THE BATTLES FOR KOKODA PLATEAU: Three Weeks of Hell Defending the Gateway to the Owen Stanleys
by David W. Cameron
Allen & Unwin, Melbourne
Paperback: 432 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
On July 21, 1942, a large Japanese reconnaissance force landed near Gona, on the northeast coast of Papua.
The first objective, Cameron writes, was to capture the Kokoda Plateau and its vital airstrip, which would provide a forward base for operations against Port Moresby. The plateau measures 1,000 metres by 500 metres.
This is the story of how Australian forces, consisting of just one militia battalion, the 39th Battalion, supported by the 1st Battalion, Papuan Infantry Battalion, and a small number of loyal members of the Royal Papuan Constabulary (RPC), held off a Japanese force three times as large, giving the Allied forces valuable time to muster their forces.
The militia, sometimes called “chocolate soldiers”, were a force drawn from all walks of life. Some, like “Doc” Vernon, were veterans of World War I. Many were young men hardly out of their teens. Most of them, at the start of the campaign, were green recruits. Many, posted “Killed in Action” (KIA), lie in graves known only to God.
The task was to hold the Kokoda Plateau and its invaluable airstrip. If they were pushed off the Kokoda Plateau, their job was to counterattack. Their orders were to hold the Kokoda Plateau at all costs. The Plateau guarded the entrance to the Kokoda Track that led to Port Moresby.
Not well known is the fact that the Papua New Guinea war commemoration day is July 23. On that day, a Thursday in 1942, the 1st Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) engaged the invading Japanese on PNG soil and drew first blood at Awala.
Ben Moide and other native members of the PIB fought gallantly and were indispensable in the Kokoda campaign, as were the carriers. The carriers had the arduous task of bringing supplies, from ammunition to food, without which the Australian troops could not have survived, let alone out-fought the Japanese.
‘ROAD BELONG CARGO’
The arrival of supplies from the coast, without explanation so far as the PNG natives could see, helped develop the “cargo cult”. The “road belong cargo” phenomenon could be observed in PNG and took hold elsewhere in the Pacific.
The Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) was responsible for civil governance. Most members were civilians with extensive experience of PNG.
The support of the PNG natives was not unqualified. Some Australians were killed by disloyal natives, who at times betrayed troops and civilians.
While the support of the natives was not unqualified, on the whole they supported the Australians, including feeding them out of their gardens. The Japanese raided the gardens and killed the pigs, defecating and urinating in the churches. They raped the Papuan women. The PNG natives soon had few illusions as to who deserved their loyalty.
Sorcerers, however, of whom there were many, took the chance to take revenge against the Christian missionaries and the Australian authorities. Some were later executed for war crimes.
The Japanese usually executed prisoners, some after being tortured. Two Anglican missionary sisters were betrayed and brutally executed. Reverend James Ben-son, an Anglican priest, was captured and sent to Rabaul, where he saw out the war as a POW. He was one of the few civilians captured by the Japanese to survive the war.
Lance Corporal Sanopa, PIB, operated behind enemy lines as an irregular soldier and was indispensable as a scout, providing invaluable intelligence.
Colonel Eustace Keogh, a World War I veteran and now a member of the Australian general staff, wrote of the men of the 39th Battalion: “Always wet, cold and hungry, always faced with superior numbers, the young soldiers of the 39th had yielded ground grudgingly and counterattacked whenever they got the chance.
“If they were not as brave as lions, if they were not particularly skilful, they inflicted on the enemy a credible toll of casualties and made him fight hard for his success.”
When their new commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, in civilian life a Perth lawyer, took over, he found the first fruits of confidence and esprit de corps beginning to take effect.
The men of the 39th Battalion, aided by the 1st PIB and men of the RPC, held off a greatly superior Japanese force, giving the Allied forces time to regroup and to slow down the Japanese advance. Ultimately, they pushed back the Japanese on the Kokoda Track and defeated them on the field of battle.
Not all Papuans were loyal, but without the support of the native people, including the PIB and RPC, Australia could not have succeeded.