Major Cameron casts his militia troops into the Japanese meat grinder

With no actual knowledge of the Japanese troop strength or their dispositions at Kokoda, Major Cameron resolved to throw three companies of his mostly inexperienced militia troops at the Japanese in a three pronged "do-or-die" attempt to recover Kokoda and its airstrip. He took this dangerous course despite grave reservations expressed by his company commanders about dividing his relatively small force into three and attacking without any knowledge of the Japanese numbers or where they were located.

Between 6.30 and 8.00 a.m. on 8 August the three companies left Deniki separately and undertook their separate tasks. The troops of A Company, guided by the invaluable Papuan Lance Corporal Sanopa, would try to reach Kokoda by means of a disused western track and attempt to seize the administrative post and hold the airstrip until reinforcements arrived. The troops of D Company followed another native track in a north-easterly direction to the main Gona-Kokoda track where they were required to ambush any Japanese reinforcements coming up the track from Gona to Kokoda. If successful, they would then attempt to join A and C Companies at Kokoda. The troops of C Company were to undertake the most dangerous task, which was a frontal assault on Kokoda using the main track between Deniki and Kokoda. The Deniki-Kokoda route was the direction from which the Japanese would be most likely to expect an attack by the Australians, and accordingly, it was likely to be heavily defended. Major Cameron did not intend to lead this very dangerous enterprise from the front. He remained at Deniki.

Corporal Jim Canty was one of the heavily out-numbered heroes of the 39th Australian
Infantry Battalion who blocked the passage of Japanese troops along the Kokoda Track.

Captain Symington's A Company recaptures Kokoda

The troops of A Company, led by Captain Noel Symington, were guided by Sanopa along the disused track and arrived at Kokoda to find only a small number of Japanese troops in possession of it. The Japanese troops did not put up a fight. They ran off into the jungle. Kokoda had been retaken by a force of about 100 Australians. Symington deployed his troops carefully in expectation of determined efforts to recover his headquarters by the humiliated Japanese commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto. The questions now were: how long could A Company hold Kokoda and its vital airstrip, and would the promised reinforcements arrive from Port Moresby in time?

The arrival of D Company at the main track between Kokoda and Oivi quickly produced a substantial response by Japanese troops from both directions. The ambush was initially successful, but the Japanese continued to move troops up to attack D Company. Heavy fighting took place in the jungle bordering the track, and continued throughout the day. As nightfall approached, the Officer Commanding D Company, Captain M. L. Bidstrup, realised that he could not reach Kokoda. He withdrew his troops in a fighting rearguard withdrawal towards Deniki with the Japanese pursuing them aggressively. It would take two days before Bidstrup and his men could reach Deniki.

The troops of C Company had not moved far along the Track towards Kokoda when they were ambushed while crossing a gully by a large force of Japanese lying in wait for any Australians moving towards Kokoda. The Officer Commanding C Company, Captain A. C. Dean, was killed and his troops were pinned down by very heavy fire from the Japanese. Despite repeated attempts to break through to Kokoda during that day, the troops of C Company were unable to do so, and were withdrawn towards Deniki as night was falling with the Japanese in hot pursuit. These Japanese fired on Major Cameron and his troops at Deniki for several hours before withdrawing towards Kokoda.

At 10.00 a.m. on the following day, 9 August, Lance Corporal Sanopa arrived at Deniki to advise Cameron that Captain Symington's A Company had occupied Kokoda the previous day and he was awaiting reinforcements and supplies. Cameron contacted Port Moresby and was told that the reinforcements and supplies promised by Major General Morris as soon as the airstrip at Kokoda was recaptured would not be available until the following day. Cameron was well aware that Symington could not hold Kokoda against one thousand Japanese with only one hundred men, and warned Major General Morris that the following day would probably be too late.

Kokoda falls again into Japanese hands - 10 August 1942

Having repulsed C and D Companies, Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto now concentrated his troops around Kokoda. From late morning on 9 August, the Japanese repeatedly attacked Captain Symington's small force at Kokoda. The battle raged into the night of 9 August, with the Japanese using darkness and rain to infiltrate the thinly defended Australian perimeter. In desperate hand-to-hand fighting, the young militia troops repeatedly repulsed Japan's elite jungle troops.

On the morning of 10 August an Allied aircraft circled Kokoda airstrip, noted the strong presence of Japanese troops, and returned to Port Moresby without even dropping supplies for the beleaguered Australian troops. By late afternoon, the Australians had consumed all of their food and had very little ammunition left. They were very tired from lack of rest and sleep. They had wounded who needed urgent medical attention. The Japanese had been attacking for two successive days, and Captain Symington realised that A Company could no longer hold Kokoda against a Japanese battalion, with the potential for massive reinforcements arriving from Gona.

At about 7.00 p.m., after darkness had fallen, and while the battle was still raging, Symington ordered a fighting withdrawal to the west of the Kokoda plateau. The darkness and rain both aided and impeded the Australian withdrawal from Kokoda, but they left carrying their wounded and still exchanging fire with Japanese troops advancing through the rubber trees. They slept in the rain and mud during the rest of that night, and at first light set out for Deniki. Even though they avoided the main track, the men of A Company found the jungle between Kokoda and Deniki infested with Japanese troops. They brought their wounded to the village of Naro, which was situated to the west of the main track between Kokoda and Deniki, and rested while a native villager was sent to Deniki for help. Despite expectation of an imminent attack by the Japanese on the Australian position at Deniki, Warrant Officer Wilkinson volunteered to lead a small patrol of PIB native troops to Naro to help the exhausted troops of A Company. Wilkinson also found the jungle thick with Japanese troops, but he reached Naro and led the men of A Company by a roundabout route past Deniki to Isurava, where rest and medical attention were waiting.

Once again, the vital Kokoda airstrip had been lost, not through any fault of the Australian militia troops of the 39th Battalion who had again fought with great courage and determination, but because they were heavily outnumbered and denied reinforcements and supplies when they desperately needed them. Once again, the troops at the front had been let down by the inaction and poor judgment of senior commanders far removed from the battle.

As for Major Cameron, his rash gamble had not only failed, but he was now left isolated at Deniki with a severely depleted battalion of mostly exhausted men and facing, without prospect of early reinforcement, a very much larger and better armed enemy force which could call on a massive reservoir of fresh troops. Cameron's men were bedraggled, cold, wet, and without even the minimum comforts of adequate food, a change of dry clothes, and dry blankets. Despite all of these negatives, the morale of the young militia troops was high and they were determined to hold the Japanese as long as they could. Cameron brought forward his reserve E Company from Isurava to replace the exhausted men of A Company who were then sent back down the track to Eora Creek. B Company was held in reserve at Isurava.

Although he had suffered heavy losses inflicted by a much smaller force during his repeated attacks on A Company at Kokoda, and had lost two vital days from his strict timetable spent recovering his headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto could console himself with the fact that he had denied Australia the prized source of ready reinforcement and supply at Kokoda. Now, all Australian reinforcements would face an arduous eight day trek over the Owen Stanley Range, and all of their supplies and equipment would have to be manhandled over those rugged mountains. From the failure to reinforce A Company at Kokoda between 8 and 10 August, Tsukamoto could now reasonably deduce that he was only opposed by a small Australian advance force and that Port Moresby lacked the will or capability to reinforce that small advance force by air. Tsukamoto could now assure Major General Horii that the path to Port Moresby lay open for the main body of Japan's South Seas Detachment.

The Australian stand at Deniki - 13-14 August 1942

From the raised vantage point of Deniki, the Australians were able to see Japanese troops moving out of Kokoda and in their direction during the afternoon of 12 August. The troops of C, D and E Companies were spread thinly around the Australian defensive perimeter. The fresh troops of E Company occupied the left flank which was expected to be the main focus of the Japanese attack. C Company was defending the village of Deniki, and the exhausted troops of D Company were holding the right flank.

One of Australia's true heroes. Lieutenant Don Simonson of the 39th Battalion is shown wearing the ribbon of the Military Cross awarded to him for bravery at Deniiki when he crept close to the lines of the besieging Japanese and silenced two enemy machine gun posts with grenades.

The Japanese assault on Deniki began early on the morning of 13 August with a fierce and determined attack on E Company positions. Lieutenant D. J. Simonson's platoon took the brunt of this violent and sustained initial attack which continued throughout the first day. The Australians could only respond with small arms and hand grenades to Japanese mortar bombardment and the raking of their positions by heavy machine-guns. At one stage, during a brief lull in the attack, Simonson crept close to the Japanese lines and silenced two Japanese machine-guns with hand grenades. By the end of the first day, Simonson's platoon had suffered heavy casualties, but his men were still holding their ground. During the night, the Japanese harassed the weary Australians with spasmodic rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire.

At first light on 14 August, the Japanese launched a heavy attack supported by mortar fire on the Australian positions. The attack was initially concentrated again on E Company positions, but by 8.30 a.m., C Company was coming under very heavy mortar bombardment. The Australians were so heavily outnumbered that the Japanese were finally able to break through the E Company lines and cut off some Australian troops. Major Cameron decided that Deniki could not be held, and during a lull in the fighting, he ordered a withdrawal up the mountain to the village of Isurava.

The troops who had been cut off by the Japanese were later able to find their way back to the battalion through thick jungle.

The Battles for Kokoda in retrospect

The ill-conceived attempt by Major Cameron to retake and hold Kokoda with totally inadequate resources had seriously undermined the fighting effectiveness of the 39th Battalion. The Japanese path to Port Moresby, and ultimately Australia, was now blocked only by this greatly weakened battalion. Although MacArthur and Blamey were primarily responsible for neglecting Australia's northern defences, the blame for undermining the fighting effectiveness of the 39th Battalion lay squarely on Major Cameron and Major General Morris. The latter had not only failed to supply and equip his troops adequately but also failed to support them twice at Kokoda when they were in desperate need of reinforcements.

One bright spot in this disastrous sequence of events leading to the capture of Kokoda and Deniki by the Japanese was the determination of the exhausted and starving troops of the 39th Battalion to hold the Japanese at Isurava as long as they could.