(Australian Associated Press)
In the steamy jungle on the north coast of Papua more than 75 years ago, Japanese scouts, incongruously mounted on bicycles, rode blithely into an ambush.
Waiting by the track were Papuan soldiers of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB), who speared the hapless Japanese, throwing their bodies and their bicycles into a nearby creek.
Then as the main Japanese force arrived, the PIB opened fire, blasting them with rifles and grenades. Several fell dead and wounded but these were veteran soldiers who responded vigorously. The PIB platoon, led by Australian officers, withdrew but first blood of the Kokoda campaign had fallen to the Australians.
This preliminary action was minor compared with what was to come. It heralded four months of brutal fighting before Australia managed to retake Kokoda on November 2, 1942, after fighting under conditions unlike any experienced by Australian soldiers before or since.
Japanese forces had landed on Papua on July 21 and advanced inland to assess the feasibility of an overland advance to take Port Moresby.
The opening skirmish, near the village of Awala, mid-way between Kokoda and the coast, occurred on the afternoon of July 23. This date means little to Australians but it does to PNG, which declared the date the new nation’s Remembrance Day in 1981.
Kokoda still remains a very Australian story. In 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating kissed the earth of Kokoda, subsequently declaring it should be commemorated far more than Gallipoli.
Every year, thousands of Australians, young and not so young, attempt to complete the gruelling Kokoda Track as a rite of passage, honouring those young Australians and the PNG nationals who assisted them all those years before.
Australian War Memorial senior historian and World War II expert Dr Karl James says Kokoda has that dramatic quality; a clear narrative and a beginning, middle and an end.
“It’s a very strong Australian story – Australian soldiers fighting on Australian territory, fighting, they think, to stop a Japanese invasion,” he said.
“For a digger fighting at Kokoda or Isurava or Brigade Hill, it’s personal – if they don’t stop the Japanese here, they likely believed where would the Japanese be stopped.”
Those back in Australia gained a taste of this desperate campaign through stunning images from cameraman Damien Parer. Released in September 1942, Parer’s Kokoda Frontline was shown to cinema audiences while the fighting was still underway.
“It is not combat which is what people assume. But you see the conditions, the mountains, the rain, the men tramping through the mud. You have really strong visuals,” James said.
Yet the actual Kokoda campaign remains little understood by the broader community.
Japan sought to cross the formidable Owen Stanley Range and take Port Moresby because their proposed amphibious landing had been thwarted at the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May.
Had that landing proceeded, it would certainly have succeeded. Defences were modest and these were seasoned troops responsible for a succession of victories. We know now Japan had no firm plans to invade Australia but that wasn’t clear in mid-1942.
These were indeed dark times. Singapore had fallen, Japanese bombers had attacked Darwin and on the night of May 31-June 1, Japanese submarines attacked Sydney Harbour.
And now Japanese troops were on Australian (colonial) territory and heading south.
From that opening at Awala, the PIB and Australian militia units fell back under relentless pressure, mounting desperate actions at a series of familiar names – Kokoda itself, Eora, Isurava and finally to Ioribaiwa and Imita Ridge – worryingly close to Port Moresby.
Throughout this fighting retreat, Australian forces were hampered by the mountains, rain, enervating heat, illness and the supply situation. Every bullet, every grenade and every tin of bully beef had to be carried forward by soldiers themselves and Papuan porters.
Every wounded soldier had to be carried out by teams of the Papuan porters, subsequently lauded as the “fuzzy wuzzy angels.”
Japanese troops proved adept at infiltrating around and behind Australian units. But as the frontline moved closer to Moresby, the supply situation improved while the plight of Japanese forces, at the end of an extended supply line, began to deteriorate.
At the same time fresh units from the AIF 7th Division joined the Australian force. After a week of fighting around Ioribaiwa, they withdrew to Imita Ridge, really the last effective barrier.
But then Japan chucked it in, although it’s unlikely the depleted Japanese force could have gone much further.
But in any case Japanese high command on Rabaul, conscious of reverses in fighting on Guadalcanal, ordered their commander General Tomitaro Horii to withdraw to the north coast, set up strong defensive positions and perhaps try again later.
Horii began pulling his troops back on September 24, closely followed by Australian forces who retook Kokoda on November 2.
The 75th anniversary of this event is to be marked on Tuesday by a Last Post ceremony at the War Memorial in Canberra.
In all 624 Australians died in the fighting, with more than 1000 wounded, although casualties from illness were perhaps three times as great. Japanese casualties were far greater, with an estimated three-quarters of their entire force killed or wounded.