The Kokoda Correction , ACS

The Kokoda Correction , ACS

Damien Parer’s famous photo from the assault on Salamaua — Pte WOW Johnson of 58/59th Battalion assisted by Sgt GRC Ayre

One of Australia’s longest running controversies which still ignites passion on both sides of the debate—often fuelled by myth and mis-information—is what to call the wartime overland route from Port Moresby to Kokoda—is it a trail or a track?

Dogmatic bureaucratic culture, this writer would argue, meant mistakes in the past are unlikely to be acknowledged or efforts made to correct them. With the Australian War Memorial (AWM) beginning to spend half a billion dollars on expansion and refurbishment and a new director appointed, it’s a perfect time for them to address a long overdue assessment of the credibility of one of its displays which has caused dissent amongst military historians, respected authors, the media and the public over the decades.

The following text is compiled from personal experiences, information from credible people and extracted from earlier private and official publications. As one with close links to Papua New Guinea as a cinematographer and always open to correction based on factual information, my essay should not to be taken as a definite academic statement on the matter, but as the legendary television physics presenter Professor Julius Sumner-Miller put it, ‘poses enchanting questions for enquiring minds’.

American General Douglas MacArthur’s media conferences in Port Moresby precipitated a series of events culminating in the AWM presenting and perpetuating a questionable interpretation of our military history. It was due to the general’s notorious control he exercised over the media, especially the most powerful communications tool in living memory at the time—the motion picture newsreel—that some of Australia’s military battle heritage was incorrectly chronicled.

The Australian government and many international newsreel companies had cameramen covering the Pacific action. This resulted in most of the world including Australians and troops based in the Pacific being exposed to saturation coverage of the Kokoda campaign, yet unfortunately mostly interpreted and presented by overseas entities.

The Australian Battles Nomenclature Committee was established in 1947. It gazetted official names to significant military encounters including those in the South Pacific Region. For reasons which will become apparent later, their choice of title including

the word ‘Trail’ for the Kokoda campaign was based on accepted terminology used at the time by military personnel, respected authors, the manipulated media and the public. Subsequent investigation into the early days of the battle now provides an insight into and supports the argument why most Australians are now adopting the original description of the route as the ‘track’. Despite holding evidence to the contrary within its own vaults and archives, the AWM stubbornly clings to the official line to the detriment of accurately portraying Australian military history.

There have been persuasive arguments by credible academics, authors and historians who prefer the word ‘trail’. However, most of their supportive evidence can nearly always be traced back to journals, official decisions and material published after General MacArthur took control of the war in the Pacific. It is evident most of those later accounts were influenced by the media of the day, with subsequent events and records being compiled by those who themselves were fed structured information by the military and controlled civilian media. Earlier evidence has been suppressed.

Soldiers of the 2/14th Battalion, 7th Division on theKokoda campaign—only one of these men survived

Japanese aircraft began bombing Port Moresby on 3 February 1942 while attempting to secure the town as a base from which they could mount an invasion of Australia. The attack was followed by the Battle of the Coral Sea three months later. Having been vanquished by the Japanese in the Philippines, General MacArthur and his army retreated to Australia in March 1942. The following month he was appointed Supreme Commander of all Australian and American troops in their mission to defeat Japan. Port Moresby was the focus of major Allied efforts to prevent the Japanese from capturing the town. MacArthur at first considered it to be only a side-show to the main event. However, the Australian army brass in Melbourne stressed to him the importance of stemming the Japanese push towards Australia, forcing him to focus his attention on that conflict. This is the point where historical accounts of the Kokoda action became distorted for other than military reasons.

To understand the politics of the situation one needs to dig deeper and uncover the reasons for the subsequent mis-informed recording of this now legendary action by some of our own troops.

Before the whole Kokoda campaign operation was put under the new command, the term ‘track’ had been used exclusively by our fighting forces to describe the tortuous jungle path between Port Moresby and Kokoda over the Owen Stanley Range. Because of MacArthur’s new role in charge of the Pacific action, the journalists who attended his press conferences in Port Moresby were instructed to refer to the Kokoda route as a ‘trail’ rather than its Australian description ‘track’. An early book written by Bill James, ‘Field Guide to the Kokoda Track’, hand-written by one of the 2/23 Battalion includes a photo of a diary indicating they have been ordered to use the name ‘Kokoda Trail’.

Similar diaries and records in the AWM archives tell the same story. Interestingly MacArthur saw no reason to rename the important supply track to Wau further to the west which was always known as the ‘Bulldog track’ possibly because there was no significant American involvement or media coverage of this route. It reflects the disregard for local names and customs as evidenced by the naming of the later wartime route through the Vietnamese and Cambodian jungles as the Ho Chi Min ‘Trail’. Unfortunately, the AWM is unconvinced of this and other evidence pinpointing the origin of debate but cannot provide any factual material to disprove it.

During this writer’s time in Papua New Guinea in the early 1960s as a newsreel cameraman he was fortunate and privileged to meet and work with respected Canadian journalist Kate Vellacott-Jones. She was stationed in Port Moresby before the war and remained there during the conflict. Kate was amongst the many accredited war correspondents at MacArthur’s media conferences and was able to confirm his insistence on the use of the word ‘trail’ in all outgoing despatches. After the war she worked for the Department of Information and Extension Services as senior communications officer. There was no reason to doubt her recollection of these significant history-manipulating directives. However, some journalists at those conferences have attempted to take credit for introducing the word ‘trail’ into media reports.

Long-time Aussie journalist Sean Dorney in PNG with the ABC consistently referred to the route as the ‘track’ in all his despatches. A scene in a 2018 documentary on his last pre-retirement trip back to the new nation reveals him standing under a government-erected edifice with bold overhead signage claiming it to be the ‘Kokoda Trail’ while he talked about the significance of ‘the track’. In January 1963 when this writer arrived in Moresby there had been a crude sign erected at Owers Corner proclaiming it to be the ‘Kokoda Trail’ although some alternatively worded signs still remained which refer to the ‘track’.

He noted there was local resentment to the use and eventual official adoption of the word ‘trail’ to describe the route and later, the government unfortunately gazetting the unpopular name and including it in military awards. This distortion over the years is a classic case of where official war records and public perception have been over-ridden on the personal preference of an influential overseas army commander rather than the Australians, Papuans and New Guineans who were engaged in the action.

With the involvement of America in the Pacific war and knowing that the cinema audiences in the United States would not understand the meaning of the word ‘track’, the word ‘trail’ was substituted in nearly all the narratives. It was presented to the public through the eyes of predominantly overseas newspaper and newsreel editors. The latter worked for the European Gaumont and Pathe companies as well as the much larger American newsreel production and distribution arrangements of MGM, Paramount, Fox Movietone, Universal International and their affiliates who dominated the world cinema newsreel industry including Australia. Our local Cinesound Review was a minor player in cinemas and received much less local screening and little, if at all, overseas. As such, most of the world’s population, including the writer during the 1940s, was exposed to the overseas companies’ coverage and interpretation of the American offensive. This contributed to a less than accurate portrayal of Australian activities by overseas media.

Apart from his press conferences aimed at international exposure, MacArthur also established a radio station in Port Moresby which was eventually taken over by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and known as 9PA.

It was aimed to inform and motivate the troops camped nearby, but always referred to their looming battleground as ‘the trail’. The soldiers at camps near Moresby and elsewhere were also fed a regular diet of American newsreels included with other regular morale-boosting film entertainment. While this was intended to keep them in touch with how the war was going, soldiers’ diaries in the AWM’s archives show the use of the American description gradually appearing in their personal entries. Many began to refer to their combat area as ‘the trail’ as they became indoctrinated with the use of this foreign term. It explains why they used it decades later when historians interviewed the veterans.

The Australian public and Melbourne-based military HQ personnel not actually engaged in the fighting were constantly exposed to these references in the cinemas, in the newspapers, over the radio, and increasingly at official briefing sessions.

Unfortunately, the army top brass, their propaganda machine and cartographers were continually influenced by this media bombardment which is reflected in their documentation. In the absence of other information except that which had been approved by MacArthur, it added to the factual distortion. Maps which had previously shown the route using various names including road, path, track etc. were now being changed to ‘trail’. Some historians who support this name refer to a book written in the early 1930s by a rubber plantation manager’s wife at Sogeri who referred to the route as a ‘trail’, not realising the book was written to appeal to those in her homeland—America.

It has been established nearly all the soldiers who were based in Port Moresby prior to MacArthur’s appointment and who actually fought in the Owen Stanley’s originally referred to ‘the track’. Legendary wartime cameraman Damien Parer who initially covered these events for the Australian Department of Information and later Paramount News referred to ‘the track’ in all his ‘dope sheets’. These were factual descriptive shot information details for the editors and which accompanied his reels of films out of Port Moresby. The word ‘track’ was used in some Australian newsreels and even by Parer himself as he made a specially filmed impassioned appeal to many previously complacent apathetic Australians to support their troops in combat. Most Australian newsreels received very little exposure in the cinemas due to the domination of overseas reels which were mostly owned by or affiliated with the big American studios. Also the majority of the Australian print media complied with MacArthur’s directive, cementing the name ‘trail’ in the mind-set of the public.

The official Commonwealth Battle Nomenclature committee in London and later its Australian counterpart capitulated to the overseas media onslaught. Their recommendations were based on the Army records and other distorted official documentation produced subsequent to MacArthur’s involvement. It was unwittingly supported by the writings of several credible authors who had produced books towards the end and after the conflict which, due to the censorship of information during the wartime years, had been mostly derived from official sources. In 1958 a ‘Kokoda Trail’ award was created and presented to the Papuan Infantry Regiment and ten Australian infantry battalions thereby further entrenching a military misnomer. Successive government and other instrumentalities have relied on these erroneous proclamations without examining the original source of the information. This contributed to further distortion of fact.

While this military masquerade was generating momentum, about the same time, Sapper H Bert: Beros, NX6925, 7th Australian Division, Royal Australian Engineers, was penning this now-famous poem, ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ (at right), in the brief moments between battles on the track and which he later sent home to his mother.

While the AWM has this poem and other evidence in their archives which clearly establishes the route was known as a track, they persist in ignoring there is a factual and more credible alternative interpretation of events to that presented in its display.

In recent years this writer unsuccessfully attempted to get the AWM to address his concerns, and on 20 March 2017 he wrote to its Chairman. Instead of the expected direct response, the first reply received some time later was from an AWM-compliant commercial Kokoda tour operator and author of a book promoting the route as a ‘trail’. He had obviously been given a copy of the letter and was asked to respond on the AWM’s behalf. He denounced the facts presented, referring to his appended published writings which denigrated those who thought otherwise. This included a scathing critique of the Department of Veterans Affairs who also supported use of the word ‘track’.

By accusing those who opposed the word ‘trail’ of having an anti-American bias it further unnecessarily inflamed the perpetual controversy. It only reinforced the suspicion all parties were closing ranks to protect the status quo by justifying and promoting the use of the word ‘trail’ as is included in his own business name. Such language from AWM’s quasi representative did little to engender rational debate. It was interesting to note the same vigorous proponent of the use of the word ‘trail’ was featured on the track on TV in November 2019 during the coverage of local villagers who had erected barricades along the route. They were complaining they had not received enough compensation for damage done to their land by commercial trek operators who were using it for their own profit. It is significant that the protesting villagers erected signs near their homes stating ‘Kokoda Track is closed’.

Another argument used to support the use of the word ‘trail’ is its use to describe the route between various sites of interest such as the Western Front Battlefield Trail in Europe and similar locations. However the distinction between the two names becomes apparent when you consider most Aussies use the term track to describe a route through bushland or similar terrain such as the ‘Australian Alps walking track’ (NSW, ACT & Vic), ‘ the ‘Bibbulmun’ and ‘Cape to Cape’ tracks (WA), the ’Overland’, ‘Port Davey’, ‘South Coast’, ‘Overland ‘ tracks (TAS) and others throughout the nation. It is obvious why the path through the Papuan jungle was known to the Australian fighting troops as a ‘track’. Americans make no differentiation of the type of terrain in which the routes exist. This is why in later years some new hiking routes and trekking paths in Australia have been called ‘trails’.

There are many examples where contemporary authors, especially those who have used the term ‘trail’ in their earlier writings have been fiercely compliant with the AWM’s interpretation of events. After a follow-up email by this writer to the AWM subsequent to the initial communication, on 29 April 2017 a positive and informative letter was received from the AWM’s chairman which attempted to justify their stance. Paradoxically it included a published well-researched and un-biased document by the AWM’s military section historian Dr Karl James who conceded the soldiers who fought the Kokoda campaign overwhelmingly used the term ‘track’ to describe the route.

The Remembrance Service at the AWM commemorating seventy-five years after the epic battle of the Kokoda campaign was poignant and significant, evidenced by the steadily declining numbers of Kokoda Diggers who attended the ceremony—those who had put their lives on the line defending this country.

However, during the ceremony, it was refreshing to note most of the speakers with the exception of establishment-compliant Army personnel were now using the word ‘track’ to describe the route. While the current army top brass focus on non-military matters such as social issues and Royal Commissions while ignoring their obligation to their own soldiers and veterans, they are unlikely to give any priority to putting their own archival records in order. Encouragingly, retired General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove is understood to use the term ‘track’ when referring to the battle.

The problem is compounded because of the army and curatorial culture where the reputation of predecessors must not be tarnished by admitting mistakes have been made in the past. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the AWM stubbornly continues to use the word ‘trail’ exclusively in its otherwise impressive display about the Kokoda campaign. It has diaries, maps and other documentary material in its archives to support the use of its rejected version of history. When the writer and his wife checked in 2012 there was no mention of the word ‘track’ in the main text graphics. It is unfortunate that by complying with the official questionable records of our nation’s military history, the AWM’s own credibility and reputation is compromised in the eyes of an increasing number of Australians and many veterans who have attempted to challenge this misrepresentation.

Compounding the problem over recent decades is both the PNG and Australian governments’ use of the AWM’s interpretation as a benchmark and gazetting names and awards such as the military ‘Kokoda Trail Award’. However, our politicians seem to want to have it both ways. During a joint press conference in Port Moresby in 2008 held by the Prime Ministers of both Australia and PNG where the Kokoda route was the prime topic, transcripts reveal both politicians and the journalists used the word ‘track’ exclusively—‘trail’ was never mentioned! Those units who fought on the Kokoda track should collectively lobby to ensure our historical records accurately reflect the correct name as known to their mates, many whom they had to leave on that muddy mountainous mosquito-infested track.

Because of the reverence in which the AWM is held, individuals, organisations and the media are reluctant to confront its authority. Students of history, authors, the media and others continue to turn to it for authoritative guidance in their writings. Several newspaper journalists who used the term ‘trail’ in their Kokoda stories revealed, when challenged, they knew it was ‘track’. But when submitting their work to sub-editors were told it was policy to follow the AWM’s example. Unfortunately, its actions confirm the adage ‘if an error is repeated often enough it becomes the truth’.

Members of the 39th Battalion withdrawing after the Battle of Isurava (Photo: Damien Parer)

Its curators should take a serious look at the way they are distorting military heritage by presenting their preferred version of events without acknowledging there is a credible alternative account now accepted by most Aussies. This is evidenced by the increasing use of the term ‘track’ by independent authors and journalists who have now decided not to regurgitate the writings in earlier documents which blindly followed the official line.

Recently ‘Battle of the Kokoda Track’ gold crown coins were produced for international distribution by Bradford Exchange to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the action. Memorial plaques in Kings Park near the WA State War Memorial and other locations throughout the nation refer to the ‘Kokoda Track’. Unfortunately, once enshrined in public service culture there will be continuing strong resistance to correcting the mistake.

Rectification will be costly and possibly humiliating for some academics, curators and Defence personnel but it is the least we can do to commemorate those brave Papuans, New Guineans and Australians who died on the track in the defence of our nation. The usual predictable response to the ‘track vs. trail’ argument is ‘It’s only words, both of which mean the same thing, so why does it matter?’ It matters to those remaining Diggers and their descendants who would prefer to see their gallant deeds recorded through the eyes of Aussie archivists—not an egotistical American General. It also side-steps the main issue in contention which is that a battle fought by predominantly Australian forces to protect our own country should be formally recognised and recorded in its national war memorial by the terminology of our own nation, not at the insistence to conform with words in common use by a powerful military ally.

The longer those at the AWM and the Army refuse to acknowledge mistakes of the past without taking meaningful action to correct them, the further their reputation for accurately recording military history will be compromised. With the current massive investment beginning at the AWM, now is the time for this long overdue honourable remedial action to be taken. It has the resources and opportunity to do so. It will be a brave and respected politician or curator who initiates the long overdue correction.

They should begin by reviewing the name given to its Kokoda gallery and re-naming it something like ‘The Kokoda Campaign’ with the text graphics reflecting the correct name. It could also provide the public with an informative account of how the decades-old naming controversy arose and acknowledge mistakes had been made and the charade has finally ended.

The Australian War Memorial and Army Archives owe it to the nation.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

Leave a Reply