"In the Kokoda battle their qualities of adaptability and individual initiative enabled them to show tremendous ability as fighting men in the jungle. They were superb."Lieutenant-General Tsutomu Yoshihara, chief of staff of Japan's South Seas army
In World War 2, the Japanese forged a reputation of invincibility with a string of monumental victories over the major powers. At Pearl Harbour, the Japanese disabled the American fleet. At Singapore; the English had reinforced the island citadel with heavy artillery and proudly boasted that it could never fall. It fell and 140,000 English troops were taken prisoner. However in Papua New Guinea, the Japanese locked horns with the Australians and it was here that like they had at Tobruk in northern Africa, the Australians broke the spell of invincibility that the axis powers had cast over the allied nations.
Individualism had been the key to Australian success. Because the Australian high command had been ignorant to the extreme conditions that the battles would be fought under, they often gave orders that were unrealistic or plain impossible. Furthermore, problems with communications and supply meant that the soldiers were forced to fight without any real mechanised assistance and support. In many respects, they were alone and to adapt, they had to ignore orders and develop their own strategies.
In 1942, the Japanese had built up a force of some 13,500 men in the Gona area of Papua with the intention of attacking Port Moresby, which could have been their stepping stone to Australia. The key to the offensive was an overland track across the Owen Stanley Ranges. The seldom used track started in the small village of Buna on the north coast of Papua and easily led up the slopes through Gorari and Oivi to Kokoda. The track was 100 miles long, crumpled and folded into a series of ridges, each rising higher and higher until 7,000 feet is reached, then declining again to 3,000 feet. It was covered in thick jungle, short trees and tall trees tangled with vines. Because it was only accessible by foot, it was difficult to re-supply soldiers, evacuate soldiers, or provide them with any kind of mechanised assistance.
On the 29th August the Japanese broke through the Australian lines forcing the Australian Battalions to withdraw towards Alola and then to withdraw to Templeton's Crossing. This was followed by a further withdrawal to the major supply point of Myola. News of the withdrawals reached Australia and the hierarchy expected the Japanese to soon claim victory. American General Douglas MacArthur announced that:
"the Australians have proven themselves unable to match the enemy in jungle fighting. Aggressive leadership is lacking."
With defeat looking inevitable, preparations were under way to form a defensive grid across central Australia where the next attempt to stop the Japanese would be made.
But back in Papua New Guinea, the Diggers, despite being down for the count, had refused to surrender. They had endured two months of retreats up and down ridges that were knee deep in mud, starvation, jungle sicknesses and being soaked by constant rain, yet they still persevered. Some found the strength to continue with patriotic notions about defending Australia. Others conformed to the battler ideal of finding victory in a refusal to give in. Some kept going by supporting their mates, or receiving the support of their mates. Some just wanted to live. There was no chance of an evacuation and because the Japanese never showed humanity to prisoners of war, surrender was not an option either. The only way the Diggers could survive was to keep going.
At Ioribaiwa, the Australians halted the Japanese advance. For the next few weeks the Australians employed the "offensive-defence" tactics that had been used by the Diggers in Tobruk. Japanese forces would be concentrated by holding positions as long as possible, minor counter attacks destroyed or delayed them and it was then it was set up to do it all again and then again. As the Japanese weakened, they began to withdraw and suffered what the Australians had suffered in the preceding two months. They faced constant retreats up and down ridges, starvation, dying comrades, jungle sickness, soaked by constant rain and all this whilst they were trying to defend themselves against an attacking force.
The Japanese didn't seem to cope with the conditions quite as well and the Australians took little time to seize the initiative. Village after village was recaptured until finally, on the October 29th, Australian troops moved out of the dank rain-forest to halt and gaze at the distant sun-warmed village of Kokoda. A final push to retake the beachheads at Buna and Gona saw the Japanese not so much defeated, but annihilated. It has been estimated that of their total force of 13,500 men only about 700 survived the fighting, disease and starvation. The Australian troops forced the few survivors out of Oro on the 23rd January 1943. The tide of the war had turned.
With the battle won, the ethic of 'take-no-prisoners' came to an end, and Australians showed some mercy where they had previously shown none. Starving Japanese were given water and food. Often, this was only possible when the Japanese were so weak that they couldn't hold guns anymore.
It is a common for Australians to travel to Kokoda to walk the trail. In an international context, it is a very unusual way to venerate soldiers. Research some other ways that cultures venerate soldiers and decide some pros and cons of the Kokoda method.
The Blamey incident
Australian general Thomas Blamey fancied himself as a World War II answer to General John Monash. Like Monash, he wanted to push his hand into the enemy throat and keep it there so that it could never gain the ascendancy. While such aggression proved useful for Monash to break the trench warfare of the Western Front, it was inappropriate for the jungle warfare of Papua New Guinea. Had those under his command obeyed his orders, then it would have led to the futile infantry charges that Monash considered to be so wasteful.
Adapting to the conditions, the Australian soldiers acted like Monash by ignoring inappropriate instructions. Instead of charging at the enemy in a blitzkrieg approach, they changed the warfare to a running battle of attrition. The Japanese strength was sapped by keeping them on the offensive, lengthening their supply lines, and contaminating any food they captured. It was a strategy that won the Australians the battle.
Although the Australians won, the victory came at the cost of Blamey's ego. To find some self-esteem, on the 9th of November 1942, Blamey addressed the 21st Infantry Brigade on the parade ground and informed them that they had been beaten by inferior forces and that no soldier should be afraid to die. He then said that:
"it's the rabbit who runs who gets shot, not the man holding the gun."
Just as some of Blamey's battle strategies were ill conceived, it was an ill conceived idea to address men who had spent two months in jungle warfare and label them cowards. Not only did it fail to motivate soldiers or inspire respect for commanding officers, it amounted to a huge safety risk for Blamey. Many officers later said that Blamey was lucky to escape with his life. When Blamey later visited the wounded in hospital, many nibbled lettuce, while wrinkling their nose in mock of him.
Comparison to the Japanese
In the aftermarth of the battle, the soldiers gave honest opinions on their enemy. On the Australian side, it seems that after overcoming their initial shock, they had some respect for the fighting abilities of the Japanese, but contempt for their treatment of prisoners of war.
Jack Manol, Pte 39th Militia:
"I struck this, this Japanese officer and uh, well he rode through the kunai, we were face-to-face with each other and I think he was just as bloody scared as I was, and I was just lucky that I could bloody pull the trigger first. Anyway, uh, that was an experience that uh, I wouldn't like to uh...ever handle again, because that haunted me for years. When I went through this bloke's equipment and that, part of my job, I found he had photographs of himself and his wife and three little kids."
Jack Manol, Pte 39th Militia:
"They were savages. But, you know, they were still good bloody soldiers. But they were savages, there's no doubt about that." Lindsay Bear, Lt 2/14th AIF:
"I'm not sure they expected any difference from us. I'm not sure."
Jim Moir, Pte 2/16th AIF:
"We heard all this screaming and yelling going on, which I often wonder whether they did this to boost their own spirits or to frighten hell out of the blokes that they're going to have a go at.
Bu, um, one of our blokes responded with a Tarzan call. It was even funny at the time. As he did, they opened fire and they cleaned the lot of them up."
Jim Moir, Pte 2/16th AIF:
"I mean, we know what they did to a lot of the others -- they beheaded them or tied them up to a tree and used them for bayonet practice."
On the Japanese side, there was respect for the fighting abilities of the Australians, but also some bemusement about Australia's informal behaviour, such as fighting without a shirt.
Pt Shigenoi Doi, Pte 144th Regiment:
"On the day we attacked, we had advanced and there was less than 200 metres between us and a young Australian soldier. He was naked on top wearing only his shorts, holding a grenade, ran towards us and threw the grenade. Even the Japanese army would not have the courage to commit such an act."
Lieutenant-General Tsutomu Yoshihara, chief of staff of Japan's South Seas army:
"In the Kokoda battle their qualities of adaptability and individual initiative enabled them to show tremendous ability as fighting men in the jungle. They were superb."
What type of values do you think the Diggers had?
How do you think the Diggers' culture differed from the Japanese?
The Japanese brutality to enemy soldiers who surrendered decreased their chances of winning the war. Discuss.
Brutality towards the enemy for surrendering increased the motivation of Japanese soldiers not to surrender
Because the Japanese did not make making surrender an option for Australian soldiers, the Australian soldiers were forced to keep fighting
If Japanese took prisoners of war, they would have to feed them
If Japanese took prisoners of war, the soldiers could be used as a human shield
When soldiers lose their humanity by treating the enemy without humanity, their cause is no longer worth fighting for and many will decide to give up themselves
To believe in themselves, soldiers must see their enemy as inferior to them and act as such
The fuzzy wuzzy angels
600 Australian lives were lost in the campaign. This would have been far greater had it not be for the help of the native Papua New Guineans; affectionately known as the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. As one Digger wrote:
"They carried stretchers over seemingly impassable barriers, with the patient reasonably comfortable. The care they give to the patient is magnificent. If night finds the stretcher still on the track, they will find a level spot and build a shelter over the patient. They will make him as comfortable as possible fetch him water and feed him if food is available, regardless of their own needs. They sleep four each side of the stretcher and if the patient moves or requires any attention during the night, this is given instantly. These were the deeds of the "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels"-for us! "
by David Campbell
Written in 1949.
Oh, Bill and Joe to the north have gone,
A green shirt on their back;
There are not many ewes and lambs
Along Kokoda track. There are not many ewes and lambs,
But men in single file
Like sheep along a mountain pad
Walk mile on sweating mile; And each half-hour they change the lead,
Though I have never read
Where any fat bell-whether was
Shot, in the mountains, dead.The only sheep they muster there
Leap through the mind at night;
'Twould be as red as marking time
To change green shirt for white.
And though Bill dreams of droving now
On the drought-coloured plain,
There's little need to tap the glass
Or pray for it to rain.They have no lack of water there
But there is a stinging tail,
For men lie dying in the grass
Along Kokoda trail.
Question: How did the farming background of some of the soldiers affect the way they approached the Kokoda campaign?