Ralph Honnor oration
Speech given by Mr Matt Anderson PSM, Director, Australian War Memorial. 20th Annual Ralph Honner Oration, Boathouse Canberra, 7 December 2022
Dudley McCarthy, Australian Official Historian wrote of the Kokoda campaign:
“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.”
We meet today 80 years after the Battle for Kokoda and the beachheads of Buna, Gona and Sanananda for the 20th annual Ralph Honner Oration.
Hyacinth Ralph Honner, born at Fremantle, Western Australia, on 17 August 1904.
A schoolteacher, solicitor, soldier and diplomat.
In Greece and Crete, Honner commanded his men through a series of fighting withdrawals against numerically superior German forces before being evacuated by submarine. In recommending him for the Military Cross, his Commanding Officer described him as ‘the best company commander [he had] known in this or the last war’.
Militarily, a fighting withdrawal is one of war’s most difficult manoeuvres. Maintaining contact with the enemy to delay them, while simultaneously withdrawing to the ground of your choosing where you might then be able to bring maximum numbers and firepower to effect.
Honner's experience in the Mediterranean prepared him well for the Kokoda Trail where he was once again required to conduct a skilled defence and fighting withdrawal back along the trail; his troops rested only when the tide had turned against the Japanese.
I open today by quoting Honner’s speech to the men of 39th Battalion at Menari village on 6 September 1942.
Honner took command of the 39th Battalion after LTCOL Owen had been killed in the village of Kokoda early in the campaign.
It says as much about Honner as it does about the men he fought with along the Kokoda Track:
"Now I don’t know a lot of you by name, but I know you. We met at Isurava. We fought there together and every step of the way here.
Now we are relieved, and we will leave the battle. And every day the enemy supply line stretches further. He suffers now as you have suffered.
The battle we fought for the track may have just saved your nation. At Imita we will stop him.
Brigadier wants you to know…your gallantry, your courage, your fortitude are an inspiration. And I want you to know that you are some of the finest soldiers that I have ever seen.
You have seen things in this place that no man should witness. Some of these things you must forget. But history will remember you, and in the years to come others will wish that they had your conviction.
And remember…remember the glory is not the exhortation of war, but the exhortation of man. Man’s nobility made transcendent in the fiery crucible of war. Faithfulness and fortitude. Gentleness and compassion.
I am honoured to be your brother.”
On the 60th anniversary of the battle at Isurava, a memorial was unveiled by the Prime Ministers of Australia and Papua New Guinea, John Howard and Sir Michael Somare.
Located on the site of the battle, staring back down the valley towards the airstrip at Kokoda, a good day’s walk away, the memorial commemorates all Australians and Papua New Guineans who fought and died on the track.
The four black granite pillars making up the monument are inscribed with a single word each: courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice.
The Victoria Cross is our nation’s highest honour. Awarded for acts of most conspicuous valour, only one Victoria Cross was awarded for the Kokoda campaign; to Private Bruce Steel Kingsbury, a Real Estate Agent from Essendon.
On 29 August 1942, the enemy attacked in such force that they succeeded in breaching the right flank of the 2/14th Battalion. Despite being in constant contact with the enemy for the previous two days, Kingsbury’s platoon was ordered to counter-attack. On his own initiative, Kingsbury rushed forward through machine gun fire, Bren Gun at the hip, to clear a path for his platoon. He inflicted many casualties before being killed by a sniper.
Three others were recommended.
Staff Sergeant Stan Miller would receive a Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry and courage’ rescuing wounded men under heavy fire at Soputa.
Acting Corporal Charlie McCallum, a farmer from Foster, Victoria was also recommended for a Victoria Cross at Isurava for holding off the Japanese with a Bren gun and Thompson machine gun and was also awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
His citation read: ‘At all times in action, McCallum was admirably calm and steady. On this occasion his utter disregard for his own safety and his example of devotion to duty and magnificent courage was an inspiration to all our troops in the area. His gallant stand and the number of casualties he alone inflicted checked the enemy’s advance and allowed the withdrawal to proceed unhindered and without loss.’
McCallum survived the Battle of Isurava but died at Brigade Hill a week later.
He was an only son, and his mother, Alice, kept his Distinguished Conduct Medal in her handbag for the rest of her life.
The fourth recommendation is a story that is both common and extraordinary. Alexander George Thornton was born in 1914. Like many, he falsified his details and enlisted as George Maidment, with a stated occupation as a labourer. He was described as an “unruly soldier” however, like many when the time came, his actions were courageous, and selfless.
On the morning of 30 August, Maidment’s platoon participated in an attack, but suffered heavy casualties, including the death of his Section Commander. Disregarding heavy automatic weapons fire, Maidment coolly collected grenades from the pouches of his dead section leader and dashed up the slope towards the enemy positions. Almost at once he was badly wounded in the chest and lung but he continued up the hill where he:
“destroyed several of the nearer machine gun posts and continued his onslaught until all his grenades were used and he was ordered to rejoin his platoon. The enemy immediately began to press forward. Maidment then picked up his section leader's Tommy Gun and, showing an entire disregard for cover and for his own safety, he held up the enemy with accurate fire until his ammunition was exhausted. This action allowed his platoon time to withdraw and reform, and was directly responsible for the infliction of severe casualties on the Japanese and the prevention of what seemed inevitable and heavy losses on our side.
It was only after all his ammunition had been expended that Maidment was prevailed upon to rejoin his comrades. Although suffering from loss of blood and exhaustion he refused all assistance to the rear. On arrival at the R.A.P. he collapsed and was evacuated to hospital as a stretcher case. Maidment's unsurpassed courage, fortitude and devotion to duty were an inspiring example. It is recommended that he be awarded the Victoria Cross.'
In one of the many cruelties of war, he never made it to hospital. He never even checked in to the Myola Dressing Station. As no confirmed sighting of him was received after this. Thornton was officially assumed to have died of wounds between Templeton's Crossing and Myola, his body abandoned, and his death not reported.
His Distinguished Conduct Medal was never claimed and is now held in the National Collection at the Australian War Memorial.
My staff have brought it out today, and I understand it is one of the first occasions it has been on public view.
Ralph Honner described the Papuan carriers – the so-called fuzzy wuzzy angels, as attending to our wounded with ‘the care of a nurse and the love of a mother’.
The Kokoda Track or Trail – and I don’t have enough time to argue one or the other – it was both – runs 96 km from Owers Corner to the Village of Kokoda. Over the course of that journey, one is required to ascend or descent over 20,000 feet.
Maps of the Kokoda track were inaccurate, and intelligence about the opposing forces was poor. But most critically, both sides had completely underestimated the impact of the terrain over which they had sent their men to fight and to die.
Perhaps justifiably, but no doubt also in hubris, having swept all before them in their advance through South East Asia, the Japanese did not use the airfield at Kokoda to resupply their troops, expecting instead to capture enough food and supplies during their rapid advance to sustain their offensive.
But the Australians, as they fought their withdrawal back towards Port Moresby, were actually getting closer to their supply chain, which was increasing their ability to sustain a fight.
But it was the Papuan carriers – the so-called Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels from Bert Beros’ poem – whose endurance, courage and compassion were to prove critical to the Australians’ success in the Kokoda campaign. They carried supplies up the track, and the injured back down it, in a remarkable human supply chain organised by two Papuan ‘old hands’, Bert Kienzle and Dr Geoffrey Vernon.
It took eight bearers to carry one stretcher. The carriers used their ingenuity to construct the most effective stretcher for the task, as the Medical Officer of the 2/16th Battalion, Dr ‘Blue’ Steward, recalled:
“Some of the bearers disliked the tight, flat canvas surfaces of the regulation army stretchers, off which a man might slide or be tipped. They felt safer with the deeper beds of their own bush-made stretchers – two blankets doubled round two poles cut from the jungle. Each time we watched them hoist the stretchers from the ground to their shoulders for another stint we saw their strong leg, arm and back muscles rippling under their glossy black skins. Manly and dignified, they felt proud of their responsibility to the wounded and rarely faltered. When they laid their charges down for the night they sought level ground on which to build a rough shelter of light poles and leaves. With four men each side of a stretcher, they took it in turns to sleep and to watch, giving each wounded man whatever food, drink or comfort there might be.”
The work took a heavy toll on the carriers, as Dr Vernon was quoted as saying:
“The condition of our carriers at Eora Creek caused me more concern than that of our wounded. Overwork, overloading (principally by soldiers who dumped their packs and even their rifles on top of the carriers’ own burdens), exposure, cold and under-feeding were the common lot.
Every evening scores of carriers came in, slung their loads down and lay exhausted on the ground; the immediate prospect before them was grim, a meal that consisted only of rice and none too much of that, and a night of shivering discomfort for most as there were only enough blankets to issue one to every two men.”
Sgt Colin Blume, 2/14 th Battalion returned for the unveiling of the Memorial at Isurava.
“I’m not ashamed to say I prayed several times. Mine was: if I get through this I’ll try to live a better life, that’s all. Everybody should have faith of some sort…You’ve faith in what your mate’s going to do. He won’t let you down and you’re not going to let him down. Many suffered a lot for their mates. I think some blokes who went well beyond their job were the medical orderlies. They took a lot of risks and it was mateship, no doubt about it. They could have got knocked themselves but they went out and did something for those fellows that were in trouble.”
Cyril Allender, a labourer from Perth, recalled in an interview with the Australians at War Film Archive the time he and a mate were cut off from their Platoon and forced from the track, having to make their way back the Australian positions.
“We were given two biscuits each that was to last us whatever.”
“And so my mate Johnny Adams, we were very good friends, he said to me, ‘Well, you can have the biscuits because if I take them I will eat them today.’ So that was okay, so I used to break a piece off and say, ‘Johnny, there’s your breakfast.’ ‘There’s your dinner.’
“So after 14 days, when we got back, I said, ‘Guess what, John?’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘I have still got a biscuit left.’ And he said, ‘You miserable bastard, I could have died of starvation.’ So we had four biscuits last us 13 or 14 days ...
In the four months of the Kokoda campaign, more than 600 Australians were killed and over 1,600 were wounded. More than 4,000 casualties were recorded as a result of illness.
When the battles for the Beachheads are included, we suffered 2019 killed and 3533 wounded.
During the desperate fighting at Isurava, Corporal John Metson, of the 2/14th Battalion had his ankle smashed by a bullet.
Refusing to be evacuated on a stretcher he instead padded his hands and knees in order to crawl behind the stretcher bearers.
He crawled for three weeks with a party that became cut off from the main track. He encouraged and cajoled the other ‘walking wounded’. Despite his courage and tenacity, Metson was eventually discovered by the Japanese and was executed on the 4th of October 1942.
John was awarded the British Empire Medal for his courage, his endurance, his mateship and, ultimately his sacrifice.
I used to visit John’s grave every time I took visitors or family to Bomana.
I was asked by Ian Kemish if I could conclude my talk with what I think Kokoda means to us today.
Of course Kokoda was one campaign, and historically it needs to be considered in the context of events in the Coral Sea, at Milne Bay and on Guadalcanal.
But in 1992, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, Australia’s then Prime Minister Paul Keating knelt and kissed the ground and proclaimed that Kokoda should be ranked higher than Gallipoli in the Australian consciousness.
A year later, on the 75th anniversary of the end of First World War, Prime Minister Keating would deliver what I believe is one of the most powerful speeches by an Australian leader, at the internment of the Unknown Australian Soldier.
His speech is now cast in bronze outside the Memorial’s Hall of Memory, and I hope I will be forgiven both for borrowing from it and for paraphrasing some elements; as I believe they have a direct resonance with Kokoda.
Keating said the ‘tomb is a reminder of what we have lost in war and what we have gained’.
In the Kokoda campaign we lost more than 2000 lives ‘and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy.
We have gained a legend: a story of (courage, endurance, mateship) and sacrifice and with it a deeper faith in ourselves and our democracy, and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.’