Australia’s Kokoda Track Campaign Rivals Midway as the Turning Point in the Pacific War
Long Forgotten Heroics from WWII
Photo by gailhampshire
Kokoda Day is a National Holiday in Australia and marks the Kokoda Track Campaign, which was won by an unlikely cast of teenage reservists. Yeah, some continental location somewhere was secured by a collection of brave kids, and Down Under has something to celebrate. Sounds like a mere redirect, while everyone else remembers heroics that extend beyond a local footnote. But the truth is any nation that fought the Japanese should probably have a day set aside on their own calendars.
By the Spring of 1942, Japan’s exploding empire made German gains seem paltry and had the Pacific on the run from Alaska to the Solomon Islands. Of course, the key to turning the tide was maintaining control of Australia. This way a jumping off point existed to dislodge Japanese Island strongholds and secure airfields and supply bases.
Island Hoping but the Japanese had the same strategy and hoped to hop skip in the other direction. Hawaii, Alaska, the Canada, the West Coast - who knows, author James Bradley makes the case for a counterfactual history.
Port Moresby in New Guinea thus became the real estate that Japan needed to stage an invasion of Australia. One that would have been entirely successful. Australia’s armed forces were almost nonexistent as American and British forces were scattered off in the distance.
Fortunately, Japan was turned back in the Coral Sea and victory at the Midway historically says that the Allied Island Hoping Campaign could now ensue. But the pendulum swinging the war east or west was still in doubt, according to Bradley who wrote Flags of our Fathers.
The western access to Port Moresby closed after Midway, the Japanese Army determined to pick up the slack from the east. The plan would land a swift force of some of Japan’s most elite fighters and take Moresby after trekking 130 miles into the strategic port.
Setting down in Gona, the incursion sounds straightforward. But the terrain and jungle conditions are among the most difficult in the world. Heat, humidity and tropical disease aside, the muddy ground and narrow trail never allowed for firm footing and a step in the wrong direction proved fatal over the ever-present cliffs.
There were also sudden drops to navigate, dangerous streams to traverse and indigenous head hunters to avoid. Still, the Japanese had demonstrated an expertise in jungle fighting and were ready to travel light and live off the land.
The intelligence reports and intercepted messages said as much, but MacArthur saw little chance of any Japanese force successfully penetrating this trail of misery.
Nonetheless, 6000 troops landed and even a full month after the drop, the allies remained in denial. The high command figured that the Japanese weren’t up to anything other than building an airfield in Buna.
Eventually, the American Caesar awakened but only to order troops into investigate. Once seeing what was before them, a Thermopylae like plan emerged.
A small number of troops would rush in to fill the Gap. “One platoon could stop an army there,” Bradley conveyed the generals assurances.
So this unlikely militia of young men and boys got the call. They had limited training, were poorly clad in khaki that stood out in the jungle and wielded outdated WWI rifles.
They also wore leather footgear that quickly bore holes and did little to alleviate the topography, according to Ralph Honner who remembered his experience in Bradley’s account - The Collected What If? “The physical exertion is continuous. You’re never walking on a flat surface. You can only take boot-length steps going up. Going down you have to go sideways, switching from one side to the other. It’s a constant physical strain, the lactic acid builds up. You are quickly so tired you make mistakes. One foot placed not perfectly and you fall. You fall at least three times a day.”
The playing field wasn’t quite equal either. The Japanese were heavily armed, sported jungle boots to grip the slosh and had machetes to clear the way.
But the mind set may have been even more terrifying. Japanese sought glory in death and basic tactics had scouts running into deadly gunfire so their comrades could pinpoint enemy positions.
At the same time, the gap each side was racing for wasn’t so narrow. Seven miles wide, the 300 had nothing on these kids.
The boys did have one edge however. “Christ, there’s no one between us and Port Moseby,” remembered Jack Manol. “If the Japanese get through us, Australia’s gone.”
Defending their home, 480 Australians held on for 30 days when reinforcements arrived. But the surge didn’t change the strategy or the level of struggle. Strike and retreat, strike and retreat and slow the Japanese advance, Bradley detailed.
Unfortunately, the only real tactic available still didn’t sit well with MacArthur, and muddled progress was his misguided criticism. “They lacked fighting spirit,” the General wired Washington, according to Bradley
The reality proved decisive, though. Three months in the jungle did not satisfy the speedy engagement the Japanese needed to succeed. The lights of the port in their sights, increasing losses and dwindling supplies stopped the Japanese 30 miles short.
The engagement officially ended with the recapture of Gona on August 7. Remarkably, the American command failed to recognize the heroics of the stand and Australian commanders were demoted for their efforts.
Thankfully, the years have been kinder. Australia now proudly celebrates how a beleaguered band of boys saved their country…And maybe the world.
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