Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Kokoda Track, part 2--the Rearguard Action

Part 1 discussed the assault on Buna, Goa, and Kokoda in brief--mostly the terrain, and some of the technology that made the difference. I decided the rearguard action from Kokoda deserved its own post.

Photo: Australian War Memorial 026320, the retreating wounded, August 1942

The Kokoda Rearguard Action
By the end of July, 1942, the 500 Australians of the  stationed around Kokoda had already withdrawn from Wairopi, taking care to cut the cables to the wire-and-rope bridge into the torrential Kumasi. (C). (Wairopi is about 20 miles north of Kokoda (B)).With their supply line far shorter, the Japanesewere able to build their own bridge and resupply efficiently. They continued their land offensive through the jungle toward Kokoda. They also took Sananda port along the coast.

On July 29, with their commanding officer killed in the fight for Kokoda and the battle unwinnable, the remaining members of the 39th and the Papuan Infantry (Native) (herinafter PIN) began a long retreat to the Gap (near Templeton's Crossing on map), the steepest part of the trail. The terrain was not well known by the Australians at base or on the Track. It was felt that the Gap was not only high but narrow, so that it could be held by a minimal force. The Gap is actually quite wide. (B)

The line of men evacuating would have been a straggling, long line. The Japanese troops continued to hack new paths threw the jungle and harry the Australians at every point they tried to hold. (C). By mid-August, the battle centered about halfway across the trail, at "The Gap", the highest slope in the trail. Those troops that survived to the Gap were "weakened by lack of food, sleep, and shelter", in Lt. Colonel Honner's words, who had arrived to take over command of these "nearly at a standstill" forces, mostly armed with World War I-issue Lewis firearms.

In the meantime, small parties of the 7th Australian division was ordered to relieve the 39th--fighters with desert experience, not jungle experience, who traveled the Kokoda Track from Port Moresby--a five-day walk and run expedition into battle, each carrying 60 pounds or more of equipment up steep and treacherous terrain.

Enter Technology Again-Modern but Broken 
Port Moresby, which had been Japan's initial strategic objective could not be emptied to help these soldiers.  MacArthur's staff learned that less than 50 of the 245 planes stationed in Port Moresby were functional, so little or no air power was available to aid the effort.

Two weeks of infighting (MacArthur v. Australian chiefs of staff (C); working soldiers v. the 'per diem' boys (R)) managed to get another fifty of those operational. These planes were able to drop food and supplies to the soldiers. They also conducted a series of air attacks on Rabaul. And the Japanese also had renewed plans to attack Port Moresby and Milne Bay, so much of the 7th was detailed to protect the three airfields in the Port Moresby area. Because each side's capability, just as in the Battle for the Coral Sea and at Midway, was extended  by air power. (C)  In short, air cover/capability was not really available to these troops for three weeks.

The 'Fuzzy Wuzzies'
Papuans acted as stretcher-bearers and medics to the wounded. The stretcher was slung onto a single pole, two bearers each. Each group of eight stretchers was under the authority of one native leader. (AnZ) According to this report (DH):
Along this track, day after day, the walking sick and wounded passed and plodded, those too desperate to stand being carried by native carriers. Carrying improvised stretchers, one or two blankets lashed with native string or vine to two long poles spread by stout traverse bars, as many as eight or ten native bearers would traverse the track day after day. To watch them descend steep spurs into a mountain stream, along the bed and up the steep ascent, was an object lesson in stretcher bearing. . .
If night finds the stretcher still on the track, they will find a level spot and build a shelter over the patient. They will make him as comfortable as possible, fetch him water and feed him if food is available, regardless of their own needs.  . . . . These were the deeds of the "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels"-for us! What can we do for them?
Hundreds were wounded. No known WIA was left behind. According to this account, of the wounded who made it out, only four died in the hospital. (DH)

The Japanese assault was a determined one, showing great fortitude in brutal jungle terrain. That determination was matched in full by the outflanked, undermanned, outgunned Australian and Papuan troops. They saved their own in the best manner possible. It is a truly remarkable story of loyalty and humanity under a kind of fire and privation that is impossible to imagine.

And the Allies came back. That's going to be post three. More heroism to come.

For those who are interested in the environment for soldiers in the Pacific (contributing to physical and psychic stress), as well as good battle accounts, Bergerud's book is rocking solid. I had forgotten how good it was.

ANZAC Day Organization--"The Battle for Australia"
Eric Bergerud, Touched with Fire, Viking Press
John Costello, The Pacific War 1941-1945, Quill Publishing
Pat Robinson, The Fight for New Guinea, Random House "Wartime Book" (in other words, fast propaganda for Liberty Bonds), 1943
Digger History, Kokoda Track page and 39th Bn page
Photos are from the Australian War Memorial Archives by way of ANZAC Day Organization above.


Bob G. said...

Excellent followup post to these brave soldiers...
And had you never posted this, I would have missed it all.
(got me whistling Waltzing Matilda now)

Books are STILL the window to the mind's eye.

Nicely presented.

Capt. Schmoe said...

The horrors of war, compounded by the horrors of geography, climate and inadequate logistics.

The PTO was often viewed as a secondary front, with the priority being Europe.

The allied troops in the Pacific suffered tremendously. I can't imagine the extent.

Thanks for the posts.

Edith Bunker said...

Maybe I'm off topic, but I really wish you'd publish your books. Your mind is very amazing.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob and Capt. Schmoe,
I'm so glad you are enjoying these! They have been a great way for me to get back in touch with my previous amateur studies of WW2. And Bob, you're right--a good book is a true window!

Captain, that the Pacific was second is one reason I like to study it more. There's so much on Hitler's war already. Yet war (Cold and hot) stayed in Asia. I think in a way, it matters more. I also believe it is less explainable for those who were there. By the time they got home, too, people were tired of hearing about it.

Thanks to you both. It has been a challenge, so I appreciate the comments!

Ann T.

Dear Mrs. Bunker,
Thank you for the wonderful compliment. I wish the confidence area of my brain was a wee bit larger--nothing off-putting in scale, of course. I'm working on that.

Each day I learn more about the police work my manuscripts are committed to describe. I am working on that too. No doubt I will still fail on this score, but it is making a difference.

Very soon, and thank you,
Ann T.

Slamdunk said...

Catching up on your back posts here...

Good read. The soldiers with training in desert fighting get deployed in a jungle--that sort of thing happened too often.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
Isn't that the truth? The 7th got a short course on jungle fighting with one useless textbook, according to Bergerud. They had a guy from a coconut plantation on the coast to teach them about the interior of the island.

I don't know how they did it.

Thanks for stopping in!
Ann T.