‘Kokoda70’ is an initiative of Air Niugini and Network Kokoda. The commemorative period was lanunched by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill at Parliament House in Port Moresby on the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. The occassion was attended by The Hon Sir Mekere Morauta MP, Minister for Public Enterprise; the Hon Benjamin Philipp MP, Minster for Tourism, Culture and Arts; Governor of Eastern Highland Province, Mal Smith CMG, MBE, DFC, MP; Dame Carol Kidu MP; H.E. Ian Kemish, Australian High Commissiner, representatives of the PNG RSL, the Kokoda Track Authority and the Kokoda Initiative (AusAID).
The Prime Minister’s speech was delivered by Governor Mal Smith:
‘Distinguished Guests, Ladies, and Gentlemen,
‘Seventy years ago today Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbour, Honolulu.
‘The attack triggered a military tsunami that spread across the Pacific and reached our shores in Rabaul six weeks later.
‘Papua New Guinea would never be the same again.
‘Although our Melanesian Island had been colonised by the Dutch, the British, the Germans and the Australians, few Papua New Guineans knew much about the world beyond our tribal borders in 1942.
‘We were not equipped for a war with modern weapons. We didn’t know anything about the new ‘invaders’ with guns, warships and planes from Japan, America and Australia.
‘It was not our war but we were quickly engulfed by it.
‘After the attack on Pearl Harbour the Japanese war machine swept across Asia and down the Pacific.
‘Rabaul and Kavieng were the first to fall in late January 1942.
‘By April 1942 they occupied Malaya, Singapore Island, Burma, Sumatra, Java, the 19 provinces of the Netherlands Indies, the Philippines, New Britain and the Northern Solomons. Wartime author Osmar White wrote: ‘A Japanese Churchill might have coined himself a phrase and said: ‘Never before in the field of human conflict has one nation acquired so vast an empire in so short a time – and at so small a cost’.
‘With these conquests the Japanese military were deemed to be invincible and they were coming our way.
‘The Australians had good reason to believe they would soon be invaded. Bombing raids were conducted across their northern cities in Darwin, Broome and Townsville. Ships were sunk off the West Australian coast and mini-submarines fired off torpedos in Sydney Harbour.
‘Warships from the Imperial Japanese Navy fought the American and Australian fleet in the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. Neither side could claim victory as they both returned to their home ports after the first ever naval battle where ships could not see each other.
‘In the following month the Japanese and American fleets fought a decisive sea battle near the Midway Islands. The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and two cruisers. Their naval hierarchy resolved they could no longer contemplate a sea-borne invasion of Australia.
‘It was only then that the Japanese decided to investigate the possibility of an overland crossing from the north coast to our capital, Port Moresby.
Their only option was an overland advance across the Owen Stanley Ranges.
‘Japan’s strategic objective was to capture the arc of Islands to Australia’s immediate north and deny the Americans the opportunity to launch a counter attack from bases in Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea.
‘Amphibious forces landed at Buna and Gona in early July and struck out along the road towards Kokoda. They made their first contact with lead elements of our Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Australian 39th Militia Battalion. That contact, on 23rd July is now commemorated as our national Remembrance Day.
‘Neither Australia nor Japan were prepared for the desperate jungle battles they were to fight across the rugged and remote Owen Stanley mountain ranges. The only link between the village of Kokoda and the Sogeri Plateau was the old mail route which became known as the Kokoda Trail – a name that has since been gazetted by our Government and proudly emblazoned on the Battle Honours of our Papuan Infantry Battalion as well as the 10 Australian battalions who fought in the campaign.
‘I note there has been some debate over the name in recent years but I can advise that it has always been known as the Kokoda Trail here in Papua New Guinea and it is the name we prefer.
‘The Kokoda campaign began with the Japanese attacking the small Australian and Papuan force on the Kokoda plateau on 27 July 1942. Over the following months desperate battles were fought at Isurava, Brigade Hill and Ioribaiwa Ridge before our troops rallied on the last line of defence at Imita Ridge and turned the tide as our troops pushed the Japanese back across the ranges. The Japanese forced them to fight for every inch of the Trail as they prepared major defensive positions at Templeton’s Crossing and Eora Creek.
‘Our troops recaptured Kokoda on 2nd November 1942 and raised the Australian flag at a special ceremony with General George Vasey on the 3rd November.
‘Another bloody battle ensued at Oivi and Goiari before the Japanese were driven back across the Kumusi River on the 21st November to end the Kokoda campaign.
‘War historians agree that our victory in the Kokoda campaign would not have been possible without the support of our Papuan Infantry Battalion and 10,000 of our wartime carriers who were conscripted to carry urgent supplies forward and evacuate more than 700 sick and wounded soldiers back along the Trail.
‘The role of our Papuan soldiers in Kokoda and other campaigns has not been fully acknowledged. Australians surrounded by the enemy were often led to safety by Papuans with an intimate knowledge of the jungle. Our soldiers in the Papuan Infantry Battalion were ferocious fighters who invoked fear into any Japanese patrols that ventured too far from their base. They were infinitely patient when hunting down Japanese where the loser was often the man who made the first move. They were ideal jungle fighters.
‘General Sir Thomas Blamey acknowledged the sacrifice of our wartime carriers when he wrote:
‘They carried stretchers through feet-deep mud with the wounded down slimy defiles, through jagged ridges and valleys, terrible, rugged terrain, mountains and jungles and through fast flowing streams and rivers, and mosquito-infested swamps and grassplains.
‘They were almost at the point of exhaustion, but they always kept two men awake at nights to take care of the patients, to wash their muddy limbs, to attend to their bandages and to give them their meals.
‘The work of these natives has been outstanding. We owe them a lasting debt.’
The Regimental Medical Officer of the 2/16th Battalion, Captain Blue Steward observed their devotion to Australians in their care when he wrote:
‘Each time we watched them hoist the stretchers from the ground to their shoulders for another stint, we saw their strong leg, arm and back muscles rippling under their glossy black skins. Manly and dignified, they felt proud of their responsibility to the wounded, and rarely faltered. When they laid their charges down for the night they sought level ground on which to build a rough shelter of light poles and leaves. With four men each side of a stretcher, they took it in turns to sleep and to watch, giving each wounded man whatever food, drink or comfort there might be.’
Their deeds have been immortalised in the famous poem ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels’ by a digger poet, Bert Beros.
The 70th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign is a timely reminder for us to ensure the service and sacrifice of our wartime carriers is never forgotten.
I therefore welcome the initiative of Network Kokoda, founded by Charlie Lynn to develop Community Learning Development Centres in honour of their legacy. I have been told that Charlie has trekked Kokoda 61 times over the past 20 years and has developed a deep affinity with our people,
I also commend the Chief Executive of our national airline, Mr Wasantha Kumarasiri for his commitment to this important commemorative period.
There is a growing trend among young people from Australia, America, Japan and here in Papua New Guinea to learn more about the service and sacrifice of their forbears in their service to their respective nations. The relics of their war are now rusting in peace in remote battlefields that have long since been reclaimed by the jungle. They are cared for by local landowner custodians.
The interest generated by pioneering trek operators, Frank Taylor and Charlie Lynn, over the past 20 years has seen the emergence of a viable wartime trekking industry. Over the past decade more than 30,000 Australians from all walks of life have trekked across the Kokoda Trail. They have injected more than K100 million into our economy and generated an enormous amount of positive publicity for our people and our country.
As a result the Kokoda Trail has achieved international acclaim as an adventure destination. It is now a unique gateway for the development of a world class wartime tourism industry in Papua New Guinea.
Kokoda70 is a unique partnership, formed in the 70th anniversary year of the Kokoda battle designed to focus on tourism for the benefit of our people and economy. We have a beautiful country and the Kokoda Trail showcases our people and our unique environment, from the rainforests to the mountains. The Kokoda70 campaign has the capacity to open the door to many more tourists and ultimately create a better understanding of PNG in the wider world.
I therefore have much pleasure in officially launching ‘Kokoda70’.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen.