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Templeton

Kokoda Trail History

I sometimes get asked why Captain Sam Templeton and the 39th Battalion are so important to our Australian History and why uncovering the mystery of these forgotten men who fought on the Kokoda Trail is important.

Captain Sam Templeton holds a special place in Australian history. He commanded the first Australian Company to cross the Kokoda Track, he was the first Australian Officer to lead his men into battle on the Kokoda Trail and he was the first Australian Officer to die in battle on the Kokoda Track.

Sam instilled in his men great confidence and resolves to repel the voracious Japanese tiger heading their way along the Kokoda Trail.

Had the 39th Battalion and Templeton’s men in B Company failed on the Kokoda Trail, then the course of Australian history would be very different.

They took on the might of the Japanese Army on the Kokoda Trail and inflicted physical, logistical and psychological wounds on them that would eventually become terminal to the Japanese.

This Kokoda Trail story is so utterly remarkable; it has no equal in our history.

It is a story of ordinary Australians that altered our history and our future.

It is a story of young Australians overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds and desperate struggle; on the Kokoda Trail battlefield designed by the Devil against a voracious tiger hell-bent on conquering their homeland.

The Kokoda Trail it is a story of passion, mate ship, courage, sacrifice and endurance.

The Kokoda Trail is a story of survival, loss and love.

The Great Spirit of potential that resides in all of us;

It is a story of who we are, it is a story that should never be forgotten….

Why The Kokoda Trail

In June 1942 an American Engineer Regiment was ordered to construct a forward airstrip near Buna for Allied aircraft. This forward airstrip was seen as an important step in protecting Port Moresby and a great base to harass the Japanese aggressors in Rabaul.

The New Guinea force stationed in Port Moresby was asked to supply a detachment of infantry to protect the American Sappers as they constructed the aerodrome.

On the 7th of July 1942 the Company selected to provide protection for the aerodrome construction departed for the northern coast across the Kokoda Track. These groups of men were from B Company of the 39th Battalion under the command of Captain Sam Templeton.

Private Cecil Driscoll B Company 39th Battalion

We had seen a map of the ranges that we were to cross and it said the Kokoda Trail. We were told that we were crossing the Kokoda Trail on our way to secure the airstrip near Buna. You know we never called it the Kokoda Trail; it was always the Kokoda Track or just Track to us. This was no bloody trail! It was no wider than the old bike and horse tracks that we rode on back home. It was no more than a foot track, a pad of dirt going from one village to another. We were told if we become lost, you circle your way around and make your way back to the track.

Captain Templeton gave the order to move out from Ilolo just before 8 am on the 7th July 1942 to commence their journey across the Kokoda Trail.

The Soldiers carried .303 rifles, ammunition and supplies on the Kokoda Trail.       A section of the Company was assigned the responsibility for the Lewis Machine Guns. The Lewis Machine Gun was a left over from WW1, but would have to do as Vickers, Thomson and Bren guns had not been issued as yet. The Officers choice of weapon was a .303 rifles or pistol carried as a side arm. Uncle Sam also carried a bush knife which was very handy for slashing a path through the Jungle along the Kokoda Trail.  As was Captain Templeton’s way he led from the front. Soon Templeton and his battalion were out of sight, swallowed by the Jungle on the Kokoda Trail.

Japanese Landing on the Kokoda Trail

On the 21 July 1942, the first Japanese forces landed around the northern coastal villages of Buna Gona and Basabua, on Papua’s north coast.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hatsuo Tsukamoto, the first wave of Japanese soldiers prepared to strike the Allied outpost of Kokoda and its airfield.

This move would become an ambitious attempt by the Japanese to cross the Kokoda Trail and capture Port Moresby.

 

When the Japanese landed there was only a small contingent of men from the Papuan Infantry Battalion (P.I.B) with their Australian Officers some Spotters and Captain Templeton’s men from the 39th Battalion between the Japanese and the Gateway to Port Moresby. Initially there were only 35 Papuan Soldiers and three officers and 11 Platoon from the 39th Battalion between Kokoda and the Japanese.

On hearing of the Japanese landing Templeton quickly made his way back to his men from Buna and ordered Lieutenant Arthur Seekamp’s 11 Platoon to move further east to Awala. Templeton also sent a message to Major Watson commander of the P.I.B suggesting that the two forces join up.

It was near the village of Awala where they met a small militia from the 39th Battalion led by Captain Sam Templeton under the command of (Australian) Major General Basil Morris.

At this stage it was only the inexperienced 39th Battalion and The Papuan Infantry Battalion that stood between the Japanese and Port Moresby.

 

Reported on radio broadcast that 1500-2000 Japs, landed at Gona Mission Station. I think it is near to correct and in view of numbers I recommend that your action be contact and rearguard only-no do- or-die stunts. Close back on Kokoda.

 

The ensuing Kokoda Trail campaign saw Australians and Papuans engaged in a bitter struggle against the invading Japanese. The Japanese also made an unsuccessful amphibious landing at Milne Bay where they were defeated by Australian forces.

The ground fighting in Papua continued until early 1943 when the Japanese forces around Gona, Sanananda and Buna were finally defeated.

 

The final decision to cross the Owen Stanley Ranges using the Kokoda Track was taken only 10 days before the invasion force landed. This decision came about with the Japanese failure to take Port Moresby by sea during the battle of the Coral Sea.

The information provided by the Japanese Intelligence was poor, with very basic understanding of the terrain and extremely sketchy maps of the Kokoda Trail. The initial Japanese expedition landing force comprised over 2200 men.

23 July 1942

Captain Templeton sent orders for 12 Platoon also to move forward where both platoons would join P.I.B. commanded by Major Watson. Captain Stevenson, second in charge ordered to accompany 12 Platoon.

10 Platoon remained at Kokoda for aerodrome defence. Captain Templeton returned to Kokoda to contact Lt Colonel Owen who was expected to arrive by plane. 12 Platoon camped at Gorari for the night, while 11 Platoon reached Awala at 1515 hours. Major Watson then had under his command two European officers, three European other ranks and thirty-five natives and 11 platoon. In the meantime, enemy had occupied Buna and advanced along track towards Awala. They were engaged by Major Watson’s Maroubra Force- approximately 1000 yards east of Awala at 1600 hours. Owing to superior numerical strength of the enemy, our troops were obliged to withdraw Wairopi after a brief exchange of fire.

Private Cecil Driscoll was a member of Seekamp’s 11 Platoon and recalled the urgency in the order for them to move forward towards Awala.

I don’t clearly remember exactly the location that we first engaged the Japanese, but it was hot on the tail of our forced march from the Oivi area. We had left Oivi at 5 am and moved pretty quickly to the location. The PIB had engaged the Japanese briefly and fallen back through our lines. We took cover and set about engaging the Japanese in a short sharp battle before falling back towards the Kumusi River.

The P.I.B. was the first to engage the Japanese at Soroputa Hill at 4 pm on 23 July 1942 roughly 1000 yards east of Awala. The P.I.B troops had between them one Thomson Sub machine gun and their regulation issued .303 rifles carried by the soldiers. They soon realized that they were no match in this skirmish with the highly trained and experienced Japanese.

 

The Japanese were well practiced in Jungle warfare and quickly engaged the defenders taking the fight up to the inexperienced P.I.B force. The action only lasted a few minutes before they withdrew back through 11 Platoon 39th Battalion that had moved up to Awala to assist.

The remainder of the P.I.B and 11 Platoon engaged the Japanese again soon after at Awala. The Japanese used their well-practiced “Contact drill” quickly going to ground and fanning out left and right to isolate the enemy and flank them in a pincer movement.

The Australians quickly learned these techniques and used them very successfully against the Japanese later on in the Kokoda Trail campaign. The Australians then withdrew to the Kumusi then further west across the Wairopi Bridge, taking great pleasure in cutting the bridge and slowing the buggers down.

Private Cecil Driscoll

I remember falling back to the Kumusi river then crossing over the Wairopi Bridge. We fell into defensive positions along the western bank. Sam and a couple of the other guys were last across. They took to the wire ropes holding the bridge up with axes, chopping with great gusto and urgency. Sam was a big man; he took the bridge down with a few powerful strokes. I thought it was great that our Commander was in the thick of the action and pitching in and not delegating it to lesser rank soldiers.

The Australians had been blooded and handled the initial fight on the Kokoda Trail well.