75th Anniversary of Kokoda and the Beachhead Battles

2 November 2017

Commemorative Address
The Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson AO
National Arboretum, Canberra


Minister, Vice Chief of Defence, Excellencies, students.

Most importantly, you, the veterans and the families who love and support you, the spirit of the men and women who are not here and representatives of our veterans’ communities.

It’s hard to know what to say. I am privileged to be the custodian of the record you made, as Charles Bean said, ‘here in the heart of the land they loved.’ Along with Admiral Griggs, Air Marshal Davies and General Burr I attend and oversee many commemorative services.

None is more important to my country, my generation and those that will come after us than this.

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.

The first line of our National Anthem.

We sing it often. We will hear it sung often.

But less often do we pause to reflect on what it means.

My generation in particular, perhaps more than any other, has taken granted the things that are most important to us in our lives beyond the families who love us and give meaning and context to our lives - the freedoms which you have given us.

For which you served, you fought, you suffered and in the case of Kokoda 641 died and of the Beachhead campaigns 1204 dead and 66 missing.

The most important year in this country’s history is clearly - the British First Fleet arriving and all of the devastation that bring would for millennia of rich Indigenous custodianship, culture and history, and from it the origins of the Australia we would become and the people we now are.

The next most important year was 1942 and the events that bring us here.

After the Japanese had landed on the Malaya Peninsula on the 7th December 1941 nothing had stopped them.

The fall of Singapore, 22,000 young Australians went into captivity over a five week period.

Four days later the first of 68 bombing attacks on the Australian mainland at Darwin.

The critically important naval battle fought by the Royal Australian Navy and the United States Navy in the Coral Sea and the strategic defeat of the Japanese. And then the routing of the Japanese in June 1942 at the Battle of Midway.

And that would mean that the Japanese would have no choice but to get to Port Moresby across the hinterland from the north. And when they landed around Gona on the 21st July 1942 there was very little between them and their objective at Port Moresby.

Undertrained, ill-equipped, often ill young conscripts and militiamen of the 39th Militia Battalion and of course the Papua Infantry Battalion from Moresby. And of course none of us should ever forget that these events forged in bloody sacrifice a bond within which two nations now live - Papua New Guinea and Australia.

And of the campaign that would follow, the 39th Militia Battalion engaging the Japanese on the 23rd of July at Awala and everything that would follow. The Australian Official Historian Dudley McCarthy said of Kokoda,

“… it is the story of small groups of men, infinitesimally small against the mountains in which they fought, who killed one another in stealthy and isolated encounters beside the tracks which were life to all of them; of warfare in which men first conquered the country and then allied themselves with it and then killed or died in the midst of a great loneliness.”

And then the Japanese, on the 25th of August, invaded at Milne Bay resisted by the courage of the Australian Army and the courage and professionalism of the Royal Australian Air Force.

And then the Japanese, outnumbering the 39th Militia Battalion five to one, forced the 39th back to Isurava under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner.

And there, if the 7th Division and the 2/14th and 2/16th had not arrived there on the 26th of August as Honner had said to his men that morning,

‘If they don’t get here today, it’s all over.’

And they did arrive.

And when they did arrive this is what they, you, found.

Captain Henry ‘Blue’ Steward of the 2/14th arriving to find the 39th said this,

‘…gaunt spectres with gaping boots and rotting tatters of uniform hanging around them like scarecrows. Their faces had no expression, their eyes sunk back into their sockets. They were drained by malaria, dysentery and near-starvation, but they were still in the firing line…I could have cried when I saw them, they looked terrible. ‘

Another said,

‘None of the 39th spoke of fighting, they were completely desensitised, completely inured to suffering. Suffering for them had become an integral part of living.’

And then Jim McCoy, also of the 2/14th said,

‘They were terribly pleased to see us, the divisions faded at once, we were Australians, fighting for Australia.’

And then there was the courage of Charlie McCallum the 24 year old farmer from Gippsland in the fighting retreat of his platoon at Isurava. Propped up with his Bren gun and the advancing Japanese coming to the perimeter defences, firing his Bren gun into the attacking Japanese killing 25, one so close he fell on top of him.

And then picked up a Thompson sub-machine gun, a Tommy gun as you called them, from a dying mate, fired that as he put another magazine in his Bren gun, was wounded three times, recommended for the Victoria Cross, was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal and died a week later down the Track.

And then the story of course of the Bissett brothers, Stan and Harry Bissett. Stan, the Intelligence Officer for his battalion, and Harry the commanding officer of his platoon, there at Isurava on the 20th August.

Harry’s platoon had sustained 11 Japanese attacks on their perimeter defences throughout the day and then distributing grenades to his men late in the afternoon a burst of machine-gun fire to his abdomen and then four men under heavy fire volunteered to carry him back under his lines and after four hours he died in his brother’s arms.

And it was said of Harry Bissett that no one’s death so rocked the Battalion as his.

It was said of him that to the end he had the utmost love for his men and they in turn returned his devotion.

And then of course the courage of Bruce Kingsbury.

His platoon, entirely shot to pieces, he immediately volunteered to join another platoon and to take on the advance of the Japanese. And going forward into very, very heavy Japanese machine-gun and rifle fire, Bren gun at hip, taking out swathes of Japanese and then finally being shot and killed by a Japanese sniper and in doing so defending the Battalion headquarters.

In the year 2000, Sergeant Jack Sim, who’d been a shop assistant in Ballarat, a member of the 39th Battalion, he told his story to us, and he said in part of what you endured,

Some prayed, some swore with fear, but you wouldn’t show it in front of your mates. One of the boys got shot fair between the eyes, right alongside me. It was a perfect shot. Terrible to be afraid, he said, but its’ the brave ones afraid that still kept going, that’s what they did you know. Scared bloody stiff and they still kept going.

They were so young, so young. I loved them all.

And then, 75 years ago today, finally, the Australian flag was raised at Kokoda by members of the 25th Brigade of the 7th Division and some members of the 39th.

And one of the failings I think of us as a nation, is that for a lot of Australians who focus only on headlines, broad brushstrokes and popular imagery and mythology of our history, for the average Australian that’s where it all ended.

But as you know only too well, even more was to come at Gona, Buna and Sanananda .

In fact Sergeant Jack Scott of the 2/16th said of what you endured at Gona,

‘It was like World War One. It was open ground against fixed positions. We knew the Japs had been preparing for months ... And even if we got through we had no idea what we’d find when we got there. We were apprehensive to say the least, but like trained soldiers we had a job to do for our country and we believed those in high command had good reasons for ordering us to go. And, I suppose, while there’s life, there’s hope.’

Lieutenant Doug Maclean of the 39th Battalion on the attack at Gona, he said this,

‘The Japs were deep in dug outs protected with thick logs at ground level separated by other logs just to allow the weapons to protrude…providing a field of fire for the one hundred and eighty degrees facing the scrub. Now our troops as they attacked where hit in the lower leg and body…and I later found some of my boys lying against enemy positions with unexploded grenades in their hands. They were riddled with wounds but struggled as they died to get to the enemy…if ever blokes had earnt a decoration…one lad was shot twice in the same action…flesh wounds….and the tears in his eyes when he asked for a safer spot…’Sir’, he said crying, ‘Every time I move some bastard shoots me!’…he was only eighteen. ‘

And then Bill Spencer of the 2/9th on the 18th December assault on Gona, he was with the Battalion’s intelligence section and was required to move from company to company passing orders and taking information back, he said,

‘Moving around between the companies was a macabre and at time hair-raising task. It was sickening to see the number of mutilated, dead bodies lying everywhere, together with the torn undergrowth, blood stained clothing and discarded utensils of war. Some of the dead lay or were slumped in natural positions, appearing to be in a deep, peaceful sleep. I thought one of our lads, Jack Hardwick, was asleep, and I had to gently push him to make sure. Poor old Jack did not wake up.’

Frank Rolleston, who may be known to some of you, a member of the 2/9th, he was one of those that went back to Milne Bay for an Anzac Day service in 1976 and he said this of the experience, and he had fought at Milne Bay, he’d fought at Buna and at Gona. He said,

It is a rather strange feeling to walk along the rows of graves and see name after name of men a person knew well. At Buna, my Company Commander, Platoon Officer, Section Leader, Sergeant-Major and others lost their lives, and my thoughts went back to that morning on the 18th December , 1942 as I lay with my Bren gun waiting for dawn and the attack on Buna, with Charlie Alder on one side of me and “Rusty” Bain on the other. Both men were shot dead that first day and as I gazed at their graves, I realised just how easily I could have been lying in Bomana Cemetery.

Looking at the headstones and the ages of the sleepers below, I realised that the majority seemed to have been dead longer than they had lived, and I realised the truth of the saying that "They shall not grow old as we who are left behind grow old," for I remembered these men as in " their youth, and yet had they lived, they would have changed with the years.’

What you left behind at Kokoda, Buna, Gona, Sanananda, Milne Bay, Isurava was not only these seventeen hundred mates, but you left something else for us.

And as you leave us, most of your generation are now gone, please know you will always be remembered.

In granite there at Isurava are four words, everything that you represent.


Nothing of value in life is achieved without taking a risk.


You never, ever give up.


In order to achieve the objectives that we’ve set for ourselves we have to make sacrifice, we have to give things up and often with immense physical and or emotional pain.

And mateship.

That in the end what we need most is one another.

There are a small number of veterans here today, I say to young people, who fought in these campaigns that I’m referring too, and they’re old. But once they were young. They were young like you.

And today, and for the rest of your lives, when you sing our National Anthem, just think of them, because that are why we are free.

They are the best generation this country has ever produced.

They were born in the aftermath of the First World War.

They grew up through what is called the Great Depression, and may God grant never you ever experience one.

They then came to their teenage years under the shadows of a war that was coming.

They mobilised to defend our freedoms and vital interests.

They then set about the economic and social reconstruction of our country, Australia, and gave us the prosperity that too often we have taken for granted.

So always remember them.

They put principle above position, values ahead of value, they regarded their responsibilities to one another and our nation and its future as transcending and defining their rights.

We will always remember them.

We remember them here every day, for we are young and we are free.

Thank you.

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