So, quietly, the Australians re-entered Kokoda. Apart from its airfield its significance lay only in its name which would identify in history the evil track which passed across the Papuan mountains from the sea to the sea. (Dudley McCarthy, south-west pacific area - first year Kokoda to Wau)
In late August, while the Japanese were withdrawing from Milne Bay, the Australians on the Kokoda Trail were forced to withdraw from Isurava. Under fierce attack from Japanese forces the Australians retreated to Templeton’s Crossing. By this time the appalling conditions and lack of supplies had caused health problems among the Australian troops. Apart from battle wounds and difficulties with adequate medical treatment, soldiers were sick with dysentery, malaria and weakness from insufficient food. The 39th Australian Infantry Battalion had been reduced greatly in strength by death and other casualties. Even those still on their feet were exhausted and under-nourished.
From his GHQ in Brisbane MacArthur still did not comprehend that his own Allied troops were greatly outnumbered by the Japanese troops on the Kokoda Trail or the extreme privations of the defenders. This was a continuing problem in the Papuan Campaign. The climatic and logistical conditions in Papua made the prompt executive of GHQ orders impossible. MacArthur was under the impression that there were fewer Japanese on the Trail than Australians. In reality there were only about 400 Australians facing 5000 Japanese! He regarded the continued retreats as evidence that the Australians were inefficient jungle fighters. When asked for more supply of planes he refused.
Because of the bad communications between GHQ and the front line, some of the best commanders were relieved of their duties. Major-General Clowes, commanding Milne Force at the front, Lieut-General Rowell, as GOC Australian Corps, and Major-General ‘Tubby’ Allen, GOC 7th Australian Division were unfairly relieved of their commands, ironically, on the very eve of success.
On the Kokoda Trail the Australians had to rely on indifferent supply lines. Most supplies were carried by truck to Ower’s Corner at the beginning of the Trail. From here on they had to be carried by carriers on foot and mules. Papuan carriers played a vital role in the movement of supplies on the Kokoda Trail. From Ubiri the track was too steep for pack animals and the heavy loads were carried by local people. By this time too, the wounded were being carried down the track. The other method was to drop supplies by Hudson or Douglas aircraft at Myola, a relatively flat area near Templeton’s Crossing. this was often unsuccessful as the flying conditions were difficult and pilots were inexperienced in the techniques of this type of flying. A large percentage of the dropped supplies were lost in the jungle or damaged in the drop. These problems were made worse when many of the supply planes at Port Moresby were destroyed in an air-raid.
Papuan carriers, guides and soldiers were regarded by Australian troops with great respect and affection. Indeed, without them the troops would not have been able to see the campaign to its successful resolution. They became sentimentally known as ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ from a soldier’s verse published in the popular press, “May the mothers of Australia when they offer up a prayer, mention these impromptu angels with their fuzzy wuzzy hair”. Some Papuans also helped the Japanese and some were tried and executed by the Australians as collaborators. To the Papuans, however, both the Australians and the Japanese could have been perceived as invaders who disrupted village life and made excessive demands on the local people. As it was, the Australian Government failed to compensate adequately the people who gave the soldiers such invaluable service.
The Australian retreat continued, first to Efogi, losing the Myola supply point, then to Menari and Nauro. After a fierce battle at Ioribaiwa the exhausted Australians had to withdraw to Imita Ridge, only 50 kilometres from Port Moresby.
By the end of September it became clear that the Japanese would not take the battle to Port Moresby. From a tactical point of view the Australians were now closer to their supply lines. the Japanese, however, were far from theirs. Now, like the Australians, they were exhausted and starving. At the end of September it was the turn of the Australians to pursue the Japanese back over the Owen Stanleys.
Nevertheless the fighting was far from over. The Japanese had dug in at Templeton’s Crossing and kept up the fighting for eight days before retreating. Again MacArthur complained about the slowness of the pursuit of the Japanese across the mountains. Blamey was also ordering inappropriate action. General Blamey’s position, between the Australian Prime Minister and MacArthur, was very difficult. Major H.D. Steward observed that there was “... no doubt that MacArthur was breathing down the neck of the Australian Commander-in-Chief” and that “... It was highly likely that ... John Curtin was also pressing MacArthur’s views and uncertainties (on Blamey)”. After further fierce fighting with heavy losses on both sides, the Australians recaptured Kokoda, finding it abandoned.
Total casualties of Australian soldiers on the Kokoda Trail from July to November 1942, excluding the Milne Bay engagement, numbered 1,680. Of these, 625 were killed.
The recapture of Kokoda on 2 November was not the end of the capaign to expel the Japanese invaders from Papua. Some of the most firece fighting came around the isolated beachheads of Buna, Sanananda and Gona. Here exhausted but desperate Japanese soldiers dug in and resisted repeated attacks in horrific conditions.
While Australian forces were fighting in Papua, United States forces had, on 7 August, landed on Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands. This campaign exerted great pressure on American resources as it was six months before the conflict was resolved in the Allies’ favour. The Japanese finally withdrew by 6 February 1943.
Blamey and MacArthur planned that the Australians should mount a rapid offensive against Gona in mid-November. This proved a more protracted operation than MacArthur had foreseen. The Japanese bunkers were well defended and the extremely hot conditions on the swampy coastal plain amid shoulder-high, razor-sharp kunai grass, gave the Australians a new challenge in fighting difficult terrain as well as the enemy. It was not until 9 December that the leader of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion, Lieut-Colonel R. Honner, was able to send the grimly humorous and pithy message, “Gona’s gone!”.
American troops had in the meantime arrived for what was also to be a long struggle against Buna. Initially the troops of the United States 32nd Division, 126th and 128th Regiments, made little headway at Buna. Partly because of their inexperience and unreadiness for the type of fighting required, the Americans suffered heavy casualties. Matters improved with the appointment in late November of a more competent American commander, Lieut-General R.L. Eichelberger. It was not, however, until the Australian Brigadier George Wootten (later Major-General Wootten) took direct command of the Americans on 17 December that the battle for Buna began to go well for the Allies. Wootten brought with him the Australian 2/9th, 2/10th and 2/12th Infantry Battalions. Buna was recaptured on 2 January 1943, and organised resistance from the Japanese ended on 23 January 1943. Most had withdrawn from Papua by the end of January. It is estimated that the Japanese suffered losses of more than 7,000 killed during the Papuan campaign.
After Papua Australians remained under Japanese fire in the mandated Territory of New Guinea until the end of the war.
Major General Gordon Maitland AO OBE RFD ED (Ret'd) was aged just 17 years of age when he enlisted in the 2nd AIF during the Second World War, as an enlisted man he fought on the Kokoda Track. After the war he continued to serve and rose through the ranks earning the OBE as a battalion commander and the AO as the commander of the 2nd Division. When his army career ended he was Chief of Reserves at Army Headquarters and a member of the Chief of Army’s Advisory Council. His civil life was also distinguished; CEO of The Royal Agricultural Society; member of NSW Government Committees; Chief Manager of the Commonwealth Bank.
For the last 30 odd years he has devoted his life to commemorative and community activities, particularly assisting veterans and their organisations a number of which he has led. He has also had a lifelong dedication to military history and has had 6 books published.
Gordon Maitland has been a long time champion and supporter of the Battle for Australia Association and although he cannot now attend our events due to health reasons, we still keep contact with him and remember his great contribution to our nation. Thus we are so pleased he has allowed us to publish this poem on our website. His poem "Kokoda Pilgrimage" is the story of a Kokoda veteran who returned to Papua New Guinea and visited the grave (at Bomana) of a mate killed in that campaign.