AN OVERVIEW OF THE KOKODA CAMPAIGN

"ANZAC created a nation; Kokoda saved a nation."
His Excellency David Irvine, Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, 1998

 

JAPAN'S OBJECTIVES IN THE AUSTRALIAN TERRITORY OF PAPUA 

The Japanese decide to capture Port Moresby by land

In May 1942, the Japanese began to establish a large military formation in the South-West Pacific to implement the Navy General Staff plan to sever Australia's lifeline to the United States. This formation was the Imperial 17th Army under the command of Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake, and major components of the formation were deployed at Japanese bases at Truk, Palau, and the port of Rabaul which Japan had captured from Australia in January 1942.

    

Soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army thought they were invincible until they met and fought Australians in the rugged jungle-clad mountains of New Guinea.
Although outnumbered five to one by elite Japanese troops on the Kokoda Track, the Australians blocked their drive towards Australia and forced them to retreat.

By the end of June 1942, the Japanese plan to isolate Australia from the United States was well advanced. Japan was establishing a major base at the port of Lae on the mainland coast of Australia's Territory of New Guinea. Japanese naval landing forces had occupied Buka, Bougainville and Shortland, which are the three northernmost islands of the Solomon Islands chain. Between May and July 1942, the Japanese progressively occupied more of the islands comprising the Solomon Islands chain. As each island was occupied, the Japanese built forward airstrips in pursuance of their plan to intercept military aid for Australia from the United States. By the middle of July 1942, Japan had occupied the southern island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons chain, and 2,000 Japanese troops and construction workers were engaged in building the airstrip which would later be known as Henderson Field.

The next step in the Japanese plan to isolate Australia from the United States would be the capture of Port Moresby on the southern coast of Australia's Territory of Papua. Port Moresby was of vital importance to Japan. With the whole of the island of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands under Japanese control, Japan could establish naval bases and forward airfields on these territories from which it could strike deeply into the Australian mainland and intercept military support for Australia from the United States.

The Japanese had initially intended to capture Port Moresby in April 1942, but American carrier-launched aircraft from USS Lexington and USS Yorktown had crossed the Owen Stanley Range on 10 March 1942 and smashed the invasion fleet that the Japanese were assembling at Lae. The Japanese were forced to postpone the capture of Port Moresby until May 1942. When the Japanese finally launched a powerful seaborne invasion force towards Port Moresby in the first week of May 1942, their first attempt to capture Port Moresby was frustrated by a joint United States and Australian naval task force at the Battle of the Coral Sea. For the first time in the Pacific War, a Japanese invasion fleet was forced to withdraw, and Australia was saved from more intensive aerial bombardment and a grave threat to aid from the United States.

Despite these setbacks, the Japanese were still determined to capture Port Moresby. The Imperial Japanese Navy had operational responsibility for Japanese military operations in the South-West Pacific area, but with the loss of four of its six best aircraft carriers at Midway, and Shokaku badly damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese Navy was no longer capable of mounting a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby. Faced with this dilemma, Japan's admirals decided to pass the task of capturing Port Moresby to the Japanese Army.

Japan's military strategists developed a plan for the capture of Port Moresby which involved a two prong attack. Tough jungle-trained troops of the Japanese South Seas Detachment, under the command of Major General Tomitaro Horii, would land near the villages of Gona and Buna on the northern coast of Papua, seize the airstrip at Kokoda, and cross the Owen Stanley Range by means of the Kokoda Track. Once over the mountains of the Owen Stanley Range, Port Moresby would lie open to attack and capture by the Japanese troops. The second prong of the attack would involve a landing by Japanese marines at Milne Bay on the eastern tip of Papua where Australians and Americans had been building a forward airbase since 28 June 1942. When captured, Milne Bay would provide Japan with an air and naval base from which Major General Horii's attack on Port Moresby could be supported by Japanese aircraft and seaborne invasion troops.

The task of crossing the Owen Stanley Range must have appeared deceptively simple to Japanese military planners studying maps in Tokyo. They had never seen this massive, rugged central mountain feature of the island of New Guinea which separates the northern coast of Papua from the southern coast.


Author's Note:

In this treatment of the Kokoda Campaign, reference will be made to the "Kokoda Track". This was the name by which it was known to Australian soldiers who fought on it in 1942 and to the civilians who were living in Australia's Territory of Papua before the Japanese invaded it on 21 July 1942. Dissemination of war news in the South-West Pacific was controlled in 1942 by the American Supreme Commander, General Douglas MacArthur. "Trail" is not Australian usage, and the term "Kokoda Trail" was almost certainly coined by an American member of General MacArthur's public relations staff or by an independent American journalist. The Australian War Memorial has opted since 1992 to use the American term "Kokoda Trail" to describe the location of the most important battle fought by Australians on their own soil in World War II. See also the chapter "Is it Kokoda Track ot Trail?"


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