‘For those who command a desk in distant bureaucratic empires and academia the care and compassion of a Papuan in a remote jungle is something they will never comprehend.
‘But for those who have been carried to safety on a stretcher over that inhospitable terrain, as I have been on two occasions over the past 29 years, their unconditional care and compassion will never be forgotten.‘
On this day 78 years ago, the depleted ranks of two Australian brigades paraded before their commander, Major-General George Vasey, as the Australian flag was raised on the Kokoda plateau.
An army medic, Private Geoffrey Hamlyn-Harris, captured the moment in his diary:
‘As we marched in and took up our position for the ceremony’, he wrote, ‘we could all feel in our bones that history was being made. The Australian flag was raised, with soldiers and natives as solemn witnesses. Tribute was paid to all who had died along the track for the victory which had taken place here, making this beautiful valley and its airstrip ours once more, and clearing the way for what all of us now felt must be a successful issue.
‘Although I find it hard to express precisely what I mean, I felt that the raising of the flag here, as elsewhere in New Guinea where the boys were overcoming the enemies of civilisation, heralded a new epoch of Aussie history.
‘The faces of the witnesses standing around the flag pole in the centre of the village were a living, though silent, testimony of what had been suffered for Australia and for moments like this, by the lads of the graves up the range and all along the track by which we had come. We were thinking individually of those mates of ours; for the Owen Stanley Range still overshadowed us in memory as well as in fact, an unpleasant monster conquered; and only those who had shared their experience could have understood the extent of the price they paid in advance for victory.’
The parade was the culminating point of one of the most desperate campaigns ever fought in some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. Wartime journalist Osmar White was witness to the conditions. He wrote:
‘The pain of effort, the biting sweat, the hunger, the cheerless shivering nights were made dim by exhaustion’s merciful drug . . . surely no war was ever fought under worse conditions that these. Surely no war has ever demanded more of a man in fortitude. Even Gallipoli or Crete or the desert’.
White certainly didn’t mean to demean Gallipoli, Crete or the desert – he was simply trying to put the conditions our Kokoda veterans had to endure into perspective.
In recent years there have been occasions when some of us have had to trek into the night in monsoonal rain on the trail. On such occasions it is easy to understand why many of our soldiers feared the jungle more than they feared the Japanese. We can only imagine how it would have been if there had been no campsite for us. No food. No fires. No tents. Just mud!
But we can’t imagine how we would have felt if we had then been told to team up with a mate at midnight and crawl to the perimeter to lie doggo in wet mud with nerves stretched to breaking point for the next two hours until another tired mate crawled out to give you a break.
In the meantime, your body is starving. It’s racked with malaria and shivering uncontrollably. Your blisters are infected. You have to try and control your dysentery. You’re shit scared. Dog tired. Your nerves are on edge as you listen intently for the give-way sound of a broken twig. You have to strain your eyes in the pitch black of the jungle to detect movement amongst the shadows. You know you’re outgunned and outnumbered, but you can’t give up because the boys from the 2nd AIF are on their way to back you up. You must hang on.
Private Hamyln-Harris wrote:
‘Mud and blood . . . the pity of it. The best blood of Australia, and mud . . . and lonely graves in the wilderness . . . and strange stories of the beauty of complete self-sacrifice! Even as I write I have around my neck a little crucifix which was found on the skeleton of a missing man recovered from a tree halfway down a steep gully. It was tarnished and clotted by mud and blood! God . . . I wish I could express it . . . the fellow was practically crucified on that tree like Christ on the cross he wore around his neck . . . Christ – who gave his life for many . . . the Saviour of the lad’s own soul – whatever happened to his poor body?’
As the flag was raised on the plateau that morning there was a conspicuous silence among the troops.
Their thoughts were with their mates who didn’t make it – more than 600 who were now lying in muddy graves along the trail. They were not to know that hundreds more from their ranks assembled in front of the flag on this historic occasion would be dead within the next two months because worse was yet to come in the battle of the beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
There is no doubt that General Vasey realised the historic significance of the day and the symbolism enshrined in the raising of our flag on the Kokoda plateau which they had recaptured after a bitter three-month campaign.
We now know that the advantage had passed from the Japanese to the Australians after the heroic battles of Isurava and Milne Bay in late August 1942 – but our troops were not aware of this fact at the time! All they knew was that they had to continue to fight a fanatical enemy with not much more than a rifle, bayonet, grenades and fists until they had nothing left in their malarial-wracked bodies. They had to cover their wounded mates who couldn’t go any further and urge them not to give up.
Lieutenant Doug McLean remembers their plight:
“The Japs were in deep dugouts protected with thick logs at ground level separated by other logs just to allow the weapons to protrude . . . providing a field of fire for the one hundred and eighty degrees facing the scrub. Now our troops as they attacked were hit in the lower leg and body . . . and I later found some of my boys lying against enemy positions with unexploded grenades in their hands. They were riddled with wounds but struggled as they died to get to the enemy . . . if ever blokes had earned a decoration . . . one lad was shot twice in the same action . . . flesh wounds . . . ‘Sir’, he said crying, ‘Every time I move some bastard shoots me!’ . . . he was only eighteen!”
Another war correspondent, Chester Wilmot, witnessed the desperation:
‘They must be going through hell on this track’ he wrote – ‘especially those with leg wounds. Some have been hit in the foot and they can’t even get a boot on, but they’re walking back over root and rock and through mud in bare feet, protected only by their bandages. Here’s a steep pinch and a wounded digger’s trying to climb it. You need both hands and both feet, but he’s been hit in the arm and thigh.
‘Two of his cobbers are helping him along. One goes ahead, hauling himself up by root and branch. The wounded digger clings to the belt of the man in front with his good hand, while his other cobber gets underneath and pushes him up. I say to this fellow he ought to be a stretcher case, but he replies “I can get along – there’s blokes here lots worse than me and if we don’t walk, they’ll never get out.”
Private Laurie Howson of the 39th battalion wrote:
‘The days go on. You’re trying to survive, shirt torn, arse out of your pants, whiskers a mile long, hungry and a continuous line of stretchers with wounded carried by ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzies’ doing a marvellous job. Some days you carry your boots because there’s no skin on your feet. But when I look around at some of the others hell! They look crook! Then I have seen the time when you dig a number of holes in the ground and bury your dead. Nothing would be said, but you think ‘maybe it’ll be my turn next’.
Captain Katekar, of the 2/27th Battalion recalled one of the epic battles for survival after they had been forced off Mission Ridge and into the jungle where they struggled without food, medicine or support for almost two weeks:
‘The wounded, God only knows, were in purgatory, hungry and in great pain. Some of our natives began to desert, meaning that our men had to replace them as bearers. ‘Doc’ Viner-Smith allowed the maggots to remain on the wounds in order to eat the rotting flesh and so prevent gangrene. That night we were still short of Nauro. I found it a great mental strain and so did the Commander and other officers, with that great responsibility of not only saving our wounded but of saving ourselves from starvation.”
Those of us who have trekked in their footsteps cannot begin to imagine the hardship or the desperation they endured. But what we do know is that out of the adversity they suffered and conquered, bonds of mateship grew stronger with each passing year. Observers refer to this invisible force of mateship as ‘esprit de corps’.
Australia’s official war historian, Dudley McCarthy, sensed it within the 39th Battalion and tried to define it:
‘Although possessing no permanent site’ he wrote, ‘having neither roof nor walls, nor unchanging form, it yet becomes home for those who serve in it. Away from it, each of its members can revert to being homeless individuals, lost, uncertain, without proper identity. Because of this it calls to life in a man, rounded into fullness through shared battle, suffering and death, each one will always feel some sense of brotherhood for each other man of his battalion. Through this thing the strong lift the weak to efforts and achievements beyond their own strength and their conscious wills, and the dependence of the weak gives greater strength and endurance to the strong. For every individual human part of this battalion who is killed, this thing changes something in those who survive and calls to life something new that never was there before.’
Close bonds were also forged with a race of people our diggers hardly knew – the Papua and New Guinea native carriers who were cashiered into service by a desperate administration to support our operations. They had little understanding of the war and were placed at the end of the food-chain in the provision of essential necessities.
Some 56,000 were indentured into service throughout Papua and New Guinea with up to 2,000 supporting the Kokoda campaign. Their only clothing was a lap-lap. They had no shoes. No blankets. No shelter: and virtually no food to sustain them.
They were contracted to carry vital supplies of ammunition and rations to our troops at the front – carrying wounded soldiers back along the track was not mentioned as part of the deal.
But such is the nature of their compassion that when they came across a soldier who could go no further and faced a certain, lonely death off the side of a remote jungle track they would stop, assemble a stretcher from bush materials, load him onto their shoulders and begin a journey that took up to two weeks to complete. When night fell and temperatures dropped, they would lay on each side of their ‘white stranger’ to try and keep him warm while sharing the few grams of rice they were rationed, with him.
They were poorly equipped, underfed, often overloaded and paid a pittance. The spirit of their commitment was captured by Sapper Bert Beros, a bush poet, who owed his life to them:
Many a mother in Australia,
when her day’s work is done,
sends a prayer to the almighty,
for the keeping of her son
asking that an angel guide him,
and bring him safely back.
Now is seems her prayers are answered
up on the Kokoda Track.
‘Tho they haven’t any haloes
only holes made in their ears
Their faces are marked with tattoos
they wear scratch-pins in their hair.
Bringing back the wounded
as steady as a hearse
Using leaves to keep the rain off
and as gentle as a nurse
Slow and steady in bad places
on that awful mountain track
The look upon their faces
makes us think that Christ is black.
Every care to help the wounded
they treat him like a saint
It’s a picture worth recording
that an artists yet to paint
Many a lad will see their mothers
and husbands their wee ones and wives
Just because the fuzzy-wuzzies
carried them out and saved their lives.
From mortar and machine gun fire
and chance surprise attack
To safety and the care of doctors
at the bottom of the Track
May the mothers of Australia
when they offer up a prayer
Just mention those impromptu angels
with the fuzzy-wuzzy hair.
And so the legend of the ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ was born.
But to our eternal shame many of these black angels still lie in lonely, unmarked graves across the Owen Stanley Ranges far from their ancestral homes. Their identities are unknown. There is no record of their service. No national honour roll. No spiritual resting place or cenotaph for their families, friends, and kinfolk to gather round each year to grieve or to commemorate their sacrifice. There has been no research into who they were? Where they came from? How they died? Or where? It’s as if they never existed!
For those who command a desk in distant bureaucratic empires and academia the care and compassion of a Papuan in a remote jungle is something they will never comprehend.
But for those who have been carried to safety on a stretcher over that inhospitable terrain, as I have been on two occasions over the past 29 years, their unconditional care and compassion will never be forgotten.
Those of us who have established close relationships with their kinfolk over the past couple of decades simply cannot understand why their service has never been officially recognised.
We can only wonder why they don’t have their own cenotaph in the form of a ‘Spirit Haus’ at, or adjacent to, Bomana War Cemetery – there is plenty of room and it wouldn’t cost much. One could only imagine how many Papua New Guineans would visit to pay their respects if such a haus was guarded by traditional warriors in their ceremonial gear protecting the spirits of their wartime ancestors.
We can only imagine how many more Papua New Guineans would attend the annual Anzac Dawn Service at Bomana if it was to be a shared service. Imagine the impact of PNG students emerging out of the pre-dawn darkness slowly carrying stretchers through the rows of white granite headstones to the solemn beat of traditional kundu drums and laying them at the foot of the Cross of Sacrifice, turning inwards and lowering their heads as a prelude to the official Dawn Service. It would symbolise the passing of spirits between the saviours and those they tried to save. It would put goose-bumps on the nation!
These forms of shared remembrance are not limited by cost – only by imagination and leadership!
We need to enlist the support of the Port Moresby RSL to make this happen – I couldn’t think of anybody more qualified for this task that the current NSW State President, Ray (Jesse) James, OAM, whose father fought on the Kokoda Trail when he was a 16 year old teenage boy.
We chose the 3rd November as ‘Kokoda Day’ because of the symbolism attached to the raising of our flag on the Kokoda plateau on this day in 1942.
It would never have happened if our allied naval forces had not stopped the Japanese invasion fleet in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and defeated them in the Battle of Midway a month later. It would not have been raised if our air forces had not taken to the skies against all the odds to harass Japanese zeros and bomb their landing ships in Rabaul, Bougainville and off the northern beaches. It would not have happened if our coast-watchers and commandos had not harassed the enemy and passed on vital intelligence. It would not have happened if our American allies had not spilt so much blood for us at Guadalcanal.
I live in hope that one day our Governments will proclaim ‘Kokoda Day’ as an official day of commemoration to be remembered with a short service in all schools and communities throughout Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Former NSW Premier Bob Carr understood the significance of the Trail and the esprit de corps of our troops in a letter he wrote after I sought his support to have more emphasis on the Kokoda campaign in our NSW education system:
‘The Kokoda Trail isn’t just a place where our salvation was won’ he wrote, ‘though we should remember, and document and treasure every inch of it. Kokoda’s now part of the Australian Dreaming, a sacred site.
‘More than that the Men of Kokoda are among the greatest of heroes in a land that rightly canonizes few heroes. And as time slowly steals the survivors from our midst, it’s hard to resist thinking that Australians in the not too distant future will look back with almost disbelief at the giants who lived in those days’.
‘Kokoda Day’ will ensure the sacrifice of these giants is never forgotten and will be a source of inspiration for future generations of young leaders from both countries. It will provide a vital link in the chain of remembrance. A link referred to by Sergeant Stan Bryant in an address he gave to veterans of the 8th Division at the Cenotaph which I attended more than 20 years ago:
‘I say to all you people here today’ he said. ‘To you who are responsible for governing this country, to all you who hold positions of leadership in the community, to all Australians. It is from the men we honour today that you inherited this land.
‘These were the men who helped build this nation. They were the ones associated with the building of our harbours and our bridges. They sealed the roads across the black soil planes, and they built the railways across Australia. Then they fought off the Japanese invasion so that you could inherit this country.
‘You now have the fruits of our labours. The cities and the harbours and the plains are yours. We few survivors are aged and can only look on with pride and wish you success in the future.
‘But we do charge you, to accept the responsibility of your inheritance and nourish and guard them with care.
‘And remember always, the men of the Eighth Australian Division and the two ships who stood between the Japanese invasion and Australia. They paid the price of your future. Only they know the real cost.
‘And remember – remember – we solemnly promised God that we would never forget!’
I can report that among the 60,000 Australian who have trekked Kokoda over the past two decades were a couple of mates from the opposite sides of politics in our National Parliament – Scott Morrison and Jason Clare who were both backbenchers at the time.
I’m pleased to say they didn’t just trek and forget – Scott recently wrote that it was one of the most profound experiences of his life.
I believe his experience on the Trail is the basis of the close, empathetic relationship he has established with PNGs Prime Minister, James Marape – the closest any of our two Prime Ministers have had since Independence 45 years ago.
This has led to formal discussions on establishing a historic Joint Agreement to commemorate our shared wartime heritage in Papua New Guinea.
More recently, Veterans Affairs Minister, Darren Chester, has allocated $10 million to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the War in the Pacific and to fund a long-awaited Military Heritage Action Plan for the Kokoda Trail.
We now have just one more request for him.
It’s now time this Memorial Walkway was designated as a ‘Military Memorial of National Significance’. It has served its apprenticeship since being established through the Australia Remembers program 24 years ago. The initial aim was to link the wartime heritage of the hospital, which was first established as the 113th Australian General Hospital in 1940 before being handed over to the Repatriation Commission after the war, and later being transferred to the NSW State Health System in 1993.
The concept of a memorial walkway, linking the hospital to Rhodes Station, was developed to allay any concerns our veteran community might have had in thinking they might be losing their repatriation hospital at the time.
What started as a community project led by the City of Canada Bay and supported by Concord Rotary, the RSL, and the NSW State Labor Government has mushroomed to the extent that it now receives more visitors than the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park – which also started as a community project in 1916.
We now need the NSW Coalition Government to pick up where the previous Labor Government left off. It shouldn’t be a problem though as our Treasurer has already trekked it with me twice before – he will certainly understand how important it is to the 4,500 NSW students who are among the 158,000 visitors to the memorial each year.
I would like to conclude with a poem an elderly digger sent me after a talk I gave at his RSL Anzac War Veterans Retirement Village almost 30 years ago. It was titled ‘ANZAC Day’. The poem resonated with me at the time, and still does today , because it encapsulates the spirit of commemoration:
I saw a boy marching with medals on his chest,
he marched alongside Diggers, marching six abreast.
He knew it was Anzac Day, he marched along with pride,
and did his best to keep in step, with the Diggers by his side.
And when the march was over, the boy looked rather tired.
A Digger said, ‘whose medals son?’ to which the boy replied:
‘They belong to my Dad, but he didn’t come back.
He died in New Guinea, up on the Kokoda Track.’
The boy looked rather sad, and a tear came to his eye.
But the Digger said, ‘Don’t worry Son, I’ll tell you why’.
He said: ‘Your old man marched with us today, all the bloomin’ way!
‘All us Diggers knew he was here, it’s like that on Anzac Day’.
The boy looked rather puzzled, he didn’t understand,
but the Digger went on talking and started to wave his hand.
‘For this great land we live in, there’s a price we have to pay.
‘To keep Australia free, and to fly our flag today.
‘Yes, we all love fun and merriment, in this country where we live.
but the price was that some soldier, his precious life must give.
For you to go to school my son, and worship God at will,
somebody had to pay the price, so our Diggers paid the bill.’
‘Your old man died for us my son, for all things good and true,
‘I hope you can understand, these words I’ve said to you.’
The boy looked up at the Digger, and after a little while,
his face changed expression and he said, with a beautiful smile:
‘Yes, I know my Dad marched here today, this our Anzac Day,
‘I know he did! I know he did! All the bloomin’ way!’
Lest We Forget.
The Kokoda Day Commemoration Service at the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway, Concord was attended by Dr Fiona Martin, the Federal Member for Reid; Dr Geoffrey Lee, the NSW Minister for Veterans Affairs, and Clr Angelo Tsirekas, Mayor of the City of Canada Bay.
Immediately after the Service, Dr Geoffrey Lee announced that he would work together with Dr Fiona Martin and Clr Angelo Tsirekas to ensure the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway here in Concord is officially recognised as a Military Memorial of National Significance on the 25th Anniversary of the Australia Remembers campaign on the 3rd November 2021 – great things can happen when our leaders from across the political spectrum at the three levels of government commit to working together.
Click on this link to see the announcement on Channel 7 by Dr Lee.