July marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the battle of the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea. The Kokoda Campaign, which took place between July and November of 1942, was a brutal resistance of the Japanese advance to Port Moresby from the north of New Guinea.
Approximately 625 Australians were killed along the Kokoda Trail, and over 1600 were wounded. Casualties due to sickness exceeded 4000. The 49th Australian Infantry Battalion, originally formed in Queensland, was one of the first units to engage the Japanese and suffered severe losses. The Royal Australian Air Force was also involved in air operations throughout the campaign.
The campaign was eventually won by the Allied forces, but the terrible loss of life and the horrific conditions – including the challenging terrain and widespread disease – have ensured Kokoda is now nationally recognised as a compelling example of Australian soldiers’ grit and endurance in the most difficult of environments.
The Kokoda Trail Campaign
The Kokoda Trail was a path that linked Ower’s Corner, approximately 40km north-east of Port Moresby, and the small village of Wairopi, on the northern side of the Owen Stanley mountain range.
Credit: Department of Veterans' Affairs
From Wairopi, a crossing point on the Kumusi River, the Trail was connected to the settlements of Buna, Gona and Sanananda on the north coast. Its name was derived from the village of Kokoda that stood on the southern side of the main range and was the site of the only airfield between Port Moresby and the north coast.
Having had their initial effort to capture Port Moresby by a seaborne landing disrupted by the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese saw the Kokoda Trail as a means by which to advance on it overland. Troops of the South Seas Detachment began landing at Gona on July 21, 1942, intending initially just to test the feasibility of the Kokoda Trail as a route of advance, but a full-scale offensive soon developed.
The first fighting occurred between elements of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion at Awala on July 23. Although steadily reinforced by the battalions of 30th and 21st Brigades, the Australian force was unable to hold back the Japanese. It was poorly equipped, had not yet developed effective jungle warfare tactics, and was fighting at the end of a very long and difficult supply line.
A number of desperate delaying actions were fought as the Australians withdrew along the Trail.
Engineers building a bridge - one of the many that will be necessary along the track from Kokoda to Buna. (credit: Australian War Memorial).
They finally stopped on September 17 at Imita Ridge, the last natural obstacle along the Trail, a mere 8km from the junction with the road to Port Moresby. The Japanese held the opposite ridge, 6km distant at Ioribaiwa.
As a result of severe losses suffered by the Japanese on Guadalcanal following the American landing there, the South Seas Detachment was ordered to withdraw to the north coast of Papua and establish a defensive position there. Australian troops of the 25th Brigade began to edge forward from Imita Ridge on September 23; the Japanese withdrew from Ioribaiwa the next day.
In the course of their retreat, the Japanese fought delaying actions every bit as determined as those of the Australians. Several difficult and costly battles were fought before the 16th and 25th Brigades crossed the Kumusi at Wairopi in mid-November, heading for even more bitter fighting around the Japanese beachheads at Gona, Buna and Sanananda.
The Kokoda Trail fighting was some of the most desperate and vicious encountered by Australian troops in WWII.
A Japanese prisoner captured near Nauro is cared for by Australian stretcher bearers. He had been overworked and was nearly starving when taken prisoner. (credit: Australian War Memorial).
Although the successful capture of Port Moresby was never going to be a precursor to an invasion of Australia, victory on the Kokoda Trail did ensure that Allied bases in northern Australia, vital in the coming counter-offensive against the Japanese, would not be seriously threatened by air attack.
Approximately 625 Australians were killed along the Kokoda Trail and over 1600 were wounded. Casualties due to sickness exceeded 4000.
‘Kokoda Trail’ and ‘Kokoda Track’ have been used interchangeably since WWII, with the former adopted by the Battles Nomenclature Committee as the official British Commonwealth battle honour in October 1957.
Published with permission from the Australian War Memorial: www.awm.gov.au/collection/E291