On the afternoon of 3 November 1942 hundreds of Australian soldiers stood to attention beneath grey skies and rain on a small plateau, adjacent to the village of Kokoda, high in the mountains of Papua. The Australian flag was hoisted, signalling an end of the battle for Kokoda – one of the most difficult conflicts involving Australians during the Second World War.
The Kokoda track begins near the village of Buna on the north coast of Papua and runs south for around 96 kilometres towards Port Moresby via the rugged Owen Stanley Range. This is mountainous country, with high rainfall and thick, tropical jungle that made military operations exceedingly difficult.
The Japanese captured Buna in July of 1942 and then set about advancing on Port Moresby via the Kokoda track. Kokoda village itself was a location of particular strategic importance because of the presence of an airfield – vital for the resupply of food and ammunition to the soldiers.
The Japanese advance encountered stiff Australian resistance from the 39th Battalion, and the 21st Brigade assisted by the Papua Infantry Battalion but the defenders were pushed back, with the Japanese capturing Kokoda and reaching a location within sight of Port Moresby. However, running short of supplies, they were obliged to retreat in late September and the Australians launched into pursuit mode. Major battles were fought at Templeton’s Crossing and Eora Village during October, and the Australians succeeded in continuing their forward push.
All these actions were fought across inhospitable country, with topical diseases such as malaria, dysentery and dengue fever taking a significant toll on both Japanese and Australian soldiers. Kokoda Village was finally captured without incident on 2 November 1942, with the Japanese having left the area a few days before.
Another major battle was fought further north, around Oivi and Gorari, from the 4th to 11th November, resulting in a further victory to the Australians.
The Kokoda Trail Campaign, as it became known, was fought between 21 July and 16th November 1942. Some 625 Australian soldiers were killed in action, compared to an estimation of around 2050 deaths for the Japanese.
Image: Group portrait of 9 Platoon, A Company, 2/14th Infantry Battalion on the Kokoda Trail on 16 August 1942. Victoria Cross recipient Pte Bruce Steel Kingsbury is in the first row, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.