My story of Kokoda – blood & guts aplenty
25 April 2022
| Writer, Artist, Former Patrol Officer
MELBOURNE – For eons the 96 kilometre Port Moresby to Kokoda bush track was used by the superbly fit local people who, encountering difficult terrain obstacles, climbed right over them.
The patrol post at Kokoda was established by Captain CAW Monckton (1873-1936), the “tough, efficient, quick-witted and ruthless” magistrate and explorer.
New Zealand-born Monckton spent 12 eventful years (1895-1907) in Papua, then a British colony, never hesitating to use force to subdue warring tribes in the process of bring peace and justice to the region he administered.
It was a mission to protect miners in the Yodda Valley goldfields that resulted in the establishment of the Kokoda patrol post.
Monckton’s task was to investigate the disappearance without trace of 50 miners walking to Yodda from Moresby.
Bleached bones were found scattered about in the jungle, but Monckton found no evidence of cannibalism.
He also didn’t stop attacks on miners, as others vanished later in similar circumstances.
Some contemporaries admired Monckton as a “fearless fighting man”; others deplored his readiness to use a gun
In 1906 Monckton made the first recorded ascent of Mt Albert Edward, at 3,990 metres one of Papua New Guinea’s highest peaks.
He also had a mountain named after him – Mt Monckton in Oro Province, estimated elevation 2,561 metres.
It was this same area and on the same track Monckton tramped that was the scene for the second of Australia’s most memorable military exploit – Kokoda.
Going to war shorta everything
At the outbreak of the war with Japan in 1941, the Australia was Shorta - shorta money, shorta ships, shorta planes and shorta trained soldiers.
Australia had sent 20,000 troops to North Africa to fight the Germans and Italians (3,000 were killed) and, while recruitment and training were proceeding apace, there were scant numbers left to deploy when the Japanese attack on New Guinea began in January 1942.
But Australia had to defend its two northern colonies of Papua and New Guinea.
So a makeshift force comprising Melbourne’s 39th militia and Sydney’s 53rd militia sailed for Port Moresby and in June 1942 joined the Papuan Infantry Battalion to form Maroubra Force.
It was said that the Australian units were so ragtag that some were forcibly signed up on Sydney’s streets and frogmarched to a waiting ship.
Most of these militia men were under 20 years old and derided as ‘chocolate soldiers’ by the battle-hardened AIF troops who later joined them from North Africa, brought home as the Japanese Imperial Army with little resistance ploughed across New Guinea.
Arriving from North Africa and the Middle East, the troops were dressed in lightweight khaki and had only basic weaponry.
But the Australian commander, General Thomas Blamey, seemed unconcerned that they froze in the rain and were easy targets in the jungle.
And the Japanese weren’t the only enemy; dysentery and malaria were also to claim many casualties.
On 23 July 1942, not long after Maroubra Force had been formed in Port Moresby, 2,000 crack Japanese troops landed at Gona, about 200 km from Moresby over the Owen Stanley Range and the Kokoda Trail.
The Japanese troops were equipped with specialised heavy jungle weaponry and heir green-camouflage made them almost invisible.
As they advanced, the Australians fell back, torching Kokoda – but later retaking the town.
Although knowing their troops were surrounded, headquarters in Brisbane initially refused to airdrop supplies, forcing the garrison to be abandoned again.
When the commanders came to their senses two days later, it was the Japanese who were grateful for the parachuted supplies. It had been their turn to reoccupy Kokoda.
That bloody, muddy Kokoda trail
Corporal Sanopa of Buna led 75 troops to safety in the black jungle night. He was awarded the Loyal Service Medal.
His ex-police Papuan Infantry Battalion, numbering 300, officered mainly by former patrol officers, won one Military Cross, 4 Military Medals, one Distinguished Service Order, and 24 Loyal Service medals.
Sergeant Bruce Kingsbury charged into the advancing Japanese, killing 30 with his Bren gun and scattering the rest. A sniper shot him.
He was later posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, and is remembered with a monument at the start of Mt Dandenong’s ‘1,000 Kokoda Steps’ walk.
Generals Blamey and Douglas MacArthur in Brisbane wondered why the Kokoda Gap wasn’t sealed off for good. Apparently nobody told them the Gap was three miles wide.
There was much suffering and many unnecessary casualties caused by trying to run the campaign by remote control from Brisbane.
The track soon degenerated into glutinous mud – some of the exhausted troops collapsed, became trapped and had to be helped out.
Any attempt to bypass the mess by struggling through the adjacent impenetrable undergrowth met with disorientation and myriads of ferocious biting insects.
Maggots were routinely left in soldiers’ wounds so they could eat away the putrid flesh.
Dysentery was rife, causing the troops to rip off the back of their shorts in an effort to ignore the constant streams of blood and mucus, their underpants long since discarded in an attempt to avoid the maddeningly-itchy groin fungus.
Manically scratching insect bites caused gaping tropical ulcers that could only be cured by antibiotics, which had just been invented and were unavailable, or scraping out. Untreated these ulcers would eat their way to the bone.
Feet and boots rotted in the steamy conditions. It was not uncommon for half the foot tissue to come off when boots were finally removed.
Virulent skin funguses were made worse by troops too exhausted to wash regularly in streams.
The incessant cold rain caused pneumonic complaints, impossible to treat in the field. The virtual starvation of troops in the nine-week campaign caused massive weight loss - an average 76 kilo soldier lost 30 kilos.
One soldier had most of his leg blown off. The stump was tied with dressings and a copra sack, and crawled for three days refusing all help. “There are many worse off than me,” he said. He was tough and he survived.
Imita Ridge was the final titanic struggle. The troops who had been condemned to fight along the Kokoda Trail threw everything at the Japanese in this initially indecisive battle.
Fortune favours the brave
So three months later, in September 1942, the Australians’ luck changed.
By now the capacity of the Japanese force was failing because over-stretched supply lines had robbed it of munitions and other supplies. Some units were starving.
The Japanese were ordered to withdraw and establish defensive positions on Papua’s north coast.
The Australians harried them all the way back across the Owen Stanleys. Cannibalism was suspected amongst some Japanese.
A much reduced force made it back to Gona; few of the troops ever saw Japan again.
And during the retreat, the commander of the South Seas Force that had taken New Guinea, Lieutenant General Tomitaro Horii was drowned when a raft he was using to get to Gona faster was swept out to sea.
It is said that many of his staff and his prized stallion, ‘Colonel Tojo’, had already drowned trying to cross the Kumasi River.
A campaign desperate & vicious
The Kokoda campaign came at heavy cost to combatants and non-combatants alike.
Some 625 Australians were killed, 1,600 wounded and more than 4,000 were afflicted with disease. More than 150 Papua New Guineans died as members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion or as porters along the Kokoda Track.
The toll on the Japanese invaders was much worse – over 10,000 died.
Of the 550 Australians in the 2/14th Battalion, only 73 remained. And Melbourne’s 39th militia, which had done such magnificent work but had been heavily criticised by General Blamey, was disbanded with no recognition or battle honours.
Only seven officers and 25 other ranks remained of the original 1,666 members. The primeval tropical rainforest and its diseases had accounted for as many casualties as combat.
Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner was awarded the DSO and Military Cross for turning the mainly teenage boys into an effective fighting force.
And it is recognised that the campaign could have been lost without the help of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. That is a debt that can never be repaid.
And a brief return to the present
These days, enterprising villagers have turned the endless stream of Kokoda pilgrims into a lucrative cottage industry, with many comfort stops and rest houses along the way.
The track has been upgraded, although not nearly enough and with little regard to facilities as Captain Charlie Lynn has often observed to deaf bureaucratic ears.
At every landmark along the 96 km track, the guides these days provide harrowing accounts of the detail of war and suffering.
Obliging porters, descendants in spirit if not in bloodline of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, carry backpacks, and offer piggyback rides across the many streams.
A recent pilgrim reported that those trekkers tired of the sweaty trudging and huffing and puffing, can - by making a substantial donation – be borne triumphantly along the track like medieval potentates in makeshift sedan chairs.
Back then, wounded soldiers crawled along that track. But this is the 21st century, and the real Kokoda was 80 years ago.
Having been invited to give an Anzac Day address at a local college, I referred to always standing up to a bully and never giving up.
While obliquely referring to the situation elsewhere, I didn’t give a contemporary example.
My historical example involved the Battle of Britain and what the results for the world would have been if the Nazis had won.
I then gave an example of my first patrol in PNG, mentioned in the book freely available on this web site.
Struggling to climb a mountain, I was helped by Councillor Rukanzinga of Areganang village who took my arm and helped me, gasping in the rarefied air, on up the mountain
He then said in Tok Pisin, "Just take little steps Kiap. You’ll be OK.”
I suggested to my audience that, when people feel overwhelmed, they should always remember those words.
Just take little steps and you’ll be OK.
My speech apparently had some effect as afterwards, when I was leaving, a teenage female student asked if I knew her past relative. He had been in PNG, she said.
Now this is not an unusual question to those who have lived in PNG from those who know little about our nearest neighbour.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“Oh, he was a medical person,” she replied and then burst into tears remembering her memories of him.
“Well, where did he work?” I asked, thinking back to my field experience with the PNG Health Service in Morobe.
“Oh, he was at Kokoda” she sobbed.
Ahh… err ..yes… well… um…
Posted by: Paul Oates | 25 April 2022 at 03:31 PM
"The troops involved in both battles suffered and died on our collective behalf and it is to their sacrifice we owe our ability to live in a free and democratic society."
I've always had trouble with statements like this, Chris, particularly as it pertains to Gallipoli.
I can't see how a bunch of misguided volunteer soldiers dying on a remote beach in Turkey during a pointless and silly war has anything to do with our freedom or democracy.
Kokoda was a different matter because it represented an existential threat to Australia.
That aside, it sounds like you celebrated ANZAC in the original spirit in which it was intended.
I would suggest it's worthwhile reading the comments that Paul Daley's article attracted, there's lot of them, especially in the vein of the LNP's politicising of the day and Mutton Dutton's irresponsible and crazy sabre rattling.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 25 April 2022 at 02:37 PM
A memorable quote from the Bible (King James Version) is the phrase "and it came to pass".
The Temple as Jerusalem was the outcome of several constructions (3 at least). While others can put closer detail to that as testament and monument, it might serve as foundation to a recount of Australia's building of a War Memorial (AWM), which could be said as of three constructions, Melbourne 1922, Sydney 1925, Canberra 1941.
Note the current project is cast as a 'redevelopment', thus might be considered a fourth construction.
Reverence in respect of the place might be less of religion yet this comment is not to quibble about construction and historical significance.
This note is of prospect.
Prospect of days gone by was that a single building is justified. No matter that monumental constructions are many across the nation, the summation of archive at one place was a matter of available technology.
Forward the vision to availability of digital technology (and a reservoir of data and administration at AWM), there might be scope for equity of access, say, via virtual reality devices (such as headsets.)
Scoping the cost, at say $100 per set, and a budget of $500 million, that might provide for five million items at around one set per household.
That budget would enable the most remote of Australians to be 'visitors' to the facility that is projected to serve their most distantly imagined expectations.
In an age of shoulder mounted anti-tank weaponry, now is the age for getting a head around equitable availability of information. But will it come to pass?
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 25 April 2022 at 01:36 PM
Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 April 2022 at 01:15 PM
I have to disagree with Phil about Anzac Day, at least in regard to the public's attitude towards it.
I attended the dawn service today at McLaren Vale, as did about 500 others. As many did, I wore my father's medals with a sense of both pride and gratitude.
Dad's war service had been a mixture of sometimes quite intense comradeship interspersed with moments of extreme terror and distress.
Incredibly, he and his crew mates survived not less than 4 crash landings precipitated by a Japanese fighter attack, two catastrophic engine failures and a terrifying bomb 'hang up' which resulted in an explosion that severely damaged the plane. There was no glory in this, just terror and an astounding amount of luck.
About 15% of the town population turned out for the service, suggesting that Anzac Day is still seen as an important enough day that it should be commemorated at what is a very inconvenient but symbolically significant time.
The service itself was simple and respectful. Those who spoke stressed not the supposed glory of war, but the self sacrifice and suffering it entails and the gratitude we should all feel for those who have fought and died for our freedom. It was conspicuously devoid of even covert nationalist rhetoric.
I agree with Phil that at least some people, notably politicians, have to some extent fetishized and hijacked Anzac Day, investing it with hyper nationalistic symbology.
I doubt that this was the intent of those who originally came up with the idea, notably General Sir John Monash, who was anxious that the sacrifices and suffering of so many Australians during the so-called 'War to end all wars' not be forgotten. For him at least it was not an event designed to foster nationalist feelings.
The Anzac landing has now faded into the distant past and it has been mythologised to a great degree. It was, in truth, never a significant battle and is as much a tale of the heroic Turkish resistance to invasion as it is of the undoubted courage and endurance of the Anzacs.
The battle on the Kokoda Track is well known but its significance is largely misunderstood, probably because, at the time, it was regarded as a defeat.
Indeed, in an especially shameful performance, General Sir Thomas Blamey, castigated the survivors for 'running like rabbits' and dismissed their commander, Brigadier Arnold Potts, for his alleged failure to prosecute the battle in an aggressive enough manner.
This was an act that was, at a minimum, unfair, churlish and ignorant. It appears to have been done to placate US General Douglas McArthur who, despite have no idea about the conditions or circumstances applying to the campaign, formed the view that the Australian soldiers were poor types who could not fight.
Later, of course, both men would learn some ugly lessons about fighting in mountainous tropical jungles or swamps but they should not be spared severe criticism for their previous deplorable behaviour towards men who, in fact, fought one of the most brilliant and heroic fighting withdrawals of the entire war.
Anyway, that is all history now but it seems to me that Kokoda was a hugely more important battle than the attempted invasion of the Dardanelles by the Anzacs. The result of the Dardanelles campaign was an unambiguous and costly defeat for the allies, with Turkey fighting on for the remainder of the war.
On the Kokoda Track, the Japanese were fought to a standstill and then driven back the way they had come. Never again would the Japanese Army have any significant victory against allied troops.
Paul Keating has always argued that Kokoda ought to be the focus of Anzac Day but few seem to share this view.
I suppose that, in the end, it does not matter greatly. The troops involved in both battles suffered and died on our collective behalf and it is to their sacrifice we owe our ability to live in a free and democratic society.
As the current war in Ukraine (Slava Ukraini!) is demonstrating, this is not something we can ever take for granted.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 25 April 2022 at 01:12 PM
KJ - In my opinion you have been rather generous in your assessment of that cretin Brendan Nelson.
Now Employed by Boeing and former director and still a rep on the Australian War Memorial.
On his watch, Paul Mason's oil painting got archived along with Weary Dunlop's statue.
Not overlooking his disastrous ongoing management of the memorial.
Like a bad smell or turd, he keeps clinging on.
I was on a mercy mission - KJ
Posted by: William Dunlop | 25 April 2022 at 12:21 PM
Yet another example of an unflushable turd on the neoliberal gravy train:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 April 2022 at 11:43 AM
Try this for hypocrisy:
'An Australian War Memorial sponsored by weapons dealers is no place for quiet reflection on Anzac Day' by Paul Daley writing for The Guardian
"With boastful displays and arms maker sponsors, the memorial falls ever shorter of duty to commemorate the toll of war."
It is my view that Brendan Nelson has been a vandal and a failure. He seems to have fucked up every significant job he had in life and he's had a few. In my consideration, a consummate second rater - KJ
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 25 April 2022 at 09:22 AM
I get angry as every ANZAC day arrives but on this one the pitch is higher.
I've got no problem with old soldiers quietly remembering their mates but the way Australia, particularly the media, has turned this into a cult that to any observer looks very close to a celebration of war really rankles.
This year is especially irritating given the pointless war raging in Ukraine and the equally but ignored and just as savage war in Yemen goes on and on.
Both of these wars are just as pointless as WW1, upon which ANZAC day is predicated.
For all their other achievements human beings are truly stupid when it comes to waging and then celebrating war.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 25 April 2022 at 09:10 AM