Originally presented by Dr Chris Clark, Military History Section, on Friday 1 November 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial, as part of the Roll of Honour Talks series.
Download the talk - 11:11min (2.6 Mb Mp3)
On this day in 1942 Australian troops were closing on Kokoda, the village on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range which gave its name to one of the epic battles of the war in the Pacific. The place was actually retaken a day later, on 2 November, but it is fitting that today we recall and pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of those troops who took part in the bitter fighting that occurred along the whole of the Kokoda Trail.
It was more than three months earlier, on 21-22 July, that a Japanese force landed near Gona on the north coast of Papua, with orders to reconnoitre the feasibility of using a route over the mountains to launch an attack on the major Allied base at Port Moresby, on the south coast. Within a short time this force had been substantially reinforced to mount a full-scale offensive, the intention being to support it with an amphibious landing at the eastern tip of Papua – a plan which gave rise to another major battle around Milne Bay in August-September.
Initially, the Japanese advance inland made rapid progress against light Australian resistance. Opposing the Japanese was "Maroubra Force", comprising the 300-strong Papuan Infantry Battalion and an Australian militia unit, the 39th Battalion. Patrols clashed at Awala on 23 July before the defenders fell back on Kokoda, which itself came under attack five days later. The Australians were forced out during the early hours of the following morning, following the death in action of the 39th's commander, Lieutenant Colonel W. T. Owen. (His name is recorded on panel 68 of the Roll of Honour).
On 8 August Owen's replacement, Major Alan Cameron, returned at the head of 480 men to attempt to retake the place. Outnumbered and short of ammunition, they were again forced to relinquish control after two days of fighting and fell back along the jungle track leading south up into the mountains, to the next native village called Deniki. After beating off several Japanese attempts to eject them from this position too, eventually on 14 August the 39th Battalion and the Papuan Infantry began to fall back again, this time to Isurava.
For nearly two weeks the Japanese did not heavily press the Australians. During this time the 39th Battalion was joined by another militia unit, the 53rd Battalion, and the headquarters of the 30th Brigade under Brigadier Selwyn Porter. On 23 August part of the seasoned AIF 7th Division had also reached the forward area. This was the 21st Brigade led by Brigadier Arnold Potts, and comprised another two battalions (the 2/14th and 2/16th) numbering a little more than 1000 men in total. Command of Maroubra Force now fell to Potts.