The cause of the row was the allocation of 3.4 million kina ($1.42 million) in government funding to go to the KTA rather than to the National Cultural Commission. PNG recently established the KTA as a statutory body to administer the fragile track, promote trekking and collect the mandatory trekking fees. Landowners along the 93km track want more of the lucrative trekking fees markets (currently 200 kina or $83). This month there were 780 trekkers on the track with almost 4,000 visitors last year.
The trekkers want to follow in the footsteps of the World War II soldiers who defended Australia from Japanese invasion in 1942. The story of the Kokoda Track is one of the more remarkable actions of the War. In damp and fetid places such as Isuvara, Deniki, Buna and Gona, an Australian reserve force stopped the advance of a mighty Japanese army as it bore down on Port Moresby, the last stop before Australia itself.
The Kokoda Track is a native walking path which starts at the swampy north coast near the towns of Buna and Gona on the shores of the Solomon Sea. It crosses PNG's backbone - the Owen Stanley Range which splits the country east to west. At the highest elevation lies Kokoda village. Kokoda had a rubber plantation and an administrative outpost. It also had a primitive but strategically vital airstrip. From here the track wound its way to the south coast at Port Moresby, the capital of what was then the Australian-mandated province of Papua New Guinea.
In March 1942, the situation was grim for Australia. In the three months since Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had advanced rapidly. Rabaul in New Britain fell in January. Japan used Rabaul to invade PNG and bomb Port Moresby. They also launched bombing raids on Darwin and Wyndham. The impregnable Singapore fell in February and British forces were on the retreat in Burma while Japanese forces overran the Dutch East Indies.
While Australia faced its darkest hour, its prime fighting men were inconveniently overseas. The Australian Imperial Force was in the North African desert fighting Rommel or in Syria fighting Vichy French forces. National defence was left to the reservists known as the Militia. The AIF condescendingly referred to them as “chockos” – chocolate soldiers who would melt quickly in the sun. Prime Minister John Curtain called for US assistance and said Australia was now “inside the fighting line”. Over Churchill’s objections, he called the AIF home.
Meanwhile, the Japanese South Sea Detachment landed in Rabaul led by General Tomitaro Horii. Horii made plans to invade PNG in a two pronged attack. The first was by sea, and the second was by land across the Owen Stanleys. The naval prong was foiled by the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first ever battle fought by aircraft carriers. Although the battle was inconclusive with one major sinking each, the Japanese withdrew their convoy and postponed the sea attack on Port Moresby.
But the threat remained from a land invasion. MacArthur was aware of it and said if New Guinea went, the results would be disastrous. The Militia was sent to defend Port Moresby where they unloaded ships, built fortifications and repaired the airstrip. Because their tents, blankets, medicine and mosquito repellent was first loaded onto the ships they were the last loaded off. Most soldiers quickly fell to malaria.
The 39th battalion led by “Uncle” Sam Templeton was ordered across the Owen Stanleys to defend Kokoda. They would have company. On 21 July, 14,000 Japanese troops landed at Buna. The 39th marched north to meet them. Heavily outnumbered, they harassed the Japanese before retreating to Kokoda. The Japanese were better equipped and fought in camouflage uniforms with painted faces and foliage-disguised helmets while the Australians were outfitted in heavy regulation khaki. But the Japanese made one big blunder in logistics. General Horii thought his men would get to Port Moresby quickly and he gave them only ten days rations. It was a serious miscalculation.
Templeton prepared an ambush for the Japanese at Oivi, two hours north of Kokoda. They surprised the invaders but were eventually overwhelmed. Templeton then set off to Kokoda to warn the garrison but he never made it back. The remaining Diggers cut across the jungle of the valley to join Lieutenant-Colonel Owen’s troops in Deniki. They returned to Kokoda and set up a defensive position with 77 exhausted men. 1,500 Japanese troops arrived to fight the defenders at close quarters. Owen was killed but surviving defenders eventually retreated to join reinforcements coming up the Track.
500 soldiers of the 39th battalion gathered at Deniki to face an enemy five to ten times more numerous. Their hit and run tactics convinced the Japanese they were dealing with a much larger enemy force. Still, the defenders were overrun once again and retreated to Isavura. New commanding officer Colonel Ralph Honner, who was rushed back from the Middle East, ordered his men to dig in and hold position. Honner had won a VC for his service in Crete and proved a wise and courageous leader who understood his men. He also knew their limitations and saw they were exhausted, hungry, malarial and troubled by tropical infections. His leadership inspired them and they repulsed the invaders with ambushes and shelling.
The defenders were struggling to hold on and needed reinforcements. Finally the men of the AIF arrived. The 2/14th battalion reached Isavura two days later. The 2/16th followed. The Japanese also reinforced and the AIF could not afford to totally relieve the exhausted 39th battalion. The AIF and Militia would fight side by side removing the pejorative tag of “Chockos” forever. The fighting was fiercest at Isavura. The Japanese repeatedly charged the frontlines and the Australians responded with bullets and bayonets, and sometimes fists, rifle butts and even boots. The Japanese died in enormous numbers but still outnumbered the Aussies.
After three days of hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese broke through and threatened Battalion HQ so a group volunteered to counter-attack. Bruce Kingsbury, a quietly-spoken real estate agent from Melbourne grabbed a Bren gun and charged at the stunned Japanese killing dozens. His charge had a galvanising effect. His comrades followed him and repulsed the Japanese. Kingsbury was killed by a sniper’s bullet and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the first ever on Australian territory.
Although the Australians would eventually have to retreat they won important time at Isavura to regroup and resupply. The wounded were carried away from the battle scene by local villagers whom the Australian knew as Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. Horii’s ten-day plan to take Port Moresby was horribly exposed. He needed to get the end of the track without further delay but the Australians held out another month. Horii’s men attacked at Brigade Hill, with a numerical advantage of six to one. Half the Australian defenders were killed, some 500 in all. The Japanese advanced again but suffered crippling casualties.
On 12 September, the Australians made a stand at Ioribaiwa Ridge. It was an excellent defensive position; a needle-sharp 1,350m high ridge with a total view of the valley below. Although the battle was indecisive, the Japanese had had enough. In sight of Port Moresby's lights the supply line grew too long and too fraught. The US had invaded Guadalcanal and Tokyo decided to concentrate its efforts there. Horii’s troops were ordered to withdraw. The Kokoda Track was safe and so was Port Moresby.
There was no victory parade back in the capital. Most people, top brass included, thought the retreats amounted to defeat. Australian general in command, Thomas Blamey, castigated survivors saying they had been beaten by inferior troops in inferior numbers. He also accused his men of having run like rabbits. Whether his words were misinterpreted or not, the soldiers were indignant. There was no help from MacArthur who was anxious to show Guadalcanal in the best light. He ignored New Guinea and belittled the Australian contribution.
Eventually word got out about what really happened at Kokoda. Ralph Honner summed it up when he described the Battle of Isurava as "Australia's Thermopylae". 30,000 Australian troops served in the entire Kokoda Campaign. 3,000 died in battle, and 5,500 were wounded. Countless more died of disease. But Australia’s darkest hour was over. As Lt-Col Phil Rhoden recounted to Patrick Lindsay for his book “The Essence of Kokoda”:
“We were fighting for Australia, on Australian soil for the first time. It was important we won because if we didn’t win who knows what would have happened".