Now the Australians became the pursuers as the shattered invaders retraced their steps back along the Track to the beachheads where they had landed two months earlier.
One last hurdle faced the Australians along the Kokoda Track – the Japanese defences between the settlements of Oivi and Goiari. Here bitter fighting against well-developed positions again held up the advance. By 9-10 November the Australian battalions had encircled the area and the Japanese defenders were trapped. On 11 November, the Japanese finally broke and tried to make their way through the jungle to the Kumusi River. Some managed to cross in two boats while others, including General Horii himself, attempted to raft down the river to the coast. Many were drowned, including Horii, and others were shot by snipers from Papuan Infantry Battalion patrols.
On 13 November, Australian patrols reached the Kumusi where the famous Wairopi Bridge lay in ruins. The 2/5th Field Company Engineers repaired a wrecked Japanese boat and, attaching it to a block and tackle, ferried a company of the 2/33rd Battalion to the far bank, where a small bridgehead was established. Allied aircraft dropped steel rope and tools and the engineers soon rigged up two flying foxes and two small suspension bridges, made from rope and logs. By 17 November, the battalions of the 16th and 25th Brigades were across the river.
With the Australian crossing of the Kumusi River, the Battle of the Kokoda Track came to an end.
The retreat turned into a rout until the Japanese regained their beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda where their comrades had prepared a network of interconnected defensive positions and from which they determined to fight to the death.
Clearly the South Seas Detachment no longer posed an offensive threat. But, instead of isolating it and starving it into submission, General MacArthur insisted that the Japanese be swiftly dispatched.
The Diggers were joined by American forces but many of these underperformed and it was left to the Diggers, already veterans of the Kokoda campaign, to carry the brunt of the fighting. Again, many survivors of the horrors of the Kokoda Track lost their lives in attacks against an enemy that was heavily entrenched and grimly determined to fight to the last.
And, all the while, MacArthur was trumpeting about how he was leading his men from the front. Not so according to his biographer William Manchester:
“The great hero went home without seeing Buna, before during or after the great fight while permitting press articles from his GHQ to say he was leading his troops in battle. MacArthur … just stayed over at Moresby 40 minutes away and walked the floor. I know this to be a fact.”
In the pestilent swamps and beaches of Buna and Gona, every metre was paid for in blood. On December 9, Ralph Honner was able to send his famous cryptic report: ‘Gona’s gone’ Buna succumbed on January 2 1943. Eventually Sanananda fell on January 22 1943, ending one of the most gruelling campaigns in Australian military history.
It was a total disaster for the Japanese. Less than 10 percent of the original 14,000 invasion force ever returned to their homeland.
Overall, in the Papuan campaign, 2165 Diggers were killed and 3533 wounded.
Ask any of the Diggers of Kokoda and they will tell you they were just doing their duty, as Phil Rhoden said:
“We were fighting for Australia, on Australian soil for the first time. It was important that we won because if we didn’t win who knows what would have happened.”
Perhaps the best example of the spirit of the Diggers during the withdrawal came from a group separated from the main body of the defenders after Isurava. About 50 men, three officers and 47 other ranks, found themselves behind enemy lines during the confusion of the withdrawal. Under the command of Captain Sydney Hamilton ‘Ben’ Buckler, they began a six week odyssey to skirt around the Japanese and regain their own lines. The party was slowed down by a group of wounded – four stretcher cases, three walking wounded and the remarkable Corporal John Metson.
“He’d been shot in both ankles but he refused to let his mates carry him. He knew how much energy was needed to carry stretchers through the thick jungle, a task made even more onerous because Buckler’s party had to avoid the Track and travel through the jungle for fear of running into the enemy. So John Metson wrapped a torn blanket around his knees and hands and he crawled. For three weeks he cheerfully crawled through the jungle, ignoring the growing pain in his shattered ankles and the damage to his hands, knees and legs as he kept up with his mates in the cloying mud and torrential rain. He was a constant inspiration to the others in the party as they lived off the land and avoided Japanese patrols before reaching a friendly village called Sangai on September 20 1942.” (From The Spirit of The Digger)
Buckler was forced to leave John Metson and the other wounded at the village to give the main group a chance of making it to safety. Buckler ordered his party to ‘present arms’ in salute to the wounded before reluctantly leading the rest back to the Australian lines down a parallel track to the Kokoda Track and, finally, by raft down the Kemp-Walsh River. Unfortunately, when a rescue party returned to Sangai village for the wounded, they found they’d been betrayed and massacred. John Metson won him the British Empire Medal – and a place in the annals of the Digger.