Monday 27 July 2009 by Karl James. 15 comments
Opinion, views and commentary

That terrible track which is now known as the Kokoda Trail.

George Johnston, New Guinea diary, 1943

In recent years, many hours have been wasted and much ink has been spilt debating whether the foot route across the Owen Stanley Range, in Papua New Guinea, should be called the “Kokoda Trail” or the “Kokoda Track”. Both terms were used interchangeably during the war, and at the time they were not considered to be mutually exclusive. Now, though, as Kokoda takes on an ever-increasing prominence in Australia’s military pantheon, second only to Gallipoli in the nation’s sentiment, the “track” versus “trail” debate has become an impassioned, and at times almost belligerent, argument. Supporters of “Kokoda Track” object to the use of the word “trail” on the grounds that it is considered to be an American word, whereas “track” is strongly associated with the language of the Australian bush. Those who favour “trail” are quick to point out that the “Kokoda Trail” is the title of the army’s battle honour and the name gazetted for the route by the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government.

The foot path across the Owen Stanley Range was first used by Australians during the 1890s to reach the Yodda goldfield on the north coast. In 1899, the government surveyor H.H. Stuart-Russell spent three months marking out and mapping the route. It came into regular use in 1904, when a government station was established at Kokoda and an overland mail service between Port Moresby and the north coast began [1]. The central problem at the heart of the “track” versus “trail” debate is that this mail route over the mountains did not have a formal name before the Second World War.

Australian soldiers pause on Ioribaiwa Ridge to look towards Kokoda, October 1942. Australian soldiers pause on Ioribaiwa Ridge to look towards Kokoda, October 1942. 026834

Pre-war records regularly used the word “road” as a way to distinguish regularly used paths in the territories, regardless of their actual condition. The British New Guinea Annual Report for 1921–22, for example, stated that there was “a pedestrian road” from Port Moresby across the Owen Stanley Range and noted that “the scenery en route is magnificent” [2]. The name “Kokoda Road” was used up until the early part of the Kokoda campaign, but with the influx of Australians new to the territory during 1942, the description “road” was largely replaced by “track”.

This use of “track” is reflected in the new maps that were produced by army survey units in September and October; on these maps, all routes across the Owen Stanley Range were referred to as “tracks” [3]. The terrain study Main routes across New Guinea, printed by the Allied Geographic Section in October 1942, similarly describes the route from Port Moresby via Kokoda to Buna as a “track” [4].

The overwhelming majority of soldiers who fought the campaign also used “track”. In a survey of unit war diaries, letters and personal diaries written during the campaign, Peter Provis, a Memorial summer scholar, found that the word “trail” was used only once in a war diary, in the 2/31st Battalion on 11 September 1942. There were, however, also references to “track” [5].

Transported by lorries as far as UBERI track which was trafficable. Proceeded per foot along UBERI trail – through OWERS CORNER down to GOLDIE RIVER – up to UBERI where night was spent. This track was particularly tough – single file – mud up to knees. [6]

Provis likewise found that “trail” was used only once in a soldier’s personal diary. On 25 July 1942 Warrant Officer II George Mowat, a Great War veteran serving with the 39th Battalion, wrote in his diary that the “Trail [is] rough steep and slippery”. But two days later he wrote: “Track slippery some places had to crawl. ” [7] Although both terms were used, it is clear that the diggers themselves preferred “track”. It is also reasonable to conclude that soldiers would have used “track” in their speech. It is worth mentioning, however, that rarely were the fuller expressions, “Kokoda Track” or “Kokoda Trail”, used. “Track” was usually used in a generic sense, in reference to a particular track leading to a village or between villages.

Members of the 16th Brigade moving up the Kokoda Trail, between Nauro and Menari, during the Australian advance, October 1942. Members of the 16th Brigade moving up the Kokoda Trail, between Nauro and Menari, during the Australian advance, October 1942. 027053

It is commonly assumed that American war correspondents in Port Moresby were responsible for coining the term “Kokoda Trail”. The Australian correspondent Geoff Reading, however, has repeatedly claimed that he was the person responsible for this designation. His first use of the title was in a story for Sydney’s Daily Mirror, filed from Port Moresby on 26 October 1942, which carried the bold headline: “Kokoda Trail … a Diary of Death”. Reading’s motivation was entirely practical.

I did it because along with the other correspondents at the time, I didn’t know what to call it … I got sick of typing descriptions such as “Imita–Ioribaiwa–Nauro track”. I called it Kokoda Trail to save typing. [8]

The Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, and the Melbourne Argus, been using “trail” since mid-September 1942 [9]. The “Kokoda road” also made the occasional appearance, but most Papua-based correspondents used both “track” and “trail”. By the end of October there was a move for Australia-based journalists to adopt “Kokoda trail” – with a lower case “t” [10]. According to historian Hank Nelson, it was these journalists, using communiqués from General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters, who began to adopt the American expression “trail” [11].

The use of both names continued after the war. In many manuscripts and published memoirs, veterans use both “track” and “trail”, depending on their individual preference. Even the authors of the multi-volume Australian official Second World War histories were split over the issue. Dudley McCarthy, the author of the relevant volume, South-West Pacific Area (1959), for example, uses “Kokoda Track”. The authors of the other volumes divide fairly evenly. Further complicating matters, however, McCarthy uses a map drawn by Hugh W. Groser, titled “The Kokoda Track” that has “Kokoda Trail” inscribed along the route [12].

The Kokoda Track memorial cairn at Sogeri was designed and built during the war. It stands at the junction where the road to Owers’ Corner intersected with the Sogeri road, 29 October 1944. The Kokoda Track memorial cairn at Sogeri was designed and built during the war. It stands at the junction where the road to Owers’ Corner intersected with the Sogeri road, 29 October 1944. 076621
The case for adopting “trail” was given considerable weight with the granting of the battle honour “Kokoda Trail”. In May 1946 the Battles Nomenclature Committee was established in the United Kingdom to tabulate the actions fought by the land forces of the British Empire during the Second World War and to define each action. An Australian Battles Nomenclature Committee was formed the following year to tabulate Australian actions in the Pacific [13]. When a provisional list of Australian Pacific battle honours was completed in 1947, the designation “Battle of the Owen Stanley Range” was suggested for the Kokoda campaign. By June 1948, however, the provisional honour had changed to the “Kokoda Trail” [14]. Ten years later, when the committee’s final report was published, “Kokoda Trail” was adopted as the official Commonwealth battle honour.

This battle honour was awarded to ten infantry battalions as well as to the Pacific Island Regiment. The 39th Battalion Association tried unsuccessfully to have the honour changed to the “Kokoda Track” [15]. Evidently, other associations did not feel as strongly about the term or they accepted the official use of “Kokoda Trail”. In 1997, Australian War Memorial historian Garth Pratten surveyed the Memorial’s collection of published histories of all the major units involved in the Owen Stanley and Beachhead campaigns. Pratten found that of the 28 published histories, nine used “Kokoda Track” while 19 used “Kokoda Trail”. This was a majority of over 2:1 in favour of “Trail”. As these histories were usually written, edited, or published by men who had participated in the campaign, Pratten reasonably concluded that “Kokoda Trail” was the nomenclature preferred by the veterans [16]. When the Memorial redeveloped its Second World War galleries during the 1990s, it decided to adopt “Kokoda Trail” because it was favoured by the majority of veterans and because it appears on the battle honours of those units which served in the campaign [17].

The strongest case for the use of “trail” came in October 1972 when the Papua and New Guinea Place Names Committee of the PNG government’s Department of Lands gazetted its intention to formalise the route from Owers’ Corner to Kokoda as the “Kokoda Trail” [18]. This cause a vigorous debate over its name, but ultimately the PNG government formally decided to name the route “Kokoda Trail”.

Too much time and energy has been spent on the “track” versus “trail” debate. It is clear that both words were used interchangeably during the war, and in a sense both are correct, so it is not possible to give a definitive ruling for one over the other. Rather than quibble over the name, it is far more important to remember the service and sacrifice of those Australians, Papuans, and Japanese who fought and died along it.

References

  1. See Stuart Hawthorne, The Kokoda Trail: a history (Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, 2003), chapter 6; Hank Nelson, Black, white and gold: gold mining in Papua New Guinea, 1879-1930 (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1976)
  2. Geoffrey Dabb, "A short explanation of the name 'Kokoda Trail'", research paper, Canberra, 2008, p.
  3. See for example the Kagi-Naoro Area and Kokoda Area maps, 25th Brigade war diary, September-October 1942, Australian War Memorial [AWM], AWM52, item 8/2/25; Wairopi and Buna (South East) maps, 2/31st Battalion war diary, August 1942 - March 1943, AWM, AWM52, item 8/3/31
  4. Allied Geographic Section, Main routes across New Guinea, 18 October '42: South-West Papua and Fly River (Brisbane: Allied Geographic Section, Southwest Pacific Area, 1942), pp. 2-6
  5. Peter Provis, "Kokoda: track or trail?", Australian War Memorial Summer Scholar research paper, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2003, pp. 5-9
  6. 2/31st Battalion war diary, 11 September 1942, August 1942 - March 1943, AWM, AWM52, item 8/3/31
  7. Provis, "Kokoda: track or trail", p. 9; Diary 25 July and 27 July 1942, Mowat papers, AWM, 3DRL/7137
  8. Letter to the editor, Weekend Australian, 6-7 June 1998; Letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 1992
  9. Provis, "Kokoda: track or trail", p. 9
  10. Stuart Hawthorne, The Kokoda Trail: a history (Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, 2003), pp. 235-39
  11. Hank Nelson, "Kokoda: the Track from History to Politics", Journal of Pacific History. 38, 1, 2003, pp. 119
  12. Dudley McCarthy South-West Pacific Area - first year: Kokoda to Wau (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959), map facing p. 114
  13. Battles Nomenclature Committee interim report: final draft, AWM, DDC file 417/001/005 02; Australian Battles Nomenclature Committee initial meeting, 16 Dec 47, AWM, DDC file 417/001/005 01
  14. See Battles Nomenclature - War of 1939-45 in the SWPA and Australian Battle Nomenclature Committee Pacific Area, part II Papuan campaign July 1942 - January 1943 honours, AWM, DDC file 417/001/005 01; Army Council Secretariat, The official names of the battles, actions and engagements fought by the land forces of the Commonwealth during the Australian campaigns in the "South-West Pacific 1942-1945" and the "New Zealand campaign in the South Pacific 1942-1944" and the "Korean campaign 1950-1953" (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1958)
  15. Letter to the editor by William John Guest, Honorary secretary, 39th Battalion Association, The Australian, 5 July 1999
  16. Kokoda Track or Kokoda Trail?, AWM, DCC 98/2499
  17. "Track or Trail?", Wartime 19 p. 3
  18. Papua New Guinea Government gazette 88, 12 October 1972, p. 1,362
  19. Hawthorne, The Kokoda Trail, pp. 232-33

Comments

George

I understand Aussie refer as track and Americans as trail. I prefer both both names sound good.

Ross

I have an active involvement with the 2/14 Battalion Association and was working in Papua New Guinea at the time the PNG Place Names Committee deliberated on this question. My father and his comrades were the first of the AIF troops to return from the Middle East and walk the track to relieve the 39 and 53 Battalions (CMF) at Isurava. They all referred to "The Track" in conversation and correspondence. The battalion's official history was written by its former 2ic and eminent Victorian educationist, the late Bill Russell OBE mid, who created a chapter of the history titled "The Kokoda Trail" because of the Battle Honour but variously referred to it in the narrative as "the Owen Stanley track" or simply "the track". A companion volume, "Men of the 2/14 Battalion", was written in 1990 by historian and author JC (Jim) McAllester, former Intelligence Officer of the battalion. It was developed around the structure of the battalion and the reminiscences of the battalion members. The narrative only refers to "the track" or "Kokoda Track" and the only use of the word "Trail" is in the description of the Battale Honour. The investigation in 1972 by the Place Names Committee arose from and endured a debate such as this. The reasoning for the final adoption of the word "Trail" was down to the weight of public opinion and nothing more. Following this decision, a notice above the skeletal statue of an Australian soldier at the start of the track was changed from "Kokoda Track" to "Kokoda Trail". I have a photograph of my father and some comrades at this statue in 1971 whilst on a pilgrimage. I also have a photograph that I took after the name change. It should be noted that the decision was not made by the PNG government but by the Australian Administration of the Territory of Papua New Guinea. PNG did not get self-determination until December 1973 and Independence in September 1975. Perhaps the real problem lay with the extent of consultation by the Australian Battles Nomenclature Committee at that time.

John Scott Palmer

Whatever term is used, it is still an amazing walk that gives you a good idea of just how hard it was in 1942. The men who did it then were amazing. Hard enough without the Japanese shooting at you!

Gary Traynor

Soc KIENZLE currently lives in Australia, though he grew up in New Guinea and spent his younger years walking the Kokoda Trail. Many would recognise his surname. He is the son of Bert KIENZLE who is synonymous in Kokoda History as being the man who "blazed" many trails during the 1942 campaign and co-ordinated our Papuan brothers who played such a major role. Soc informed me that his father used the term "trail". What Soc does not know about the Kokoda 'track' or 'trail' would not be worth knowing. He is arguably the last white Australian who has a very close affiliation with "colonial New Guinea" and he is responsible for the section of track that is currently being walked by Australian trekkers, between Isurava and Deniki. Instead of dwelling on a name, we should concentrate more on the memory of the men who were there.

Stuart Hawthorne

I have long been intrigued by the continuing track-trail debate in Australia since two non-trivial factors that should be given weight never seem to be considered. The first is that the Kokoda Trail campaign lasted a little over 6 months. 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 higher significance. Of course the Kokoda campaign is very important in Australia on many levels but nothwithstanding this, I often wonder whether the presumption that our Australian perspective displaces all others borders on the arrogant. The second factor is that the route's first and so far only official name is Kokoda Trail. It seems to me at least discourteous to insist that the name now recognised by an independant PNG should be changed to something else simply because we Aussies prefer it. It is perhaps a little like say, persistent American insistence on the 'Birdsville Trail'. I should add that I am a baby boomer who grew up in post-war Papua and before 1972 always knew the Trail as the Kokoda Track. But the official name came about legally and for justifiable reasons so I have, and perhaps others might, just accept it and move on.

joshua

why does it matter what it is called 'trail' or 'track' it doesnt change what happened there, all it does is take away from the soldiers heroism. all of you guys spending so much time trying to figure out what the real name is should go and get a reality check, for all i care it could have no name at all but i still look up to and respect the sacrifice these men paid

David Howell

From an historians point of view most WWII Diggers that you speak to will refer to the path across the Owen Stanley Range as the "Kokoda Track" the word "Track" is also more prelivant in the Australia vocabulary, especially the generation that went off to war in 1942. The term "Fire Trail"was introduced during the 1960's and 70's and was based largley on North American mapping practices and hence the word Trail has slowly crept into the Australian language. Walking within National Parks you will often see signs refering to walking trails, again this is due to the adpoption of American geographical terms. The Papuan Government use the offical title The Kokoda Trail although the authority which controls the trekking is called the Kokoda Track Authority. Official accounts during the war show the path refered to as both Trail and Track. Funnily enough different routes in Papua New Guinea have always been referred to as tracks . With Australia 's long presence in New Guinea other paths across the country retain the term track for example the Bulldog Track and the Jaure Track. Before the Second World War all paths and tracks etc were called by the direction in which one was going, eg. Kokoda Road, Moresby Road, Buna Road. On the Isurava Memorial the term Track and Trail are both used. In the interest of preserving Australia's spoken heritage and that of the spirit of the bush, Kokoda Historical refers to the path over the Owen Stanley's as the Kokoda Track but acknowledges the use of both the term Track and Trail.

John Dean

There is another take on this which rarely gets a mention and has nothing to do with the Kokoda campaign. The Neo Melanesian [Pidgin] word "rot" can be translated as "road" or "track". Australians living in New Guinea prior to WW2 often referred to a track as a road, reflecting the interchangeability of the word, although in practical terms most "roads" were just tracks! The word "trail" was not in the vernacular of the time, nor was it post war, except in reference to the Kokoda Track. I spent some seven years with the Pacific Islands Regiment from the late 60s to the late 70s and only ever used the word "track" as did the current survey maps of that period. From an historical, geographical and cultural point of view then, there is no doubt that "track" is the correct descriptive noun.

Marilyn Laws

I always smile when I hear that the "track" or "trail" debate has arisen as my now 89 year old father (Barney Moore NX19651), who served with the 2/2nd Battalion in New Guinea from October 1942 - January 1943, has standard reply .."it's track - trail is Yanky and the bastards weren't even on it". God bless all of those brave men.

Garry Bentley

Of course it matters whether its 'track' or that other 't' word. As a soldier of the 39th militia battalion as my great uncle was at the time, the real men of Kokoda, he along with his mates were using the word 'track', and frankly, thats that! The language of the time used 'Kokoda Track' and those diggers fighting and dying to save Australia in 1942, to me have a greater right to die and be buried on the 'Kokoda Track' ...... the name of their choice. I won't even use the other T word as I'm already appalled at the use of Americanisms in our language today...next we will be changing 'mates' to 'hey buddies' !!! So as our faithful 39th Bn marched off along the track to war and singing heartly of home, I have very real doubt that they would have been singing " There's a trail winding back to an old fashioned corral......" I have tremendous respect for the unbelievable courage, and undaunting physical and mental stamina of those diggers in July/August of 1942....... along the Kokoda Track.

Richard McIntyre

My father, Bill McIntyre served with the 2/1st Pioneer Batt, arriving on the Track around September 1942.Bill ,although rarely, only referred to that part of New Guinea as the Track.I think this was the common name given to that area by our troops.

Dave Taylor

Were we at war with Japan or Nippon? Was it Rome or Roma that was an open city? Did the Germans reach the gates of Moscow or Moskva? The Papuans can call this sacred site what they like. In the Australian heart, mind, soul, spirit and oral history it has always been and will always be the Kokoda Track.

Bruce Cameron

When I walked the route in 1976, I received a certificate from the Ilimo Local Government Council Kokoda, stating that "I had successfully completed the walk over the Kokoda Trail through the Owen Stanley Ranges". The only word which I believe that I might be entitled to debate, is "walk". In my case 'struggle' would've been more fitting.

Paul @ PeoplePulse

“track” or “trail” - not sure it really matters does it? At least the debate helps ensure we don't forget, which is the main thing.

b.owers

hi i am bayley owers and i have been looking on the history on kokoda track or better Owers corner and i keep seing a name n.owers i just wont to know what his name is if he his a relative and more about the Owers corner i wish to walk the kokoda track but more infomation th my e-mail would be nice thank you your regards bayley