The Human Face of Kokoda by Suellen Holland

Opportunities present themselves all the time and it’s our choice whether we act upon these opportunities or not. Two years ago, I was presented with an opportunity to ‘walk’ the Kokoda Trail. I admit I am not a person who enjoys camping or ‘living rough’, I am far too used to modern-day conveniences, however, after much thought, I decided to take up the challenge. I conveniently put aside my misgivings of the ‘experience’ people told me I would remember for the rest of my life; bile rises in my throat at the thought of a ‘long drop’ toilet, cold water showers leave me well, cold and I know that a leech will smell me a mile off, I wonder if leeches like Dior’s Dune, I hope not … aside from all that, I felt myself drawn to the idea.

ALMOST FROM DAY ONE, I decided that I just didn’t want to scramble up a couple of hills that had a ‘mean’ reputation and I certainly had nothing to prove, nor did I really care that people thought I was ‘brave or tough’ because I had committed to a gruelling twelve-months’ training schedule.
What I really wanted was to find the ‘human face of Kokoda’, if she had one. Was she just a dirt track in the Papua New Guinea jungle that happened to have ‘war history’, a dirt track that one nation revered and another sought to forget, or was she more than that?
These days the Kokoda Trail is known as the Kokoda Track. Kokoda Trail is the correct name for the track. It seems Trail sounded American, so Track was (unofficially) adopted instead.
The Kokoda Trail story has been told and re-told well. In 1942, the savage campaign fought between Australia and Japan is one of the most epic and documented episodes of (our) war history—a few short months when two mortal enemies pushed each other back and forth along a muddy, precipitous bush track over a mountainous spine in southern Papua New Guinea.
The courage and sacrifice of our soldiers (mostly unblooded militiamen) supported by the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) is legendary and they suffered greatly. The mountainous terrain was foreign to the Australians, they had little or no support from their superiors and, to add to the confusion, our troops didn’t even have a ‘proper’ uniform. They had ‘sand-coloured’ castoffs from our desert campaign, the light colour clashed with the dark green of the jungle and made the men an easy target for the enemy; it is documented that the 96-kilometre track claimed the lives of over 600 Australian and PIB soldiers, with well in excess of 1,600 wounded.
The little-known local jungle path between Owers’ Corner and Kokoda became a blood-­stained path for supremacy—a path where many earned the respect of an awe-inspired (grateful) nation and for many more, the absolute right to wear a medal on their chest. A human face—I’d say so, wouldn’t you?
But what of the shadowy enemy lurking in the dense wet undergrowth? The highly trained, elite 144th Regiment of the Japanese Imperial Army, an army better known for their alleged atrocities other than their participation in battle.
The Japanese felt the shame of surrender after WWII so acutely that, even today, there is little recorded, much less spoken about. However, I chanced upon a book that gave me an insight as to what it was really like for the Japanese soldiers forced to take Kokoda; the mission was doomed to fail, the ‘good road’ between Buna and Kokoda was non-existent, the promised supplies never arrived, at times the soldiers were so hungry their ‘stomachs stuck to the inside wall of their backs’ and conditions of the track, lied about.
I learned of the desperation to hold their (Kokoda) position at all cost, the breakdown of human decency when faced with defeat, the lack of medical supplies and the accepted demise of the wounded left behind—‘a path of infinite sorrow’—human faces, traumatised for life.
And, of course, there is the story of the ‘Bone Man of Kokoda’, another young Japanese soldier who fought along every foot of the blood-soaked path. He was the only one from his platoon to survive. After he was evacuated, he made a promise that one day he would return to Kokoda, find the remains of his fallen comrades and bring them home to Japan for a proper burial.
Thirty-seven years later he returned to Kokoda, this time he carried a shovel and garden hoe instead of a grenade launcher and rifle. Over the next seventeen years he ‘worked’ the track and unearthed hundreds and hundreds of Japanese remains. Many a time he faced opposition, but he kept his promise and now many of his friends rest in eternal peace in Japan—a human face that rattled authorities.
What of the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, the Papuans who lived along the Kokoda Trail? The villagers lived a wholly traditional existence before the war, however, in 1942 everything changed. The young men were recruited to ferry supplies to the front line and carry the wounded back to base; their old and infirm, as well as their woman and children, were left to fend for themselves.
There were five of us in my Kokoda party. We started our trek at Owers’ Corner ‘the bottom end’ near Port Moresby and for the next eight days ‘walked’—and I use the term loosely—up to Kokoda. We waded through rivers, splashed our way over streams and scrambled over huge fallen trees.
On day three the thunder rolled around the Maguli Range, the heavens opened and the track became a mud bath. We skidded and slithered our way through Menari and Naoro—and then there was Brigade Hill. Little did I know I was about to face my biggest challenge.
The gruelling climb left me dehydrated and vomiting with exhaustion. That night, I crawled into my tent and dreamt of evacuation. Personal hygiene became a distant memory and the kilos dropped off. Blisters bled and for one of our party,a tummy bug threatened a medical evacuation. Tempers flared, harsh words were spoken and a long-standing friendship fractured beyond repair.
Onward and upward we climbed and trekked and climbed and trekked again. We passed through Myola, Templeton’s Crossing, and at Isurava rested a while in quiet reflection. Kokoda was firmly in our sights. Finally, on the afternoon of day eight we walked through the hallowed arches that marked the entrance to Kokoda—our mission complete.
In many aspects the Kokoda Trail of today is as it was back then, a well-used highway. The Owen Stanley Range still echoes with the sounds of battle; cries of anguish pierce the air, heavy-footed, rubber-soled boots shake the ground and the rattle of water bottles announce the arrival of another group of bloodied and weary troops.
The path is full of trekkers, all decked out (as I was) in their state-of-the-art gear; fancy expensive hiking boots, pure wool socks, walking sticks and brightly-coloured day packs. They sweat, groan and stumble and as darkness falls, crawl into their warm sleeping bags and sleep like the dead.
But what if the clothes they wore were a bull’s eye for the enemy, the water they guzzled was muddy and full of mosquito larvae and their childhood mate lay in a hastily dug shallow grave further up the track—oh God! how am I gonna tell his mum he took the bullet for me—what if?
And what about the locals, the Papuans who call Kokoda home; they run along the track in bare feet, often with a child on their hip. Leap from log to slippery log and step off the path to let you (and a hundred others) pass. They shelter under a leaf when it rains, drink from a stream that gushes from the hillside. Fill their string bilums with yams and coconuts, and offer you a banana and a hand when you stumble—much the same really as in 1942.
I am happy to say I found my ‘Human Face of Kokoda’. The Australian troops and the PIB who stopped an almost invincible enemy—the Japanese Imperial Army who sacrificed themselves for their living deity—and the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who so many owe their lives to.
Let us cross the boundaries and remember, whatever their colour or their creed, they all had a human face. But, in my mind, the true ‘Human Face of Kokoda’ are the Papuans both past and present, who carry our packs, clean our boots of mud and nourish our tummies with food. They tend to our wounds, fill our water bottles and offer words of encouragement when the going gets tough—all without a murmur of malice.
They graciously share their Kokoda with us—just as they did in 1942.
My admiration and respect are heartfelt for the local guides and porters from Kokoda Spirit, who not only attended my every need and shared their Kokoda with me, but showed me that the Kokoda Trail has many, many human faces, both past and present, not just one.

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