"The Track from above""
WAR IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA
(as taken from the plaques at the Isurava War Memorial)
When Japan entered World War II in December 1941 with attacks on allied territories, Papua New Guinea was vulnerable. On 23rd January 1942, Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, fell. In March, Japanese forces landed on the mainland. The next objective was Port Moresby.
In May 1942, an invasion fleet left Rabaul but was turned back in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Then in July a force landed near Gona to attack over the Owen Stanley Range. The Allies were on the defensive until September 1942 when the Japanese were repelled at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Track. Australian forces bore the brunt of these battles. During 1943-44, the Allies continued advancing across the mainland and attacked enemy held islands, including New Britain and Bougainville. Papua New Guineans gave valuable assistance to Allied forces. The offensive continued towards the Philippines and Borneo.
American forces conducted a separate “island hopping” campaign across the central Pacific. The war ended in August 1945 after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Fighting continued in Papua New Guinea until that time, with Australian forces “mopping up” Japanese forces that had been bypassed.
“… it is the story of small groups of men, infinitesimally small against the mountains in which they fought, who … first conquered the country and then allied themselves with it and then killed or died in the midst of a great loneliness.”
Dudley McCarthy, Australian official historian of the campaign.
On 21st July 1942 a Japanese force landed at Gona and began advancing into the Owen Stanley Range. About 130 mostly young and inexperienced Australian soldiers of the 39th Battalion and some Papuan Infantry Battalion troops attempted to hold Kokoda. It fell on July 29th 1942. The troops withdrew to Deniki. The rest of the 39th Battalion trekked for seven days to Deniki. They retook Kokoda but then were pushed back to Isurava. An uneasy lull developed. The enemy force was built up to 10,000 troops supported by mountain artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns.
The 53rd Battalion came up from Port Moresby and occupied positions near Alola and Abuari to protect a vital sidetrack. It was followed by the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions of the 21st brigade, Australian Imperial Forces, veterans of fighting in the Middle East.
The Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit employed Papua New Guineans to carry supplies and evacuate casualties. US Army Air Force “biscuit bombers” dropped supplies off the main track at Lake Myola but many bundles fell into the surrounding jungle and were lost. The Japanese then bombed the transport aircraft at Port Moresby. Supplies ran dangerously low.
“… we endeavoured to keep contact, harass and delay the enemy advance… with too few men… against an enemy greatly superior in numbers”.
Major W.T. Watson, CO Papuan Infantry Battalion
On the 26th August 1942, the Japanese commenced their attack on Isurava. The 39th and 2/14th Battalions held on for four days. At Abuari, the 53rd Battalion was bolstered by the 2/16th. A strategic withdrawal then began. The Australian destroyed supply dumps and engaged the enemy at regular intervals to buy time and weaken the advancing Japanese.
The 14th and the 2/th Field Ambulances treated and evacuated wounded and sick men. Many of the casualties displayed extraordinary endurance, walking to safety. Papua New Guineans carried the most seriously wounded and sick. The determination and compassion of these “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” became legendary.
The fresh 2/27th battalion was positioned at Efogi, relieving the 39th. Allied aircraft supported the ensuing battle but by the 8th of September the Japanese had broken through. The 2/27th counter-attacked, enabling the other battalions to break free, then withdraw through the jungle, carrying their casualties.
With ranks thinned from combat and diseases, a composite 2/14th-2/16th Battalion continued the fighting withdrawal. The remnants were finally relieved near Ioribaiwa on 16th September. Fresh units took over the defensive effort. As the Japanese attacked again, the Australians made one last strategic withdrawal to Imita Ridge.
On the 25th September 1942, the Japanese were ordered to cease their offensive. The rugged mountains, heavy causalities and setbacks on other fronts had combined to defeat them.
“… some of the finest and toughest troops in the world. Troops with a spirit amongst them that makes them intensely proud to be Australian”
Damien Parer, cameraman.
It took several days for the Allies to realise the Japanese had abandoned their attempt to take Port Moresby. The 3rd Battalion led the counter-attack, followed by the 25th Brigade (2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd Battalions), 16th Brigade (2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions) and supporting units. As the Japanese withdrew beyond Myola, transport aircraft again dropped supplies for the Australians. Papua New Guineans also worked hard carrying supplies and casualties. Engineers of the 2/5th and 2/6th Field Companies and the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion struggled to improve and maintain tracks.
In Mid October, the 25th Brigade began attacking enemy positions towards Templeton’s Crossing. The adverse terrain and tough resistance from camouflaged machine gun posts made the going slow and costly. Cold, damp conditions and food shortages produced much sickness. Facing the same conditions, the 16th Brigade then pushed the Japanese back beyond Eora Creek. On 2nd November 1942 Kokoda village was re-occupied.
Beyond Kokoda, the Australians overwhelmed the last enemy strongpoint at Oiva-Gorari and on the 13th November reached the Kumusi River. The long battle on the Kokoda Track was over. Fighting continued beyond the Kokoda Track with Allied attacks on the beachheads at Gona, Buna and Sanananda. It took until 23rd January 1942 to secure all three.
“Time and rain and the jungle will obliterate this little pad, but everyone will live with the memory of weary men who have passed this way – ghosts of glorious men that have gone, gone far beyond the Kokoda Track.”
Colonel Frank Kingsley Norris, Medical officer, 7th Division.
BATTLE FOR ISURAVA
Occupying rain filled weapon pits, wearing rain soaked and thinning clothing and suppressing coughs so as not to betray their positions, the 39th Battalion’s “pathetically young warriors” peered into the menacing jungle surrounding them. The Japanese positioned mountain artillery and mortars to support their impending attack. They probed Australian positions. Patrols clashed.
On the afternoon of the 26th August, leading elements of the 2/14th Battalion trekked into Isurava. These veteran troops took their place in the line. More were coming but the situation remained perilous.
“Worn out by strenuous fighting and exhausting movement, and weakened by lack of food and sleep and shelter … they shivered through the long chill … alert but still and silent.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner, CO 39th Battalion
On the 26th August, the enemy commenced their attack and the full scale assault was unleashed next morning. The Australians fought hard to hold their positions. The veteran 2/14th Battalion took over the front and flank positions from the weary 39th. The onslaught then intensified. The Australians resisted countless attacked and boldly counter-Attacked when necessary. With mates falling dead and wounded around them, men ignored weariness and wounds to fight on.
On the 29th August the enemy threw another regiment into the fray. With ranks thinned and supplies short, the Australians fought on against overwhelming odds. That night they withdrew slightly to regroup. Exhausted men of the 39th, ordered out of the line, returned to assist.
At Abuari, the 53rd Battalion gave ground until bolstered but the 2/16th. The fought hard to prevent Isurava being surrounded. On the 30th August, the Australians were ordered to withdraw. The 39th and the 2/14th Battalions had suffered many casualties but assisted by men of the 2/16th, mounted a bayonet charge to break free.
The courage and determination displayed at Isurava did not end there. Men cut off behind enemy lines struggled for survival. Some were captured and killed, while others died of wounds or illnesses. Others kept up the long fighting withdrawal along the Kokoda Track with most becoming casualties.
“… bombs and bullets crashed and rattled in an unceasing clamour that re-echoed from the affrighted hills, [and] the enveloping forest erupted into violent action as Nippon’s screaming warriors streamed out of its shadows…”
Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner, CO 39th Battalion.
A bond was forged between the peoples of Papua New Guinea and Australia during the war. People lived in villages along the Kokoda Track. With pigs and chickens, gardens, and the jungles in which to hunt, traditional life was mostly peaceful and fruitful.
Locals knew little bout the war until it came to them. When the Japanese invaded, most villagers wisely “went bush” to avoid the fighting. Their huts were wrecked when the armies occupied and fought in them and when aircraft bombed and strafed them. Hungry soldiers raided crops and shot pigs. After the battles the people returned but had to build new villages.
Many Papua New Guineans worked in support of the battle. They carried supplies forward and carried wounded and sick soldiers rearward. They worked all day, every day and then shivered through the cold nights under the dripping jungle while trying to rest. They endured the same conditions as the troops, including shortages of food and warm clothing, which caused illnesses and deaths. Teams of carriers evacuated seriously wounded and sick soldiers all the way back to Owers corner.
Their determination, compassion and care of casualties earned the admiration and enduring respect of Australians who dubbed these men their “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”. After the battle many villagers continued working for the Allied forces as carriers and labourers. Men also joined the Papuan and New Guinean Infantry Battalions, proving to be fine soldiers and sharing in the final Allied victory. Villages were rebuilt and life returned to normal after the war. Papua New Guineans have continued their friendship with Australians to this day.
“Manly and dignified, they felt proud of their responsibility to the wounded and rarely faltered”
Captain H.D. Steward, medical Officer, 2/16th Battalion
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