In July 1942, Japanese forces made landings at Gona on the north coast of modern Papua New Guinea. Their objective was to reach Port Moresby by taking the Kokoda Track over the Owen Stanley mountain range. Australian troops arrived on the Kokoda Track two weeks prior to the landings, having been warned of an imminent attack. The subsequent Kokoda Campaign would strike a deep impression in the hearts and minds of the Australian people.
1. Japan wanted to protect the port of Rabaul
The Japanese wanted to control the island of New Guinea in order to protect the port of Rabaul on nearby New Britain.
2. The Allies wanted to attack the port of Rabaul
Rabaul was overwhelmed in January 1942 during the Japanese advance into the Pacific. However, by mid-1942, having won the Battle of Midway, the Allies were ready to strike back.
3. Part of the island of New Guinea was under Australian administration
In 1942 the island of New Guinea was made up of three territories: Netherlands New Guinea, North East New Guinea, and Papua. Both North East New Guinea and Papua were under Australian administration. A Japanese presence in these territories would threaten Australia itself.
4. Japanese forces attempted to land at Port Moresby in May 1942
The first Japanese attempt to make landings in Papua, at Port Moresby, ended in failure at the Battle of the Coral Sea.
5. Japanese forces landed in Gona in July 1942
Having failed to land at Port Moresby, the Japanese instead landed at Gona, on the north coast, intending to reach Port Moresby by the Kokoda Track.
6. The Kokoda Track links Buna on the north coast with Port Moresby in the south
The track is 96km long and crosses the harsh terrain of the Owen Stanley Mountains.
7. The only VC of the Kokoda Campaign was won by Private Bruce Kingsbury
By late August, the Japanese had advanced along the Kokoda Track and captured the airbase at Kokoda. The Australians retreated and dug in near the village of Isurava, where the Japanese attacked on 26th August. It was during an Australian counterattack that Private Kingsbury charged toward the enemy, firing a Bren gun from the hip, shouting “follow me!”.
Cutting a path through the enemy, and inspiring his comrades to join him, the counterattack forced the Japanese back. In the thick of the action, Kingsbury was hit by a bullet from a Japanese sniper. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
8. The Japanese suffered their first defeat on land in New Guinea
On 26th August, coinciding with the attack at Isurava, the Japanese landed at Milne Bay on the southern tip of New Guinea. Their goal was the take the airbase there, and use it to provide air support for the campaign. But the attack at Milne Bay was comprehensively defeated by the Australians, the first time the Japanese had been totally defeated on land.
9. The American attack on Guadalcanal impacted Japanese forces in Papua
Guadalcanal impacted on the availability of forces and decision making throughout the Kokoda Campaign. By September 1942, the Japanese had pushed the Australians back through the Owen Stanley Mountains to within 40 miles of Port Moresby on the southern coast.
But with the Guadalcanal Campaign going against them, the Japanese opted to delay an attack on Port Moresby and instead retreated back into the mountains.
10. The Australians turned the tables
The Australians now went on the offensive, defeating the Japanese in a two-week battle at Eora in mid-October, and pushing on to retake Kokoda and its vital airstrip. On 3 November, the Australian flag was raised over Kokoda. With the airstrip secure, supplies now began to flow in to support the Australian campaign. After suffering a further defeat at Oivi-Gorari, the Japanese were forced back to their beachhead at Buna-Gona, from which they were ejected in January 1943.
11. Australian soldiers fought in terrible conditions
Much of the fighting in New Guinea took place in thick jungle and swamps. Australian forces lost more men to sickness than to combat during the Kokoda Campaign. Dysentery was rife along the Kokoda Track; soldiers were known to cut their shorts into kilts to avoid soiling their clothes. At the coast, in places such as Mile Bay and Buna, the main problem was malaria. Thousands of soldiers were evacuated from New Guinea as a result of disease.
12. The native people of New Guinea helped the Australians
Local people helped move supplies from Port Moresby along the Kokoda Track and carried injured Australian soldiers to safety. They became known as the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.
Information compiled from The Anzac Portal: The Kokoda Track
Images from the collection of the Australian War Memorial