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The Kokoda Track or Kokoda Trail campaign was part of the Pacific War of World War II. The campaign consisted of a series of battles fought from July 1942 to January 1943 between Japanese and Australian forces in the Owen Stanley Range of Papua New Guinea.
The Kokoda Track itself is single-file track starting just outside Port Moresby on the Coral Sea and (depending on definition) runs 40–100 kilometres through the Owen Stanley Range to Kokoda and the coastal lowlands beyond by the Solomon Sea . The track crosses some of the most rugged and isolated terrain in the world, reaches 2,250 metres at Mount Bellamy , and combines hot humid days with intensely cold nights, torrential rainfall and endemic tropical diseases such as malaria. The track is passable only on foot, this had extreme repercussions for logistics, the size of forces and the type of warfare conducted on the Track.
Prelude to the battle
As part of their south Pacific strategy, the Japanese objective was the capture of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The first attempt by sea-borne amphibious invasion was thwarted by the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Battle of Midway and the destruction of the Japanese carrier fleet removed the possibility of major amphibious operations in the south Pacific. The Japanese now resolved to mount an overland assault across the Owen Stanley Range to capture Port Moresby.
Looking for ways to counter the Japanese advance into the South Pacific, the Supreme Allied Commander in the South West Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, decided to build up Allied forces in New Guinea as a prelude to an offensive against the main Japanese base at Rabaul. Lieutenant-General Syd Rowell , the Australian commander in New Guinea, ordered the 100-strong B company of the Australian 39th (Militia) Battalion , to travel overland along the Track to the village of Kokoda. Once there, B Company was to secure the airstrip at Kokoda, in preparation for an Allied build-up along the Papuan north coast. As the militia company was securing its positions, news reached them of Japanese landings on the north coast of New Guinea.
Japanese landings and initial assault
Japanese troops landed on the north coast of Papua New Guinea in July 1942, established beachheads at Buna , Gona and Sanananda and quickly moved inland. The 5th Sasebo Landing Force — a 500-strong Japanese marine battalion — commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Hatsuo Tsukamoto led a reconnaissance in force along the Kokoda Track, and encountered the Australian troops, deployed near Kokoda. Skirmishing and several fierce assaults by the Japanese marines caused the outnumbered Australians to fall back through Kokoda and beyond. Kokoda was captured by the Japanese on July 29.
Having established the inferior strength of the defending forces and with the strategically vital supply base and airstrip at Kokoda within his grasp, Tsukamoto deemed the track to be practicable for a full scale overland assault against Port Moresby. The Imperial Japanese Army's 10,000-strong South Seas Force, commanded by Major-General Tomitaro Horii , based at Rabaul, was tasked with the capture of Port Moresby. Horii's force landed at the Papuan beachheads and began moving up the Track.
The loss of the airstrip at Kokoda forced the Australian commanders to send the other companies of the 39th Battalion plus the rest of the Militia's 30th Brigade — the 49th and 55th Battalions — over the Track, rather than reinforcing Kokoda by air. Supplies, which had previously been flown in to Kokoda by US Army Air Force Douglas DC-3s, would now need to be carried in by Papuan porters. Wounded soldiers could no longer be evacuated by air, and would now have to be carried out by Papuans, nicknamed fuzzy-wuzzy angels by the Australian soldiers for their hairstyle and for the tender care they provided to the sick and wounded.
Belatedly, MacArthur and the Allied land commander (and Australian Commander-in-Chief), General Thomas Blamey, realized the seriousness of the situation and ordered the Australian 7th Division to embark from Australia for New Guinea. The 21st Brigade was the first to arrive at Port Moresby — commanded by Brigadier Arnold Potts it comprised the 2/14th Battalion, 2/16th Battalion and the 2/27th Battalion. The 2/14th and 2/16th immediately began moving north along the Track to reinforce Maroubra Force. The 2/27th Battalion was initially held in reserve in Port Moresby, before being deployed at Milne Bay.
Battles along the Track
Second battle of Kokoda
The first reinforcements from the 30th Brigade, led by Brigade Major Cameron, reached the Australian forces outside Kokoda, now designated Maroubra Force. Cameron had been ordered to command Maroubra Force pending the arrival of the 39th Battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner . Cameron led an abortive attempt to retake Kokoda before being forced to withdraw. On arrival, Honner took command of Maroubra Force and withdrew further south along the Track to Isurava.
Battle of Isurava
Horii moved the first of his disembarking troops forward, a body of some 2500 soldiers against the 39th Battalion and elements of the 49th and 55th Militia Battalions, some 400-strong. The Japanese made contact with the outer positions of Maroubra Force and, with the aid of a mountain gun and mortars manhandled up the Track, began savage frontal attacks against the dug in defenders.
During the battle, the first troops of the 21st Brigade arrived to reinforce the 39th Battalion. Potts took command of Maroubra Force, and using the screen provided by the 39th Battalion, deployed the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions. By the time the 2/14th Battalion had deployed, the Japanese were still able to field a force some 5,000 strong and therefore outnumbered the Australians by at least five-to-one.
Japanese tactics were little changed from the campaign through Malaya — pin the enemy in place with suicidal frontal attacks while feeling for the flanks with a view to cutting off enemy forces from the rear. However, Horii was on a strict timetable, any delays feeling for flanks meant the gradual debilitation of his force from disease and starvation. As a result, Maroubra Force endured four-days of violent frontal attacks.
- Private Kingsbury, who was one of the few survivors of a Platoon which had been overrun...immediately volunteered to join a different platoon which had been ordered to counterattack. He rushed forward firing the Bren gun from his hip through terrific machine-gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy. Continuing to sweep enemy positions with his fire and inflicting an extremely high number of casualties on them, Private Kingsbury was then seen to fall to the ground shot dead by the bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood.
Eyewitnesses said that Kingsbury's actions had a profound effect on the Japanese, halting their momentum. However, Australian casualties mounted and ammunition ran low, necessitating a withdrawal towards Nauro and Menari. Potts relieved the 39th Battalion and the shattered 49th and 55th, the malaria-racked survivors making their way back to Port Moresby on foot or carried by Papuan stretcher parties.
Isurava to Brigade Hill
Retreating soldiers, Papuan porters and wounded immediately flooded the Track, causing the track in parts to become a sea of mud. However, no wounded were left behind — Japanese patrols routinely mutilated and executed any wounded found, sometimes using the corpses as bait to draw Australian soldiers into ambushes.
No suitable defensive terrain existed between Isurava and a feature known as Mission Ridge which was south of Nauro and Myola. As a result, Brigadier Potts and Maroubra force retreated back through Menari mounting small delaying actions where possible.
Myola to that time had been used as a supply dump, a cleared patch of ground allowing supply drops by the Douglas DC-3 "biscuit bombers". Allen, commanding the 7th Division, asked Potts when offensive actions would be resumed now that air-drops were ensuring a regular if sparse and intermittent flow of supplies. Potts in turn enquired after his 2/27th Battalion, denied him by Allen in view of the situation at Milne Bay. Pressured by Rowell and Blamey, Allen ordered Potts to hold Myola as a forward supply base and gather sufficient supplies for an offensive against the Japanese advance.
Allen's orders were stunningly ignorant of the true situation facing Maroubra Force, but Potts knew only too well the overwhelming superiority of numbers fielded against him. Threatened with an outflanking maneuver through a loop of the Track, Potts was forced to retreat through Myola, destroying the supply base behind him.
Battle of Brigade Hill
2/27th Battalion finally joins Maroubra Force at Mission Ridge only to be cut off by a strong Japanese flank attack through the center of Maroubra Force. Survivors of all three Australian battalions "go bush" and make their way back to Ioribaiwa and thence to Imita Ridge.
Battle of Imita Ridge
After a gruelling advance across the Owen Stanleys and see-sawing battles with the Australians, the Japanese offensive was finally halted at Imita Ridge, outside Port Moresby. The worn-out soldiers of Maroubra Force were relieved by the 25th Brigade commanded by Brigadier Ken Eather .
A subsequent counter-offensive by Australian forces re-took the Kokoda Track. Before reaching the Japanese beachheads, Allen was relieved of command and replaced by Major-General George Vasey .
Several grisly discoveries by advancing Australian troops starkly illustrated the logistical nightmare of the Track — Japanese corpses were often found with no sign of external trauma having died from typhoid and dysentery, and several corpses of Australian soldiers were found to have had body parts removed, a result of the starving Japanese resorting to cannibalism.
In a dramatic and bizarre turn of events, Horii drowned while withdrawing with his troops across the Kumusi River , towards the beachheads. The fierce current of the river swept away a horse on which he was riding; both Horii and the horse disappeared.
The "running rabbits" incident
After the fighting withdrawal and the relief of the 21st Brigade by the 25th Brigade, General Blamey visited the remnants of Maroubra Force near base camp outside Port Moresby. He relieved Brigadier Potts of his command, citing Pott's failure to hold back the Japanese despite commanding "superior forces" and, despite explicit orders to the contrary, Pott's failure to launch an offensive to re-take Kokoda. Blamey replaced Potts with Brigadier Ivan Dougherty who was to command 21st Brigade until the end of the war.
Later, Blamey addressed the men of the 21st Brigade. Drawn up to attention on the parade ground to listen to Blamey's speech, the men of Maroubra Force expected congratulations for their strenuous efforts holding back the Japanese.
However upon mounting the podium, Blamey began at once to upbraid the gathered men. He informed them that they had been "beaten" by inferior forces and that "no soldier should be afraid to die". "Remember," Blamey was reported to say, "it's the running rabbit that gets shot, not the man holding the gun!"
Men broke ranks almost at once, shouting at and jeering the Australian commander-in-chief, who seemed quite startled and bemused that mere soldiers would dare insult their commander-in-chief. Only the discipline of the officers and senior NCOs managed to quiet the restive soldiers and prevent the first ever collective mutiny in the Australian Army. Later that day during the march-past parade many disobeyed the "eyes-right" order. In a later letter to his wife, an enraged Brigadier Potts swore to "fry his [Blamey's] soul" for Blamey's unworthy act.
General Blamey subsequently visited the wounded of Maroubra Force in the camp hospital. However, enterprising nurses had smuggled in lettuce leaves which wounded soldiers proceeded to nibble on in front of Blamey, wrinkling their noses while whispering "run, rabbit, run!"
Later in January 1943 , a successful Australian-United States Army operation was launched to crush the Japanese beachheads, in the Battle of Buna-Gona. Following the battle, about 30 remaining members of the 39th Battalion were airlifted out of the front line and the battalion was dissolved, to the regret of some members. Allied operations against Japanese forces in New Guinea continued into 1944.
Significance for Australia
While the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I was Australia's first military test as a new nation, the Kokoda and subsequent New Guinea campaign was the first time that Australia's security had been threatened directly. Given that at the time Papua New Guinea was an Australian colony, Kokoda was also the first time that Australians fought and died repelling an invader on Australian soil. It was also the first time that Australia had fought without the materiel presence or support of the United Kingdom.
The dire peril facing Australia during the South Pacific and New Guinea campaigns underlined Australia's security problems and would later lead to the populate-or-perish post-war mass immigration programme and the signing of the ANZUS defense treaty.
Ralph Honner summed up the magnitude of the achievement when he described the Battle of Isurava as "Australia's Thermopylae". If the Battle of Gallipoli forged an "ANZAC spirit", then Kokoda perhaps surpassed that spirit or even saved it, since the Australian people may have faced invasion, had the campaign been lost.
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