For centuries, if not millenia, the Kokoda Track* was just another of many tracks linking indigenous villages across the Owen Stanley Ranges of Papua. Had it not been for the decision by the Japanese army in 1942 to use it as an invasion route to capture Port Moresby, it may well have remained so. In 1941 and early 1942, the Japanese forces had seemed unstoppable and were rapidly pushing southward through south-east Asia and the Pacific towards Australia. At the time, the island of New Guinea seemed a last bastion of defence .... and so a legend was born.

Kokoda is now etched into the history of Australia and the story of how the "ragged bloody heroes" of the Australian forces, under-equipped and out-numbered, staged a desperate fighting retreat across the dense and steep-walled jungles of the Owen Stanley Ranges that sucked the life out of the advancing Japanese troops is now legend. Their push back across the Track, harrying the retreating Japanese and finally defeating them on the beaches of Buna, Gona and Sanananda, completes the story of Kokoda. Together with the nearby battle of Milne Bay and the naval Battle of the Coral Sea, Kokoda shattered the myth of Japanese invincibility and marked a turning point of the war. For Australians, as Gallipoli is to the First World War, so Kokoda is burned into the national psyche as a symbol of valour and sacrifice for the Second World War.

Today, increasing numbers walk the Kokoda Track as a form of pilgrimage to honour its heroes. It is not an easy walk - some trekkers have even died on the 96 km and 5500 vertical metres of steep single-file muddy paths through dense jungle and saturating humidity. In fact, the fair Nello is not here because the humidity would almost certainly send her eczema into overdrive. I am undertaking this walk as her representative, along with her brother Nick and his daughter Imogen. It is the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign and Nello and Nick's father was one of those who fought here all that time ago.

We have returned to pay homage.

* The official title is the Kokoda Trail, but it is known equally by both names. Most of the veterans who fought on it referred to it as the Kokoda Track. There is
an ongoing debate about which title to use, but, in the end, does it really matter? Here I have used the term "track" because that is how I have always known it.

A brief history of the Kokoda Campaign *

On the Track (Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

Japanese forces landed at Gona, on the north coast of Papua, in July 1942 and began to move inland soon after. The 39th Militia Battalion and elements of the Papuan Infantry Battalion were sent to stop them and the first clash occurred at Awala on July 23. Heavily outnumbered and ill-equipped for jungle warfare, the Australians were forced back. Using tactics of leap-frogging ambushes and setting up major defensive positions where terrain was suitable, they inflicted heavy casualties and delayed the Japanese advance.

Exhausted after a month of continuous fighting, the 39th Battalion was finally reinforced by the 21st Brigade of the AIF (regular army) during the Battle of Isurava on August 23. From here the Australian forces were slowly forced back to Eora Creek on 30 August, Templeton’s Crossing on 2 September, and Efogi by September 5, extracting a high price from the Japanese for their advance. The 39th Battalion was finally relieved by the 25th Brigade AIF, to be joined by the 3rd Militia Battalion on September 5 when they took up defensive positions on Iorobaiwa Ridge. After a fierce 4-day battle, the Australians were forced to retreat to Imita Ridge, where they prepared to make a final stand.

From Iorobaiwa Ridge, the Japanese could see the glow of Port Moresby but the casualties and delays forced on them by the Australians had taken their toll. Now it was the Japanese turn to be over-stretched, on the wrong end of a thin supply line and, for the first time, within range of the Australian artillery. With troops starving, munitions running low and no possibility of reinforcements due to commitments in the Battle on Guadalcanal, they were ordered to "advance backwards" (the term retreat not existing in the Japanese military vocabulary) on September 24. Joined by the 16th Brigade, the Australian forces harried them all the way, fighting a cruel war of patrol and ambush, with pitched battles at Templeton's Crossing and Eora Creek, against a desperate Japanese rear-guard.

Those "ragged bloody heroes" (Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

The mountains were crossed and Kokoda was retaken on November 2. The campaign now entered a different and even more bloody phase, as the Japanese were trapped with their backs to the sea. They fought to the bitter end before being completely routed by an Australian force that included the 16th and 25th AIF Brigades, plus the 3rd and 39th Militia Battalions, aided by newly arrived American troops, in the Battles of Buna, Gona and Sanananda. By the end of January 1943 the campaign was over.

During the Kokoda campaign, Australian forces lost 625 killed and 1055 wounded. A further 1394 were killed and 2478 wounded in the battles for the northern beaches. Such were the conditions that for every battle casualty another three were stricken by tropical disease - malaria, typhus, dysentery. No history of the Kokoda Track, no matter how brief, would be complete without an acknowledgment of the fuzzy-wuzzy angels, the Papuan porters who carried in supplies and carried out the wounded troops. Without their contribution, these numbers would have been much higher.

* This is only a very brief account and may omit the contributions of some army units. For a full description of the campaign, I would recommend reading Bill James "Field Guide to the Kokoda Track", written for the trekker who wants to understand what happened there.

WO2 William Kevin Brown NX163058 (1920-2003)

Bill Brown joined the 3rd Battalion, Citizens Military Forces (Militia), as an 18 year old in December 1938. Following the outbreak of World War II, the battalion was mobilised and sent to New Guinea in May 1942 to help defend Port Moresby against the Japanese. At that time Bill had attained the rank of Sergeant. From September 5 to December 14 1942, he and his comrades fought alongside other militia units and units of the regular Australian army on the Kokoda Track and Northern Beaches campaigns. The 3rd Battalion returned to Australia after the success of this campaign, where the militia units were disbanded and absorbed into the regular army. Bill was part of the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion between April and October 1943. At that point he joined the Papuan Infantry Battalion and returned twice more to New Guinea, serving as a Warrant Officer in their campaigns against the Japanese army in New Guinea and Bougainville until the end of the war. He was demobilised in January 1946.

Bill Brown was the fair Nello's father and my father-in-law. These pages are dedicated to him.