Singapore had fallen. Darwin had been bombed. Indonesia had been taken. Australia was under direct attack, and many feared a Japanese invasion.
After being at the forefront of the British Empire’s struggle against Nazi Germany for the previous two years, in 1942 it was having to defend its own territory against Japanese attack.
The Japanese had already captured Rabaul with its magnificent harbour in January and tried to take Port Moresby in neighbouring Papua in a failed sea-borne invasion in May.
Race to the Kokoda Plateau
As the Australians were hastily turning Port Morseby into a forward base, in July the Japanese tried a new tack. They landed an invasion force, the Nankai Shitai (South Seas Detachment), comprising the 144th and 44th infantry regiments and a contingent of engineers under the command of Major General Horii Tomitaro, on 21 July 1942.
The advance guard quickly pushed inland to capture the station at Kokoda in the northern foothills of the towering Owen Stanley Ranges, just shy of 100km (60 miles) inland from Papua’s north shore.
Sent to meet them was B Company of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion, a militia unit (much-derided part-time soldiers), most of whom were young Victorians.
Once on the track, the men of B Company, all of them green with the possible exception of their leader, Captain Sam Templeton, a Great War naval reserve veteran, were soon struggling in the tropical heat, and they hadn’t even started climbing the real hills yet.
Slogging up and down the slithering, meandering track made orderly progress almost impossible – so steep was the climb and so hard was the going, men slipped and fell, twisted ankles and knees and before long some had to fall out before they collapsed from exhaustion.
The Australians Lose Kokoda
After a seven-day march, B Company’s 120 men arrived at Kokoda in mid-July, and after some initial platoon-level skirmishing with the Japanese vanguard beyond the plateau, fell back to defend the airstrip.
The 39th Battalion’s commander, Lt Col William Owen, landed there on 23 July and having assessed the situation, pleaded with Port Morseby for 200 reinforcements. He got 30. The first 15 arrived by plane on 25 July and he immediately set them to work. The Japanese were not far behind.
During sharp and desperate fighting on 28-29 July, Lt Col Owen was shot in the head during a night attack and his men were forced to pull out as the Japanese launched a 900-man assault.
The 77 remaining Australians beat a hasty retreat into the claustrophobic fastness of the jungle. Although they briefly recaptured Kokoda on 8 August, the rest of the 39th Battalion had another rendezvous with their antagonists at a mountain escarpment known to the locals as Isurava. There the exhausted militiamen frantically dug in using their helmets and bayonets.
Lieutenant Onogawa, leader of a detached platoon of the 144th Regiment’s 1st Battalion, was generous in his praise of the Australians’ fighting spirit: ‘Although the Australians are our enemies, their bravery must be admired,’ he wrote.
Mayhem and Murder on the Mountaintop
As the 39th looked like it could be overwhelmed at Isurava, two battalions of Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) ‘professional’ soldiers, the 2/14th and 2/16th battalions, arrived atop the dominant spur, and plugged the gaps in the dangerously thin Australian line.
The fit regulars looked with astonishment at the cadaverous militia in their water-logged rifle pits. ‘Gaunt spectres with gaping boots and rotting tatters of uniform hanging around them like scarecrows … Their faces had no expression, their eyes sunk back into their sockets,’ one of the AIF men recalled.
A desperate battle ensued over the next few days as thousands of Japanese were thrown uphill against the makeshift Australian defence and poured mountain gun rounds and machine gun fire into the Australian lines from the opposite ridge.
The experience was hellish for the Australians. Several times the Japanese penetrated their lines, only to be thrown back, often in savage hand-to-hand combat. The Australians could rarely see the enemy until they burst from the brush, screaming ‘Banzai!’ and reaching for the Diggers with their long bayonets. They attacked in torrential downpours. They attacked in the dead of night.
A Victoria Cross was posthumously awarded to Melbourne real estate agent, Private Bruce Kingsbury, of the 2/14th Battalion, after he single-handedly broke a Japanese attack on 29 August by snatching up a Bren gun, charging into the midst of the attackers and firing from the hip until the Japanese scattered. A sniper fired a single shot from atop a prominent rock nearby and dropped Kingsbury. The attack was over, but Kingsbury was dead before his mates could reach him.
The Australians held on for four days. The 39th’s new CO, Lt Col Ralph Honner, was full of praise for his exhausted youngsters. Against almost overwhelming odds, they had delayed the Japanese advance until they were forced to retreat or be overwhelmed.
For the Japanese, it was a pyrrhic victory. They were a week behind schedule and had suffered high casualties at Isurava. It was a disaster for the Australians.
The Japanese lost about 550 men killed and 1000 wounded. More than 250 dead were counted in front of just one 2/14th Battalion company position. The Australians lost 250 men and many hundreds wounded.
As the Diggers were forced out of their makeshift trenches, a three-day retreat to safer ground began. The wounded could receive little medical help – those who could not walk were carried by their mates or native carriers.
The walking wounded endured a unique brand of suffering. The supply situation was critical, there were shortages of every kind except misery and exhaustion. The men were near spent.
The Australian field commander, Brigadier Arnold Potts, decided to stage a fighting withdrawal until he could be reinforced. His superiors in Port Morseby and Australia urged more aggressive action, demanding Kokoda be retaken and held. Given the situation, this was impossible.
The Japanese ‘Advance to the Rear’
Despite Potts’ dogged rearguard action, the Japanese were close on his heels. It became a deadly game of jungle hide-and-seek, hit-and-run. At a ridge that later became known as Brigade Hill, the Australians were flanked by Japanese machine gunners on 9 September and were routed. They fled pell mell to the next village, Menari, then over miles of torturous track to Ioribaiwa, then Imita Ridge, where Australian artillery was waiting.
Within sight of their objective, Port Morseby, the literally starving lead elements of the 144th Regiment gazed upon the lights of the town from their ridge opposite the Australians – so close yet still so far.
Although an advance on Morseby was planned on 25 September, Horri was ordered to retreat. The Japanese high command had decided to focus their resources on fighting the Americans on Guadalcanal. Like many of his men, Horri would not survive the campaign.
The Allies had the upper hand now, with a 25-pounder gun hauled within range of the enemy. The fresh 25th Brigade was sent forward on 23 September to pursue the Japanese back to Papua’s north coast, but that was only possible after a series of equally bloody battles. The campaign was arguably Australia’s finest hour of the war but also its most grim.