Les’s Kokoda force helped delay Japanese
LESLIE BOULDEN ARNEL
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.