ANZAC Day is one of the most important days on the Australian calendar, a day when we remember and honour our servicemen and women who have helped to protect the wonderful country and way of life we enjoy today. It’s a day to celebrate everyday Australian values – mateship, courage and sacrifice – values that are still alive today with our ‘have a go’ attitude and tendency to put others before ourselves.
Each year, I write an ANZAC Day post. Previously, I’ve paid tribute to Australian heroes from the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, Gallipoli and ‘The Rats of Tobruk’, as well as our frontline nurses and POWs.
Today, I reflect on the incredible feats of the Australian soldiers on the Kokoda Track.
The Kokoda Track campaign was a significant battle of World War II, fought between Japanese and Australian forces in Papua New Guinea from July 1942 to January 1943. The campaign was fought along a narrow jungle track, traversing the Owen Stanley Range, a mountain range running from the north coast of Papua to the south.
The trail was approximately 160 kilometres long, folded into a series of ridges, rising as high as 2,100 metres. It was covered in thick jungle, short trees and tall trees tangled with vines. The Japanese objective was to capture Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, which would have given them a foothold in the South Pacific and a platform to attack and invade Australia’s northern coastline.
The campaign was characterised by extreme physical and mental hardship, with soldiers on both sides facing harsh terrain, treacherous weather, and constant combat. The Australians were initially outnumbered and outgunned, but they fought with tenacity and courage, often in close-quarters combat with the Japanese. The terrain and climate also played a significant role in the campaign, as many soldiers suffered from malaria, dysentery and other illnesses.
War correspondent Osmar White wrote, ‘Surely no war was ever fought under worse conditions’.
You can’t imagine what it would be like climbing and descending mountains of mud, cutting through jungle, suffering from illness, all while facing close combat trying to survive and protect your mates.
When interviewed in 2018, then 96-year-old George Palmer recalled, ‘I never forget we were at a place right near Gona. There were these bushes, and a [Japanese soldier] walked out straight in front of me. I’ll never forget that. I shot him, of course. But to this day, you know … I’ve got his details at home, and I went to the Japanese embassy, and I still feel I should have done more perhaps to contact his family and give them his things. I’ve got his army pay book, and when he last had pay and all that. I should have perhaps sent it to them. It was him or me. But, anyhow, that was what you did.’
If you haven’t read Kokoda by Peter FitzSimons or seen the 2006 movie, these are both fantastic accounts of the campaign and take your mind back there to give you a greater appreciation.
The campaign was a turning point in the war in the Pacific, and it showed that a determined and well-trained force could defeat the Japanese.
Australians paid a high price, with 624 dead and 1023 wounded. The Japanese counted their casualties in the thousands.
The Kokoda campaign also represents the enduring bonds of friendship between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Australian soldiers are forever indebted to the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, those Papua New Guineans who carried and cared for injured troops along the Kokoda Track.
I am very much looking forward to returning to the Dawn Service at the Shrine in Melbourne. I will be paying tribute to those incredible ANZACs of Kokoda and all our servicemen and women pre and post. I hope you will join me in taking time out to remember them this ANZAC Day.
We remember the Australian qualities of courage, endurance, initiative, humour and mateship displayed by those Kokoda ANZACs. May these values continue to inspire Australian and New Zealanders to face today’s challenges.
Lest we forget.
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