In the first half of 1942, the Japanese achieved stunning success seemingly everywhere. The two principal Allied bases, Singapore (/explore/campaigns/48)and the Philippines, fell early in the year. Around 250,000 Allied prisoners were taken at a cost of just 15,000 Japanese casualties. Rabaul (/explore/campaigns/125)in New Britain fell in January and was transformed into a major Japanese naval base. From Rabaul, the Japanese fleet moved into the Solomon Islands and tried to take Port Moresby by sea. This was prevented in the naval Battle of the Coral Sea (/explore/campaigns/50) in early May.
Despite this defeat, the Japanese remained committed to taking Port Moresby and controlling the Solomon Islands. Not only were these ports and airfields vital to protecting Rabaul (by depriving the Allies of suitable bases), they blocked the sea route between Australia and the US. Port Moresby would also be also an excellent base for any future invasion of the Australian mainland. These plans were upset by the American landing on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on 7 August. The battle for Guadalcanal would be the main focus for both sides for the remainder of 1942.
Japanese troops had first landed on Papua in March, at Lae and Salamaua. A much larger force (eventually around 13,000 strong) was landed at Gona (on Papua’s north coast) on 21 July, with the aim of crossing the Owen Stanley Range and capturing Port Moresby by land. The route over the mountains was a narrow and rugged path known as the Kokoda Track (or Trail).
There were, initially, not many Australian troops opposing them: only the 39th Battalion (/explore/units/830) of the CMF. These were based around the settlement of Kokoda, about 80km inland from the Japanese at Gona. The Australian units, which became known as Maroubra Force, were driven out of Kokoda on 29 July. Although they briefly reoccupied the settlement on 9 August, they were soon driven back again. This began the first phase of the Kokoda campaign: the retreat along the Track towards Port Moresby.
This retreat was marked by a series of engagements as the Australian troops tried to delay or halt the Japanese. The Australians now included two battalions of the 21st Brigade under the command of Brigadier Potts: the 2nd/14th Infantry Battalion (/explore/units/364) (Vic) and the 2nd/16th Infantry Battalion (/explore/units/815) (WA) (the last battalion, the 2nd/27th Infantry Battalion (/explore/units/11) (SA), joined late in August). The main engagements were:
- Isurava (26-31 August)
- First Eora Creek-Templeton’s Crossing (31 August-5 September)
- Brigade Hill (also known as Mission Ridge or Efogi) (6-9 September)
- Ioribaiwa (14-16 September)
From Ioribaiwa, the Japanese troops could actually see Port Moresby. They were also exhausted and hungry. But, due to events in the Solomon Islands (where the Americans were winning), the Japanese commander was ordered to abandon his attempt to take Port Moresby and return to the northern beachhead around Gona.
This began (from 26 September) the second phase of the Kokoda campaign: now it was the Japanese conducting a fighting retreat along the Track. The principal Australian formations involved were the 3rd Battalion (/explore/units/998)(CMF); the 25th Brigade, which comprised the 2nd/25th (/explore/units/545), 2nd/31st (/explore/units/519) (Qld) and 2nd/33rd (/explore/units/553) (NSW) Infantry Battalions; and the 16th Brigade, which comprised the 2nd/1st (/explore/units/560), 2nd/2nd (/explore/units/807) and 2nd/3rd (/explore/units/613) Infantry Battalions (all initially recrited from NSW).
The Australians advanced all through October, with frequent bloody battles against determined and skilled Japanese defenders. They reoccupied Kokoda, at the far end of the Track, on 2 November. The next phase of the fighting was the attack on the Japanese beachheads (/explore/campaigns/93) around Gona and Buna.
The Owen Stanley Range is some of the most difficult country on earth on which to fight. The Kokoda Track was impassable for trucks. Mules could move on some parts of it. But for most of its length, supplies had to be carried by people. Indigenous Papuan As Warrant Officer George Mowatt (/explore/people/640711) noted in his diary, “Track slippery some places had to crawl hand and knees. Hills & yet more hills”. The Track went across the grain of the mountains: up one hill, down into the valley and then up the next hill again.
Then there was the thick jungle. With the heavy winter rains, mists were frequent. That meant visibility was very poor, so that fighting in the jungle was like fighting at night. Ambushes were common. Troops from both sides tried to outflank their enemy, but the hilly conditions meant it often took a long time for them to move. It is not surprising that there were about 600 Australians killed, 1050 wounded and (probably) around 4,000 taken sick.
The Kokoda campaign has assumed immense significance since the late 20th century, as a battle which halted the seemingly unstoppable Japanese advance and (supposedly) prevented an invasion of Australia.
It was actally at Milne Bay (/explore/campaigns/52) where the Japanese sustained their first defeat on land, by the 18th Brigade.
However it has been Kokoda that captured the public's imagination and the 39th Battalion has rightly been lauded for its Homeric fighting withdrawal that bought vital time for the 7th Division to arrive and continue the fighting withdrawal which drew the Japanese to the limits of their supply before counter-attacking the length of the Track and into the Japanese beachheads.
Although there are strong indications the Japanese never actually planned to invade the Australian mainland, their failure to take Port Moresby meant no invasion could be contemplated in the future.
The following speech by Prime Minister Paul Keating, at Port Moresby on Anzac Day 1992, capture the significance claimed for Kokoda. According to him, the circumstances under which it was fought marked a turning point in Australia's international relations. Australia turned from Great Britain, the traditional 'protector' and mother country, and looked to the United States of America, the only Allied nation in any position to assist Australia in what looked set to be a fight for its life.
"The Australians who served here in Papua New Guinea fought and died, not in the defence of the old world, but the new world. Their world. They died in defence of Australia and the civilisation and values which had grown up there.
That is why it might be said that, for Australians, the battles in Papua New Guinea were the most important ever fought. They were fought in the most terrible circumstances. One correspondent wrote: "Surely no war was ever fought under worse conditions than these. Surely no war has ever demanded more of a man in fortitude."
They were fought by young men with no experience of jungle warfare. By the very young men of the militia with no experience of war at all. They were fought by airmen of outstanding courage, skill and dedication. They were fought against a seasoned, skillful and fanatical enemy.
At Milne Bay the Australians inflicted on the Japanese their first defeat on land. Sir William Slim, who was then commanding the 14th Army in Burma, wrote: "It was Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese army: those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember."
On the Kokoda Trail it was again the young and inexperienced militia men - this time of the 39th and 53rd battalions - later reinforced with soldiers of the 7th Division, who fought gallantly - and eventually won.
When it seemed that Papua New Guinea would fall, when it seemed it would be another Singapore, another Rabaul, these troops gallantly held out and finally drove the enemy back to the sea. These were the heroic days of Australia's history.
AWM link https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/kokoda/ (www.awm.gov.au)