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.
Kokoda Day commemorates the raising of the Australian flag at Kokoda Village on 3 November 1942, by Major General George Vasey, the Commander of the Australian 7th Division. This event symbolised the turning of the tide in the war against Japan and was warmly acclaimed by both the Australian soldiers present and the group of PNG carriers and Kokoda villagers in attendance.
Japanese plans for a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby had been thwarted by Australian and American naval forces in the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May 1942 and the Battle of Midway in early June 1942. This left them with the only option of a land assault over the Owen Stanley Ranges via the Kokoda Trail. Their infantry forces starting landing on the beach at Gona on 21 July 1942.
Their preparations and subsequent plans were continually disrupted by the heroic actions of our fighter and bomber pilots who continually bombed Rabaul and the Japanese landing fleets on the northern beaches at Buna and Gona.
The Battle for Kokoda commenced on 23 July 1942 when a small contingent of soliders of the 39th Militia Battalion supported by elements of the Papuan Infantry Battalion ambushed the Japanese soldiers advancing from the north coast at Awala some 30 kilometres from Kokoda but were forced back to the village. The Japanese attacked Kokoda in strength on the night of 29 July but did not completely capture Kokoda until 9 August, the gallant fighting withdrawal had commenced. The 39th Battalion moved back to the village of Isurava where two important things happened.
They met their new commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, an experienced and natural leader, and they were joined, not long after the Japanese attacked, by seasoned soliders of the Australian Imperial Force when the soliders of the 2/14th Battalion fought alongside the militia men in their trenches, a first for the Australian Army. However while the Australian soliders fought bravely they were significantly out numbered and after a five day battle that inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese, they were forced to withdraw again.
The fighting withdrawal continued with another major battle at Brigade Hill and many lesser contacts at well planned delaying positions. But with the combination of greater troop numbers and significant fire superiority with their portable mountain guns, the Japanese had the Australians on the backfoot all the way to Imita Ridge, just 40 kilometres from Port Moresby.
However by mid September 1942 things were changing; fresh Australian troops had joined the battle and the Australians had artillery support for the first time on the Kokoda trail.
The Japanese forces on Ioribaiwa Ridge facing Imita, could see the sea to the south and knew they were close to Port Moresby but they had taken very heavy casualties in the fighting so far, were short of rations and ammunition, and things were going badly for their forces at Guadacanal. Their commander, General Hori, received orders to abandon their attempts to take Port Moresby and to advance to the rear, the Japanese army had no words for retreat or withdrawal. This was the high tide of the Japanese advance towards Australia but it was a very near run thing.
The Australian advance north commenced on 27th September and after a major seven day battle at Eora Creek, they entered Kokoda on 2nd November and the divisional commander re-raised the Australian flag on 3rd November. The battle for Kokoda had been won, but at considerable cost and there was still much fighting to come.
It was very significant that there were Papua New Guinean carriers at that original flag raising as our victory would not have been possible without the support and sacrifice of the wonderful New Guinean wartime carriers – the legendary Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who carried important stores forward and our casualties to the rear.
As quoted by Rusty Priest: “it has been said that Gallipoli created a nation but Kokoda saved a nation. Others have reminded us that at Gallipoli we fought for Britain and lost – at Kokoda we fought for Australia and won.
The Board of the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway believes it is very appropriate that 70 years on we recognise the symbolic significant of the raising of the Australian flag on the Kokoda Plateau on 3rd November 1942 and we pause to reflect on those four words etched into the four granite pillars at the Isurava Battlefield that recognise the contribution of our brave soldiers during this and other battles, words that as a former professional solider I find inspirational: courage, endurance, mateship, sacrifice.
Brigadier (Retired) Philip McNamara
Board of Directors Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway, Rhodes.
Edited speech given on Kokoda Day 2012 by Brigadier McNamara at the Kokoda Track Memorial Pathway at Rhodes. Brigadier McNamara is Chairman of Network Kokoda (Australia).