‘The acceptance of the official name of the Kokoda Trail is a keenly contested point of debate in Australia. Does it belong to the nation which retains sovereign ownership of the land between McDonald’s Corner and Kokoda i.e. Papua New Guinea? Or to the 10 Australian Battalions and the Papuan Infantry Battalion whose battle honours are emblazoned with the name ‘Kokoda Trail’? Or to modern day commentators who dislike the name ‘trail’ because of its American connotation?’
During the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign, Prime Minister Paul Keating, kissed the ground at Kokoda and awakened Australians to the significance of the Kokoda campaign. His action generated much talkback noise about whether it was a ‘trail’ or a ‘track’. The noise increased as anti-American sentiment grew amongst the commentariat after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The voices eventually prevailed and, on the 60th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign, Prime Ministers’ John Howard and Sir Michael Somare opened the Isurava Memorial which had the word ‘Kokoda Track’ embedded into it.
This was in spite of the fact that all signage between McDonald’s Corner and Kokoda since the end of the war has referred to the ‘Kokoda Trail’.
The 70th anniversary offers an opportunity for a sober review of the debate.
The origin of the official name, ‘Kokoda Trail’, dates back to 1947 when an Australian Battles Nomenclature Committee was established to define the battles in the Pacific. Their final report in 1958 adopted ‘Kokoda Trail’ as the official Commonwealth battle honour which was awarded to 10 infantry battalions and the Papuan Infantry Regiment.
Prior to independence, during the transformation to self-government in Papua New Guinea, Australian administrators established a ‘Place Names Committee’ to examine the issue and subsequently recommended the official name ‘Kokoda Trail’ be proclaimed. The Chief Minister, Michael Somare, accepted the recommendation of the Place Names Committee and the name ‘Kokoda Trail’ was gazetted on 12 October 1972 (PNG Government Gazette No. 88 of 12 October 1972, page 1362, column 2. Notice 1972/28 of the PNG Place Names Committee refers).
The official name, ‘Kokoda Trail’, is currently recognised by:
1. The National Government of Papua New Guinea – the soveriegn owners of the land;
2. The RSL of Australia – the representative body of war veterans;
3. The Australian War Memorial Second World War Galleries – the custodians of our wartime history; and
4. The official Battle Honours of the 10 Australian battalions and the Papuan Infantry Battalion who spilt blood in the Kokoda campaign.
- Wartime photographs at McDonalds Corner show a sign pointing towards the ‘Kokoda Trail’ (photographs on page 286 of the history of the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion titled ‘War Dance’ by Ken Clift and page 28 of ‘Sogeri During the War by Lance Taylor refer).
- The 39th Militia Battalion has two battle honours on their Battalion Colours: ‘Kokoda’ and ‘Kokoda Trail’.
- All signs between McDonald’s Corner and Kokoda read ‘Kokoda Trail – National Walking Track’ or ‘Kokoda Trail’.
The author of the most definitive history of the Kokoda Trail (Stuart Hawthorne, The Kokoda Trail – A History’ Central Queensland University Press, 2003) recently wrote on the Australian War Memorial blog:
‘Exploration and development of the early parts of the overland route near Port Moresby began about 130 years ago. In this light, the campaign constitutes a very small part of the track’s history (about a third of one percent) yet the importance ascribed to the WW2 period often assumes a considerably high significance. Of course the Kokoda campaign is very important in Australia on many levels but notwithstanding this, I often wonder whether the presumption that our Australian perspective displaces all others and borders on the arrogant’.
A recent motion to have the National RSL lobby the Australian Government to have the Kokoda Trail renamed ‘Kokoda Track’ was defeated at the RSL National Congress held in Dubbo on 14-15 September 2010 (National Congress Resolution 6.1.2 refers).
In an address to 40 members of the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda plateau in 1972 Captain Bert Kienzle referred to the track Vs trail debate (The Architect of Kokoda p.311):
‘We, who fought and saved this nation, PNG, from defeat by a ruthless and determined enemy knew it as the Kokoda Trail not track. . . so I appeal to you and all of those who helped us defend this great country to revere and keep naming it the Kokoda Trail in memory of those great me who fought over it. Lest we forget.’ The name ‘Kokoda Track’ evolved after former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating kissed the ground at Kokoda on the 5oth anniversary of the campaign in April 1992. This was accompanied by much ‘talkback’ noise about ‘trail’ being an American term and ‘track’ being the language of the Australian bush (the Larapinta Trail was conveniently left out of those conversations). This suited Keating’s agenda for an Australian republic at the time.
‘Kokoda Track’ has since emerged as the politically correct term in Australia.
The debate suited those in the commentariat who harbour a strong anti-American bias together with those who have never served and therefore do not understand the significance of a ‘Battle Honour’.
Whilst these historical pygmies can be excused for not appreciating the esprit de corps associated with a Battle Honour they cannot be excused for hijacking a name that does not suit their political bias. Nor can they be excused for their ignorance of the facts. Dr Samuel Johnson’s observation that “every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier‘ is relevant to those who prefer the pen to the sword and to the carpetabaggers trying to cash in on Kokoda trekking opportunities.
I believe we should respect the sovereign right of the PNG National Government to name their own geographic features; we should respect the judgement the Pacific War veterans who deliberated over the title of the official Battle Honours for the battalions who fought in the Kokoda campaign; and we should respect the right of those battalions to retain the name ‘Kokoda Trail’ on their battle honours.
Ignorance is no excuse for referring to it by any other name.