"Into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell"

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from "The Charge of the Light Brigade".

"Into the Mouth of Hell" - the 39th Battalion crosses the Mountains

In June 1942, with his mind focussed unwaveringly on recovery of the Philippines from the Japanese, General Douglas MacArthur was planning to establish a forward airbase at Dobodura near the village of Buna on the northern coast of the Australian Territory of Papua. This airbase would enable Allied aircraft to strike at Japanese bases on the northern coast of the New Guinea mainland and at the major Japanese base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain. Rabaul in American hands would provide MacArthur with an important stepping-stone towards the Philippines.

In New Guinea, Australian soldiers had to battle not only the Japanese invaders but the unforgiving terrain and climate. The steep gradients in the rugged mountains and the dense rain forests made movement difficult, exhausting, and at times dangerous. When rains fell, dirt tracks quickly dissolved into calf-deep mud that exhausted the soldiers after they had struggled several hundred metres. Sluggish streams in mountainravines quickly became almost impassable torrents when the rains began to fall. In this image, an Australian "Digger" lends a hand to a mate. The painting "Through the Rain Forest" by official Australian war artist Sir William Dargie depicts Australian soldiers in New Guinea.

On 29 June 1942, General Blamey directed that militia troops of the Port Moresby garrison were to cross the mountains of the Owen Stanley Range and resist any attempt by the Japanese to seize a vital airstrip at the village of Kokoda. The Owen Stanley Range is the massive, rugged, central mountain feature of the island of New Guinea which separates the northern coast of Papua from the southern coast. The Kokoda airstrip was located on the northern foothills of the Owen Stanley Range, and situated just over half way between Port Moresby on the southern coast of Papua and the adjacent villages of Gona and Buna on the northern coast. Having secured the Kokoda airstrip, Blamey envisaged that these militia troops could be used later to protect the Allied airbase planned for Dobodura.

MacArthur and Blamey blind themselves to Japan's strategic goals in New Guinea

This was a dangerous mission based upon a faulty appreciation of Japan's strategic goals by MacArthur and Blamey. They knew that the Japanese had already established military bases on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range at the coastal towns of Lae and Salamaua. They had received intelligence warnings that the Japanese would try to capture Port Moresby by crossing the Owen Stanley Range. Despite these warnings, both MacArthur and Blamey chose to believe that the Owen Stanley Range would prove impassable for a Japanese army.

There is no evidence that MacArthur and Blamey reached this conclusion on the basis of a survey of the terrain by the senior army commander at Port Moresby, Major General Morris. Despite having had ample time to do so in the preceding six months, and despite the fact that the Kokoda Track would have to be used by the Japanese if they wanted to capture Port Moresby by an overland attack, Major General Morris had made no attempt to acquaint himself with the difficulties that troops would face in negotiating the Kokoda Track. Morris was not alone in his inexcusable ignorance of the nature of the terrain between his force and the enemy. The senior commanders in Australia, Generals MacArthur and Blamey, were also inexcusably ignorant, and worse still, they chose to maintain their ignorance throughout the Kokoda campaign.

Although far removed in Australia from the realities of the harsh terrain and climate of the central New Guinea mountains, Blamey must have known that he was sending inadequately trained recruits across one of the most daunting natural barriers in the world and that, with the barest equipment, minimum rations, and inadequate means of supply and communication, these raw troops might have to fight the most formidable jungle troops in the world. With a wide and rugged mountain range between them and Port Moresby, the Australian militia troops could expect no ready help if they met a strong force of Japanese troops between Kokoda and Gona. Moreover, if forced to retreat, the militia troops would have a massive natural barrier between them and Port Moresby. Once in possession of Kokoda, their only realistic hope of quick supply and reinforcement was by means of the small village airstrip.

The sending of militia troops across the Owen Stanley Range in these circumstances must raise serious doubts about the military judgment of both MacArthur and Blamey and their fitness to hold office as senior commanders. If they honestly believed that the Owen Stanleys would prove impassable for tough Japanese troops, how could they reasonably expect inadequately trained and equipped militia troops to cross the Owen Stanleys and be capable of meeting the Japanese on equal terms?

Veteran troops of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) 7th Division had been back in Australia since March 1942 when they were recalled from the Middle East. Provided that it was adequately supplied, one brigade of the 7th Division could have been sent by Blamey on this dangerous mission across the Owen Stanley Range to defend Kokoda. The threat of a Japanese invasion of the Australian mainland had greatly diminished after the Battle of Midway, and Blamey must have been aware of this. Despite this less threatening strategic situation in the South-West Pacific, it is difficult to avoid a conclusion that Blamey was preserving the 7th Division troops for possible defence of the Australian mainland, and that he regarded the young Australian militia troops in New Guinea as expendable. With a very clear indication of Japanese intentions towards Port Moresby at the Battle of the Coral Sea, it is also difficult to avoid a conclusion that Blamey was inexcusably blind to Japan's fierce determination to capture Port Moresby.

Major General Morris, assigned the Kokoda mission to militia troops of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion.

Composition of an infantry battalion on the Kokoda Track in 1942

For reference purposes, it may be convenient to repeat at this point the composition of an infantry battalion in 1942, because references will be made from time to time to the components of a battalion when dealing with land battles on the island of New Guinea.

In 1942, an Australian infantry battalion was composed of several companies, usually four rifle companies and a headquarters company, and designated respectively: A, B, C, D and HQ. Each rifle company was composed of three platoons which were identified by numbers starting from one. On the Kokoda Track, the number of troops in each of the components of an infantry battalion could vary significantly, and it is convenient to think in terms of a range of 450-550 soldiers when battalions are mentioned, about 100-110 for a rifle company, and about 30-35 for a rifle platoon.

A Company of the 39th Battalion is ordered to defend Kokoda airstrip against the Japanese

The dangerous task of defending the Kokoda airstrip from the Japanese was given to B Company of the 39th Infantry Battalion commanded by Captain Sam Templeton. This militia rifle company was composed of three platoons, and numbered in total about 94 officers and other ranks. A contingent of native troops of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB), led by Major W.T. Watson, accompanied the militia troops. About 120 native carriers also accompanied the troops with additional rations and equipment on their backs.

The supply problem created by conditions on the Kokoda Track required the troops to carry very heavy packs and equipment. The minimum weight carried by each man was 18 kilograms (about 40 pounds), but with a .303 Lee Enfield rifle, and other battalion equipment passed around in rotation, the burden for each man could reach as much as 27 kilograms (about 60 pounds). Burdened with heavy packs, rifles, and ammunition, and wearing khaki uniforms more suited to desert warfare than a jungle killing ground like the Kokoda Track, Templeton and his troops set out on 7 July 1942 to climb the mountains between them and Kokoda. They could not have realised at the time that they were marching into history, and establishing the initial foundations of Australia's Kokoda tradition.

The Track between Port Moresby and the northern Coast of Papua

To appreciate the physical obstacles and supply problems which would face Australian and Japanese troops when they penetrated deeply into the rugged mountains of the Owen Stanley Range, it is useful to consider the nature of the terrain that the troops of each army would need to traverse as they moved towards the vital airstrip at Kokoda from the southern and northern coasts of Papua.

The Track between Port Moresby and Kokoda, also called "The Kokoda Track "

On the southern side, the Owen Stanley Range was approached in 1942 by a narrow dirt road which left Port Moresby and gradually ascended the foothills to the rubber plantations at Ilolo and Koitaki. Ilolo is situated about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Port Moresby. See Kokoda map. After Ilolo, the road narrowed to a track which rose sharply to Owers Corner at a height of 610 metres (2000 feet) above sea level. The Kokoda Track commenced at Owers Corner. The narrow track crossed a succession of high mountain ridges, wound through thick jungle, clung precariously to steep mountain sides, plunged into deep, densely forested ravines between ridges, forded fast-flowing mountain streams, climbed peaks as high as 2,100 metres (6,800 feet) above sea level before reaching the last towering ridge on which lay the village of Isurava at a height of 1,372 metres (4,500 feet) above sea level. From Isurava, the track fell sharply over rough terrain to the village of Deniki. From Deniki it was a relatively easy three hour march to Kokoda.

Kokoda village is situated on a small plateau about 366 metres (1200 feet) above sea level on the northern foothills of the Owen Stanleys. The military significance of Kokoda in 1942 was largely related to its possession of a small airstrip. Being located roughly half way between Gona-Buna and Port Moresby, the airstrip at Kokoda was a vital acquisition and means of supply for troops of an invading Japanese army faced with crossing one of the most formidable mountain ranges in the world. It was an equally vital means of supply for a defending Australian army faced with the daunting task of blocking the passage of Japanese troops across the Owen Stanley Range to Port Moresby.

On this narrow track between Owers Corner and Kokoda, now variously known as the Kokoda Track or Kokoda Trail, an Australian legend would be forged when Australian soldiers confronted Japanese troops invading Australian territory in overwhelming force.

The Track between Gona and Kokoda

From the adjacent villages of Gona and Buna on the northern coast of Papua, narrow dirt tracks traversed coastal jungle and swamp before meeting at Igora and continuing as one track to the small village of Awala situated 56 kilometres (35 miles) inland. From Awala, the track rose gradually as it traversed the foothills of the massive Owen Stanley Range. The track crossed the wide, fast-flowing Kumusi River at Wairope by means of a flimsy wire suspension bridge, and then passed through the small villages of Gorari and Oivi to reach Kokoda. In the oppressive coastal heat, it was a three day march from Gona-Buna to Kokoda for heavily laden troops.

From Kokoda, the narrow track passed through the village of Deniki and then rose sharply over rugged terrain to reach the small village of Isurava on top of the first of a series of towering Owen Stanley mountain ridges which lay between Kokoda and Port Moresby.

B Company's trek to Kokoda

Templeton and his troops did not realise that they had been sent into a green hell by a commander who was completely ignorant of the extremely rugged mountain conditions on the Kokoda Track and apparently lacking any foresight that they might find a Japanese army waiting to greet them at the other end of the track.

Major General Morris had no transport aircraft in Port Moresby at this time, and when B Company was deep in the mountains, further supplies of food and equipment would have to follow them over the Kokoda Track on the backs of more native carriers. Morris ordered Lieutenant H. T. Kienzle, a local European officer with lengthy experience working with native labour on plantations, to take a large number of native carriers and establish staging camps for his troops along the full length of the Kokoda Track. Kienzle had already traversed the Kokoda Track in March of that year and was aware of the obstacles and hazards that the Australian troops would face. Kienzle met B Company at Ilolo where the dirt road from Port Moresby ended. His native carriers were sent ahead of the troops to set up the staging camps.

To ease the burden for Templeton's troops and the native carriers on the Kokoda Track, Morris also arranged for the lugger Gili Gili to carry some supplies and equipment around the Papuan coast to Buna where they could be collected by B Company after it had crossed the central mountain range and secured the Kokoda airstrip.

General Morris' lack of appreciation of the ruggedness of the Kokoda Track, and the magnitude of the task he had set Templeton and B Company, can be gauged from the fact that he also ordered Lieutenant Kienzle to take one thousand native labourers and build a road along the whole length of the Kokoda Track by 26 August 1942.

When B Company reached Kokoda on 15 July 1942 the troops were exhausted by the journey. They rested at Kokoda, and were fed by Lieutenant Kienzle from his own nearby plantation. Kienzle then returned across the Kokoda Track to Port Moresby and reported to General Morris that the one way trek to Kokoda required eight days for heavily laden troops, and that native carriers could not carry sufficient food, equipment and other supplies to maintain troops when they were deep in the mountains or on the other side of the range. Kienzle pointed out that large-scale supply from the air would be essential to support troops in the Owen Stanley Range.

While his troops were resting at Kokoda, Captain Templeton pressed on with some of his native carriers to meet the lugger Gili Gili at the coastal village of Buna and collect the rest of his supplies and equipment. While Templeton was engaged in these essential military "housekeeping" tasks, the Japanese were about to change his life irrevocably.

Japanese Troops land on the northern Coast of Australian Papua

With the ultimate aim of capturing Port Moresby, expelling Allied forces from the island of New Guinea, and isolating Australia from its ally, the United States, Lieutenant General Hyakutake landed a Japanese Army advance force variously estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000 troops near the village of Gona on the north coast of the Australian Territory of Papua on 21 July 1942. The immediate aims of this advance force were to secure the coastal strip between Gona and the nearby village of Buna, reconnoitre the area between Gona and the Australian administrative post at Kokoda, seize Kokoda, and assess the practicability of using the Kokoda Track as a route for Japanese troops to capture Port Moresby. If the overland route was deemed practicable, a much larger Japanese force would quickly follow.

The advance force included a large number of Japanese Army construction engineers under the command of Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama. If the Kokoda route to Port Moresby was practicable, his task was to construct access routes, light bridges and supply depots for the movement of a large body of Japanese troops towards Port Moresby.

The advance force also included a battalion of troops from the 144th Regiment of Japan's elite South Seas Detachment or Nankai Shitai under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto and a company of elite Japanese marines of the 5th Sasebo Naval Landing Force. These combat troops were all battle-hardened veterans of jungle warfare in South-East Asia. They were trained to live and fight in the jungle, to blend with it, and to move quietly and efficiently through it without need for roads or tracks. Their task was to deal with any Australian troops who might be met on the route to Kokoda, or at Kokoda. Unlike the militia troops of the 39th Battalion whom they would soon face, these Japanese combat troops were heavily armed. They were equipped not only with small arms, but also with heavy machine-guns and mortars.

The young militia troops of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion would prove
their worth against Japan's best troops in the rugged mountains of New Guinea

Despite receiving some initial attention from Allied aircraft, a beachhead was quickly established, and protected by anti-aircraft batteries. The Japanese troops then moved inland along a jungle track towards Kokoda.

MacArthur and Blamey are not unduly troubled by the Japanese landing in Papua

The landing of a large formation of Japanese troops on the northern coast of Papua at Gona did not trouble Generals MacArthur and Blamey unduly. Far away in Australia, they were busy planning the establishment of their forward airbase at Dobodura which was situated roughly 24 kilometres (15 miles) inland from the neighbouring coastal villages of Gona and Buna. MacArthur and Blamey viewed the Japanese landing at Gona as an annoying intrusion upon that planning. They appreciated that the Japanese might probe in the direction of Kokoda, but they believed that the main purpose of the Japanese in landing a large force at Gona was simply to establish a forward base at either Gona or Buna. MacArthur and Blamey lacked the flexibility of military vision that would have enabled them to foresee the possibility that Kokoda, and ultimately Port Moresby, were the real targets of the Japanese landing. To counter the Japanese beachhead at Gona-Buna, Blamey ordered Morris to send the remaining companies of the 39th Battalion across the Owen Stanley Range to join B Company at Kokoda.

On 23 July 1942, Major General Morris ordered the commander of the 39th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Owen, to fly to Kokoda and then prepare to defend it with his battalion, which was to be given the name "Maroubra Force". At this stage, Morris appears to have felt no sense of urgency about reinforcement of B Company at Kokoda. On that same day, C Company left Ilolo to undertake the long trek to Kokoda. The remaining companies of the 39th Battalion would follow C Company across the mountains as soon as preparations could be completed.

Templeton deploys B Company between Gona and Kokoda

In response to the Japanese landing at Gona, Captain Templeton returned from the coast to Awala on 22 July. He ordered 11 Platoon and native PIB troops to leave Kokoda and move down to Awala. He ordered 12 Platoon to move down from Kokoda to the village of Gorari which was situated about half way between Awala and Kokoda. 10 Platoon was to remain at Kokoda and guard the airstrip. Having deployed his small force between Gona and Kokoda, Templeton left Major W.T. Watson of the Papuan Infantry Battalion in command at Awala and returned to Kokoda to meet his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Owen, who was expected to arrive by air from Port Moresby on 24 July.

On 23 July, the approach of Japanese troops unnerved a PIB patrol at Awala, and many of the native troops disappeared into the bush. As the Japanese continued to advance towards Kokoda, 11 Platoon fell back to the southern bank of the Kumusi River at Wairopi and it was joined by Major Watson with his officers, NCOs and a handful of PIB troops. The wire bridge across the river was then cut.

Having been informed that between 1,500 and 2,000 Japanese troops had landed at Gona, Templeton ordered 11 Platoon to fall back to Gorari if contact was made with Japanese troops. On the afternoon of 24 July, Japanese troops appeared on the Gona side of the Kumusi River and fire was exchanged across the river. 11 Platoon and Major Watson's PIB troops then withdrew and joined 12 Platoon at Gorari.

The Japanese advance towards Kokoda

In the early morning hours of 25 July, Lieutenant Colonel Owen and Captain Templeton joined 11 and 12 Platoons at Gorari. In an attempt to slow the Japanese advance until reinforcements could arrive from Port Moresby, Owen set up an ambush on the track leading from the Kumusi River to Gorari and then returned to Kokoda to await expected reinforcements. The Japanese were only briefly delayed by the ambush before advancing relentlessly on the small Australian rearguard. The tough, jungle warfare veterans of Japan's 144th Regiment appeared to find the jungle terrain of New Guinea no impediment, even though they were carrying heavier weapons than the Australians. With at least 500 of Japan's best troops pursuing them aggressively, the two Australian platoons staged a fighting rearguard withdrawal down the track to the village of Oivi where they intended to make a stand.

Lieutenant Colonel Owen already had C Company of his battalion in the mountains heading towards Kokoda, but these troops were still six days away and the vital airstrip at Kokoda was clearly under threat from the speed of the Japanese advance. Owen contacted Port Moresby on the night of 25 July. He pointed out that the situation was becoming threatening, and asked for two of his rifle companies to be flown to Kokoda on the following morning. It was only a twenty minute flight by air.

The Australian stand at Oivi

On the morning of 26 July, one platoon of D Company of the 39th Battalion was flown to Kokoda in two separate flights. As each half of the platoon arrived, the fifteen troops were sent on to reinforce the two platoons at Oivi. Apart from this one platoon of D Company troops, no more reinforcements for Owen's beleaguered men at Oivi arrived from Port Moresby by air.

At Oivi, the Japanese attacked the small Australian force aggressively, providing them with a taste of Japanese tactics which would be used repeatedly on the Kokoda Track, and which had already been used to devastating effect in the jungles of Malaya. The life of every Japanese soldier belonged to Emperor Hirohito, and was expendable. With the advantage of overwhelming numbers on the Kokoda Track, the Japanese could afford to expend troops in apparently suicidal frontal attacks. While the Australians were fighting desperately to contain this frontal attack, other Japanese troops would try to work their way around the flanks of the Australian position with a view to encircling it. If this tactic succeeded, the end usually followed swiftly for the encircled troops.

Templeton had only about 75 Australian militia troops and a handful of local PIB troops at Oivi, and he was facing several hundred Japanese troops, including a company of the crack 5th Sasebo marines. The second half of the D Company platoon flown to Kokoda that morning had not yet arrived at Oivi. The Japanese continued to attack aggressively throughout the afternoon of 26 July, always attempting to outflank and encircle the Australians. For Templeton, there was no thought of withdrawing despite the desperate plight of his small command. He knew that if the Japanese broke through, they would capture the airstrip at Kokoda and be well down the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby before they met C Company moving up the track to Kokoda. At about 5.00 p.m., Templeton went off alone into the gloomy jungle between Oivi and Kokoda to look for and warn the second half of the D Company platoon that they might encounter Japanese troops between them and his defensive position. It was too late, the Japanese had already encircled Templeton's troops. There was a burst of gunfire from the direction in which Templeton had gone, and this brave officer failed to return.

Under heavy attack by the Japanese from every side, and with night falling, the small Australian force appeared to be facing annihilation. Major W.T. Watson of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) had assumed command when Templeton was lost. It was one of Major Watson's men, Lance Corporal Sanopa of the PIB, who saved them. Under cover of darkness, this resourceful Papuan, a former police constable, led the Australian and Papuan troops to safety by means of a creek below Oivi. As the track to Kokoda was now cut off by the Japanese, Lance Corporal Sanopa guided them across rugged terrain to the village of Deniki, which is south of Kokoda.