A party of men of the 21st Australian Pioneer Battalion rest on the jungle slopes to Uberi, where they have been working hard making a track to get troops forward. Credit: Australian War Memorial.
The Kokoda Track marks the course of one of the most important battles for Australians in the Second World War. Between 21 July and 16 November 1942, the Australian Army halted the furthermost southward advance by Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea and then pushed the enemy back across the mountains. It is one of the most striking places of Australian wartime history that can be visited.
The Kokoda Track was initially a series of interconnecting small trails used as a mail route to supply settlements around Kokoda. Further developed by military forces, it became a route that linked Ower's Corner, 40 kilometres north-east of Port Moresby, and the small village of Wairopi, on the northern side of the Owen Stanley mountain range. It was connected to the settlements of Buna, Gona and Sanananda on the north coast.
It was along this track, which crossed incredibly rugged and isolated terrain, that the Australian troops repelled the highly-trained Japanese invasion force. Under conditions of extreme hardship, Australian soldiers fought the Japanese first to keep them from reaching Port Moresby and then to push them back over the Owen Stanley Range to their north coast strongholds at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
Role of the local men
During the battle, one of the toughest actions of World War II, Papuan and New Guinean men were employed as carriers. They played a vital role, carrying supplies and evacuating the seriously wounded and sick troops to safety, sometimes under fire. Their compassion and care of the casualties earned them admiration and respect from the Australians, who dubbed the men the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. The friendship between the peoples of Australia and Papua New Guinea continues to this day.
The length of the Kokoda Track was not measured in distance, but in how many hours it took to traverse. Soldiers were challenged by steep, treacherous inclines, deep valleys, dense jungle, a debilitating climate and drenching rain that frequently turned the ground into quagmire.
Remembering the dead
The story of Kokoda is one of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice. These qualities are declared on the Australian memorial erected at Isurava, the site of a major attack by the Japanese in the last days of August 1942, in which both sides suffered heavy casualties.
More than 600 Australians died, and more than 1000 were wounded in the four months of fighting in the vicinity of the Kokoda Track. Casualties due to sickness exceeded 4000. Those Australians who died on the Track are buried at the Bomana War Cemetery outside Port Moresby.