Doreen died in 1982 and there would be two more mar­riages, with Les out­liv­ing all his spouses. He is sur­vived by Ch­eryl, three grand­chil­dren and three great-grand­chil­dren.

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