Nov 29

The Spirit and the Fortitude of the 39th Battalion

Thursday, November 29, 2018 12:01 AM

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Members of the 39th Battalion 6 September 1942 (Australian War Memorial)

Members of the 39th Battalion 6 September 1942 (Australian War Memorial)

In his war commentary, Bellum Gallicum, Julius Caesar wrote, “In war great events are the results of small causes.” History is replete with examples of this dictum; stirring sagas of courage under fire; gallant stands by a handful of men against overwhelming odds; small battles that disproportionally influenced the outcome of major wars; epic chronicles that inspire us to this day. This article will address the lesser known but equally deserving Battle of the Kokoda Trail in 1942 which saved Australia and profoundly influenced the War in the Pacific.

In the spring of 1942 Allied prospects were grim. Rommel was on the offensive in North Africa. The Wehrmacht survived the debacle at Moscow, blunted the Russian winter counter attack and would shortly launch campaigns in the Balkans and the Caucasus. The Japanese blitzkrieg continued unabated in Burma, China, the Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China, Malaya and the Philippines. With only 100,000 hastily mustered, poorly trained, ill-equipped and inadequately supplied troops to defend the entire Pacific coast a possible Japanese invasion of the U.S. was not as farfetched then as they appear now.

If America was unready, then Australia was even less prepared. Her best units were fighting with the British 8th Army or languishing in Japanese POW camps after the fall of Singapore. Protection by the Royal Navy sank with HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. With the remainder of the fleet fighting for England’s survival in the Atlantic no additional ships could be spared for the Pacific.

During World War II airfields drove strategic decisions in the Pacific. Land based air power projected sea control/sea denial capabilities out 300 miles or more. If Japanese Imperial Forces captured the airstrips around Port Moresby, New Guinea isolation of Australia was probable; invasion of Queensland quite possible. In either case damage to the Allied cause might be irrevocable. The naval battle of Coral Sea (3 – 8 May) ended the sea borne threat to Port Moresby. Well aware of New Guinea’s strategic significance, on 21 July 1942 the Japanese countered by landing 11,000 troops at Buna and Gona on New Guinea’s northern coast. With 6000 troops Major General Tomitaro Horii immediately pushed inland along the Kokoda Trail toward Port Moresby 130 miles south. It was now a race against time for both the Australians and the Japanese.

The world’s second largest island, New Guinea is geologically young with volcanic peaks reaching 16,000 feet. The Owen Stanley Range divides the island North and South. Numerous streams and rivers further split the island East and West. Located just eleven degrees below the equator, constantly inundated with heavy rainfall, covered with dense vegetation, most of New Guinea is a hot, humid, equatorial jungle. To call New Guinea inhospitable is an egregious understatement. It is a primordial world, like something penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Jules Verne. Not even the discovery of gold in the 1930’s could tame New Guinea.

Australian 30th Brigade officers at Port Morseby (Australian War Memorial)

Australian 30th Brigade officers at Port Morseby (Australian War Memorial)

To reach their objective the Japanese first had to traverse the formidable Owen Stanley Range via the Kokoda Trail. A dangerous, narrow track hacked out of the jungle and carved out of the mountains, it crosses the Owen Stanley Range at 7000 feet via a series of twisting switchbacks and rough-hewn steps cut into steep slopes. Prior to the war it was considered passable only by natives and provincial officers. The optimistic figure of 130 air miles from Gona to Port Moresby held a far different reality on the ground where exhausted soldiers struggled first through dense jungle followed by a backbreaking climb.

To counter the Japanese threat Australia rushed the AMF 39th Battalion, up the Kokoda Trail. Clad in Khaki uniforms appropriate for desert conditions but completely unsuited for jungle warfare, shod in leather boots which soon rotted away, equipped with World War I vintage Enfield rifles the Aussies were supported by nothing heavier than light mortars and Bren and Lewis machine guns. Further the 39th had just completed basic training, had no combat and certainly no jungle experience.

In contrast Major General Horii’s command, designated the South Seas Detachment (Nankai Shitai), was comprised of elite troops, veterans of earlier campaigns. Clothed in green camouflage uniforms, shod in functional jungle boots they carried little food (hoping to live off the land and captured supplies) but large quantities of ammunition. They also carried heavy mortars, heavy machine guns and even mountain artillery for support.

For the Japanese success depended upon speed. They must cross the Owen Stanley Range capturing Port Moresby before Allied reinforcements arrived in substantial numbers. Foregoing provisions for mobility Horii counted on Yamato Damashii (Japanese Spirit) and overwhelming firepower to carry the day. Pushing forward relentlessly, scouts sprinted ahead of the main body sacrificing their lives to flush out and target enemy positions.

For their part the 39th pushed across the Kokoda Trail first halting the Japanese at Wasida 23 – 27 July. Outnumbered and outgunned for sixty days the Aussies conducted a heroic fighting withdrawal, turning to face their determined opponents at Kokoda (28 July), Deniki (29 July – 11 August), Seregina (2 – 5 September), Efogi (8 September), and Menari (16 September). The final confrontation took place at Ioribaiwa 17 – 26 September. At that point the depleted South Seas Detachment held positions within thirty miles of Port Moresby. At night its lights beckoned the weary Japanese. Scourged with malaria, racked with dysentery, weakened by hunger the Japanese could advance no further. On 23 September, two months after the Japanese landings at Buna and Gona, the 7th Australian Division counterattacked. Now it was the Japanese who conducted a bitter fighting withdrawal over the Owen Stanley Range. By November the remnants of Horii’s force were entrenched in the Buna – Gona area. Reinforced by the American 32nd Division Gona fell to Allied forces on 9 December. Buna finally capitulated in January 1943.

The tens of 2/4th Field Ambulance along the Kokoda Trail 15 October 1942 (Australian War Memorial)

The tens of 2/4th Field Ambulance along the Kokoda Trail 15 October 1942 (Australian War Memorial)

Fighting in New Guinea was especially gruesome. With so much at stake, rugged terrain, foul climate, tenuous supply lines and the desperation of both combatants magnified the always-brutal nature of close quarters combat. Provisions were limited to what the soldiers carried and what could be packed in. Ammunition got top priority, food second, hospital supplies third. Consequently medicine was always in short supply, often non-existent. Lacking any other medical care Jim Moir and many other soldiers allowed blowflies to lay eggs in their wounds. The resultant maggots ate their rotten flesh keeping the wound clean and preventing gangrene.

Out of necessity stretcher-bearers were limited to only the most severely wounded. When Japanese machinegun fire shattered his lower leg medics fabricated a splint out of banana leaves. Refusing a litter, Charles Metson wrapped his hands and knees in rags and crawled down the trail he had so laboriously climbed just days before. Such was the spirit and the fortitude of the 39th Battalion.

If Midway was the turning point for the United States, then New Guinea was the defining moment for Australia. Although comparatively few troops were engaged their spirit was unmatched and the battle of the Kokoda Trail greatly influenced the outcome of the Pacific War. On 29 August of each year Australians rightfully observe ‘Kokoda Day’ to honor the young men who endured so much.

Australian soldiers watch as the Australian flag is raised over Kokoda, November 1942 (Australian War Museum)

Australian soldiers watch as the Australian flag is raised over Kokoda, November 1942 (Australian War Museum)