Lieutenant Colonel Owen undertakes the first defence of Kokoda

Back at Kokoda, Lieutenant Colonel Owen was anxiously waiting for word from Oivi. The second half of the D Company platoon had returned to Kokoda when they found that the Japanese controlled the track between Kokoda and Oivi. A few B Company troops who had escaped the Japanese encirclement at Oivi also arrived to report that the Japanese had completely surrounded Captain Templeton's small force and that it appeared to have been lost. With only about fifty troops left, Owen knew that he could not defend Kokoda against a Japanese force of battalion strength, and he withdrew south along the Kokoda Track to Deniki after destroying any supplies and equipment that his troops could not carry. When he reached Deniki, he was surprised and relieved to find a large number of Templeton's men who had escaped the Japanese encirclement at Oivi under the guidance of Lance Corporal Sanopa.

Corporal Sala MM was one of the many native people of New Guinea who played an important role in resisting the Japanese invasion of Australian Territories. They fought alongside the Australians as well as carrying supplies to the front and the wounded to safety. At Oivi, Lance Corporal Sanopa led his Australian and Papuan comrades to safety along a creek bed after they had been encircled by Japanese troops and faced annihilation.

On the morning of 27 July 1942, some more survivors of Oivi arrived at Deniki to report that the Japanese had not yet reached Kokoda. Owen faced a serious dilemma. He and his men could withdraw along the Kokoda Track until they met C Company of his battalion which was still four days away in the middle of the Owen Stanley Range. His combined force could then choose a spot on the mountain track that would be easier to defend than the low plateau on which Kokoda's administrative buildings and airstrip were situated. This was the easier of two options. The second, and more difficult option, was to try to hold Kokoda against the Japanese until Major General Morris chose to send adequate reinforcements from Port Moresby. The Kokoda airstrip provided the only means for reinforcements to arrive quickly by air from Port Moresby. In the hands of Maroubra Force, the airstrip at Kokoda could provide the means to deny the Japanese access to the Kokoda Track and a route to Port Moresby.

Owen now had about 120 troops at Deniki, but over half of them were completely exhausted. His troops were mostly inadequately trained and little more than young lads. They had been driven back from the Kumusi River in a fighting rearguard withdrawal to Gorari, and then to Oivi, where they had had to fight desperately for their lives against overwhelming odds. They had travelled all night over rough country to reach Deniki, and they had had very little rest or food for three days. To compound the dilemma facing Owen, the Japanese were last seen only a few hours away from Kokoda with a strength of at least 500 elite troops. Owen chose the hard option. He decided to attempt a defence of the vital Kokoda airstrip and hoped that Major General Morris would fly in reinforcements from Port Moresby. He left two D Company sections at Deniki and returned to Kokoda with about one hundred troops

The abandonment of B Company to the Japanese

By midday on 28 July, Owen had deployed his small force in defensive positions around the handful of buildings that comprised Australia's administrative centre at Kokoda. He then contacted Port Moresby by radio to announce that he meant to defend Kokoda airstrip and needed reinforcements and mortars. Shortly afterwards, two American Douglas transports appeared over Kokoda and circled the airstrip. They were carrying reinforcements from the 39th Battalion, but the American pilots were fearful of the Japanese arriving while their aircraft were on the ground and they refused to land. One can only imagine the thoughts that passed through the minds of Owen's exhausted troops as they watched their own aircraft circle, and then turn away and abandon them to the Japanese. The position of the small Australian force at Kokoda was now virtually hopeless. The sense of isolation and abandonment must have been overwhelming.

After nightfall on 28 July, the Australians could hear Japanese troops being deployed around their positions. For several hours the Japanese poured machine-gun fire and mortar bombs into the Australian defensive perimeter. Lieutenant Colonel Owen received a fatal wound during this stage of the Japanese attack. With little apparent regard for his own safety, Owen had been moving about the defensive perimeter and offering words of encouragement and advice to his young troops when a Japanese bullet struck him in the head. Major Watson again assumed command. The Australian troops could only respond to the heavy Japanese fire with small arms and grenades. The Australian militia troops had been denied mortars, because Major General Morris thought that this weapon could not be used effectively on the Kokoda Track. Unfortunately for the Australians, the Japanese experienced no difficulty in using heavy weapons, such as mortars and machine-guns, effectively in the mountains of New Guinea.

Kokoda falls to the Japanese

At about 2.30 a.m. on 29 July, as a thick white mist began to drift across the plateau on which Kokoda was situated, the Japanese launched a full-scale assault. The watchful Australians were ready for them and grimly determined to defend the vital airstrip despite their seeming abandonment by the senior army commander in Port Moresby. The Australians fought desperately, but the Japanese came at them in overwhelming strength and their defences were soon overrun. Only then, did Major Watson give the order to his troops to withdraw to Deniki. Firing as they withdrew, and taking full advantage of the thickening mist, the small Australian force melted into the tall rubber trees on the southern side of the administration buildings.They were not pursued by the Japanese who had achieved their objective by capturing Kokoda airstrip. They now had a base with airstrip from which they could launch their overland attack on Port Moresby.

The gallant stand against overwhelming odds by a small force of 39th Australian Infantry Battalion militia troops and a handful of troops of the Papuan Infantry Battalion, first at Oivi, and then at Kokoda, where they were denied reinforcements and abandoned to the Japanese, typifies in many ways the struggle by Australian troops on the Kokoda Track. It was a scenario that would be repeated with depressing regularity during the Kokoda Campaign. It would always be a case of too little and too late! The Australian troops and their field commanders would always find themselves hopelessly outnumbered; debilitated by almost constant rain and cold mountain nights; constantly denied adequate food, clothing, equipment, rest and reinforcements when they desperately needed them, and when they were fighting a fiercely determined enemy who was always better equipped and supplied than they were. To add to their sense of abandonment, they would also have to suffer deliberate minimisation of the difficulties they faced, deliberate understatement of Japanese numbers, and unjustified denigration of their fighting spirit by senior commanders in Australia who felt obliged to find scapegoats for their own neglect to foresee the Japanese overland attack on Port Moresby and prepare for it.

It was only after the capture of Kokoda by the Japanese on 29 July 1942 that MacArthur and Blamey appear to have appreciated the danger that Australia might face because of their neglect of the northern defences. Blamey ordered veteran troops of the AIF 7th Division to embark immediately for New Guinea. Troops of the 21st Brigade boarded ship for Port Moresby on 6 August 1942. Despite the determination and strength of the Japanese advance towards Kokoda, and even after its capture by them, General Blamey still believed that the Japanese were only intending to establish a forward base in the Gona-Buna area and were not intending to cross the Owen Stanley Range. Blamey held fast to his delusion that the Japanese did not intend to cross the Owen Stanley Range even when the Japanese had passed through Kokoda and had advanced down the Kokoda Track to Deniki. It is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that Blamey was inexcusably blinding himself to the clearest possible indication of Japan's intention to mount an overland attack on Port Moresby. If that conclusion is reached, it raises a real question concerning Blamey's fitness to command Australia's land forces at this time.

In defence of the vital Kokoda airstrip, young militia troops of B Company,
39th Battalion would meet and match for courage elite Japanese troops.

With Port Moresby now the target, Japanese troops pour into the Gona-Buna beachhead

With Japanese troops having reached Kokoda and captured the vital airstrip on 29 July 1942, Lieutenant General Hyakutake decided that the Kokoda Track route to Port Moresby was practicable and began to pour troops into the Gona-Buna beachhead. With the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies now firmly under Japanese control, combat troops could be released from those areas to support the overland attack on Port Moresby. Horii's combat force for the Kokoda Campaign was increased by the allocation of the 41st Infantry Regiment (Yazawa Detachment) which had been detached from the Japanese Army's 5th Division. These three veteran battalions of the Malaya campaign had arrived at Rabaul on the 16th August, from Davao in the Philippines. They departed for Papua on the 19th August, arriving two days later. By the end of August 1942, the Japanese build-up in the Gona-Buna-Kokoda triangle would reach 13,500 troops. Ten thousand of these would be tough, jungle-trained combat veterans. From these troops, Major General Tomitaro Horii, Commander of the elite South Seas Detachment (Nankai Shitai), would draw a well-balanced fighting group which included three of his own Nankai Shitai battalions, three battalions of the 41st Infantry Brigade, mountain artillery, and engineers, for the overland attack on Port Moresby. Behind them, the remaining Japanese troops would establish a strongly fortified beachhead incorporating the two villages of Buna and Gona, and the stretch of coast between them.

Major General Tomitaro Horii
General Officer Commanding Japanese troops in the Kokoda Campaign

Horii's troops had been toughened by five years of brutal warfare against poorly trained and equipped Chinese armies, and more recently, by fierce actions against Allied armies in the jungles and on the islands of the western Pacific. Unlike the Australians they would face in combat, all of these Japanese troops were highly skilled in jungle warfare. The jungle-clad mountains of New Guinea provided them with ideal conditions for their kind of fighting. Their clothing matched the colour of the jungle and they were trained to blend into it. Their equipment was designed for use in jungle and mountain conditions. In addition to their own heavy machine-guns and mortars, Horii's troops were supported by mountain artillery units. The light mountain guns carried by these Japanese units were designed for use in jungle and mountains. The mountain guns could be dismantled for movement along narrow mountain tracks, and quickly reassembled when required for combat. These mountain guns, mortars and heavy machine-guns would give the Japanese a deadly edge over lightly armed Australian AIF and militia troops in the rugged mountains of the Owen Stanley Range.

Maroubra Force consolidates at Deniki

While Lieutenant Colonel Owen and his B Company and Papuan troops were battling hopeless odds at Kokoda, the rest of his 39th Battalion was strung out along the length of the Kokoda Track. These young, inadequately trained militia troops had also been sent off to fight tough, veteran Japanese troops without appropriate weapons and essential equipment for wet jungle and high mountain conditions, such as waterproof ground sheets, adequate changes of clothing and boots, and warm clothing and blankets. They wore khaki uniforms that had been designed for desert warfare in North Africa and the Middle East. These uniforms offered no protection against the cold at high altitude, and made them easy targets for Japanese snipers. Unlike Japan's military commanders, General Blamey still appeared to be fighting a desert war, and saw no reason to equip militia troops in New Guinea with clothing that would enable them to blend into the jungle or keep them warm on cold, wet nights in the high mountains.

By the end of the first week of August 1942, all companies of the 39th Battalion had crossed the Owen Stanley Range and the battalion was concentrated at Deniki. The Australian force at Deniki now numbered 533, and comprised thirty-three officers and 443 other ranks of the 39th Battalion; eight Australians and thirty-five native troops of the PIB; and two officers and twelve native members of the Australian and New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU).

The Japanese used the first week of August to concentrate troops and supplies at Kokoda, and the Australians were now facing at least 1,000 combat troops, including members of the elite South Seas Detachment and the 5th Sasebo marines.

Lieutenant Kienzle finds a dropping-ground for supplies at Myola

After guiding B Company to Kokoda on 15 July 1942, Lieutenant Kienzle had returned to Port Moresby and advised Major General Morris that the one way trip to Kokoda required eight days for heavily laden troops, and that native carriers could not carry sufficient food, equipment and other supplies to maintain the troops deep in the mountains or on the other side of the range. Kienzle also advised Morris that building a road across the rugged Owen Stanleys with native labour using hand tools was impossible and that large-scale supply by air drops would be essential to support troops in the Owen Stanley Range.

With the supply problem already acute, Lieutenant Kienzle had set out from Isurava on 1 August to look for a suitable flat area where supplies for the Australian troops could be dropped by aircraft. He found that flat area on 3 August at Myola on top of one of the main ranges of the Owen Stanleys. This dropping-ground was 1,828 metres (6,000 feet) above sea level.

A new Commanding Officer arrives at Deniki

During the first week of August a new temporary Commanding Officer of the 39th Battalion also arrived over the track from Port Moresby. The new commander, Major Allan Cameron, was an AIF officer who immediately reached a completely unjustified conclusion that the inexperienced troops of B Company lacked fighting spirit because they had failed to hold Oivi and Kokoda against Japanese troops attacking them in overwhelming strength. Despite the comparatively small size of his force, Cameron exhibited his disapproval of B Company by sending the survivors of Oivi and Kokoda back up the track to Eora Creek. The new Commanding Officer then appears to have resolved to demonstrate that he was a man of action. He had been told by Major General Morris that he could expect reinforcements and supplies to be flown in from Port Moresby if he could recapture Kokoda airstrip from the Japanese with his 500 poorly equipped and mostly inexperienced troops. Any such reinforcements would be more inexperienced militia troops.

Since Morris had only two transport aircraft at Port Moresby, and each aircraft was only capable of carrying twenty fully equipped soldiers on each trip, it is difficult to view the general's plan for reinforcement by air after Kokoda had been recaptured as anything short of outlandish. Even if it was possible for the militia troops to take the Japanese by surprise and seize control of Kokoda and its airstrip, how long could they realistically be expected to hold the prized airstrip when the Japanese heavily outnumbered them, and had mortars and heavy machine-guns? Was it realistic to believe that aircraft would be able to land and take off at Kokoda in the middle of a fierce battle for control of the airstrip? Morris appeared to have learnt nothing from his earlier failure to reinforce Lieutenant Colonel Owen at Kokoda on 28 July.

This unrealistic proposal for recapture of Kokoda simply serves to demonstrate how far senior commanders in Australia and Port Moresby were out of touch with reality at this particular time. They should have known that the inexperienced and poorly equipped Australian militia troops would not only be heavily outnumbered but also facing the toughest and best equipped jungle troops in the world at that time. If, on the other hand, these senior commanders knew exactly what they were doing, it is very difficult to avoid a conclusion that they were willing to sacrifice the militia troops in order to be seen to be doing something positive to stem the Japanese advance. When the militia troops failed to block the powerful Japanese drive towards Port Moresby, which was inevitable, they could be accused of lacking fighting spirit! The blame could be shifted to those who were unable to defend themselves publicly.