The Kokoda Track Campaign
Friday 14 July, 2017
‘Bullets everywhere – hell on earth amongst the clouds in the mountains …’
With these words, the diary of Private Stewart John Clarke, 2/14 Battalion, describes the scene on the Kokoda Track in 1942.
The Kokoda Track cuts through 96 kilometres of dense jungle and over mountains, much of which can only be travelled on foot. The path links Owers’ Corner, approximately 40 kms north-east of Port Moresby, and the small village of Wairopi, on the northern side of the Owen Stanley mountain range. It continues across the Kumasi River, connecting to the settlements of Buna, Gona and Sanananda on the north coast.
Men leading pack horses and mules loaded with supplies down the precipitous curving track from the end of the road down into Uberi Valley over which troops and supplies were taken. (AWM 027023)
July 1942 saw the beginning of the campaign when the Japanese South Seas Detachment, under Major General Tomitaro Horii, landed on the northern coast of Papua. The Japanese planned to make their way overland along the Kokoda track and capture Port Moresby on the southern coast. Previous plans to capture Port Moresby by a seaborne landing had been interrupted by the Battle of the Coral Sea and this overland advance was seen as a viable alternative. Papua at the time was not an independent nation but was governed as a territory of Australia. The strategy was intended to isolate Australia from the United States.
Japanese forces landed and established beachheads near Gona and Buna. Although opposed by Maroubra Force, consisting of four platoons of the 39th Battalion and others of the Papuan Infantry Battalion, they were able to advance and capture Kokoda, including its airfield, on 29 July. During this battle the 39th Battalion’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Owen, was mortally wounded.
Despite winning some hard fought battles, the Australian troops were forced to reluctantly withdraw towards Port Moresby. They were continually pushed back as reinforcements were hindered by the isolated, mountainous, jungle terrain and the shortage of planes available for aerial resupply.
The fighting ability of the men was greatly reduced by tropical diseases such as malaria and dysentery. There were very few stretchers to carry the wounded and many of the injured were forced to walk as well as having to carry supplies and heavy equipment.
The indigenous population of Papua had suffered horrendously at the hands of the Japanese forces resulting in fierce loyalty and dedication to the Australians. Their vital role in the battle and the care they gave to the wounded Australian soldiers earned them the nickname ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’.
The turning point in the campaign came in mid-September when the tactical situation swung in favour of the Australians. Artillery that was held at Ower’s Corner was now within easier reach and supplies could by brought in most of the way by vehicle. In contrast, the Japanese supply lines were stretched and reinforcements had to be deployed all the way from the north coast. As a result of severe losses suffered by the Japanese on Guadalcanal following the American landing, and with the lights of Port Moresby in sight, the South Seas Detachment was ordered to withdraw to the north coast of Papua and establish a defensive position. Numerous fierce battles ensued as the Australian and American troops followed the withdrawing Japanese along the track.
The successful defence of Port Moresby ensured that Allied bases in northern Australia, vital in the coming counter-offensive against the Japanese, would not be seriously threatened by air attack.
While the Japanese were eventually defeated, casualties on both sides were extremely high. Approximately 625 Australians were killed, over 1,600 wounded and over 4,000 casualties due to sickness, the Kokoda Track Campaign is remembered as one of the most difficult operations endured by Australian troops in World War II.