More than 600 Australians were killed and some 1680 wounded during perhaps the most significant battle fought by Australians in World War II.
Forced to repel a Japanese invasion force, which landed at Gona on the north coast of Papua on 21 July 1942, the Australians fought in appalling conditions over the next four months. The Japanese objective was to capture Port Moresby, the main Australian base in New Guinea, by an overland strike across the Owen Stanley Range. The most direct way across these rugged mountains was by a jungle pathway known as the Kokoda Track.
During the next four months, until 16 November 1942, Australian soldiers fought the Japanese, first to keep them from reaching Port Moresby and then to push them back over the Owen Stanleys to their north coast strongholds at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
In late July 1942, as the Japanese advanced towards Kokoda village, they were engaged by forward elements of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Australian 39th Infantry Battalion. Despite the Australians’ stubborn resistance, Kokoda fell to the larger Japanese force and by 27 August the Australians and the few Papuan troops who had stayed with them had been forced back to Isurava. Reinforcements were sent from Port Moresby: first the 53rd Battalion, which protected a side-track behind Isurava and then the veteran 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions, which had previously served in the Middle East.
At Isurava, in the last days of August, the 39th and the 2/14th Battalions, with support further back from the 2/16th and 53rd Battalions, were able to temporarily hold the Japanese during an intense five-day action. Three days into the battle, on 29 August, in the face of yet another enemy assault, Private Bruce Kingsbury, 2/14th Battalion, was killed as he rushed forward with his Bren gun, driving back the enemy in a determined counter-attack. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the first VC awarded during the New Guinea campaigns.
Throughout September, the Australian units withdrew down the Kokoda Track, being joined by the 2/27th Battalion. They made further stands against the Japanese at Eora Creek, Templeton’s Crossing, Efogi, Mission Ridge and Ioribaiwa. Allied airmen dropped supplies and made repeated attacks on the enemy’s supply lines. During those gruelling days, the Papuan men employed as carriers played a vital role in the battle. They carried supplies forward for the troops and then, as the number of troops who were wounded or fell sick increased, carried back to safety those who were unable to walk.
By 16 September, after more troops had come forward from Port Moresby and dug into a defensive position at Imita Ridge, the Japanese were exhausted. They had been forced to fight hard to cross the mountains and had run out of many supplies. Following setbacks on other battlefields against Australian and American forces, which robbed them of further reinforcements, the Japanese on the Kokoda Track were ordered to withdraw. As Australian patrols pushed forward of Imita Ridge on 28 September, they found that the enemy had slipped away.
During the next six weeks, the Japanese fell back over the mountains. They were pursued by troops of the 25th Brigade, comprising the 2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd Battalions and the 16th Brigade, comprising the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions, along with the 3rd Battalion and men from medical and supply units. Significant actions were fought at Templeton’s Crossing, where it took more than a week of hard and costly fighting for the 25th Brigade to push back the enemy, and at Eora Creek where the 16th Brigade also doggedly attacked enemy strongpoints to slowly make ground.
The Australians were plagued by supply shortages that increased the difficulties of jungle warfare. Finally, on 2 November, Kokoda was retaken. The Australians had one more tough battle to fight at Oivi-Gorari, where the Japanese were determined to make another stand, before they were able to finish the advance over the mountains. By 18 November the Australians had reached the Kumusi River. The battle for the Kokoda Track was over.