30  November 2009

Interest in making the pilgrimage might be tapering off, but that gives us an opportunity to understand Kokoda in more complex ways, writes Professor Hank Nelson

On 18 November this year the paralympian and winner of the New York wheelchair marathon, Kurt Fearnley, completed ten days of crawling and sliding over the ninety-six kilometres of the Kokoda Track. Previously, the Track had been walked by Michael Milton, one-legged skier and cyclist; by ex-Cronulla rioters, to show them what it really meant to be Australian; and by grandmothers, school children, politicians and football teams and company executives who were on bonding exercises, taking an extreme test of physical endurance, trying to gain insight into the experiences of the troops who had faced the Japanese on the Track in 1942, responding to wild and varied mountain tropics or encountering carriers and villagers. In 2008 some 6000 trekkers passed the Isurava Monument, read the words inscribed on the grey stone blocks – Courage, Endurance, Mateship, Sacrifice – and, in many cases, paused at the rock where Bruce Kingsbury won a VC.

Just eight years ago, in 2000, fewer than a hundred tourists walked the Track. By 2005 nearly 2400 were taking the trek, now called a pilgrimage, and that number had doubled by 2007. From 2004 through to 2007 Australian publishers released books on Kokoda adding up to over 3000 pages. Peter Brune’s A Bastard of a Place (2003), Peter FitzSimons’s Kokoda (2004) and Paul Ham’s Kokoda (2004), were all big books and big sellers. Numerous journalists walked the Track and recorded their impressions; Kokoda was in documentaries and one feature film (Kokoda, 2006, directed by Alister Grieson) and on breakfast television. It seemed Australians had decided that Kokoda was for them the most significant event of the second world war, a place where Australians demonstrated those virtues that Australians want to believe they possess and the virtues that they hope others recognise in them. Just a few years before, when prime ministers Paul Keating and then John Howard visited Hellfire Pass and the public recognition of Sir Edward (“Weary”) Dunlop was at its height, it had looked like Changi, the Thai-Burma Railway and all the horror and defiance of the odds in the prisoner of war experience was going to dominate Australian popular memory of the war.

Australia has committed $16 million to securing a world heritage listing for the Track and providing services and economic opportunities for those living in the area. It has worked hard to gain the support of the government of Papua New Guinea to ensure effective administration and protection of the Track. But there is a chance that Australian enthusiasm for the Kokoda pilgrimage – and perhaps for the elevation of the Kokoda campaign in Australian history – has passed its peak. In 2009, the number of trekkers has dropped to just over 4000, well short of the expected figure of 7000 or 8000. There were real fears about the impact of 16,000 boots and tons of crap and toilet paper on pristine streams, rainforests and Koiari villagers’ homelands.

The recent decline in trekker numbers may be related to the deaths in 2009 of three Australian men and one woman on the Track. The men were aged fifty-five, thirty-eight and twenty-six; the woman, thirty-six: explanations about age, lack of fitness and previous signs of frailty were not obvious in most cases. The crash of a Twin Otter aircraft as it circled Kokoda, the death of all thirteen on board and the long and difficult recovery of the bodies was another reminder of the hazards of travelling in mountainous country, ill-served by administrative and technical safeguards. The high costs of trekking, the claims that the profits went to Australian companies who avoided paying Papua New Guinean taxes and the perception that locals could only participate as “bag carriers” may also have deterred well-intentioned pilgrims. A trekking package including flights from Sydney to Port Moresby might be advertised at around $4500, and for the young and adventurous that price covers many alternatives.

In July this year the first commemorative medal was handed out to surviving Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels, another late and nominal recognition of their wartime services. But the inaugural Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel Day on 3 November passed in Port Moresby with no ceremonies. The culture and tourism minister, Charles Abel, explained that no money had been allocated for the occasion, but he hoped some would be found for next year. There was a small ceremony in Sydney.

Kokoda as a second world war battle will remain important in the histories of both Australia and Papua New Guinea. It seems likely that Australians will continue to give it greater importance because it is easily presented as the battle in which the Japanese ground forces came within sight of Port Moresby; because it was fought almost exclusively by Australian troops; because the AIF and the militia fought side by side; because the terrain and the performance of some men have given it an epic quality; and because it binds Australians and Papua New Guineans in a relationship that was new and admirable and requires no reference to colonial control and its associations.

If there is a slight tailing off in Australia’s increased interest in Kokoda as a battle, it will be because it has been burdened with exaggeration. Kokoda did not save Australia from invasion, or even Port Moresby from capture. The limited numbers, firepower and fitness of a Japanese force that had struggled across the Owen Stanley Ranges was not going to take Port Moresby unaided, as both the Australian and the Japanese commanders knew before the Japanese began their retreat in September 1942. Kokoda was not as important as Gaudalcanal in determining the direction of the war in the south and south-west Pacific; Guadalcanal involved more ships, aircraft and ground troops and consumed Japanese units from the three services that would otherwise have been used in Papua.

Amid the heightened interest in Kokoda, and more broadly in the war in Papua and New Guinea, one advance in the scholarly and popular flow of information has largely passed without notice: there is now much more readily available material in English about the Japanese forces. Of the popular histories directed at Australian readers, Paul Ham worked hard to find Japanese documents and record the reminiscences of Japanese ex-servicemen, but other less well-know publications have added most to accessible knowledge of the enemy. These include Steven Bullard’s translation of sections of the Japanese official history, Japanese Army Operations in the South Pacific Area: New Britain and Papua Campaigns, 1942–43 (2007), several books written jointly by Japanese and Australian authors, including From a Hostile Shore: Australia and Japan at War in New Guinea (2004), edited by Steven Bullard and Tamura Keiko, and unexpected books such as Charles Happell’s The Bone Man of Kokoda (2008).

The “Bone Man” is Kokichi Nishimura, who fought on Guam, at Salamuau in New Guinea, and on the Kokoda Track as a private in the 144th Regiment. One of the few men to be evacuated by ship at night from the Papuan coast, he spent several months in Lae before sailing for Rabaul and then Japan. He survived the sinking of his transport by American submarines and was posted to Burma at the end of 1943. He endured battle and another hazardous journey across seas then dominated by the Americans and was in a military hospital suffering from malaria when the war ended. But that war of brief early victories and pitiless defeats and suffering is covered by Happell in less than half the book. The rest of the book is about Nishimura’s success in civilian life and then his dedication to finding the remains of his Japanese comrades on Kokoda, bringing them back to Japan, and searching for their relatives. Nishimura has also invested much time and money in what have been largely fruitless attempts to repay those Papua New Guineans across whose lands he had fought. He might be exceptional in his obsessions, but through him Happell, an experienced journalist, provides some insights into and many hints at the beliefs of Japanese of Nishimura’s generation about the obligations of the soldier in battle and to dead comrades.

Several of the publications increasing awareness of the Japanese in the war owe direct or indirect debts to the Australia–Japan Research Project. Jointly sponsored by the Australian War Memorial and the Japanese embassy in Canberra, the project aims to provide material for researchers. One of its most recent online publications looks at the Japanese midget submarine attack in Sydney Harbour. With its rich range of comment and references, it provides evidence of the contrasting perceptions of the event then and now in Japan and Australia. The project is currently in recess and it is hoped that the Australian War Memorial resurrects it or a similar project.

Japanese survivors of the war have also published memoirs that intersect with Australian studies of Kokoda. In The Pacific War in Papua New Guinea: Memories and Realities (2006), which I edited with Yukio Toyoda, Hiromitsu Iwamoto surveyed some 471 books written by Japanese who fought in New Guinea. He found that those Japanese veterans who made broad judgments on the war emphasised the suffering and called for no repeat of such a terrible event; those few who expressed an opinion on responsibility for the war argued that war was forced upon Japan and that admissions of war guilt are an insult to the thousands of Japanese who died in the war. The 10 per cent of authors who wrote on Papua New Guineans said that most welcomed the Japanese and willingly cooperated with them. And when Japanese write on battles a surprising number are concerned with the air war – surprising given the few aircrew relative to ground forces and the fact that the Japanese army and naval air forces were effectively out of the war in New Guinea from early 1944. If there is a dominant popular Japanese image of the war in the area between Port Moresby and Buna it is not of troops slogging, ankle deep, crossing ridge after ridge in the Owen Stanleys and fighting a largely unseen and desperate enemy, but of Zero pilots high above the Owen Stanleys often displaying superior skill and flying superior aircraft. But apart from writings by the fighter pilot Saburo Sakai (Samurai!, with Martin Caidin and Fred Saito, first published in English in 1957), most of the many Japanese books on the war on Australian territory are both inaccessible and unknown to Australians.

One of the most recent and comprehensive attempts to present the Japanese experience to Australian readers is Craig Collie and Hajime Marutani’s The Path of Infinite Sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track (2009). Collie, a television producer, and Hajime, who worked as a translator on the Australia–Japan Research Project, came together on a two-hour documentary, Beyond Kokoda, by the Australian filmmakers Stig Schnell and Shaun Gibbons, which was first shown on the History Channel in 2008. Several of the Japanese ex-servicemen who spoke so movingly in the documentary are primary sources for The Path of Infinite Sorrow. Collie and Marutani have made good use of Allied Translator and Interpreter Section documents held in the Australian War Memorial. ATIS – the receivers, translators and commentators on documents collected from the Japanese – became a valuable source of intelligence from late September 1942 when the Australians began to advance. From the bodies of the dead and wounded and from prisoners and abandoned camps, the Australians collected diaries, letters and miscellaneous bits of paper – even a list of prices for officers and men visiting the comfort women in Rabaul. ATIS also provided translations of interviews with prisoners, many of whom spoke with a candour that surprised their interrogators. What was of immediate interest to military tacticians is now of value to scholars with a more leisurely timetable.

Other strengths of Collie and Marutani’s work are the accounts of the formation and training of Japanese units and the way individual soldiers are followed through recruitment to battle. The final weeks of the Japanese army in Papua are presented in all their horror, with cannibalism, the killing of the wounded and the sense of relief, guilt, nobility and desperate self-interest of those selected for, or able to secure their own, escape. The Japanese losses in Papua were appalling – over 12,000 died – and the Japanese official history quotes a battalion commander who said that the 41st Regiment lost over 2000. When it reassembled in Rabaul in 1943 there were only 200 survivors. But, as Collie and Marutani show, the survivors of Kokoda and Buna still had over two more years of war to endure. Of those whose fortunes have been traced in the book and were still alive in August 1945, one was in southern China, one had been in Burma and then transferred to Japan, one had been in Korea and then returned to Hiroshima (but by luck was not there on the day the city was incinerated) and some had died in the fighting in the Philippines. A pilot who had flown off the Buna airstrip ended the war escorting kamikaze pilots on their sacrificial missions.

One of the last scenes in The Path of Infinite Sorrow is of an elderly Japanese man who had fought as a private on Kokoda making a return visit to Papua New Guinea in 2005. He had with him 250 pairs of small straw sandals he had made. He cast some into the Kumusi River north of Kokoda and asked that others be left on the Track. He recalled that at the end of the Kokoda campaign many of the men were barefooted and he hoped to show the spirits of his comrades that he remembered them and that he brought them comfort. As with the story of Nishimura, this alerts us to other intensely felt ways of recalling a war and comrades in war.

The prose of Collie and Marutani makes for easy reading, although some of the battles are difficult to follow. And the ready clichés that might be acceptable in a quick newspaper article are out of place in a book. Just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Australia is said to be “not on Japan’s radar,” and when the Japanese do launch their assault the Americans are found to be “asleep at the wheel.” These are not only clichés but also distractions in a book on war. Also, there are too many minor errors of fact. The authors refer to Japan’s “two colonies, Korea and Formosa” after the first world war, which omits the German Micronesian colonies held by Japan under mandate from the League of Nations. It was the bases in Micronesia that placed Japanese forces close to Rabaul and allowed the Japanese to be in Rabaul before they had reached the south of the Malay Peninsula, let alone before the fall of Singapore. Collie and Marutani describe the region around Rabaul as being “made up of mountains and deep valleys, covered with dense jungle.” The “plains flooded” and there was much boggy marshland, they write. But Rabaul was the centre for the most concentrated area of roads and plantations in New Guinea; the volcanic soil was porous and there was often a scarcity of surface water.

The authors also claim that “two large anti-aircraft guns” were found damaged near Lakunai airfield. The two guns were found at Praed Point and they were intended for use against raiding ships, not aircraft. The Australians are said to have set up their defences of Rabaul “where the German troops landed in World War I.” But it was the Australians who landed and the Germans who were the defenders. At several points there are claims that the Australians had “automatic rifles.” The Australians carried .303 Lee-Enfield bolt action repeating rifles, which was not an automatic. When writing about the Papuan Infantry Battalion the writers assert that “in many cases, the Papuans had been pressed into joining the military by an authoritarian administration.” Papuans were conscripted to work as labourers; the soldiers were volunteers. On the Kokoda Track: “The Gap had been named by Allied HQ in Melbourne in the belief it was a narrow pass…” In fact “The Gap” had been named on published maps for forty years. The number of errors diminishes the value of the book, and the publishers, having failed to ensure adequate checking, should share responsibility.

The years of heightened interest in Kokoda had their slow beginning in 1992 when Paul Keating kissed the ground at Kokoda and, while not denigrating the legacy of Gallipoli, called for increased recognition of the battle where Australians fought “not in defence of the old world, but the new world. Their world.” In strange and largely uncommented bipartisanship, the boosting of Kokoda continued and increased under John Howard.

Now, during an apparent pause in enthusiasm for Kokoda, could be the time to separate Kokoda from the recent exaggerations that have been attached to it. These have magnified the importance of the Kokoda at the expense of Coral Sea, Midway, Milne Bay and Guadacanal. The age of the troops who fought the first battles has been understated, the numbers of casualties overstated and the extent of the Track and of the “Kokoda battles” have been extended from the Owers’ Corner at the southern end of the Track to Buna and the coast in the north. Australians could admit that some tactics were at fault, some Australian commanders did not perform well and some units were ill-trained, which showed up in battle. Australians could concede that most of the aircraft that gradually won dominance in the air over the Owen Stanleys were American and that the greater battle being fought by the Americans on Guadalcanal diverted Japanese men and resources from Papua. All that can be granted, and Kokoda remain significant. Now, too, is the time to exploit the information becoming available and locate Kokoda, not in Australian history alone, but in Australian, Japanese, Papua New Guinean and American history. •

Hank Nelson is Professor Emeritus of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National University. Much of his writing has been on the histories of Australia, Papua New Guinea and the second world war.