Kokoda 70 years on: Charlie Lynn
Kokoda is a powerful word. According to the Orokaiva koko means place of skulls, da is village. The combination of syllables conjures up “adventure” in the minds of sedentary beings. It makes sense. Many early explorers and missionaries searching for gold in the Yodda valley ended up in cooking pots.
Then came the war. Kokoda was the first pitched battle fought against the Japanese. It signaled the beginning of a campaign where Australia’s fate hung in the balance as our diggers fought a fanatical enemy, treacherous terrain, legions of deadly mites, malarial mosquitoes, venomous snakes:and cold fear.
But the enemy our commanders feared most was the ignorance of armchair generals and politicians safely ensconced in Australia. “Build a road!” – “Blow the Gap!” – “Die at Imita!” they bellowed from the safety of their bunkers.
Years of neglect were returning to haunt Australia’s political leaders who relied on mother England’s patronage for protection and allowed our military forces to run down to unsustainable levels. Three Australian battalions were sacrificed in a token effort to provide a security screen in the Pacific: Gull Force in Ambon, Sparrow Force in Timor and Lark Force in Rabaul. They were doomed before the war began as no plans were made for their reinforcement or their escape.
Britain’s assurance that their Singapore fortress would stop any southward advance towards Australia was soon shattered with the sinking of two frontline warships and the capitulation of their army under General Percival.
By April 1942 Japan’s army occupied Malaya, Singapore Island, Burma, Sumatra, Java, the Netherlands Indies, the Philippines, New Britain and the Northern Solomons. Wartime author Osmar White wrote: A Japanese Churchill might have coined himself a phrase and said: ‘Never before in the field of human conflict has one nation acquired so vast an empire in so short a time – and at so small a cost’.
Japanese warplanes bombed Australia’s northern cities and sank ships off the West Australian coast. Mini-submarines raided Sydney Harbour. Panic spread throughout the country: some even suggested the Melbourne Cup be postponed.
Plans to capture Port Moresby and neutralise Australia by defeating the United States Pacific Fleet were thwarted at the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942 and abandoned after the Battle of Midway a month later. The only option for the Japanese was an advance across the mountain ranges separating the north and south coast of Papua and New Guinea.
The government rushed back our most experienced AIF troops from the Middle East and Europe but for some inexplicable reason they were kept in Australia. The defence of our country was initially left to a handful of raw militia troops who were dispatched to Port Moresby to stop the Japanese advance.
Japanese troops landed at Buna and Gona in early July and struck out along the road towards Kokoda.
Neither Australia nor Japan were prepared for the desperate jungle battles they were to fight across the rugged, razorback mountains of the Owen Stanley ranges. The only link between the village of Kokoda and the Sogeri Plateau was the old mail route which became known as the Kokoda Trail. The name is now proudly emblazoned on the Battle Honours of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the ten Australian battalions who fought in the campaign. It was officially gazetted by the PNG Government in 1972.
The Kokoda campaign began with the Japanese attacking the small Australian and Papuan force on the Kokoda plateau on 27 July 1942. Over the following months desperate battles were fought at Isurava, Brigade Hill and Ioribaiwa Ridge before our troops rallied on the last line of defence at Imita Ridge and turned the tide as they pushed the Japanese back across the ranges. They were forced to fight for every inch of the Trail as Japanese troops prepared major defensive positions at Templeton’s Crossing and Eora Creek.
Australian troops recaptured Kokoda on 2 November 1942 and raised the Australian flag at a special ceremony with General George Vasey on 3 November.
Another bloody battle ensued at Oivi and Goiari before the Japanese were driven back across the Kumusi River on 21 November to end the Kokoda campaign.
Kokoda tested young men’s endurance levels beyond known limits. It was a war where men of both sides feared the jungle more than each other. When they clashed they fought at close quarters with rifle, bayonet, grenade and fist. It has been likened to a knife fight out of the stone-age. Strong bonds of mateship forged in the cauldron of battle have endured the passage of time and will never wain.
Words found etched into a stone in Burma – ‘When you go home, tell them of us. Tell them that for their today, we gave our tomorrows’ – are a haunting reminder of the sacrifice, grief and futility of war.