Kokoda re­mem­bered

Our ex­pert guide to one of World War 2’s most fa­mous con­flicts

Paradise - - Contents -

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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’.


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.


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.


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.

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