Nightmare of the Papuan Jungle

This week marks 80 years since the start of the hell that was the Kokoda Campaign.

On the night of 21 July 1942, Japanese forces of the South Seas Detachment landed on the northern beaches of Papua at Gona and moved to cross the Kokoda Trail overland to reach Port Moresby. The first fighting occurred between the Japanese and elements of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion at Awala on 23 July.

July 23, 1942: Japanese troops move up Kokoda trail and clash with Australian forces. Painting by Japanese artist Kei Sato from 1943

This soon became a desperate and bloody fighting retreat– including several instances of bitter hand-to-hand combat– along the Trail that would stretch into mid-November is one of the most forgotten ground campaigns of WWII.

A patrol of the 2/31st Battalion negotiates a path through the native cane growing on the swampy river flats bordering the Brown River c 4 October 1942. A two-day rest at the river, during which time it was re-supplied by air, enabling an issue of tobacco and chocolate was “very beneficial”. The men were able to swim and wash their clothes, to light fires, and smoke at night for the first time since the campaign began more than three weeks before. In a month’s time, the 2/31st Battalion would become the first Australian troops to re-enter Kokoda.

Kokoda and the Aussies. Note the Owen SMG, Bren, No III Enfield SMLE rifle, posing among the captured Japanese helmets

Kokoda and the Aussies. Australian captured Japanese Type 11 mountain gun and Type 96 machine gun

As noted by the Australian War Memorial:

The Kokoda Trail fighting was some of the most desperate and vicious encountered by Australian troops in the Second World War. Although the successful capture of Port Moresby was never going to be a precursor to an invasion of Australia, victory on the Kokoda Trail did ensure that Allied bases in northern Australia, were vital in the coming counter-offensive against the Japanese, would not be seriously threatened by air attack. Approximately 641 Australians were killed along the Kokoda Trail and over 1,600 were wounded. Casualties due to sickness exceeded 4,000.

“The Kokoda Trail is one of the most iconic Australian campaigns of the Second World War,” Dr. Karl James, Head of Military History at the Australian War Memorial, said. “Eighty years on, it is important to continue to honor those veterans.”

These days, the Australian Army still takes jungle warfare seriously, conducting regular Butterworth training rotations in Malaysia to keep their skills sharp. 

C Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment on Butterworth Rotation 136 in Malaysia, Aug 2022.

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