Battle of the Kokoda Track erupts

Studio portrait of VX45223 Lieutenant Colonel William Taylor Owen DSC (Distinguished Service Cross), 39th Battalion, of Leongatha, Victoria. He enlisted on 8 July 1940 at Caulfield. Lt Col Owen was taking part in close fighting with the Japanese on the Kokoda trail, in the most forward position at the most threatened point in Seekamp’s sector, on the very lip of the plateau. He was throwing grenades when a bullet struck him. Lt Col Owen died on 29 July 1942, in Papua, aged 37 years. He was the first Australian to receive the American Distinguished Service Cross. [AWM P05414.001]

The Japanese had landed near Gona on the north coast of Papua New Guinea on 21 July 1942. They now sought to move over the Owen Stanley mountains, south towards Port Moresby, forcing the Australians and their Papuan allies back. Port Moresby was vital to the defence of Australia. If they took Port Moresby the Japanese planned to begin a bombing offensive against north Queensland and, had they decided to invade Australia, the invasion would have been launched from Port Moresby.

This was a campaign that would be fought out in “a vast , primitive, almost unknown wilderness of towering mountains and steaming coastal jungles, burned by the equatorial sun and drenched by tropical downpours”. It was in these impossible conditions that Australian and American forces would endure some of the bloodiest and most desperate fighting of the whole war.

The Australian defence began at Kokoda, about half way along the mountain trail. In the early morning of 29th July the Australian force of 80 hastily assembled men sought to beat off the Japanese invasion force of over 400. With their commander mortally wounded, shot through the head, and the Japanese outflanking them in the jungle, they were forced to withdraw. Local planter Dr Geoffrey Vernon recalled the scene:

The thick white mist dimming the moonlight; the mysterious veiling of trees, houses, and men, the drip of moisture from the foliage, and at the last the almost complete silence, as if the rubber groves of Kokoda were sleeping as usual in the depths of the night, and men had not brought disturbance.

See Bloody Buna: The Campaign that Halted the Japanese Invasion of Australia.

For more on the experiences of veterans see The Kokoda Track.

The remote Kokoda airfield high in the tropical jungles was the only airstrip for a hundred miles – the only way of getting troops in and out apart from a long trek.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Darcy March 24, 2014 at 5:41 am

Very good read, thanks a lot :)

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