Kokoda Track campaign

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Kokoda Track campaign
Part of the Pacific War of World War II
Soldiers on parade in front of a hut in a tropical setting. An officer in a steel helmet with a walking stick stands in front facing away from them, while the men behind him are wearing a various assortment of uniforms including steel helmets, slouch hats, shorts and are carrying rifles
Soldiers of the Australian 39th Battalion in September 1942
Date 21 July – 16 November 1942
Location Territory of Papua
Result Decisive Allied victory
 United States
Commanders and leaders
Australia Thomas Blamey
Australia Sydney Rowell
Australia Edmund Herring
Australia Arthur Allen
Australia George Vasey
United States Douglas MacArthur
Empire of Japan Hisaichi Terauchi
Empire of Japan Hitoshi Imamura
Empire of Japan Harukichi Hyakutake
Empire of Japan Tomitarō Horii 
30,000 total[1] 6,000 + [2]
Casualties and losses
625 killed
1,055 wounded
4,000+ sick[3]
6,600 killed[4]

The Kokoda Track campaign or Kokoda Trail campaign was part of the Pacific War of World War II. The campaign consisted of a series of battles fought between July and November 1942 between Japanese and Allied—primarily Australian—forces in what was then the Australian territory of Papua. Following a landing near Gona, on the north coast of New Guinea, on the night of 21/22 July, Japanese forces attempted to advance south overland through the mountains of the Owen Stanley Range to seize Port Moresby as part of a strategy of isolating Australia from the United States. Initially only limited Australian forces were available to oppose them; and, after making rapid progress, the Japanese South Seas Detachment under Major General Tomitarō Horii clashed with under-strength Australian forces from the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Australian 39th Battalion on 23 July at Awala, forcing them back to Kokoda. Following a confused night battle on 28/29 July, the Australians were again forced to withdraw. The Australians attempted to recapture Kokoda on 8 August without success, which resulted in heavy casualties on both sides; and the 39th Battalion was forced back to Deniki. A number of Japanese attacks were fought off by the Australian Militia over the following week; yet, by 14 August, they began to withdraw over the Owen Stanley Range, down the Kokoda Track towards Isurava.

The Japanese failed to press their assault, and the next 10 days proved to be a respite for the Australians. Reinforcements, including the 53rd Battalion and the headquarters of the 30th Brigade under the command of Brigadier Selwyn Porter, arrived to bolster the Australian forces, while the 21st Brigade under Brigadier Arnold Potts also arrived at Isurava by 23 August. The Australians faced significant supply problems despite the modest size of their forces, and the 39th Battalion was withdrawn to ease the logistic burden. The Japanese advance resumed on 26 August, forcing Potts to mount a series of delaying actions as the 21st Brigade successively fell back, first to Eora Creek on 30 August, Templeton's Crossing on 2 September, and next to Efogi three days later, on 5 September. The Japanese were now increasingly hampered by supply problems of their own as they became overextended, while the Australian defence also became better organised. Regardless, the effectiveness of the Australian units was increasingly reduced through exhaustion and sickness from operating in the harsh terrain.

On 10 September, Potts handed over command to Porter, who was forced to withdraw to Ioribaiwa. The Japanese unsuccessfully mounted a further attack the following day, as they began to run out of momentum against the Australians who began to receive further reinforcements, including brigades from the experienced Australian 7th Division under the command of Major General Arthur Allen. The 25th Brigade under Brigadier Kenneth Eather took over the forward area on 14 September. Heavy fighting continued around Ioribaiwa for the next week, and the Australians were again forced to withdraw on 17 September, this time to Imita Ridge, in sight of Port Moresby itself. Having outrun his supply lines and following the reverses suffered by the Japanese at Guadalcanal, Horii was now ordered on to the defensive, marking the limit of the Japanese advance southwards. The Japanese began to withdraw on 24 September to establish a defensive position on the north coast; but they were followed by the Australians under Eather, who recaptured Kokoda on 2 November. Further fighting continued into November and December as the Australian and United States forces assaulted the Japanese beachheads, in what later became known as the Battle of Buna–Gona.


Strategic context

Japanese attacks along the Malay Barrier 23 December 1941 – 21 February 1942.

After the fall of Singapore, the Australian government and many Australians feared that Japan would invade the Australian mainland. Australia was ill-prepared to counter such an attack. Much of the Australian 8th Division, deployed to Malaya, Ambon, Timor and Rabaul was captured as the Japanese rapidly advanced. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) lacked modern aircraft and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was too small and unbalanced to counter the Imperial Japanese Navy. The RAAF and RAN were greatly expanded, though it took years for these services to build up to their peak strengths.[5] The Militia was being mobilised by the Army and, although a large force, it was inexperienced and lacked mobility.[6] In response to the threat, the Government appealed to the United States for assistance and the 6th and 7th Divisions of the Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF) were brought back from the Middle East (the 9th Division was not released until the start of 1943). British Prime Minister Winston Churchill attempted to divert the 6th and 7th Divisions to Burma while they were en route to Australia, but the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, refused to authorise this movement. As a compromise, two brigades of the 6th Division disembarked at Ceylon and formed part of the island's garrison until they returned to Australia in August 1942.[7]

The Japanese military considered invading Australia in early 1942 but decided against doing so in February that year.[8] While such an invasion was debated by the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, it was judged to be beyond the Japanese military's capabilities and no planning or other preparations were undertaken.[9] Instead, in March 1942 the Japanese military adopted a strategy of isolating Australia from the United States by capturing Port Moresby in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia.[10] The first attempt to capture Port Moresby by seaborne amphibious invasion was thwarted by the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. A month later, most of the Japanese carrier fleet was destroyed in the Battle of Midway, further reducing the possibility of major amphibious operations in the south Pacific. The Japanese now resolved to mount an overland assault across the rugged Owen Stanley Range to capture Port Moresby, which might have succeeded against virtually no resistance, had it been mounted in February.[11][page needed]

MacArthur with Blamey and Prime Minister Curtin in March 1942

Looking for ways to counter the Japanese advance into the South Pacific, the Supreme Allied Commander in the South West Pacific Area—General Douglas MacArthur—decided to build up Allied forces in New Guinea as a prelude to an offensive against the main Japanese base at Rabaul. Aware that an enemy landing at Buna could threaten Kokoda and then Port Moresby, MacArthur asked his commander of Allied Land Forces—General Sir Thomas Blamey—for details of how he proposed to defend Buna and Kokoda. In turn, Blamey ordered Major General Basil Morris—the commander of New Guinea Force—to secure the area and prepare to oppose an enemy advance.[12] Morris created a force to defend Kokoda called Maroubra Force, and he ordered the 100-strong 'B' Company of the Australian 39th Battalion to travel overland along the track to the village of Kokoda. Once there, 'B' Company was to secure the airstrip at Kokoda, in preparation for an Allied build-up along the Papuan north coast. The unit was ordered to leave on 26 June but did not depart until 7 July.[12] The rest of the 39th Battalion stayed on the near side of the Owen Stanley range, improving communications. As the Militia company was securing its positions, news reached them of Japanese landings on the north coast of New Guinea.[13]


A map of the Kokoda Track
A map depicting locations along the Kokoda Track

The village of Kokoda is positioned on a plateau in northern foot-hills of the Owen Stanley Range. It overlooks the Yodda Valley (formed by the Mambare River) to its north. The Mambare runs roughly south-east to north-west. Kokoda is approximately 100 km direct line from the coastal village of Buna, that formed part of the Japanese beachhead positions occupied on their landing. However, the overland route was approximately 160 km.[14] The track to the coast crosses the Kumusi River at Wairopi, approximately 25 km east of Kokoda. The river was spanned there by a wire-rope bridge (Wairopi being Pidgin for wire rope).[15] There was a wide track leading from there to the coast which the Japanese subsequently set about developing as a road for vehicle traffic.[16]

In 1942, the village was the site of a government station, rubber plantation and strategically important airstrip. The Kokoda Track is a foot track that runs roughly southwest from Kokoda 96 kilometres (60 mi) overland (60 kilometres (37 mi) in a straight line through the Owen Stanley Range toward Port Moresby. It was know before the war and had been used as an overland mail route. While there is a "main track" that is associated with the fighting during the campaign, there are many parallel, interlocking tracks that follow much the same general course. The southern end of the track is now considered to start at Owers' Corner, 38 miles (61 km) from Port Moresby.[17] The vehicle track from Port Moresby originally terminated at McDonald's [Corner], where it serviced the McDonald homestead. Between June and late September 1942, around 7 miles (11 km) of road was completed, extending it to Owers' Corner.[18]

The Kokoda Track passed through what was referred to during the early war years as "the (Kokoda) Gap".[19] To the Japanese, who had learned of the Gap through vague explorer's accounts,[20] it potentially offered a corridor from Buna through the Owen Stanleys along which they could launch a quick advance on Port Moresby. Conversely, the Allies believed it was a narrow and largely impassable path that could be blocked and held with only limited resources.[21] In reality, the Gap is a dip in the Owen Stanley Range about 11 kilometres (7 mi) wide, convenient for aircraft crossing the range to pass through.[22]

The track reaches a height of 2,190 metres (7,185 ft) as it passes around the peak of Mount Bellamy.[23] The terrain rises and falls with regularity, up to 5,000 metres (16,000 ft) up and down over the full length of the track.[notes 1] This markedly increasing the distance to be traversed, although there are several flat areas, particularly around Myola. The vegetation is largely dense jungle. The climate mostly hot and humid with high rainfall, although the higher parts are cold, particularly at night. The higher elevations are frequently below cloud level, resulting in fog.[24]

Myola is close to the watershed. A stream flowing from Myola is part of the headwaters of Eora Creek on the northern watershed.[26] On the northern part of the track, its course, to Deniki, is determined by Eora Creek. It follows along the side of the steep valley formed by the creek. It crosses the creek from one side to the other at several points along its course. From Deniki, the track descends to the Kokoda plateau.[27]


Operations in New Giunea were impacted by tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, scrub typhus, tropical ulcers, dysentery from a range of causes and fungal infections. Walker observes that the Kokoda Track "starts and ends with malaria". Malarial vectors were substantially absent from the cooler, higher elevations along the track. Most cases observed in these areas were relapses rather than primary infections. The immediate vicinity of Port Moresby is relatively dry. While this tends to mitigate the risk of malaria, significant rates of the disease were observed in troops, mainly militia, sent to New Guinea for defence of the port, leading up to the campaign. The risk from malaria was particularly high for troops operating in the coastal area around the southern end of the track and during the time when the Australian forces had been forced back to Imita ridge. AIF units returning from the Middle East were more aware of the threat this disease posed and arrived with their own supplies of quinine. For these reasons, the disease did not have the same degree of significance or impact on operations as it did at Milne Bay or the subsequent operations at Buna–Gona.[28]

Anderson recounts the prevalence of dysentery among Australian troops,[29] while James reports that "more and more [Japanese] succumbed" to diseases, including dysentery, as they withdrew back along the track.[30] Walker attributes enteric infections to poor field hygiene; contaminated and unpurified water; and, a failure to make effective sanitary provisions along the track during the early part of the campaign. He also identifies that a proportion of diarrhoeal disturbances were attributable to the poor diet (particularly the high fat content of tinned beef) rather than infection.[31]


In the early evening of 21 July 1942, Japanese troops landed close to Gona.[32] The Japanese advance party moved rapidly toward Kokoda, reaching the Kumusi, at Wairopi in the afternoon of 23 July.[33] The PIB and Australians engaged the advancing Japanese with ambushes. B Company, 39th Battalion assembled a force (including what remained of the PIB) to make a stand near Oivi on 26 July. One platoon remained at Kokoda. Threatened with encirclement, the force at Oivi broke contact – withdrawing south to Deniki. Having lost contact, the platoon at Kokoda also withdrew to Deneki on 27 July and linked up with the main force. A small party from Oivi had to withdraw through Kokoda and reported that the Japanese had not occupied the village. Lieutenant Colonel William Owen, commanding officer of the 39th Battalion, quickly moved to reoccupy it. The first battle at Kokoda was fought over 28–29 July. Repeated, determined attacks caused the Australians to withdraw back to Deniki. Owen was mortally wounded in the fighting.[34]

There was a pause in the Japanese advance. Remaining companies of the 39th Battalion arrived overland and Major Allan Cameron, Brigade Major of the 30th Brigade was appointed to assume command of the force. He planned an attack for 8 August toward Kokoda, with three companies advancing on different lines. Two of the companies were held up and forced to retire. A Company was able to occupy Kokoda but, isolated and under attack, it withdrew during the night of 9 July. Companies of the 39th Battalion had withdrawn back on Deniki by 12 August and were attacked the following morning. With the threat of envelopment, the battalion commenced to withdraw toward Isurava on the morning of 14 August.[35]

Meanwhile, the 53rd Battalion and headquarters 30th Brigade under Brigadier Selwyn Porter were sent as reinforcements. Two battalions of the 2nd AIF's 21st Brigade under Brigadier Arnold Potts were following. A defensive position was established by Porter at Isurava with the 30th Brigade to be relieved by the 21st Brigade force. As Potts' lead battalion approached, he took command of the combined force to effect the relief. However, the Japanese advance overtook events and, from 26 to 31 August, a battle ensued in which four Japanese battalions were committed. The 53rd Battalion failed to secure the eastern flank and, with the Japanese taking a commanding position to the Australian front, ultimately forced an Australian withdrawal. The 21st Brigade then fought a series of engagements between 31 August and 5 September as it withdrew from Eora Creek to Templeton's Crossing.[36]

The Japanese had landed at Milne Bay on 25 August but, as the Australian position there firmed, the third battalion of Potts' 21st Brigade was released to join the fighting along the track. With this reinforcement, he determined to make a stand on Mission Ridge, running forward from Brigade Hill. In fighting from 6 to 9 September, two battalions of the brigade withdrew, narrowly avoiding encirclement while the 2/27th Battalion was feared lost until its remnants emerged from the jungle three weeks later.[37]

Following the battle, Potts was recalled to Port Moresby, with Porter being placed in command. The depleted 21st Brigade was withdrawn to Ioribaiwa Ridge. It was reinforced by the 3rd Battalion and awaited relief by the 25th Brigade, under command of Brigadier Kenneth Eather. Eather took command of the combined force but the Japanese attacked just as his battalions were taking up position – with fighting over the period 14–16 September. He obtained permission to withdraw and consolidate at Imita Ridge – the final defensive position along the Track. Meanwhile, American forces had landed at Guadalcanal on 7 August. Unable to support both operations, Horii was ordered to withdraw, firstly, back toward Kokoda and then to the beachheads at Buna–Gona. When Eather attacked the the Japanese positions on 28 September, he found them abandoned. The Australian forces cautiously pursued the Japanese withdrawal. The 16th Brigade was committed to the advance and direct command passed to the 7th Division, under Major General Arthur "Tubby" Allen.[38]

The 25th Brigade took the vanguard. On 10 October, Myola was occupied unopposed and contact was made with the Japanese rearguard. The 25th Brigade was held up at Templeton's crossing from 16 October until the 16th Brigade pushed through on 20 October and advanced toward Eora Creek. Here, the advance was held until the Japanese forces withdrew on 28 October. Pressure to hasten the advance by MacArthur, Allan was replaced by Major General George Vasey on 28 October. The 7th Division advanced toward Kokoda and, when a patrol reported it unoccupied, it was retaken on 2 November.[39]

A further battle was fought around Oivi and Gorari from 4 to 11 November. Vasey was able to turn the flank and route the Japanese. On 15 November, the 7th Division crossed the Kumusi River and commenced its advance toward the beachheads at Buna–Gona.[40]

Allied logistics

A transport plane flying at low level away from the camera, dropping supplies over a clearing in the jungle
A U.S. C-47 transport plane dropping supplies to the Australian 25th Brigade near Nauro Village in October 1942

MacArthur visited Blamey in Port Moresby on 4 October 1942 and the two agreed to establish a Combined Operations Service Command (COSC) to co-ordinate logistical activities in Papua-New Guinea. To command it, MacArthur appointed Brigadier General Dwight Johns, the deputy commander of USASOS in SWPA, an expert on airbase construction. He was given an Australian deputy, Brigadier Victor Secombe,[41] who had directed the rehabilitation of the port of Tobruk in 1941. All Australian and American logistical units were placed under COSC, which also controlled a fleet of small craft and luggers.[41] The development of the bases at Port Moresby and Milne Bay was now well advanced, and supplies were being built up. At Port Moresby, a T-shaped wharf was constructed on Tatana Island and linked to the mainland by a causeway. Opened in early October, it more than doubled the capacity of the port, allowing it to handle several large ships at a time when previously it had been able to handle only one.[41]

A forward supply dump was also established at Myola, in a dry lake bed. It was a "massive yellow brown oasis in a green desert" allowing supply drops by United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) "biscuit bombers". The USAAF had two transport squadrons in the theatre, the 21st and 22nd Troop Carrier Squadrons, formed in Australia in April 1942. They operated a collection of acquired aircraft, including C-39, C-47, C-53, DC-2, DC-3, DC-5 and Lockheed 14. Many of the pilots were civilians and losses were high. Four of the 32 available transports were lost in August 1942.[42] Myola has been described as "one of the great mysteries of the Papuan campaign".[43] Potts had been told that 40,000 rations had been stored at Myola prior to 17 August and that there was no need for his troops to carry rations and on hearing this he ordered his men to pack five days' rations. Upon arrival Potts found only 5,000 rations. Rowell maintained that the missing rations "fell outside the target area" and in his autobiography he stated that the claim that "the rations were never dropped at all or that the explanation lay in faulty work by an inexperienced staff"[44] was "preposterous", noting that "all through the New Guinea Campaign cargo dropping remained notoriously unreliable".[45] On 21 August, a patrol discovered a second, much larger, dry lake bed at Myola. The two lake beds came to be called Myola 1 and 2 but at this time maps showed and air crew expected only one. It seems likely that drops were made at the wrong one.[46]

Rowell pressed Blamey to ask for additional drops but lacking aircraft MacArthur told Blamey "air supply must necessarily be considered an emergency rather than a normal means of supply"[47] and that he was to find other ways to meet his needs—meaning native carriers. As such, Potts would have to make do with the scheduled drops. Due to a shortage of parachutes, all the supplies had to be "free-dropped"—dropped without parachutes.[48] Packaging at this time was primitive and inadequate, even for normal handling under New Guinea conditions, and woefully inadequate for being dropped from a plane, so the rate of breakages was high. Tactics for dropping had not been developed and the recovery rate was correspondingly small.[49][notes 2]

Air operations

Since Port Moresby was the only port supporting operations in Papua, its defence was critical to the campaign. The air defences consisted of P-39 and P-40 fighters. RAAF radar could not provide sufficient warning of Japanese attacks, so reliance was placed on coastwatchers and spotters in the hills until an American radar unit arrived in September with better equipment.[50] Japanese bombers were often escorted by fighters which came in at 30,000 ft (9,100 m)—too high to be intercepted by the P-39s and P-40s—giving the Japanese an altitude advantage in air combat.[51] The cost to the Allied fighters was high. By June, 20–25 P-39s had been lost in air combat, while three more had been destroyed on the ground and eight had been destroyed in landings by accident. The Australian and American anti-aircraft gunners of the Composite Anti-Aircraft Defences played a crucial part. The gunners got a lot of practice; Port Moresby suffered its 78th raid on 17 August 1942.[52] A gradual improvement in their numbers and skill forced the Japanese bombers up to higher altitude, where they were less accurate, and then, in August, to raiding by night.[50]

Although RAAF PBY Catalinas and Lockheed Hudsons were based at Port Moresby, because of the Japanese air attacks, long-range bombers like B-17s, B-25s, and B-26s could not be safely based there and were instead staged through from bases in Australia. This resulted in considerable fatigue for the air crews. Due to USAAF doctrine and a lack of long-range escorts, long-range bomber raids on targets like Rabaul went in unescorted and suffered heavy losses, prompting severe criticism of Lieutenant General George Brett by war correspondents for misusing his forces.[53] But fighters did provide cover for the transports, and for bombers when their targets were within range.[54] Aircraft based at Port Moresby and Milne Bay fought to prevent the Japanese from basing aircraft at Buna, and attempted to prevent the Japanese reinforcement of the Buna area.[55] As the Japanese ground forces pressed toward Port Moresby, the Allied Air Forces struck supply points along the Kokoda Track. Japanese makeshift bridges were attacked by P-40s with 500 lb (230 kg) bombs.[56]

Reasons for Japanese withdrawal

On Guadalcanal, Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake's initial thrust on 14 September to re-take the island's Henderson Field had been badly defeated. In an unequal battle, Kawaguchi's forces lost about 850 killed, while the American marines lost 104.[57] When the news reached Imperial General Headquarters in Japan, they decided in an emergency session that they could not support fronts on both New Guinea and Guadalcanal. Hyakutake decided that he only had sufficient troops and materiel to defeat the Allied forces on Guadalcanal. He prepared to send more troops to Guadalcanal in another attempt to recapture the airfield. With the concurrence of the Japanese command staff, he ordered General Horii to withdraw his troops on the Kokoda Track until the issue at Guadalcanal was decided. The Japanese troops were, after several weeks of exhausting fighting and heavy losses, within 32 kilometres (20 mi) of Port Moresby.[58]

General Horii and his troops were disheartened to learn their sacrifice and those of their dead companions was to be for nothing. On 28 September, they began to hastily withdraw northward over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Kokoda and then to Buna–Gona. This was the first time a Japanese advance had been stopped in the Pacific.[59] Of key strategic value to both armies was a landing field at Buna, built before the Japanese arrived. During their occupation they lengthened it to 1,200 metres (1,300 yd), and added aircraft dispersal bays. Japanese planes used the field until the end of September, when the U.S. Air Force in successive raids bombed the field, finally rendering it unusable.[60]

First phase – Japanese advance

Japanese landings and initial advance

The Japanese, having already captured much of the northern part of New Guinea earlier that year, landed on the north east coast of Papua on 21 July 1942, and established beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.[61] The first Australian Army unit to make contact with the Japanese on mainland New Guinea was a platoon from the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB), made up of indigenous soldiers, under an Australian officer, Lieutenant John Chalk.[62] On 22 July, Chalk reported the arrival of the Japanese by sending a runner to his immediate superior. He received a handwritten note later that day, stating simply: "You will engage the enemy." That night, Chalk and his 40-strong unit ambushed Japanese forces from a hill overlooking the Gona–Sangara road, before retreating into the jungle.[62]

Japanese attempts to build up the force at Buna also had to get past the Allied air forces. One transport got through on 25 July, but another on 29 July was sunk, although most of the troops got ashore. A third was forced to return to Rabaul. Another convoy had to turn back on 31 July. Bad weather and Japanese A6M Zero fighters allowed a convoy under Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa to get through on 14 August and land some 3,000 Japanese, Korean and Formosan troops of the 14th and 15th Naval Construction Units. On 17 August, the 5th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force, and elements of the 144th Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hatsuo Tsukamoto, and the 55th Mountain Artillery, the 47th Anti Aircraft Artillery and the 55th Cavalry arrived under the overall command of engineer Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama. On 21 August, two battalions of the 41st Regiment arrived.[63] Yokoyama ordered Tsukamoto to seize the airstrip at Kokoda, and to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force along the Kokoda Track. Encountering the Australian troops deployed near Kokoda, Tsukamoto deployed his infantry and marines for an attack, and quickly moved inland.[64]

First Battle of Kokoda

Main article: Battle of Kokoda

The first clash occurred at Awala on 23 July,[65] when a small force from the PIB under the command of Major William Thornton Watson made contact with the Japanese. After being forced back, Watson's force withdrew across the Kumusi River, destroying the footbridge that spanned it as they went.[66] When 'B' Company's commander, Captain Sam Templeton received news of the landings, he quickly sent a platoon forward to reinforce Watson and they began engaging the Japanese from the far side of the river.[67] As hundreds of Japanese marines began crossing the river under a barrage of mortar and machine gun fire, the Australians were forced to withdraw. They fell back only a few miles to a point where Templeton—now commanding a force of some 60 men drawn from 11 and 12 Platoons and some soldiers from the PIB—set up an ambush with two Lewis guns for a force of about 500 Japanese that were advancing along the banks of the Gorari Creek,[67] before moving back to Kokoda[68] to brief the 39th Battalion's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Owen, who had flown in to take command of 'B' Company in order to personally direct their defence.[69] The following day, the ambush was sprung and 15 Japanese were killed or wounded, but the Australians were unable to stem the advance, and were forced back towards the high ground at Oivi where they attempted to make a stand.[67]

Panoramic view of a cleared strip of land surrounded by thick scrub and jungle. Behind the cleared strip the ground rises steeply
Kokoda village and airfield in July 1942

Several hours apart on the morning of 26 July two transport planes landed 32 additional troops of the 39th Battalion which were sent to reinforce the two platoons at Oivi.[67] This first plane arrived around 15:00, just as the Japanese troops attacked the 75 militiamen and handful of local PIB troops now defending Oivi.[68] Despite repeated frontal and flank attacks over the next six hours the Japanese failed to break through. By 17:00, the remaining reinforcements had not yet arrived and Templeton moved down the track to warn them that they might encounter Japanese troops between them and his position. Unknown to Templeton the Japanese had already surrounded his troops and he was believed to have been killed when he ran into them.[70][notes 3]

Watson then assumed command. As the track to Kokoda was now cut off, Lance Corporal Sanopa of the PIB led the Australian and Papuan troops, under the cover of darkness, to Deniki by means of a creek below Oivi.[71] At Deniki, the men joined up with Owen and the rest of 'B' Company and on the morning of 27 July, Owen—with the remnants of the Militia company and a handful of troops of the PIB, who had had little food or rest for the previous three days and knowing he would be facing some 500 Japanese marines—decided to attempt a defence of the Kokoda airstrip and hope that reinforcements would arrive in time to support him.[72] Leaving a small reserve force around Deniki, he took the remaining force of around 130 to 140 troops and was deployed in Kokoda by midday on 28 July. Owen then contacted Port Moresby by radio to request reinforcements. Shortly afterward, two Douglas transports arrived overhead, carrying reinforcements from the 49th Battalion;[73] but after circling the airfield they returned to Port Moresby without landing.[72][notes 4]

At 02:00 on 29 July, the Japanese launched an attack on the airfield,[72] pouring down intense machine gun and mortar fire on the Australian position before launching an assault. Close quarters hand-to-hand fighting ensued, and after Owen received a fatal wound, Watson took command.[72] Only after his position was completely overrun did he give the order to his troops to withdraw to Deniki. The Kokoda airstrip was captured by the Japanese who—having achieved their objective and having suffered considerable losses—did not pursue the Australians.[72]

Although the defenders were poorly trained, outnumbered and under-resourced, the resistance was such that, according to captured documents, the Japanese believed they had defeated a force more than 1,200 strong when, in fact, they were facing between 77 and 140 Australian troops.[74][75] Next to establishing the strength of the defending forces, and with the strategically vital supply base and airstrip at Kokoda within his grasp, Tsukamoto deemed the track to be practicable for a full-scale overland assault against Port Moresby. The 10,000-strong Imperial Japanese Army South Seas Force—consisting of troops from the 20th and 51st Divisions of the 18th Army,[76] commanded by Major General Tomitaro Horii,[77] based at Rabaul—was tasked with the capture of Port Moresby.[78]

Australian reinforcements

A bronze statue depicting a Papuan man assisting a wounded soldier down a muddy track while another soldier advances in the other direction
Statue in Brisbane, Australia of Raphael Aimbari, an Oro man, leading a blinded Australian soldier during the New Guinea Campaign

The loss of the airstrip at Kokoda forced the Australian commanders to send the other companies of the 39th Battalion over the Track, rather than reinforcing Kokoda by air. Only two transport aircraft were available at Port Moresby with each capable of carrying reinforcements of only 20 soldiers on each trip. These reinforcements, if able to land, would be untrained members of the Militia only. This information was withheld from Major Allan Cameron—the brigade major of 30th Brigade, who temporarily took command of Maroubra Force on 4 August[79]—who was ordered to retake the airfield from superior forces to allow the reinforcement. Supplies, which had previously been flown in to Kokoda by the United States Army Air Forces, would now have to be air dropped. Wounded soldiers would now have to be carried out by Papuan porters,[80] who were nicknamed fuzzy-wuzzy angels by the Australian soldiers.[62] By the first week in August, all the reinforcements had arrived in Deniki. The Australian force at Deniki now consisted of 33 officers and 443 other ranks of the 39th Battalion; eight Australians and 35 native troops of the PIB; and two officers and 12 native members of the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) for a total of 533 troops.[notes 5] Cameron, who believed the 'B' Company survivors' failure to hold Oivi and Kokoda against the Japanese troops indicated a lack of fighting spirit, had them sent back up the track to Eora Creek.[79]

On 9 August 1942, Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell's I Corps headquarters arrived at Port Moresby. Rowell assumed command of New Guinea Force on 12 August 1942.[81] Blamey ordered Major General Arthur "Tubby" Allen's veteran Australian 7th Division—which had fought in the Middle East—to embark for New Guinea. The 18th Brigade was ordered to Milne Bay while the 21st and 25th Brigades would go to Port Moresby.[82] As Magic decryption of Japanese communications had confirmed that Japan had no intention of invading Australia, Blamey and MacArthur initially decided to hold the 7th Division in Port Moresby as reserves and only commit Militia battalions to the fighting on the Track.[83] The 21st Brigade—commanded by Brigadier Arnold Potts—was the first to arrive at Port Moresby,[84] and consisted of the 2/14th, 2/16th, and 2/27th Battalions. The 2/14th immediately began moving north along the Track to reinforce Maroubra Force, while the 2/16th followed two days later.[84] The 2/27th Battalion was tasked for the Kokoda Track, but following the Japanese landings at Milne Bay, the 2/27th was held in Port Moresby as the divisional reserve.[85]

Second Battle of Kokoda

On the arrival of the 39th Battalion, Cameron decided to retake Kokoda, a three-hour march from Deniki. This risky attack against unknown enemy forces later found to number 1,000 was carried out using three companies of the 39th Battalion attacking along different tracks. Between 06:30 and 08:00 on 8 August, the three companies left Deniki separately.[86] Only Captain Noel Symington's[87] 'A' Company succeeded in reaching Kokoda and successfully re-took the village, finding it very lightly defended. 'D' Company ran into enemy troops which resulted in heavy fighting continuing throughout the day with the Japanese continually reinforcing their position. As nightfall approached 'D' Company began a fighting withdrawal which lasted two days. 'C' Company was ambushed by a large Japanese force and pinned down. After their commanding officer was killed, the company repeatedly attempted to withdraw under heavy fire during the day but were unable to do so until night fell. Upon reaching Deniki, their pursuers continued the attack on Cameron and his troops for several hours before withdrawing towards Kokoda.[86] At 10:00 on the following day, two Papuan policemen arrived at Deniki to advise Cameron that they had occupied Kokoda the previous day and he was awaiting reinforcements and supplies. Cameron contacted Port Moresby and was told that the reinforcements would not be available until the following day due to poor weather conditions.[86]

Having repulsed 'C' and 'D' Companies, Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto now concentrated his troops against 'A' Company.[86] From late morning on 9 August, the Japanese repeatedly attacked Captain Symington's force at Kokoda and the battles continued into the night when the Japanese were able to infiltrate the Australian perimeter under cover of darkness. Hand-to-hand fighting continued until the next morning. 'A' Company's hopes of being relieved by air faded when the expected aircraft overflew them and returned to base without landing or dropping supplies.[88][89] By late afternoon, the Australians had consumed all of their food and had very little ammunition left. As such, at around 19:00, Symington ordered a fighting withdrawal to the west of the Kokoda plateau and then at first light made for Deniki.[86] Unable to break through the Japanese lines while carrying their wounded they entered the village of Naro, sending a villager to Deniki for help where Warrant Officer Wilkinson volunteered to lead a small patrol of native troops to Naro. Wilkinson reached Naro and led the men of 'A' Company past the Japanese to Isurava, rejoining the rest of the 39th Battalion on 13 August.[90]

Battle of Isurava

Main article: Battle of Isurava

Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, assumed command of the 39th Battalion on 16 August. Advance companies of the 53rd Battalion, having arrived overland, also came under his command pending arrival of the balance of the battalion and headquarters of the 30th Brigade under Porter. [81]

On 26 August,[91] Horii moved the first of his disembarking troops forward, a body of some 2,500 soldiers. The Japanese force made contact with the outer positions of Maroubra Force and began frontal attacks against the dug-in defenders with the aid of a mountain gun and mortars manhandled up the Track. Japanese reconnaissance had revealed a parallel track bypassing Isurava, defended by the Australian 53rd Battalion.[91] The 2/14th Battalion had been dispatched from Myola the previous day with orders to relieve the 39th, and a company reached their position at Isurava in the middle of the afternoon on 26 August, while others deployed to Alola and Templeton's Crossing.[91] Nevertheless, the 39th were forced to stay on as several times the Japanese threatened to break through the perimeter. Potts, who had taken command of Maroubra Force,[92] realising that Horii had launched a major attack, decided to deploy the 2/14th at Isurava, using the 39th to screen their movement, while bringing up the 2/16th to Alola where it would be held in reserve.[91] By the time the 2/14th Battalion had deployed, the Japanese were still able to field a force between 3,000 and 5,000 strong.[93][94]

Papuan men in native dress carry a wounded soldier on a stretcher up a steep track surrounded by dense jungle
Papuan carriers evacuate Australian casualties on 30 August 1942

Japanese tactics were little-changed from the campaign through Malaya—pin the enemy in place with frontal attacks while feeling for the flanks, with a view to cutting off enemy forces from the rear. Horii was on a strict timetable; any delays in finding the Australian flank meant the gradual debilitation of his force from disease and starvation. As a result, Maroubra Force endured four days of violent attacks from aggressive, well-trained and well led Japanese troops.[95]

As dawn broke on 27 August, the Australians defending Isurava were subjected to heavy mortar and mountain gun fire as the Japanese launched a number of probes against the 39th Battalion's lines. As the morning progressed, the probes began to penetrate the 39th's defences, but deployment of the 2/14th Battalion restored the situation and by nightfall the Australian perimeter had been re-established.[91] The situation on the right flank, where the 53rd Battalion was guarding the alternate track, was critical. A Japanese force was sent to open this route, and met with success. Infiltrating the 53rd's perimeter, the Japanese managed to achieve a break-in and rolled up the Australians' positions, killing a number of the battalion's senior officers, including its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Ward. As a result of this loss, communications between the companies broke down rendering co-ordinated action impossible and 53rd gave ground, retreating to the Track junction behind Isurava.[96] Although the Japanese failed to exploit the situation, the way to Alola was open to them and as a result Potts was forced to bring up the 2/16th Battalion to plug the gap.[91]

On 28 August, the fighting continued along the front of the Australian position and on both flanks. The Japanese commander—realising that the Australians had brought up reinforcements—decided to commit the two battalions he had been holding back in reserve.[97] The following day, the Japanese attacked with the equivalent of six battalions; in possession of the ridges that dominated the Australian position from both sides of the valley in which it sat, the Japanese were able to lay down considerable volumes of mortar and machine gun fire in support of their assaults.[97] Unable to respond with similar firepower, the Australian perimeter began to shrink, and it was during this stage of the fighting that Private Bruce Kingsbury of the 2/14th made a unique individual contribution to the campaign and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross as a result. His citation read, in part:

Private Kingsbury, who was one of the few survivors of a platoon which had been overrun ... immediately volunteered to join a different platoon which had been ordered to counterattack. He rushed forward, firing the Bren gun from his hip through terrific machine-gun fire, and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy. Continuing to sweep enemy positions with his fire, and inflicting an extremely high number of casualties upon them, Private Kingsbury was then seen to fall to the ground, shot dead by the bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood.[98]

Eyewitnesses said that Kingsbury's actions had a profound effect on the Japanese, halting their momentum. But as Australian casualties mounted and ammunition ran low, the Japanese came close to making a breakthrough on the alternate track. Horii had now deployed several companies on the flanks and near the rear of the 2/14th and 39th Battalions, threatening the Australian positions with encirclement.[97] Outnumbered, Maroubra Force withdrew towards Nauro and Menari. Potts relieved the exhausted 39th and 53rd Battalions; they were ordered to make their way back to Port Moresby. The 53rd—whose performance during the fighting had come to be seen in less than favourable light—was reduced to being used for reinforcements and work parties.[96] The 39th returned to the battle when the forward troops were under pressure.[99]

Isurava to Brigade Hill

No suitable defensive terrain existed between Isurava and a feature known as Mission Ridge, which was south of Nauro and Myola. As a result, Brigadier Potts and Maroubra Force retreated back through Menari, mounting small delaying actions where possible, reaching Eora Creek on 30 August, Templeton's Crossing on 2 September and then Efogi on 5 September.[65]

Soldiers in short sleeve shirts and shorts, slouch hats and helmets march up a muddy track carrying rifles slung over their shoulders
Members of the 39th Battalion retreating after the battle of Isurava

Retreating soldiers, Papuan porters and wounded immediately flooded the Track, causing it to become a sea of mud in parts. No wounded were left behind—Japanese patrols routinely mutilated and executed any wounded found; sometimes using the corpses as bait to draw Australian soldiers into ambushes—overall 750 wounded were carried to safety. Colonel Kingsley Norris in the 7th Division Medical Services report noted that the difficulty of providing stretchers which each required eight bearers meant those wounded who were able to stagger were treated with "absolute ruthlessness" and not provided with stretchers. In one case, a casualty with a fractured patella with a 2 in (51 mm) gap between the two halves walked for six days and some with worse injuries volunteered to walk to free a stretcher for the more seriously wounded.[100] Notable was the bravery of the Australian field doctors; among them Captain Dr. Allan Edward McGuinness, of the 2/2nd Battalion, was awarded the Military Cross in December 1943[101] for "[c]ourage and unselfish devotion at Saputa and Eora Creek". It was at Saputa on 27 November 1943 that seven Japanese "Zeros" bombed a clearly marked Australian field hospital, killing 25 men, including two doctors.[102]

The withdrawal back to Efogi presented more problems for the Australians. To the east, at Myola, a large dry lake bed was being used as a supply dump. Potts' decision to fall back meant that there was every chance that this important drop zone might be lost.[103] The supply situation had become critical, indeed because food and supplies had been slow to arrive, the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions had been forced to wait several days until enough supplies arrived for them to carry out their orders, time which allowed the Japanese to concentrate their forces. Nevertheless, Allied air drop techniques and assets had been steadily improving throughout the campaign[103] and Allen, under significant pressure from Blamey and MacArthur, asked Potts when offensive actions would be resumed now that air-drops were ensuring a regular, albeit sparse, flow of supplies. Potts in turn requested the 2/27th Battalion as reinforcements. In view of the situation at Milne Bay, MacArthur withheld this force until the situation at Milne Bay was clearer. Allen then ordered Potts to hold Myola as a forward supply base and to gather sufficient supplies for an offensive against the Japanese advance.[103] But Potts was in an indefensible position; threatened with an outflanking manoeuvre through a loop of the Track and with insufficient terrain near Myola suitable for a set-piece defence, he retreated through Myola, destroying the supply base behind him.[104]

Battle of Brigade Hill

Maroubra Force withdrew to the next defensible strong point on the Track, a feature known as Mission Ridge. Following the containment of the Japanese at Milne Bay, Allen finally released the 2/27th Battalion from the divisional reserve at Port Moresby. After advancing along the Track from Port Moresby, the 2/27th finally joined Maroubra Force at Kagi on 4 September where they took over a quantity of automatic weapons from the 39th Battalion which was being withdrawn.[103] Moving onto Mission Ridge, the 2/27th was joined on 6 September by the 2/14th and the 2/16th Battalions,[103] thus allowing Brigadier Potts to finally commit his entire brigade to the battle. Taking up positions on a hilltop straddling the Track, which later became known as "Brigade Hill", Maroubra Force awaited the Japanese advance. Unknown to the Allies, the Japanese managed to land reinforcements on the northern coast and on 8 September, a force of around 1,000 Japanese launched an attack on the Australian positions at Mission Ridge.[105] The attack began with frontal attacks,[106] which fell upon the Australian leading elements, although these were beaten off with stubborn defence.[105] The Japanese then launched a strong flank attack, with a force of around 5,000 men,[107] aimed at cutting off the lead elements from the rest of Maroubra Force. The flank attack cut the Australian force in two, separating the brigade headquarters staff from the three battalions. With his headquarters about to be overrun, Brigadier Potts and the rear elements of Maroubra Force were forced to retreat back along the Track to the village of Menari.[106]

Now surrounded, the 2/14th and 2/16th acted on previously given orders and at mid afternoon, formed a line and advanced, initially at walking pace, towards the Japanese in an attempt to break through and connect with headquarters; 88 men died in the largely unsuccessful action. Meanwhile, the 2/27th—carrying numerous stretcher cases—left the track in an orderly manner attempting to rejoin Australian lines. The Japanese pursued them but a rearguard action by 'B' and 'D' Companies of the 2/27th caused them to break contact.[notes 6] The remnants of the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions managed to re-unite with Brigadier Potts and 21st Brigade headquarters at Menari, but the 2/27th Battalion was unable to reach Menari before the rest of the brigade was again forced to retreat by the advancing Japanese. The 2/27th—along with wounded from the other battalions—were forced to follow paths parallel to the main Track, eventually rejoined the main Australian force at Jawarere,[108] then making their way back to Ioribaiwa, and thence to Imita Ridge. Elements of the 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions accompanying Potts later managed to regroup as a composite battalion for the defence of Imita Ridge,[108] but the 2/27th, feared lost, only managed to rejoin a fortnight later, after the Japanese retreat began, having made a difficult trek over the mountains to Jawarere 15 mi (24 km) east of Ilolo.[106]

The defeat of the 21st Brigade at Brigade Hill finally ended Maroubra Force's defence of the Kokoda Track as a cohesive fighting unit, and was a decisive victory for the Japanese. The defeat was one of many factors leading later to the infamous "running rabbits" incident at base camp at Koitaki. On 8 September, Rowell informed Blamey that he had decided to relieve Potts. Rowell ordered Potts to immediately report to Port Moresby "for consultations", replacing him as Maroubra Force commander with Brigadier Selwyn Porter on 10 September.[108] The series of defeats had a depressing effect back in Australia. On 30 August, MacArthur radioed Washington that unless action was taken, New Guinea Force would be overwhelmed. General George Vasey wrote that "GHQ is like a bloody barometer in a cyclone—up and down every two minutes". MacArthur informed General George Marshall that "the Australians have proven themselves unable to match the enemy in jungle fighting. Aggressive leadership is lacking." MacArthur, concerned about the situation, wanted Blamey to go up to New Guinea and "energise" the situation by assuming personal control.[109]

Blamey had an "appallingly negative public image" with Australian troops commonly referring to him as "that bastard" and sometimes even openly booing and taunting him. Cabinet Minister Jack Beasley commented in Parliament: "Moresby is going to fall. Send Blamey up there and let him fall with it."[110] Prime Minister John Curtin ordered Blamey up to Port Moresby to take personal command of New Guinea Force, which he did on 23 September.[109] Rowell remained in command of I Corps, but saw this as a supersession. Blamey soon concluded that he could not work with Rowell, and relieved him of his command on 28 September, replacing him with Lieutenant General Edmund Herring.[111]

Ioribaiwa and Imita Ridge

Main article: Battle of Ioribaiwa
A soldier kneels beside a pile of artillery shells in a clearing in the jungle, closely inspecting one that he is holding
An Australian soldier inspects Japanese artillery rounds abandoned at Ioribaiwa. These rounds had been carried the length of the track by Japanese soldiers.

As the Australians fell back toward Ioribaiwa, they began bringing up reinforcements from Port Moresby. The Militia 3rd Battalion had set off on 5 September and the following day the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion joined it, while the 2/6th Independent Company—under the command of Major Harry Harcourt—was dispatched to Laloki and began patrolling along the Goldie River toward Ioribaiwa.[108] In addition to this, the Honner Force—consisting of militiamen from the 39th Battalion and reinforcements from the 2/6th Independent Company—was formed under the command of Ralph Honner with orders to attack Japanese supply lines between Nauro and Menari.[108]

On 11 September, the first reinforcements from Port Moresby arrived and took up position on Ioribaiwa Ridge to the right of composite battalion, while the 2/6th Independent Company began patrolling operations on the left. For the next two days, the Japanese heavily shelled and mortared the Australians, while infantry probed for weak spots in the position against which an assault could be launched.[112] Before the assault could come, on the night of 13/14 September, the 25th Brigade—consisting of the 2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd Battalions—arrived to relieve the remnants of the 21st Brigade. Fresh from training in Australia and under the command of Brigadier Ken Eather,[113] they took up positions at Ioribaiwa. Shortly afterward, as the Japanese launched their attack, Eather made the decision to withdraw to what he felt was a more defensible position at Imita Ridge, 40 km (25 mi) from Port Moresby.[110] As the 25th Brigade, along with the 3rd and 2/1st Pioneer Battalions dug-in, the remnants of the 21st Brigade moved back and by 20 September the Australians had established a strong position on the ridge.[114] The following day, they were joined by a battery of 25 pounders from the 14th Field Regiment, which had been brought up the Track,[115] and they began patrolling operations in order to hold off the Japanese while they prepared to launch their own counter-offensive.[116]

Upon reaching Ioribaiwa, the lead Japanese elements began to celebrate—from their vantage point on the hills around Ioribaiwa, the Japanese soldiers could see the lights of Port Moresby and the Coral Sea beyond.[117] They made no concerted attempt to advance on Eather's position at Imita Ridge.[116] Instead, Horii ordered his troops to dig in on the ridge line at Ioribaiwa. All reinforcements were being diverted to Guadalcanal[117] and his long supply line had broken down. The meagre supplies captured from the Australians were insufficient for a new offensive. The foodstuffs taken from the former Australian supply dump at Myola had been contaminated by the Australians,[118] and Horii believed that his troops were so hungry and physically weak that they would barely be able to defend the positions they held already, let alone continue the advance.[116]

Second phase – Australian counter-offensive

A map with Japanese and English characters on it, depicting the withdrawal of Japanese forces north over the Owen Stanley Range along the Kokoda Track. The route of the Japanese withdrawal is shown in black dotted arrows, while the advance of the Australian forces that followed them up is shown in red
The Japanese withdrawal along the Kokoda Track

In early October, as it became clear that the Japanese were withdrawing north towards the coast, the Australians began operations to pursue them. With two Australian brigades committed to this—the 25th and the newly arrived 16th, which had been detached from the 6th Division—the 7th Division's commander—Major General "Tubby" Allen—took operational command on the Kokoda Track.[119] Among the Allied high command there was a concern about the lack of forward momentum and so on 20 October Allen ordered the 16th Brigade—made up of the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions, with the Militia 3rd Battalion in reserve—under the command of Brigadier John Lloyd to take over responsibility for the forward area from the 25th Brigade in an attempt to reinvigorate the advance.[120]

The 25th remained in the area and throughout October each brigade in turn kept contact with the withdrawing Japanese who fought delaying actions as determined as those of the Australians. The Japanese established a number of heavily defended positions, notably at Templeton's Crossing and Eora Creek which slowed the Australians' advance and resulted in heavy casualties. Unsatisfied with the speed of his advance, Lieutenant General Edmund Herring relieved Allen of command on 28 October, and replaced him with Major General George Vasey, previously of the 6th Division. On 2 November, Kokoda was re-taken without opposition by a patrol from the 25th Brigade.[121][122] By 13 November, after fighting around Oivi and Gorari, the 16th and 25th Brigades crossed the Kumusi River at Wairopi,[123] where the Japanese had abandoned most of their artillery as well as a large amount of small arms.[124] After this, the Australians were able to link up with American forces on 16 November.[125]


Strengths and casualties

A total of 13,500 Japanese were ultimately landed in Papua for the fighting during the campaign.[78] Of these, about 6,000 or two regiments, were directly involved in the "forward areas" along the Track.[126][127] Against this, the Allies assembled approximately 30,000 troops in Port Moresby, although at any one time no more than one infantry brigade, or approximately 3,500 troops, were involved in the fighting for most of the campaign.[128]

Casualties amongst the Australians between 22 July and 16 November 1942 were 39 officers and 586 men killed and a further 64 officers and 991 men wounded, for a total of 625 killed and 1,055 wounded. Non-battle, or sickness, casualties are not accurately recorded but are stated to have been about two to three times the battle casualty figure.[125][129] The exact number of Japanese casualties is not known. It is believed that of the 6,000 troops, or five infantry battalions, that were committed to the fighting, up to 75% became casualties, being either killed, wounded or becoming ill.[129] Of the 13,500 that began the campaign, following the withdrawal only about 5,000 reached Buna in late November 1942.[4]

Flanking move by US 32nd Division

The US 32nd Division had arrived in Australia in May.[130] General Douglas MacArthur issued orders for a force composed of the divisional headquarters and two regimental combat teams formed around the 126th and 128th infantry regiments to deployed to Port Moresby, between 15 and 28 September 1942. On 11 September, MacArthur outlined plans for the 126th Infantry Regiment to conduct a wide flanking move to the east in order to engage the Japanese rear near Wairopi. In accordance with these plans, the 2nd Battalion 126th Regiment, with supporting elements attached, was to traverse the track from Kapa Kapa to Jaure. From Jaure, at the headwaters of the Kumusi River, the force was to advance toward Wairopi. The track from Kapa Kapa to Jaure was 85 miles (137 km) long.[131]

The 32nd had established a position at Kalikodobu, nicknamed "Kalamazoo" by the GIs, a short distance along the track. From here, the main body of the 2nd Battalion departed on 14 October 1942. The battalion had assembled at Jaure by 28th October. The Americans had been utterly unprepared for the extremely harsh conditions they faced.[132]

The planned envelopment of the Japanese forces was over-taken by both the slow rate of the American advance and by the rapid withdrawal of the Japanese forces. The balance of the 32nd Division was flown to advance airfields that were being developed as the 2/126th was advancing along the Kapa Kapa Track. The 128th Regiment was landed at the most forward of these, located at Wanigella. From there, troops moved overland toward Buna or were ferried part of the way in coastal vessels, to meetup with Australian forces advancing on the Japanese beachheads.[133]

A similar proposal for attacking the Japanese rear near Wairopi was made by Brigadier Potts, following withdrawal of the 21st Brigade after Ioribaiwa. Chaforce, raised from battalions of the 21st Brigade (each contributing a company) was to be assigned the task of penetrating from Myola into the Kumusi River valley. With initial approval to advance to Myola, the operation was subsequently cancelled sometime shortly after 18 October 1942.[134]

The "running rabbits" incident

On 22 October, after the relief of the 21st Brigade by the 25th Brigade, Blamey visited the remnants of Maroubra Force at Koitaki camp, near Port Moresby. While Rowell had allowed Potts to return to his brigade, Herring was unfamiliar with Potts and preferred to work with officers he knew. Blamey relieved Potts of his command, replacing him with Brigadier Ivan Dougherty, an officer he knew from when Blamey commanded the Northern Territory Force. Blamey cited Potts' failure to hold back the Japanese, despite commanding "superior forces" and, despite explicit orders to the contrary, Potts' failure to launch an offensive to re-take Kokoda. Blamey explained that Prime Minister John Curtin had told him to say that failures like Kokoda would not be tolerated.[135]

Shortly after relieving Potts, Blamey addressed the men of the 21st Brigade on a parade ground. The men of the Maroubra Force expected congratulations for their efforts in holding back the Japanese. Instead of praising them, Blamey told the brigade that they had been "beaten" by inferior forces, and that "no soldier should be afraid to die". "Remember," Blamey was reported as saying, "it's the rabbit who runs who gets shot, not the man holding the gun."[135] There was a wave of murmurs and restlessness among the soldiers. Officers and senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) managed to quiet the soldiers and many later said that Blamey was lucky to escape with his life. Later that day, during a march-past parade, many disobeyed the "eyes right" order.[135] In a later letter to his wife, an enraged Brigadier Potts swore to "fry his [Blamey's] soul in the afterlife" over this incident. According to witnesses, when Blamey subsequently visited Australian wounded in the camp hospital, inmates nibbled lettuce, while wrinkling their noses and whispering "run, rabbit, run" (the chorus of a popular song during the war).[135] Dougherty commanded the 21st Brigade[136] until the end of the war, while Potts went to command the 23rd Brigade.[137]

Japanese war crimes

Main article: Japanese war crimes

As the Japanese withdrew, it was found that many of the enemy had died of malnutrition with evidence that some Japanese had been reduced to eating wood, grass, roots and other inedible material.[138] Australian soldiers were also confronted with evidence of cannibalism. Dead and wounded Australian and Japanese soldiers who had been left behind in the Australian retreat from Templeton's Crossing were stripped of flesh.[139] In 1987, a Japanese documentary Yuki Yuki te Shingun contained interviews with Japanese soldiers who confessed to cannibalism in New Guinea.[140] Soldiers testified that the Japanese had not run short of rations. After the Japanese retreat, they said they uncovered rice dumps and significant amounts of tinned food. During the Tokyo War Crimes trial after the war, there was not enough evidence to bring formal charges with regards to the claims of cannibalism. Some Japanese soldiers were tried and convicted in Australian-run military courts held in New Guinea.[141][142]

The Japanese were also responsible for the execution of two female missionaries, May Hayman and Mavis Parkinson, during the campaign.[143] Shortly after the Japanese landing at Buna on 21 July 1942, the two women fled the mission with a priest. During their escape, they were aided by locals and a small group of Australian soldiers for a number of months, but after the other members of their party were killed in an ambush in August they were handed in to the Japanese. Upon capture they were interrogated for information by members of the Kempeitai, before being bayoneted and buried in a shallow grave. In February 1943, following the conclusion of the campaign, the grave was discovered, the two bodies recovered and moved to Sangara mission.[144]

Subsequent events

The Japanese commander—Horii—disappeared, presumed drowned, while withdrawing with his troops across the Kumusi River, toward the beachheads. When the fierce current of the river swept away a horse on which he was riding, Horii opted to float down the Kumusi River in a canoe with other senior officers, in order to quickly get back to Buna and organise the beachhead defences. The canoe was floated down to the river mouth, but Horii and his staff were swept out to sea in a freak squall. None were ever seen again.[145] Meanwhile, several grisly discoveries by advancing Australian troops starkly illustrated the logistical nightmare of the Track—Japanese corpses were often found with no sign of external trauma, having died from malnutrition, typhoid and dysentery, and several corpses of Australian soldiers were found to have had body parts removed, a result of Japanese soldiers engaging in cannibalism.[notes 7][146]

After the strategic debate between the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy had been settled in late February with a decision to isolate rather than invade Australia, the Army continued to maintain its view that invading Australia was impractical, but agreed to extend Japan's strategic perimeter and cut Australia off from the US by invading Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia in the so-called Operation FS.[147] As such the Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea by advancing along the Kokoda Track and landing at Milne Bay between July and September 1942 had therefore aimed to capture the town to complete Japan's defensive perimeter in the region. Once secured, Port Moresby was to have been used as a base from which Japanese aircraft could dominate the Torres Strait and Coral Sea, and not to support an invasion of Australia.[148] The FS Operation was not implemented due to Japan's defeats in the Battle of the Coral Sea and Battle of Midway, and was cancelled on 11 July 1942.[149] While these battles ended the threat to Australia, the Australian government continued to warn that an invasion was possible until mid-1943.[9]

Meanwhile, the Japanese withdrew within their formidable defences around the Buna–Gona beachheads, reinforced by fresh units from Rabaul. A joint Australian–United States Army operation was launched to crush the Japanese beachheads, in what later became known as the Battle of Buna–Gona. Following the conclusion of the action at Buna and Gona, about 30 remaining members of the 39th Battalion were airlifted out of the front line and in March 1943 they were withdrawn back to Australia where it was disbanded in July 1943.[99] Allied operations against Japanese forces in New Guinea, including Operation Cartwheel and the Salamaua-Lae campaign, continued into 1945.[150]


For more details on this topic, see Kokoda Track § Nomenclature.

There is some debate as to whether the correct name for the route over the range is the "Kokoda Track" or "Kokoda Trail". The battle honour awarded for the campaign, as determined by the Battlefields Nomenclature Committee, is "Kokoda Trail". In large, for this reason, the Australian War Memorial has adopted "Trail".[17]

Despite the historical use of "Trail", "Track" gained dominance in the 1990s, with the Australian Macquarie Dictionary stating that while both versions were in use, Kokoda Track "appears to be the more popular of the two".[151][notes 8]

Significance of the campaign

While the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I was Australia's first military test as a new nation, the fighting during the Kokoda campaign represents the first time in the nation's history that its security was directly threatened. Although it has since become accepted that an invasion of Australia was not possible, or even planned by the Japanese, at the time there was a very real belief within Australia that this was possible and as such the Kokoda campaign has come to be viewed by some as the battle that "saved Australia".[153] As a result, within the collective Australian psyche, the campaign and particularly the role of the 39th Battalion, has become a key part of modern notions of the Anzac legend,[154] indeed, the Battle of Isurava has been described as "Australia's Thermopylae".[155]

Nevertheless, the Allied campaign was hampered by the poor intelligence available, which included antiquated maps, unfamiliarity with the terrain, and limited aerial photography. Senior military commanders including MacArthur and Blamey were unaware of the extraordinarily difficult terrain and the extreme conditions in which the battles would be fought and orders given to the commanders were sometimes unrealistic given the conditions on the ground.[156] In the end though, the strategy used against the Japanese in Papua—widely criticised at the time—led to an eventual, though costly, victory. The campaign also served to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the individual soldiers and the lower level commanders.[125] The American and Australian armies would take steps to improve individual and unit training and medical and logistic infrastructure would also be greatly improved, with an increased focus upon airpower to solve the supply problem.[125][157]

See also



  1. ^ The Kokoda Track Commemorative web site[24] and James[25] give a cross-section of the track.
  2. ^ Logistics was a major problem during the Kokoda campaign. Free dropping consisted of a plane flying as low and slow as possible to the ground at heights of often less than 20 feet (6.1 m) to reduce breakages. Firearms, ammunition and food were wrapped in blankets before dropping. Only two transport aircraft were available at any one time for the track itself. Native bearers were also used to transport food, with each able to carry enough food for one man for 13 days, a bearer would consume most of this load in transit leaving an average of five days rations per bearer reaching the troops and the bearer then required to live off the land for his return.
  3. ^ Japanese wartime documents translated in 2010 revealed that Templeton had been wounded and captured alive. During interrogation, he "revealed" to the Japanese OIC that 80,000 Australian troops had landed at Port Moresby and would be advancing up the track. In fact, there were less than 1,000 troops available to defend Port Moresby and the documents indicate that Templeton's claim may have been responsible for the unexplained slowing down of the early Japanese advance. Researchers located the Japanese soldier who had buried Templeton who explained that Templeton was killed after he laughed at the OIC who then stabbed him through the stomach with a sword. Now aged in his 90s, the soldier described the place of burial and later personally led researchers to the spot described.
  4. ^ There is a discrepancy amongst the sources about the reasons behind why the American pilots did not land. Keogh states that they were ordered to return to base by Morris, who was unable to determine whether the Australians still held Kokoda, see Keogh 1965, p. 176. Brune, however, states that the pilots were not ordered to return to Port Moresby, but in fact refused to land due to fears that the Japanese would attack before they could take off again. According to eyewitnesses on one of the planes, the pilot repeatedly refused Lieutenant Lovell's demand that they land and that they could clearly see Australians clearing barricades from the airfield, indicating that the 39th Battalion still held the airfield, see Brune 2003, pp. 102–103.
  5. ^ The troops were woefully short of supplies. None had waterproof ground sheets and the 533 troops had only 70 blankets between them. Few had a change a clothes or shoes and their uniforms were khaki desert camouflage unsuitable for the jungle and the extreme rain and cold of the track. The minimum weight carried by each man was 18 kilograms (40 lb) plus their rifles. With other battalion equipment passed around in rotation, the burden for each man could reach as much as 27 kilograms (60 lb).
  6. ^ "That was a tremendous operation, a wonderful action by B Company. They had to buy time...and the way they did it they counter-attacked against the Japs. The Japs were so shocked they broke contact...They had the impetus and they were hot on our heels. We were withdrawing with our wounded...And the 'B' Company was given this job to stop them. Instead of just standing there and firing at them they counter-attacked and that must have shocked them considerably." — Captain Harry Katekar, adjutant 2/27th Battalion, see Brune 2003, pp. 208–209.
  7. ^ In September 1942 Japanese daily rations had consisted of 800 grams of rice and tinned meat, which by December had fallen to 50 grams. Happell 2008, p. 78. In the book The Bone Man of Kokoda, Japanese survivor Kokichi Nishimura recounts weighing 73 kg (161 lb) at the beginning of the campaign but only 28 kg (62 lb) by the time he was evacuated in June 1943.
  8. ^ In his 2009 study, James reviews the issue in detail and concludes no definitive historical basis for preferring one over the other.[152]


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  23. ^ Pérusse 1993, p. 98.
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  28. ^ Walker 1956, pp. 12, 70–71 & 108–124.
  29. ^ Anderson 2014, pp. 125–126.
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  110. ^ a b Thompson 2008, p. 354.
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  117. ^ a b Thompson 2008, p. 356.
  118. ^ Harries 1991, p. 404.
  119. ^ Thompson 2008, p. 358.
  120. ^ Keogh 1965, p. 236.
  121. ^ Keogh 1965, p. 239.
  122. ^ Thompson 2008, p. 359.
  123. ^ Keogh 1965, p. 240.
  124. ^ Williams 2012, pp. 216–217.
  125. ^ a b c d McCarthy 1959, p. 335.
  126. ^ McCarthy 1959, pp. 234 and 334.
  127. ^ Johnston 2007, p. 23.
  128. ^ McCarthy 1959, p. 334.
  129. ^ a b Coulthard-Clark 1998, p. 223.
  130. ^ Milner 1957, p. 25.
  131. ^ Milner, 1957, p. 92–94
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  137. ^ "Brigadier Arnold William Potts". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 30 January 2010. 
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  141. ^ "Trial of Japanese Lieutenant Tazaki". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 21 April 2009. 
  142. ^ "Discovery of cannibalism in Japanese hide-out". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 21 April 2009. 
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  145. ^ "Human Face of War: Death of Horii". Australia–Japan Research Project. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 1 May 2009. 
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  147. ^ Frei 1991, p. 167.
  148. ^ Stanley 2008, pp. 182–185.
  149. ^ Frei 1991, pp. 171–173.
  150. ^ Keogh 1965, pp. 393–428.
  151. ^ Macquarie Dictionary (4 ed.). 2005. p. 791. 
  152. ^ James 2009, pp. 55–61.
  153. ^ Stanley 2008, p. 186.
  154. ^ Stanley 2008, pp. 191–192.
  155. ^ Stephens, Tony (2 August 2002). "Why Milne Bay is part of Kokoda's Legend". The Age. Melbourne. Retrieved 30 January 2010. 
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  157. ^ Milner 1957, pp. 376.


  • Anderson, Nicholas (2014). To Kokoda. Australian Army Campaigns Series – 14. Sydney, New South Wales: Big Sky Publishing. ISBN 978-1-922132-95-6. 
  • Blakeley, Herbert (1957). The 32nd Infantry Division in World War II. Maison, Wisconsin: Thirty-Second Infantry Division History Commission. OCLC 3465460. 
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  • Bullard, Steven (translator) (2007). Japanese Army Operations in the South Pacific Area: New Britain and Papua Campaigns, 1942–43. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. ISBN 978-0-9751904-8-7. 
  • Collie, Craig; Marutani, Hajime (2009). The Path of Infinite Sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-74175-839-9. 
  • Coulthard-Clark, Chris (1998). The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86448-611-2. 
  • Craven, Wesley; Cate, James (1948). Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 1: Plans and Early Operations—January 1938 to August 1942. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 704158. 
  • Day, David (1999). John Curtin. A Life. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-7322-6413-8. 
  • Dennis, Peter; Grey, Jeffrey; Morris, Ewan; Prior, Robin; Bou, Jean (2008). The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (Second ed.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-551784-2. 
  • Department of the Army (1994) [1966]. Japanese Operations in the Southwest Pacific Area, Volume II – Part II. Reports of General MacArthur. United States Army Center of Military History. 
  • Frei, Henry P. (1991). Japan's Southward Advance and Australia. From the Sixteenth Century to World War II. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84392-1. 
  • Grey, Jeffrey (1999). A Military History of Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-64483-6. 
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  • Harries, Meirion; Harries, Susie (1991). Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-679-75303-6. 
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  • Hawthorne, Stuart (2003). The Kokoda Trail. Queensland: Central Queensland University Press. ISBN 1-876780-30-4. 
  • Horner, David (1978). Crisis of Command. Australian Generalship and the Japanese Threat, 1941–1943. Canberra: Australian National University Press. ISBN 0-7081-1345-1. 
  • Horner, David (May 1993). "Defending Australia in 1942". The Pacific War 1942. War and Society. Canberra: Department of History, Australian Defence Force Academy. ISSN 0729-2473. 
  • Horner, David (1998). Blamey: The Commander-in-Chief. St Leonards, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-86448-734-3. 
  • James, Karl (2009). ""The Track": A Historical Desktop Study of the Kokoda Track" (PDF). Commonwealth Department of the Environment. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  • Jowett, Phillip; Andrew, Stephen (2002). The Japanese Army 1931–45 (2): 1942–45. Botley, Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-354-5. 
  • Keogh, E.G (1965). South West Pacific 1941–45. Melbourne: Grayflower Publications. OCLC 7185705. 
  • Kienzle, Robyn (2011). The Architect of Kokoda. Sydney: Hachette. ISBN 9780733627637. OCLC 710810025. 
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Further reading

  • Campbell, James (2007). The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea–The Forgotten War of the South Pacific. New York: Crown. ISBN 0-307-33596-8. 
  • Ham, Paul (2005). Kokoda. Pymble: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0-7322-8232-2. 
  • Johnston, Mark (2005). The Silent 7th: An Illustrated History of the 7th Australian Division 1940–46. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-74114-191-5. 
  • Rottman, Gordon (2005). Japanese Army in World War II: Conquest of the Pacific 1941–42. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 1-84176-789-1. 
  • White, Osmar (1992) [1945]. Green Armour. Australian War Classics. Ringwood: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-014706-3. 
  • "On the beaten track". The Sydney Morning Herald. 1 July 2004. 

External links

  • The Kokoda Track (Department of Veterans' Affairs website)
  • The Kokoda Track Foundation
  • The Kokoda Memorial Foundation

Coordinates: 8°52′39.95″S 147°44′14.99″E / 8.8777639°S 147.7374972°E / -8.8777639; 147.7374972

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