From its entry into World War II with the surprise destruction of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Japanese Army quickly established a reputation of invincibility. Pearl Harbour signalled a massive onslaught which saw Japan invade Malaya and Thailand and attack Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island.
On January 23 1942, 20,000 troops from the Japanese South Seas Detachment (the Nankai Shitai) overwhelmed the 1400-strong Australian garrison at Rabaul on New Britain Island in PNG, an Australian Protectorate. For the first time in our history, Australian territory had been invaded.
This shock was compounded when the supposedly impregnable fortress of Singapore fell on February 15 1942. Some 130,000 British and Allied troops were trapped there, including virtually the entire Australian 8th Division – about 15,000 Diggers. They began the tortuous road which would see them decimated in Changi, Sandakan and on the Burma-Thailand Railway.
The war was on Australia’s doorstep and we were hopelessly ill-prepared, as war correspondent, Osmar White, pointed out in his book Green Armour: “It is difficult to imagine a nation more completely open to even the most hastily prepared invasion than Australia was in the first three months of 1942. All that stood between her and the Japanese were a few hundred miles of unguarded sea, a few hundred miles of uninhabited jungle, a few groups of palm-filled, road less islands and her own shellback of desert – the inert armour or a neglected and undeveloped north.”
The government rushed back our most experienced troops from the Middle East and, in the meantime, sent a handful of untried militia battalions to Port Moresby to try to hold on until the AIF troops could return to defend their homeland.
These young militia soldiers had volunteered just months earlier and had received minimal training before being put on to transport ships and sent to PNG. They were under-trained, under-equipped and vastly outnumbered. Their average age was eighteen and a half.
Yet it would be these young Diggers who would shatter the myth of invincibility surrounding the Japanese invaders – hardened veterans who had been undefeated in almost constant combat since they invaded Manchuria in 1937.
On July 21 1942, the first of 14,430 troops of the Japanese South Seas Detachment from Rabaul began pouring ashore at the tiny seaside village of Buna on the north-east coast of the PNG mainland. They planned to march across the Owen Stanley Range, which formed the mountainous spine of New Guinea, using a native walking track which meandered from Buna to Port Moresby. Once the invaders had secured Moresby, Australia would be at their mercy.
The young men of the first Militia 39th battalion were ordered up the Track, they had never fired a shot in anger before being thrown in against the Japanese invaders. Most volunteered around October or November of 1941 and by Christmas that year they were on the steamship Aquitania heading for Port Moresby. They’d done their basic training in Victoria using wooden replica weapons and the first time they handled Bren machine guns was when they unpacked them and cleaned the grease off them on the ship. Even their opportunity to train for combat at Port Moresby was wasted as they, and their sister battalion, the 53rd, were used as labourers – building defences and unloading supplies – instead of learning the techniques of jungle fighting.
Initially, the Japanese advance inland made rapid progress against light Australian resistance. Opposing the Japanese was “Maroubra Force”, comprising the 300-strong Papuan Infantry Battalion and an Australian militia unit, the 39th Battalion. Ordered up the Track in the face of the Japanese landings at Buna and Gona, the young Diggers of the 39th were burdened with packs weighing almost 30 kilograms and wore desert khaki uniforms instead of jungle camouflage kit. Many were already malarial because their anti-malaria medicine had been administered too late.
In June it was ordered to proceed up the Kokoda Trail to block any possible Japanese overland advance. The 39th B Company and troops from the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) left Mc Donald’s Corner on 7 July 1942 led by Captain Sam Templeton and guided by Bert Kienzle reached Kokoda on 15 July. Japanese forces landed at Gona, on the north coast of Papua, a week later and quickly moved inland.
Indeed, for the first month after the Gona landings the young Victorians of the 39th were virtually the only Australian force resisting the enemy drive towards the Owen Stanley’s. The first patrols clashed at Awala on 23 July, one company or about 120 Diggers faced the first wave of Japanese, about 1500 seasoned troops. Not surprisingly, the untried Aussies found the first skirmishes difficult but still caused considerable Japanese casualties.
The weight of enemy numbers forced them to fall back to Kokoda where they regrouped. By this stage, the battalion’s Commander, Lt Colonel Owen, had 77 men left, most of who had not slept for three nights. Nevertheless, Owen deployed his men around the Kokoda plateau and prepared to hold it against the invaders. Kokoda fell after a sharp engagement on 29 July. Lieutenant Colonel William Owen, the commanding officer of the 39th Battalion, was killed.
The Australians were forced out during the early hours of the following morning and were forced to withdraw to Deniki. On 8 August the 39th launched a counter-attack at Kokoda but, outnumbered and short of ammunition, fell back to Deniki after two days of fighting. The Australians eventually managed to repeal the ongoing Japanese attack and on 14 August the 39th and PIB fell back to Isurava.
For nearly two weeks the Japanese did not heavily press the Australians. During this time the 39th Battalion was joined by another militia unit, the 53rd Battalion, and the headquarters of the 30th Brigade under Brigadier Selwyn Porter. On 23 August part of the seasoned AIF 7th Division had also reached the forward area. This was the 21st Brigade led by Brigadier Arnold Potts, and comprised another two battalions. (The 2/14th and 2/16th)
Lt Colonel Ralph Honner arrived at Isurava on 16 August 1942 as the Japanese were beginning to probe his forward positions. At that point, any determined enemy assault would probably have overrun Honner’s weary battalion. A second battalion, the 53rd, had trekked from Port Moresby and Honner sent it towards Abuari to protect a side-track over which the Japanese could also advance. Coming up the Kokoda Track in the second half of August were reinforcements in the shape of the 21st Brigade, Australian Imperial Force. Forward elements of the brigade’s lead battalion – the 2/14th – began reaching Isurava on 26 August. As these hardened soldiers, veterans of the fighting in the Middle East made their way through the mountains they had begun to understand just how much the 39th had endured on this toughest of battle fronts.
Using bayonets, bully-beef tins and their steel helmets, the 39th Battalion dug in at Isurava.
“There were countless acts of unrecognised courage as the young Diggers held on grimly. They ignored their lack of sleep, their hunger and their fear as they waited for the next assault. Some positions rebuffed as many as ten human-wave assaults in a day. The Japanese dead piled up around their perimeters like sacks of grain. But they kept on coming.” (From The Spirit of the Digger)
The 39th Battalion withstood these withering attacks for a day and a night. They were on their last legs – outnumbered by ten to one, almost out of food and ammunition and racked with malaria and dysentery – when the first troops of the 2/14th AIF Battalion reached them in the early hours of August 27. Even after the reinforcements arrived, the 39th remained with them and continued to fight against the growing number of Japanese throwing themselves at the Isurava perimeter.
Two platoons of the 2/14th, 10 and 12 platoons, held the key position during the battle – the high ground dominating the ridge. They beat off perhaps 40 attacks from waves of 100 and 200 Japanese throughout the day and night. Lt Harold ‘Butch’ Bisset commanded 10 Platoon superbly but was mortally wounded by a burst of machine-gun fire when handing out ammunition. He was brought out by his men but died later that night in his Brother Stan’s arms.
By August 29, the enemy’s numbers began to take their toll.
One of the most remarkable feats of sustained bravery came from Corporal Charlie McCallum of 12 Platoon of the 2/14th.
“Charlie had already been wounded three times when his platoon was ordered to withdraw just as the Japanese were about to swamp their position on the high ground at Isurava. Despite his wounds, Charlie held off the charging enemy, allowing his mates to pull back to another position down the Track. Charlie held and fired his Bren gun with his right hand and carried a Thompson submachine gun in the other hand. When his magazine ran out on the Bren, he swung up the Tommy gun with his left hand and continued to cut down the surging Japanese as he changed magazines on the Bren. When the Tommy gun was empty he used the Bren gun again, and continued his one-man assault until all his comrades were clear. At least 25 Japanese lay around him. One got so close he actually ripped a utility pouch from Charlie’s belt before falling dead at his feet. When he knew his mates were clear, Charlie fired a final burst and calmly moved off back down the Track.” (From the Spirit of the Digger)
Charlie was recommended for the Victoria Cross – a recommendation endorsed by brigade and division commanders – but it was inexplicably downgraded to the second-highest award for gallantry, the Distinguished Service Medal.
At the height of the battle for Isurava, the weight of enemy numbers placed the entire position in jeopardy after they broke through on the north-eastern perimeter and directly threatened battalion headquarters. A group volunteered to lead a counter-attack to try to block the hole in the defensive position. Among them were three of the 2/14th‘s finest sons, Bruce Kingsbury, Lindsay ‘Teddy’ Bear and Alan Avery. With Teddy Bear firing the Bren gun, the patrol fought back. The firing was so intense, the barrel of the Bren gun glowed red and teddy could only hold it by its folding legs. Teddy began to wilt from loss of blood from his wounds and he handed the Bren to Bruce Kingsbury.
“There are turning points in battle – as in life – critical moments in which the course of events is frozen for an instant, waiting for someone bold enough to seize a fleeting chance at immortality. At that very moment, the Japanese were poised, ready to make a final triumphant charge through to battalion headquarters. It would have been the terminal blow to the 2/14th. Bruce Kingsbury saw his chance. Firing from the hip, he charged straight at the stunned attackers. Alan Avery watched in awe: ‘He came forward with this Bren and he just mowed them down. He was an inspiration to everybody else around him. There were clumps of Japs here and there and he just mowed them down. He just went straight into them as if bullets didn’t mean anything. And we all got a bit of the action, you see. When we saw him – when you see a thing like that – you sort of follow the leader, don’t you?” (From The Spirit of Kokoda)
Kingsbury’s extraordinary charge sent the Japanese diving for the jungle. He personally cut down as many as 30 enemies and enabled his comrades to follow up and restore their defences.
Sadly, at the height of his glory, Bruce Kingsbury was killed by a single shot from a sniper. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first ever won on Australian territory. Bruce’s Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Phil Rhoden, believed it was the turning point in the campaign:
“Nobody knew its importance until later. But it gave us time to consider action, gave us options. If he hadn’t stopped them it would have been like water pouring through a hole in the dam wall. They would have come through and it would have been a domino effect. You can argue his action saved Australia because, at the time, the 25th Brigade was still on the water and the 16th Brigade was still in Australia. Without Kingsbury, the Japanese could have been waiting for them in Moresby when they arrived.”
Potts and his men fell back first to Eora Creek on 30 August, then Templeton’s Crossing on 2 September, and Efogi three days later. As one writer has described it: “From the 31 August to 15 September the Australians, against vastly superior numbers, fought a decisive military game of cat and mouse along the track. Company by company, platoon by platoon, section by section, they defended until their comrades passed through their lines, broke off contact sometimes 20 to 30 metres from the enemy and repeated the procedure again and again down the track.”
Throughout this fighting, Australian resistance was increasing in strength and becoming better organised while the Japanese were showing signs of feeling the strain of their own lengthening supply line. Both sides, however, were beginning to suffer the effects of reduced effectiveness caused by exhaustion and sickness entailed by operating over such harsh terrain. Moreover, the Australian build-up, while still relatively modest, proved impossible to sustain via the only supply line stretching over the mountains, which depended on native carriers to manhandle rations and ammunition forward, and to evacuate the sick and wounded to the rear. The commander of 1st Australian Corps at Port Moresby, Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell, accordingly decided to withdraw the tired 39th Battalion on 5 September to relieve the problem.
By the time the withdrawal reached Brigade Hill, the three AIF battalions were able to fight together for the first time. The 2/14th, 2/16 and the 2/27th battalions took up defensive positions on the high ground at Brigade Hill and Mission Ridge. But the Japanese brought up even more troops and made a final concerted assault, aiming to wipe out the defenders with a knock-out blow.
In their first action against the Japanese, the newly-arrived 2/27th held the forward position with the other two units on ridges behind them. In a furious attack, the Japanese threw themselves at the Australians and drove a wedge between the two positions. Many who had survived the cauldron at Isurava, like Charlie McCallum, fell trying to hold Brigade Hill. Others, like Captains ‘Lefty’ Langridge and Claude Nye died in magnificent but futile attempts to break through to brigade headquarters against impossible odds.
“I particularly think of blokes like ‘Lefty’ Langridge and Claude Nye, one with a company of the 2/16th and the other with a company of the 2/14th who were ordered to go around the right flank where the Japanese were, to try to force a way through them to Brigade Hill. They knew they couldn’t do it. They knew they were going to die. Langridge handed over his pay book and his dog tags to one of his mates. He was a brave soldier. So was Claude Nye. They were both killed.” (Lt Colonel Ralph Honner)
The 21st Brigade continued to withdraw through Eora Creek, Templeton’s Crossing and Myola, the Japanese followed hard after them. Between 30 August and 6 September, the 2/14th and the 2/16th fell back as far as Efogi where they encountered the advance parties of the 2/27th Battalion. The 2/27th now mounted a defensive screen at Mission Ridge just south of Efogi. From here, throughout the night of 6-7 September, they watched as a procession of lights moved down the track between Myola and Efogi. The Japanese were getting themselves into position for an attack that came just before dawn on 8 September. All day long the Japanese charged the Australian frontal positions with determination but were beaten back by an equally determined defence. So severe was the fighting that Captain C A W Sims’ company on that day used up its entire supply of grenades and ammunition as well as the whole battalion ammunition reserve.
While Sims’ position was being subjected to this frontal assault, other Japanese soldiers infiltrated around the 2/27 Battalion’s positions. They moved well to the Australian rear where elements of the 2/16th were guarding brigade headquarters. Soon the headquarters was under attack and forced to move back. Effectively, the enemy had now cut the track between headquarters and the forward Australian positions. On the afternoon of 8 September the 2/14th tried to break out through the Japanese positions to get back down the track. Captain Claude Nye. 2/14th and Captain Frank Sublet, 2/16th led a charge in which Nye was eventually killed. Although a few men broke through, the Japanese positions held and the Australian battalions had to find another way round the Japanese through the jungle to Menari.
As they moved off the track, the enemy pursued them vigorously but was successfully driven off in a rearguard action by B and D companies of the 2/27th. Captain Harry Katekar, 2/27th Battalion, realised that the gallantry of these two companies had saved them all:
After another hard-fought stand at Brigade Hill between 6 and 8 September, Potts handed over command to Brigadier Porter, who decided on a further withdrawal to Ioribaiwa. The 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions made it into Menari just as the Japanese began to shell the area but the 2/27th was too far behind and, being forced to turn back, began its long trek through the mountains to Jawawere. From Menari the Australians withdrew back to Ioribaiwa where the battalions of the fresh 25th Brigade – 2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd – along with the 3rd Battalion took over the defence. By 17 September, the tired battalions of the 21st Brigade had been pulled back. After further Japanese pressure, the Australians withdrew to Imita Ridge where the 25th Brigade, the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion and the 3rd Battalion took up defensive positions. From Imita Ridge there was to be no more withdrawal. This was made clear in a message from Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell, commander, New Guinea Force, to Major General Arthur Allen, commander 7th Division, AIF:
However many troops the enemy has they must all have walked from Buna. We are how so far back that any further withdrawal is out of the question and Eather (commander, 25th Brigade) must fight it out at all costs.
Here the Japanese attacked next day but made little progress. In fact, severe fighting continued around Ioribaiwa for a week. But the Japanese advance was losing impetus, while the Australian defence was gaining in strength through the arrival of more units of the 7th Division. Command of the forward area passed to Brigadier Ken Eather, leading the 25th Brigade, AIF, on 14 September. In addition to its normal battalions (2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd), that brigade also had attached the 3rd Battalion and the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion – a total of 2,500 combat troops. By September 17 the Australians had fallen back on Ioribaiwa, high on the slopes of a ridge in the last area of high country before the approaches to Port Moresby. This proved the turning point of the Japanese advance. Here, as a result of their mauling down the Track and their rapidly deteriorating supply situation, they were forced to reconsider their position.
Ioribaiwa would have been an excellent defensive position, except that the Australians were on its forward slope and the Japanese appeared with their mountain guns on the northern side of the valley. Unbelievably, they had managed to break them down into man-sized parts and lug them over the Track and reassemble them.
With almost every shot, the Diggers suffered casualties as Phil Rhoden recalled.
“Fellows who had got through the whole thing unscathed were shot dead. That upset me. By the time we got back to Ioribaiwa we were down from 550 to about 200 men. By the last days there we were five and 86 – five officers and 86 other ranks. The rest were killed, wounded sick or missing.”
But Ioribaiwa was the end of the line for the Japanese. Their commander Major General Horii was forced to finally accept reality and admit his Kokoda campaign was over. Because there was no word in the Japanese military lexicon for ‘retreat’ he ordered his men to ‘advance to the rear’. It was the beginning of the end for the Japanese South Seas Detachment.
It was to continue his defence from the strongest available ground that Eather chose to withdraw to Imita Ridge on 17 September. Although this was the last effective barrier preventing a march on Port Moresby, the limits of the enemy advance had actually already been reached by this stage. Supply lines had been stretched beyond breaking point, leaving many Japanese troops starving and unsupported, and other events were intervening – principally the reverse suffered by Japanese forces fighting American marines at Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands. As early as 18 September it had become clear to the Japanese commander at Rabaul, Lieutenant General Hyakutake Harukichi that the gamble he had taken with an overland advance in Papua had failed. By then Guadalcanal was an area of higher priority to which other effort had to be diverted.
After the local Japanese commander, Major General Horii Tomitaro, received orders to establish a primary defensive position around his landing bases on the north coast, he began withdrawing on 24 September. The Australians were able to follow up the retreating Japanese, reversing the path they had been forced to follow during the enemy advance..
The final phase of the Battle of Kokoda Track lasted from 28 September to 15-16 November. For the Australians it was a period of pursuit of their enemies back over the Owen Stanley’s. At Templeton’s Crossing (12-17 October), Eora Creek (21-29 October) and Oivi-Goiari (5-11 November), Japanese rearguards mounted stubborn delaying defences. These were not small actions but drawn out and costly affairs which drew in the bulk of the Australian forces committed to the advance – the 25th Brigade, the 16th Brigade (2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions) and the 3rd Battalion. Supporting units included the 2/4th, 2/6th and 14th Field Ambulances and 2/5th and 2/6th field companies, Royal Australian Engineers. The Japanese purpose was to but time for the bulk of their men to escape back to the north coast. During this withdrawal the Japanese soldiers went through an ordeal every bit as grueling as the Australians had faced in the earlier phase of the battle. The 3rd Battalion led the way back up the Kokoda Track. As they moved on through Nauro, they saw much evidence of the swift Japanese withdrawal. Bodies and equipment lay everywhere and many of the enemy had died of malnutrition and disease. Indeed, it was realised that some Japanese had been reduced to eating wood, grass, roots and other inedible material. By 12 October, elements of the 2/33rd and 2/31st Battalions were converging on Templeton’s Crossing. Higher command thought this rather slow progress against a weakened and outnumbered enemy force, but nobody back in Australia, or among those senior commanders who had ever ventured to the beginning of the Kokoda Track, had any idea of the difficulty of supply in the high Owen Stanley’s. The 16th Brigade took over the advance beyond Templeton’s Crossing in an area of deep ravines along Eora Creek. Here the track crossed steep ridges hemmed in by jungle making its way over what the official Australian historian described as ‘the torn side of the mountain’. In this rugged country, the Australians fought their way forward until they reached an area just to the north of the village of Eora Creek, regarded as the best position of the whole Kokoda Track from which to mount a defence. Here the Japanese were well dug in and waiting.
The Japanese had the good sense to establish this forest fort (Eora Creek) on the only water to be found on the ridge. Consequently, for the four days before support arrived, the men of the company (Captain J M Gall’s company, 2/3rd Battalion) had to catch rainwater in their gas capes and drink water from the roots of the ‘water tree’. Their only food was dehydrated emergency ration, eaten dry and cold. Every time one of the patrols from the company located one of the outlying Japanese machine gun posts, scouts were killed or wounded. Then the post would be outflanked and overrun with Brens, Tommy guns, and grenades, but each night the attacking parties had to withdraw to defensive positions and in the darkness the Japanese would re-establish the posts or put out others. The Japanese snipers were alert and good shots.
At Templeton’s Crossing, the Japanese mounted their first serious defensive action. It took the men of the 2/33rd, 2/25th, 2/31st and 3rd Battalions virtually a week of hard fighting to force the Japanese out of their positions before the advance could proceed. In this high area, the track ran along narrow, bamboo-lined ridges and the Japanese had made many carefully concealed weapons pits. Each of these had to be individually captured before further forward movement was possible.
Templeton’s Crossing was the name given to the first point where the Kokoda Trail, outward bound from Port Moresby, crossed Eora Creek. It was named in remembrance of Captain Sam Templeton of the 39th Battalion, who was killed near Oivi on 26 July 1942. During their withdrawal along the trail, the Japanese conducted a determined defence of the Templeton’s Crossing area. The 2/33rd Battalion first made contact with these positions forward of Templeton’s crossing about midday on 12 October 1942. For the next two and a half days the battalion sought to attack and then outflank the Japanese positions, but made no progress. The 2/25th Battalion, advancing on the Templeton’s Crossing area along a subsidiary track, had also encountered Japanese positions and had likewise been unable to force its way through. On the morning of 15 October the 3rd Battalion moved in a wide arc around the right flank of the 2/33rd with the aim of attacking the Japanese from their flank, but their positions were found abandoned. The same day, the 2/25th was also able to break through the enemy force holding them. The three Australian battalions converged on Templeton’s Crossing, but the Japanese had withdrawn.
The next day, seeking to consolidate their hold on Templeton’s Crossing, the three Australian battalion commanders decided the 3rd would press on several hundred metres up the track. In doing so, it encountered another Japanese rearguard position. Attacks on 17 October captured some of the position, but the Australians were harried by counter-attacks throughout the night and the next day. Further offensive action by the Australians was hampered by two companies of the 3rd Battalion becoming lost in the jungle, and a break down in communication between the 3rd and the 2/25th. A stalemate ensued during which the 16th Brigade began to relieve the tired 25th.
The trail above Templeton’s Crossing was finally cleared by an attack mounted by the 2/2nd Battalion on 20 October. The 2/2nd concentrated its efforts on the right flank of the Australian positions (the Japanese left flank), with two companies attacking at right angles to the trail, and another two at roughly 45 degrees. Like much of the fighting along the Kokoda Trail, it was an affair of small groups of Australians tackling Japanese machine-guns with small arms and grenades. By nightfall, however, the four companies’ occupied two positions astride the trail, with the Japanese sandwiched between them. It was planned to renew the attack on the morning of 21 October with the assistance of a company of the 2/1st Battalion, but patrols at first light discovered the Japanese had escaped through the jungle and fallen back on Eora Creek.
Eora Creek runs north, roughly parallel to the Kokoda Trail, from the central ridge of the Owen Stanley Mountains, near Myola, to join the Mabare River east of Kokoda. The trail crosses the creek at two points: at Templeton’s Crossing and just north of the village of Eora Creek. In the vicinity of Eora Creek village the creek runs through a deep gorge – terrain described by the Official Historian as offering the “most favourable conditions for defence” along the whole length of the trail. Eora Creek village was the site of a rearguard position between 31 August and 1 September during the retreat of Australian forces along the Kokoda Trail, occupied in succession by the 39th, 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions. During the Australian advance back along the track, Eora Creek was the scene of bitter fighting when the 25th Brigade sought to overcome a strong Japanese defensive position established on heights that dominated the village and creek crossing. The 2/1st Battalion first contacted the Japanese forward of the Eora Creek village on 21 October but the main engagement did not begin until the leading troops of the battalion entered it the next morning. Heavy Japanese fire stalled the Australian advance behind the bare ridge on which the village stood and it was not until the small hours of 23 October, under the cover of darkness, that the 2/1st Battalion was able to cross the creek. In succeeding days, up-hill frontal attacks made little progress against the Japanese positions rapidly sapping the 2/1st Battalion’s strength. Meanwhile, the 2/3rd Battalion had been seeking a way around the Japanese flanks. This move proved decisive. The battalion closed on the western flank of the Japanese position on 27 October and the next afternoon launched an attack downhill into it. The surviving defenders fled into the jungle. Ninety-nine Australians were killed in the battle of Eora Creek and another 192 were wounded. Pursuit of the retreating Japanese began on 29 October. It was a phase in the fighting which reached its triumphant culmination on 2 November, with the re-occupation of Kokoda.