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The young men who saved Australia

By July 1942, Japan had overrun China, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Burma, Indochina, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Port Moresby lay on the southeast coast of New Guinea, not far from Australia. It was the last free harbour and air base between Australia and Japan. The Japanese intended to use it to invade or dominate Australia while the Australian Army was far away helping to defeat the Nazis or dying in Japanese prison camps.

Australia was full of rugged individuals unlikely to take a Japanese invasion quietly. However, disarmament during the 1920s and 1930s meant that that there were only enough shells in Australia to keep field artillery in action for one day.

At the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the US and Royal Australian navies had stopped the Japanese Navy’s attempt to capture Port Moresby. One month later the Japanese Army decided to land 6,000 of their toughest, most experienced soldiers on the north shore of New Guinea, and seize Port Moresby by land.

They put their fighters in camouflage, and prepared them for the tropical heat and humidity, violent downpours, mud, high elevations and freezing cold they would encounter. They expected them to make fast progress on the Kokoda trail, cross the Owen Stanley Range, and capture Port Moresby.

Young men in Australia’s militas had been sent to guard Port Moresby. They were raw troops with little training and no experience of jungle fighting. A general who inspected them gave them an F. American General MacArthur dismissed the Japanese threat. He declared the Owen Stanley Range impassable. He had not ordered a reconnaissance when word came that the Japanese had landed, and were heading south on the Kokoda Trail.

The generals in Australia ordered the boys to take the Kokoda Trail north, sit on 'the Gap' in the trail, and stop the Japanese. They told them that one platoon in the Gap would stop an army. It’s a wonder they did not refer them to Thermopylae.

Without maps or surveys, the young men left Port Moresby in their khakis and leather shoes and headed into the jungle to stop the Japanese. The track was wet, slimy, and dark with trees, humid and hot and lashed by torrential rains. The viscous volcanic sludge concealed roots underfoot. The physical exertion was relentless and precipitous with exhausting climbs and dangerous descents.

At night, in the wet, high-altitude cold, the rain “roared and rustled and sighed on the broad leaves of the jungle top. It soaked through the green pandanus thatches of shelters and spilled clammy cascades upon the bowed backs of exhausted men. It swamped cooking fires” (Oscar White). When the Aussies reached the ‘Gap’, they saw they would have to hold not a narrow gorge but a valley that was seven miles wide.

They were gaunt by then, and ill with malaria. Their shoes and their clothes were disintegrating. The Japanese they would face had “mortars, heavy machine guns, infantry support guns, and mountain guns” (What If). They had nothing larger than Bren light machine guns.

However, the Aussies understood what was at stake. Looking around, a twenty-one-year-old said, ‘If the Japanese get through us, Australia’s gone.”

Vastly outnumbered, they fought for thirty days, attacking and falling back. They were a few hundred young men, but they gave the Japanese the impression they were thousands and almost incredibly courageous. “Their bravery must be admired,” wrote a Japanese lieutenant in his diary. They fought to defend Australia, and to protect each other. One Aussie, not untypically, fought on despite being shot four times in the chest.

Back in Australia, the generals had no idea what was going on. As their young men fought, were wounded, continued to fight, and died on the Kokoda Trail, they called them cowards. It was the reinforcements who finally arrived who looked with shock and awe at the men who had slowed the Japanese advance with their lives.

Bruce Steel Kingsbury of the 2/14th Battalion (Victoria), Australian Military Forces was holding a position with his battalion in the Isurava area for two days against continuous and fierce enemy attacks.

“On 29 August 1942, the enemy attacked in such force that they succeeded in breaking through the Battalion's right flank, creating serious threats both to the rest of the Battalion and to its Headquarters. To avoid the situation becoming more desperate it was essential to regain immediately lost ground on the right flank. Private Kingsbury, who was one of the few survivors of a Platoon which had been overrun and severely cut about by the enemy, 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 on them, Private Kingsbury was then seen to fall to the ground shot dead by the bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood. Private Kingsbury displayed a complete disregard for his own safety. His initiative and superb courage made possible the recapture of a position which undoubtedly saved Battalion Headquarters, as well as causing heavy casualties amongst the enemy. His coolness, determination and devotion to duty in the face of great odds was an inspiration to his comrades" Citation, Victoria Cross.

The Japanese were stopped thirty miles from Port Moresby. A number of wounded Australians survived due to Papuans, the “fuzzy wuzzy angels” who carried them back on the trail.

Many Australians have informally dedicated 29 August to the young men and Papuans who saved Australia from Japanese assault in 1942.