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RED-i on (Kokoda) trek » History of the Track

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Our Kokoda Blog

This is an account of the lead up and journey to Kokoda in PNG. This trek has been on our dreams list and I know that Tanya and I will make it to the end. Stay tuned and visit regularly to see our progress.

History of the Track

One of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II, which has forever sealed the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea, began 61 years ago.

 

It was on July 21, 1942, that Japanese troops landed on the northern coast of then New Guinea and unexpectedly began to march over the Owen Stanley Ranges with the intent of capturing Port Moresby.

 

Had they succeeded, the mainland of Australia would have come under dire threat.

 

July 23 – Remembrance Day – marks the 61st anniversary of the first engagement between the opposing troops on July 23, 1942, and from that engagement, as the Australian force was progressively outnumbered, began the long fighting withdrawal over the Owen Stanley Ranges.

 

The 21st Brigade, commandeered by Brigadier Potts DSO MC, was rushed to New Guinea and within days, its 1500 men were closing into the precarious Owen Stanley Ranges in an attempt to position themselves to stop the advance of the Japanese forces – now building up to over 10, 000 men.

 

The Brigade also engaged the ill – trained but gallant militia 39th Battalion at Isurava in the foothills on the far side of the range.

 

Kokoda was arguably Australia’s most significant campaign of the Second World War.

 

More Australians died in the seven months of fighting in Papua, and the Japanese came closer to Australia, than in any other campaign.

 

Many of those young Australians, whose average age was between 18 and 19, now lie buried at the Bomana War Cemetery outside Port Moresby.

 

The famous photograph of ‘fuzzy wuzzy angel’ Raphael Oimbari leading a blindfolded wounded Australian epitomizes the close relationship between Australians and Papua New Guineans which has come about because of the battle of Kokoda.

 

To read between the lines of ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, the celebrated poem by Australian digger Bert Beros, will drive you to tears.

 

The poem, which whilst sentimental, touches a chord that has endured to this day in the hearts of both Australians and Papua New Guineans.

 

It tells of the prayers of worried Australian mothers, whose young sons are fighting the Japanese on that rugged trail, and how their prayers are answered in the form of ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’.

 

Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels

Many a mother in Australia when the busy day is done
Sends a prayer to the Almighty for the keeping of her son
Asking that an angel guide him and bring him safely back
Now we see those prayers are answered on the Owen Stanley Track.
For they haven’t any halos only holes slashed in their ears
And their faces worked by tattoos with scratch pins in their hair
Bringing back the badly wounded just as steady as a horse
Using leaves to keep the rain off and as gentle as a nurse
Slow and careful in the bad places on the awful mountain track
They look upon their faces would make you think Christ was black
Not a move to hurt the wounded as they treat him like a saint
It’s a picture worth recording that an artist’s yet to paint
Many a lad will see his mother and husbands see their wives
Just because the fuzzy wuzzy carried them to save their lives
From mortar bombs and machine gun fire or chance surprise attacks
To the safety and the care of doctors at the bottom of the track
May the mothers of Australia when they offer up a prayer
Mention those impromptu angels with their fuzzy wuzzy hair.

– Bert Beros

 

In 1942, a seldom-used track climbed from the small village of Buna on the north coast of Papua, over the Owen Stanley Ranges and on to Port Moresby.

 

The track was fairly easy up the slopes through Gorari and Oivi to the village of Kokoda, which stood on a small plateau 400 meters above sea level, flanked by mountains rising to over 2000 meters.

 

It then climbed over steep ridges and through deep valleys to Deniki, Isurava, Kagi, Ioribaiwa, Ilolo and, at Owers’ Corner, linked with a motor road leading from plantations in the hills above Port Moresby down to the coastal plains.

 

Between Kokoda and Ilolo, the track often climbed up gradients so steep that it was heartbreaking labor for burdened men to climb even a few hundred yards.

 

Much of the track was through dense rain forest, which enclosed the narrow passage between walls of thick bush.

 

At higher levels the terrain became moss and stunted trees, which were often covered in mist.

 

On January 23, 1942, the Japanese landed at Kavieng on New Ireland and at Rabaul on New Britain where they quickly overcame the Australian defenders.

 

On March 8, the Japanese established themselves firmly at Lae and Salamaua in Morobe.

 

However, the Battle of the Coral Sea from May 5 to 8 averted a Japanese sea borne invasion of Port Moresby and the American success at the Battle of Midway in June not only destroyed Japan’s capacity for undertaking long range offensives but also provided the Americans with the opportunity to move from the defensive to the offensive.

 

The Japanese, who were regularly bombing Port Moresby with twenty to thirty bombers with fighter escort, decided on the overland attack across the Owen Stanley Range.

 

On the Kododa Trail the Australian 7th Division resisted the Japanese General Horii’s overland attempt to capture Port Moresby, and the advance was halted within 30 miles of the city.

 

A small force of Australians known as “Maroubra Force” arrived at Buna on July 21st, 1942, as the first Japanese force of 1500 men landed at Gona, eight miles to the west.

 

What followed will forever go down as one of the most heroic defensive actions in the annals of military history.

 

The first engagement between the opposing troops was on the July 23, 1942, and from that engagement, as the Australian force was progressively outnumbered, began the long fighting withdrawal over the Owen Stanley Range.

 

Kokoda is a small plateau on the north-east slopes of the Owen Stanley Range and possessed a small airstrip the retention of which, for at least as long as it would take Australia to fly in supplies and reinforcements, was of great importance.

 

However, the remnants of “Maroubra Force”, exhausted by a month’s constant fighting, were unable to achieve this.

 

Valiant though their effort was, they even recaptured the plateau after being driven out, the Japanese need was of equal importance as they required a forward base at Kokoda for their drive over the ranges along the “Kokoda Track” to Port Moresby and they struck before the Australians were able to muster sufficient strength.

 

The initiative now remained with the Japanese and Australian withdrawal began again - through Isurava, Alola, Templeton’s Crossing, Myola, Efogi, Menari and Nauro until at Ioribaiwa Ridge, beyond which the Japanese could not be permitted to penetrate, a final stand was made. 

 

From August 26 to September 16 in 1942 Brigadier Potts’s Maroubra Force, consisting of the 2/16th Battalion, together with the 2/14th, the 2/27th and the militia 39th and scattered elements of the ill – trained 53rd Battallion - outnumbered and outgunned by an estimated 5 to 1 - fought the Japanese to an eventual standstill on the ridges overlooking Port Moresby.

 

Two main battles were fought during that period (Isurava August 26 to 29 and Brigade ‘Butchers’Hill from September 6 to 8).

 

In the main, the desperately tired but determined force kept themselves between the Japanese Major General Horri’s South Sea Force and Port Moresby – defending, retreating and then counter – attacking in a masterly display of strategic defence.

 

Conditions were almost indescribable. It rained for most of the time, the weary men endured some of the most difficult terrain of the world and they were racked by malaria and dysentery. But they kept on fighting, making the enemy pay dearly for every yard of ground. They bought time for those being prepared to come up from Port Moresby to relieve them.

 

The Australians, however, had a surprise in store for the enemy.

 

This was in the form of 25-pounder guns brought from Moresby to the road head at Owers’ Corner and then laboriously dragged into position at Imita Ridge, opening up on the enemy’s barricades and it was now the turn of the Japanese to suffer what the Australians had suffered in the preceding two months.

 

Australian shelling smashed Japanese defences and aggressive patrols inflicted severe losses.

 

On the morning of September 28th the Australians were closing in and it became evident then the Japanese were withdrawing.

 

The chase, with the Australians the pursuers, was now on. The Japanese, despite sickness and hunger, were still formidable and tenaciously defended all the places in their withdrawal as the Australians had in their retreat some weeks earlier.

 

Kokoda was entered on November 2 and this was the beginning of the end of Japanese hopes in Papua.

 

The campaign now entered a phase known as “The Battle of the Beaches”.

 

The Japanese were bottled up in the area from which they had commenced their drive on Port Moresby some months previously - Buna, Gona, Sanananda.

 

This final campaign commenced on November 19, 1942, and ended on January 22, 1943, when all organised resistance by the Japanese in Papua ended.

 

Lt Col Honner DSO MC, who commanded the gallant 39th in the campaign, later wrote of these men in the foreword to Peter Brune’s book ‘Those Rugged Bloody Heroes’: “They have joined the immortals.”

 

Of those that did not survive, he wrote: “Wherever their bones may lie, the courage of heroes is consecrated in the hearts and engraved in the history of the free.”