Chapter 10: Oivi–Gorari
THERE was little that General Vasey could add immediately to General Allen’s planning. Allen’s efforts threw open the mountain paths for the new commander to follow to Kokoda almost at the moment he took over—just as General Rowell had started the Australians on the road back from Imita Ridge in September although to some it appeared that General Blamey had initiated the advance.
After Major Hutchison’s 2/3rd Battalion had rolled up the Japanese positions at Eora Creek from the right flank late on 28th October, Lieut-Colonel Cullen led the pursuit on the 29th with his tired 2/1st Battalion, which was followed by Lieut-Colonel Edgar’s 2/2nd Battalion.
On the same day General Vasey assumed formal command of the division as from 8 a.m. and General Allen left Myola for Port Moresby. Allen’s latest orders for the capture of Kokoda could be sharpened a little now. Lloyd was told that his brigade would be retained complete as far as possible for the capture of Oivi and the establishment of a bridge-head on the Kumusi beyond. After he had secured Alola the 2/31st Battalion would revert to Brigadier Eather’s command and the 25th Brigade would proceed intact against Kokoda. The 3rd Battalion would move forward to protect Alola and operate the dropping ground there.
By the early afternoon of the 30th, after deploying at the sight of distant enemy figures, the 2/1st had entered Alola without opposition and its leading men were thrusting towards Isurava. The forward company of the 2/2nd then took the right-hand fork of the track from Alola and went plunging down the mountain side to secure the bridge across Eora Creek (that same bridge across which Captain Sublet’s men of the 2/16th Battalion had groped their way in the dark and difficult night of 30th August when the 21st Brigade was being beaten back). It will be remembered that this was the track which then led steeply up the eastern side of the ravine and passed beneath the Abuari waterfall, thence went by way of Missima, Kaile, Siga, Fila and Pirivi to join between Oivi on the east and Kokoda on the west the main track which led eastwards from Kokoda to the coast. Night found the 2/1st Battalion at Isurava Rest House patrolling forward to Isurava itself, with the main force of the 2/2nd camped in the Alola area (it was “insanitary and plagued by rats” they said), and the 2/3rd Battalion nearby; the 2/31st was in rear.
Farther west of the creek the other two battalions of the 25th Brigade were making a difficult way. On the 29th the 2/25th was cutting a track over mountains so steep and thickly covered that, at one stage, the men made only some 600 yards in over two hours. They bivouacked that night among the dripping moss, on the cold wet crests of mountains which they estimated (having only sketchy maps) reached about 10,000 feet above sea level. Behind them the 2/33rd had reached
Templeton’s Crossing and been told to follow a hunting track wide on the west side of Eora Creek in order to close on the Japanese in the vicinity of Alola. Late on the 30th Lieut-Colonel Marson of the 2/25th received orders to try for Alola by the shortest and quickest route in view of the Japanese withdrawal from Eora Creek. Buttrose of the 2/33rd was then still searching the mountains for the track by which he aimed to strike eastwards.
From 7 a.m. on the 31st supplies were being dropped at Alola. But the small dropping area was on a ridge so that the percentage of recovery was low and many hungry men were disappointed. A little later the full-scale movement of the 16th Brigade along the right fork of the track got under way with the 2/2nd leading and 2/3rd following. And in their wake the 2/1st Battalion took the track to Missima after the 2/31st relieved them in the Isurava area in the early afternoon.
On the Alola–Isurava track the 2/31st was still forward when night came. Behind them the 3rd Battalion had all its companies at the Alola dropping ground. Near by General Vasey established his advanced headquarters in the last light.
The 2/25th and 2/33rd Battalions were still struggling in from the left. Weakness and weariness were bearing hard on them, the constant wet, cold and lack of hot and energy-producing foods, diarrhoea and scrub typhus, exacting a heavy toll so that the 2/25th diarist recorded:
Many men in such condition that it was pitiable to see them struggle on—will power in many cases fighting against bodily exhaustion. ... Frequently a day’s hard march found the unit bivouacked for the night no further than one mile from the previous bivouac area.
Despite this slowness on the left, however, General Vasey did not wish to lose his impetus on the right-hand track. On 1st November he told Brigadier Lloyd to push on regardless of the situation in the Deniki area and this the 16th Brigade men did with light hearts:
It was a happy sort of day (wrote the diarist of the 16th Brigade). The troops—or the majority of them—had a hot meal the night before—and hot meals had been rarities in the ranges. The track was drier and fairly easy and the country was becoming more and more pleasant—opening out into garden patches. The valley was widening, the pouring, dripping, misty ranges were being left behind. Everyone seemed to feel it; even the native carriers returning along the track had stuck gay yellow flowers in their hair, adding an air almost of festivity to the march.
We had very little to eat, but we had some tobacco and the sun on our backs and so were happy. ... It was fortunate that, with rations in the state they were, we were now entering into an area where there were plenty of vegetables in the native gardens. Marrow, yams and taro made a welcome change in the diet, as well as providing bulk to depleted supplies and giving us our first fresh vegetables for ages.
That night the 2/2nd camped near Missima village—“a pretty spot, full of flowers, a few huts, and we had our first view of Kokoda from there”, they recorded. The 2/3rd passed through and its companies bivouacked along the track from Kaile to Fila.
To the west the 25th Brigade was closing in. The 2/31st was still forward along the track, the other two battalions completing the circle of their wanderings with the 2/25th between Alola and Deniki and the 2/33rd at Alola.
On the eastern track, on the 2nd, the 2/3rd went forward to Kobara where the men began to prepare a dropping ground in an open kunai patch. One patrol quested as far as Pirivi—the area in which the 39th Battalion had fought to delay the Japanese approach on Kokoda on that 8th August, less than three months before. The whole brigade then camped in the Kobara region hungrily waiting for the food which would be dropped to them next day. Had it not been for the fruit and roots they had gathered from native gardens they would have fared badly. They made their evening meal from yams, paw paw, sweet potatoes, taro root and cucumber, all slightly green. But the going had been easier during the day—the track falling from Siga into the valley and, after passing through Fila, becoming well defined and level—so that, although the men were tired and hungry, they were not as distressed as they had been in the mountains
There was good news from the western track. In the morning patrols of the 2/31st had been early astir. One, under Lieutenant Black,1 entered Kokoda itself and found that the Japanese had been gone two days. By 11.30 a.m. the main 2/31st Battalion group was moving forward and had Kokoda firmly covered by the middle of the afternoon. By 4 p.m. Brigadier Eather was there with his advanced headquarters and the other two battalions were approaching. Preliminary engineer reconnaissance suggested that aircraft would be able to land after two days’ work on the strip and dropping could go on from dawn of the 3rd.
So, quietly, the Australians re-entered Kokoda. Apart from its airfield its significance lay only in its name which would identify in history the evil track which passed across the Papuan mountains from the sea to the sea.
Vasey’s new orders followed quickly. Lloyd was to prepare to move onwards to Wairopi and, from midday on the 4th, would be responsible for the whole area east of a north-south line running through Oivi. Nor did Vasey intend that the brigadier would lose sight of the need for haste. He signalled:
I wish to see you moving towards Oivi in full strength at earliest. I feel your HQ and 2/1 Bn too far back.
That this urgency was not exaggerated was confirmed by air sightings of two destroyers and two transports off Buna.
On the 3rd Lloyd almost paid dearly for obeying the general too literally. Dropping began at Kobara early in the morning (although the percentage of recovery was disappointingly meagre) and the 2/2nd Battalion carrying three days’ bully beef and biscuits moved out at 1 p.m. With
his leading company along the main track to Oivi—about 1,000 yards from the junction of that and the track from Pirivi—Edgar temporarily halted, awaiting additional supplies of telephone cable. Doubtless with Vasey’s message well to the surface of his mind, Lloyd himself, as he talked, his arm lightly resting on the shoulders of Coloney Spry2 (Vasey’s senior General Staff Officer), moved beyond the forward scouts with a small party. The sudden rattle of machine-guns and the sharper notes of rifle fire broke about them. Spurred by quick concern Edgar had Captains Fairbrother and Ferguson whip a platoon from each of their companies wide to the right and left respectively and the small Japanese rearguard which had caused the trouble was driven in. By that time darkness was not far off and the battalion went into a defensive position astride the track with Fairbrother’s patrols working forward on the right, Ferguson’s on the left. Of the latter Staff-Sergeant Blackwell’s3 came against firm positions and lost two men wounded but brought back valuable information which enabled Edgar to make his plans for the next day. It seemed clear now that Oivi would be defended.
Back in Kokoda, meanwhile, the 25th Brigade was at work. Air droppings began about 8 a.m. but supplies rained down on the strip itself so that the task of repair and renovation was interrupted. The 2/6th Field Company, however, quickly got the task in hand again. The last elements of the brigade came in during the day and, just after midday, General Vasey, with ceremony, hoisted the Australian flag outside Eather’s headquarters.
On the morning of the 4th the men of the 2/2nd moved forward warily to the point where Blackwell had been held the previous evening. But the Japanese were gone. Fairbrother led the new advance and, within less than a mile, his men began blasting Japanese before them. After another half mile, however, about 1.30 p.m., heavy and light machine-gun fire and the shells from a mountain gun were beating around them. Lieutenant Burke’s4 platoon could not advance. Fairbrother then, with an additional platoon under his command, moved the rest of his company by the flanks to take the Japanese positions in rear. By 5 p.m. his men had succeeded in cutting the track. But the Japanese had gone again and marks in the mud showed that they were dragging a mountain gun with them.
By this time the 2/ 3rd Battalion was in support and the 2/1st, with fresh supplies which had been dropped in the morning, were embarked on a new venture. This had been suggested by the run of the tracks for, from the vicinity of the dropping ground, a trail was found bearing almost directly east, below and roughly parallel with the main Oivi Track for some distance. Due south of Gorari it sent a lateral north to junction
with the main track at that village. A little farther on it cast northwards two additional laterals which converged on the Ilimo area two to three miles along the principal route from Gorari.
In the late afternoon Cullen led his men eastward along this lower path. But wrong tracks confused them and, after about two hours’ travelling, they found themselves back within a few hundred yards of their starting-point. They camped for the night. The 3rd Battalion, now under Lloyd’s command, had relieved them at the dropping ground and had been told that, after that day, there would be no further droppings there and all units would be supplied from Kokoda.
In that area supplies had begun to build up. The first Douglas transport had landed about 9.45 a.m. and several other aircraft followed during the day with rations, clothing and medical supplies. Chocolate was issued to troops hungry for sweets and the men tasted bread for the first time in many days. From midday onwards the 2/4th Field Ambulance had a Main Dressing Station in operation, and thus, for the first time in the Kokoda campaign, the men could hope for reasonably comfortable conditions if they became casualties. So slender were the resources of the field ambulance at that time, however, that its performance fell short of expectations. As battle casualties and sick built up at the MDS tented accommodation fell behind requirements, and for a time an area existed where sick men arriving at Kokoda built their own shelters and lay in cheerless circumstances on the ground. Nevertheless, for the first time, it was possible to fly the sick and wounded to hospital at Port Moresby, and with the consequent reduction in the number of patients at the MDS conditions rapidly improved.
This, however, was little help to Lieut-Colonel Chenhall and his 2/6th Field Ambulance detachment at Myola. There, it will be recalled, Chenhall had had 438 sick and wounded men on his hands on 1st November, and was becoming critical of the general medical planning behind him. At the end of October a Stinson, the first of a number of small planes to land there, put down at Myola on a strip which the 2/6th Field Company had prepared. During early November several landings were made. On the morning of the 3rd the fourth patient was flown out and several cases were taken out on succeeding days. On the 7th Lieutenant Ronald E. Notestine, an American transport pilot, flew in and greatly impressed the Australians.
In all, however, only about 40 casualties were flown out of the mountains. Chenhall became increasingly outspoken. Colonel Kingsley Norris (the 7th Division’s chief medical officer) wrote later:
Two bombers, one loaded with stores ... actually landed on the strip and after off-loading had taken off with no difficulty—the pilot remarking (among other things) “This is a grand little strip”. In spite of every effort by Div and NGF, air evacuation was neglected. Why this was never adequately undertaken—why after three years of war no adequate ambulance planes were available—why certain casualties had to remain in a forward medical post for eleven weeks after being wounded—these and many other questions remain unanswered.
Brigadier Johnston5 (Deputy Director of Medical Services at New Guinea Force Headquarters) has, however, left a rather different picture:
Unfortunately, when the possibilities of evacuating patients by plane were considered, all [the] practical difficulties were not at first realised and the belief became certain that planes would be able to accomplish the task satisfactorily. Such belief was confirmed by the action of two pilots in landing and taking off without mishap. But senior Air Force officers, including the Commander of the United States Air Force in New Guinea, refused to allow the attempt to be made with the planes then in use in that area. Despite the plight of those isolated in the midst of the Owen Stanley Range and the frequent appeals of many who, perhaps swayed by humanitarian feelings, were convinced that such attempt would be successful, the refusal was persisted in, unless suitable types of planes could be brought up. Of these about 5 were ultimately made available as a result of intensive search throughout Australia and surrounding areas. It is significant and confirmatory of the judgment of those responsible Air Force officers that two of these planes—a single-engined Stinson and tri-motor Ford—crashed while landing at Myola. Incidentally each of the other 3 planes (two single-engine Stinsons and one DH-50) crashed within a short time of arrival in N.G. from the mainland. However, before crashing at Myola, the Ford had evacuated 8 and the Stinson some 30 odd patients. Ultimately it became obvious that air evacuation had become out of the question. As the weeks went on certain of the remaining patients recovered sufficiently to be able to walk out.
For those still bedridden, native porters were finally obtained in sufficient numbers to act as stretcher bearers and after being shut up at Myola for some two and a half months, the last patients, together with the remainder of the unit, arrived back in the Port Moresby area, after their long trek, a day or two before Xmas.
There was nothing, however, that could be done about this situation from Kokoda, and the 25th Brigade did not expect, or desire, to remain on protective duties round the rapidly growing centre. Thus, without surprise, Eather received orders to get his battalions ready to move (on the morning of the 7th) to relieve the 16th Brigade.
That formation found itself heavily committed on the 5th. Edgar resumed the advance at 7.30 a.m., ready to test an extension of normal battle procedure. On meeting opposition his leading company would pin the front and begin a local encirclement. Automatically the second company would carry out a deeper encircling attack in an attempt to cut the track in the Japanese rear. (Although such a drill had become standard on the platoon level the colonel had never yet committed a second company in this fashion.)
So it was that, when Captain Ferguson’s company, leading the advance, was engaged from the high ground fronting Oivi on either side of the track, before it had gone three-quarters of a mile, it deployed at once and Captain Brock’s company manoeuvred deep on the right. But Ferguson’s vanguard platoon was held on the track under destructive fire. Staff-Sergeant Blackwell’s platoon, moving through bush on the right, found the way barred by lines of fire before they had covered more than 50 yards and Blackwell himself was killed. Lieutenant Moore,6 Ferguson’s
second-in-command, attacked round the left flank with the third platoon but could make little headway.
It looked now as though the Australians were coming against the main Oivi defences. Oivi itself still lay approximately a mile ahead—a few native huts set in a patch of young rubber—but the high ground which the Japanese were now holding controlled the approaches. This rose on either side of the eastward running track with a number of spurs thrusting westward as though to meet the advancing Australians—thickly-wooded approaches to the crests of the features. And soon the attackers were to learn that the Japanese had them well held, criss-crossing them with the fixed lines of light and heavy machine-guns. Snipers screened the defences, and mortars and one or two mountain guns supported them.
As the morning wore on Edgar, supporting Ferguson closely with Fairbrother’s company, had reports from Moore of considerable strength on his flanks. He therefore sent Captain Gall’s and Captain Walker’s7 companies of the 2/3rd Battalion, which had come forward under his command about 10.30 a.m., round to the left to assist Moore, relieve some of the pressure on Ferguson’s company generally, and seize the high ground on that flank. A little later, having had no word from Brock who was relying on runners for communication, he pushed Captain Blamey’s company of his own battalion up one of the spurs which the Japanese were holding on the right. Blamey moved strongly and gained some ground but then had to dig his men in to enable them to survive in the storm which was beating about them. Soon afterwards Brock returned to the track and reported that he had not been able to penetrate the Japanese positions which seemed to be in considerable width. Edgar therefore sent him to Blamey’s right to lengthen the front at a dangerously open point and work the high ground there. Although the other companies tried to help him move forward by attempting to create a diversion with vigorous fire the Japanese effectively retaliated with heavy machine-guns and mortars. He was making slow headway against determined opposition when Edgar ordered him later to link with Blamey and hold.
As Edgar’s difficulties were thus closing him in Hutchison was moving the rest of the 2/3rd forward in short stages. Late in the afternoon Edgar had him send his two remaining rifle companies (Lysaght’s and Fulton’s) round Brock’s right in an effort to encircle the Japanese positions on the track in rear. But both were slowed by heavy machine-gun and mortar fire to which they began to lose heavily.
As night came both battalions dug in, the forward elements not more than 50 yards from their opponents. The 3rd Battalion had moved forward from Kobara and were in perimeter defence on the track in rear with one company farther in advance to protect Lloyd’s headquarters and give depth to the 2/2nd and 2/3rd. So darkness settled on tired troops who had been able to achieve no decision.
There was little sleep for them during the night, however, and then,
on the right of the track, a dawn patrol from Lysaght’s company lost seven men within a short distance. A supporting patrol from Fulton’s company was little more successful. Fulton then began to work round the flanks and he and Lysaght attacked at 2, p.m. In the fierce fighting which followed Lysaght’s men were pinned to the ground although Fulton’s drove hard and actually captured the highest feature on the crest of the ridge and a heavy machine-gun located there. But a destructive fire swept them off the ridge before they could consolidate. It looked as though the greatly weakened company might not be able to sustain the counter-attack so Hutchison met the threat with Lieutenant Hoddinott’s8 anti-aircraft platoon which fought bravely and was largely responsible for holding the position. It seemed then that the Japanese were going to attack strongly between Edgar’s companies and Lysaght. Captain Atkinson and Captain Jeffrey from the 3rd Battalion were therefore sent forward with their companies to Hutchison’s command. They found Hutchison’s men holding thinly and formed a perimeter with them. Scarcely were they in position, however, when the Japanese struck against the combined group with loud cries sounding through the last of the day. The Australians drove them back but, as darkness came, they knew that, though they had gained some ground, their general position was not greatly improved.
Considerable movement but less ferocity had marked the day for the companies on the left of the track. There Walker kept his company in holding contact while Gall tried to work the flank. But though Gall could hear the Japanese chattering and chopping as they built up their defences he could not locate their extreme right. He was told then to link with Walker and secure the Australian left.
At the end of the day Lloyd knew that he had lost at least 13 killed and 34 wounded from his two AIF battalions while one man of the 3rd had been killed and two had been wounded.
After a quiet night the fighting on the 7th intensified the stalemate which was fast developing before Oivi. On the right of the track the Australians flung forward again at the high ground. Soon after 9 a.m. Lysaght’s men went in with Jeffrey’s of the 3rd supporting them, a cross-fire from Fulton and Atkinson on the right, and Edgar’s men on the left, beating their front. But four of Lysaght’s remaining men were killed, one of his officers and eight men wounded, for no gain.
With ammunition coming forward from Kokoda now the Australians could try the effect of their mortars on the Japanese. They brought them into action but it was difficult to gauge results—except that every burst provoked the defenders to vigorous retaliation. Attackers and defenders lay dug in among the thick bush and flailed each other with fire.
This was a situation, however, which the resourceful Vasey had no intention of accepting, and already he had under way a movement to resolve it by means other than ram-like thrusts at the prepared Japanese positions. That movement had begun when Cullen led his 2/1st Battalion on 4th
November along the lower track which paralleled the main track for some distance before swinging north to junction with it near Ilimo. On the 5th progress had been easy at first. The men were on the move from 7.30 a.m. through villages and native gardens. In one of the villages, Sengai, they found the bodies of five Australians who had apparently been killed weeks before as they lay wounded on stretchers.9 Pushing on in the afternoon they came upon signs of a recent Japanese reconnaissance patrol—footprints, cigarette packages, a small fire left burning—in whose steps they were apparently following as it returned to its base. About 5 p.m. they arrived at a track junction with a lateral turning north—the track to Gorari. Cullen had Lieutenant Leaney—now commanding “A” Company—send one of his platoons as a patrol along this track, in the obvious wake of the Japanese reconnaissance party. The platoon surprised three enemy soldiers sheltering in an old hut. The Japanese fled after a hot little encounter, two of them badly wounded, and leaving their weapons and equipment. The 2/1st Battalion bivouacked for the night.
They were on the move again early on the 6th, leaving Leaney with his company at the track junction (to be known to them now as Leaney’s Corner) to secure their flank and rear and to establish a small supply base. Cullen told Leaney not to involve himself too deeply with any Japanese he might encounter. The main battalion objective was Ilimo and Cullen did not want to dissipate his strength with side issues. But the battalion made slow progress, crossing many streams and moving behind patrols which scoured the native gardens alongside their path. About 12.30 they came to a larger rushing stream through which they dragged themselves by means of a stout creeper which they flung across. While they were doing this their pioneers rapidly built a bridge as an important link in their supply line. On the other side of the creek a track ran northwards to Ilimo But the Australians did not know this and were misled by confusing information given them in good faith by friendly natives. As a result they continued eastwards until the knowledge that they were obviously in error, rapidly failing supplies, and almost complete lack of communication with the main force (having no telephone cable they were relying entirely on a 208-wireless set which they had not been able to net in with the brigade set), caused them to retrace their steps towards Leaney’s Corner on the 7th. While the main body camped just east of that junction at nightfall of that day Cullen himself, with Captain Cox, went on to meet Leaney. From him he learned of Brigadier Lloyd’s difficulties in front of Oivi. He then made plans to attack northwards along the track to Gorari on the 8th. However, while the attack was being prepared that morning, he heard that the 25th Brigade was within an hour of his positions and hurried to meet Brigadier Eather.
With a firm base building at Kokoda after its reoccupation, the constant bully beef was being supplemented by varied and more attractive foods
which the big transport aircraft were rapidly flying in: dried potatoes, meat and vegetable ration, baked beans, tinned fruit, sausages, tinned vegetables, jam, butter and sugar. But when the men began to eat even the small issues which were made to them the stomachs of most of them rebelled so that they lay retching and heaving.
With the Kokoda base secure behind him General Vasey was prepared to take risks which he could not otherwise have contemplated. In the early morning of the 6th Lloyd had summed up for him the situation as he saw it: he considered that the Japanese positions at Oivi extended over a three-mile front between the two main features, and might well be in considerable depth as the 2/1st Battalion had made contact near Gorari; that there were at least two Japanese battalions holding him up and possibly three; the 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions were wholly committed and half of the 3rd Battalion was ready for committal; the only reserves between Oivi and Kokoda were approximately 300 of the 3rd Battalion. All this Vasey considered and then, about 6 p.m., said that he was willing at that stage “to risk having no backstop on this front”. The 16th Brigade was to maintain continuous pressure at Oivi and to consolidate on the Oivi position when the situation clarified; the 25th Brigade would achieve a position astride the Kokoda–Buna track in the vicinity of Ilimo, secure the area between Ilimo and Oivi, and establish the Kumusi bridgehead. To do this Brigadier Eather would try to take the Japanese in rear by moving down the lower track which the 2/1st had already opened up. On contact with the 2/1st Eather would assume command of that battalion.
Eather then ordered the 2/31st Battalion under Lieut-Colonel Miller10—until just previously second-in-command of the 2/1st and held in great respect and affection by those rugged men—to seize Gorari on 8th November. At the same time he told Buttrose of the 2/33rd and Marson of the 2/25th to move from the rear against the main Oivi positions. He planned also to have Cullen gain Ilimo with his 2/1st, prepare a supply dropping ground there, and patrol vigorously eastwards to Wairopi and west to Gorari.
In accordance with these plans the 25th Brigade moved swiftly from Kokoda by way of Kobara on the 7th, laying line as they went. The speed of the movement strained the men who were weakened by diarrhoea, the sickness which the new foods had brought upon them, and the unaccustomed heat of the lower country. But they camped for the night within perimeters not far west of Leaney’s Corner.
On the morning of the 8th, on the way to Leaney’s Corner, Miller of the 2/31st met and discussed the situation with Cullen, who was told by Eather soon afterwards to rest his men while the newcomers attacked up the track to Gorari. Miller then passed through Leaney’s men who were in light contact some distance up the lateral, after which he sent
Captain A. L. Hurrell’s11 company on a wide right-flanking movement and by 11.50 a.m. his machine-guns and mortars were engaging the defenders. Forty minutes later Captain Beazley’s12 company began a fighting advance just to the right of the lateral. They were soon committed against positions on that axis. ‘Then Captain Thorn13 led his company round Beazley’s right flank in the face of comparatively light opposition. Meanwhile A. L. Hurrell, in the wider right-flank movement, was faced by Japanese on a front of about 300 yards and, in the now familiar pattern, was groping for the elusive flanks and losing men quite rapidly as he did so. On the left edge of all this flurry Captain Upcher’s14 company of the 2/31st was maintaining the main axis along the track.
In the middle of the afternoon the 2/25th made contact with the 2/31st and then detoured to the right with the intention of swinging back on to the track between Gorari and the opponents of the 2/31st. By nightfall the 2/25th had begun to achieve this intention. On the 9th the 2/33rd would follow the same general detour, but moving a little wider, to cut the main Oivi–Ilimo track near Gorari.
With the coming of night the vigorous new stroke by the 25th Brigade was well under way, giving full promise of developing into a classical “pincers” movement. But it would be at a cost, for the 2/31st, even in that scattered fighting had already lost 28 men, including 7 killed.
At the opening of this new phase no appreciable change had taken place in front of Oivi. From the time they had begun the crossing of the mountains (up to but excluding 8th November) the 16th Brigade had lost 6 officers killed and 11 wounded, 101 other ranks killed, 1 missing and 267 wounded, a total of 386 battle casualties. In addition they had lost a very much higher percentage from sickness. So, weak in numbers and even weaker in physical strength, they could not force a final issue against the very determined defence.
Soon after dawn on the 8th the 2/2nd had their mortars at work and the forward men reported that “the enemy were heard squealing when the bombs burst”. But the Japanese replied with heavy concentrations of mortar and mountain-gun fire. Not only did the 2/2nd have to endure that but, to their disgust, could not reply vigorously in kind after their early morning shoot. Vasey’s headquarters told them that the mortar ammunition landed at Kokoda had been less than hoped for and they should conserve their stocks as much as possible. Their later shoots, therefore, had to resolve themselves into twenty-five rounds of harassing fire about 4.30 p.m.
At 8 a.m. Lloyd told his forward commanders that air support was coming up and two hours later low-flying fighters strafed the Oivi–Gorari
track and dropped eighty 20-pound bombs in an attempt to soften the very tough defence. The effect was heartening to the Australians even though some of them were wryly non-committal in their recording of the occasion:
One morning we got U.S. air support. We had been supported by them once before at Eora Creek, but they had frightened us more than they had the Japanese. Now we were to have help again. They bombed the feature with reasonable accuracy, and strafed Oivi village behind. The Japs, however, were so well dug in that we doubted whether the air support would be effective. But, in any case, the Yanks didn’t hit us on this occasion.15
For the rest, the day was comparatively uneventful—one of test and counter-test. In these wary exchanges the Australians were sometimes caught by bold sharpshooters who had crept almost into their positions in the darkness. When morning broke these marksmen began to pick off some of the attackers from short range, and continued to harass them during the day. Mostly through them the 3rd Battalion lost 7 men killed and 5 wounded during the day.
And then it was night again, with torrential rain drumming through the darkness. When the 9th came, from the lower track the 25th Brigade was maintaining its impetus, enveloping the Japanese more firmly. The signal for more general pressure came when A. L. Hurrell’s company of the 2/31st, after a sharp give and take, reported Japanese withdrawing Northeast along the track. With low-flying aircraft gunning and bombing, the 2/31st edged ahead, Captain Upcher’s men clearing out a small village which lay in their path. But by noon the advance was halted, with three companies astride the track in the order Captain A. L. Hurrell’s, Captain Thorn’s and Captain Beazley’s from right to left, with Captain Upcher’s company and Major Thorne’s16 Headquarters Company in reserve. Fronting them lay a dangerously cleared field of fire athwart the track, laced in depth with vine fences covered by fire. So the weary process of digging and feeling began again and by the end of the day the 2/31st had lost 9 more men killed and 9 more wounded.
But the 2/31st were an effective block against which, from the positions they had achieved in rear, the 2/25th could force the Japanese. And the 2/25th had begun to apply heavy pressure to that end about 9.30 a.m. when Captains O’Grady, Butler and Crombie swept their companies forward in a converging movement. Thong they gained ground the defence not only held from well dug-in and barricaded positions behind cleared fields of fire and enfilading machine-guns, but twice during the day erupted into vigorous counter-attack. In the last light the 2/25th drove again, this time with all four companies. But the sullen defence again refused ground. The day cost Marson’s battalion 37 casualties-4 officers and 10 men killed, 2 and 21 wounded—the most costly single day the 2/25th had so far fought.
The day was not resting alone on the efforts of the 2/25th and 2/31st Battalion, however. The 2/33rd and the 2/1st were on the move once more. Colonel Buttrose moved the 2/33rd out of their bivouac area at 7 a.m. Soon he was in touch with the 2/31st and then ordered his men to move round that battalion and the 2/25th farther north, to cut the track to Gorari. They were astride the track north of the 2/25th by 10.20 a.m. Soon afterwards they were moving north towards Gorari itself. Captain Clowes’ company, leading, brushed a small patrol out of their way but then struck dug-in positions which appeared to be protecting a dump or headquarters area of some kind. They believed the area might contain the junction of the Gorari lateral and the main Kokoda–Oivi–Gorari–Ilimo track, but a stubborn defence halted them there. Captain Clowes then led his company in a right-flank movement and fell upon what he considered to be a Japanese company in the outskirts of Gorari village. But not only were the invaders brave and determined in defence, they struck back in turn at Clowes and drove his men to the protection of a near-by ridge. This was an ephemeral success, however, as Clowes then swept them out of his way and took the village so that Buttrose was able to form a perimeter in the village area for the night. While he was doing so the sound of fighting was coming down the evening air from farther east along the main track towards Ilimo where the 2/1st was committed.
Cullen had led that battalion in the wake of the 2/33rd, with orders to by-pass it to the east and gain the main track. About 5 p.m. the 2/1st swung east through the bush. Soon, however, a stream which they could not cross turned them north, as the sounds of the 2/33rd’s engagement were reaching them. About 5.45 p.m., over the line his men were laying as they went, Cullen had news from Buttrose that the defenders of Gorari were moving eastward along the track (i.e. towards the 2/1st) as they gave to the 2/33rd assaults. He continued his northward movement, Lieutenant Leaney’s company leading through the bush. About 6.30
Leaney’s men met opposition which, however, they swiftly broke. And then the battalion debouched on to the main Gorari–Ilimo track, on their right a stout bridge spanning swift water, and across the bridge Japanese holding against Leaney’s efforts to force a crossing and harassing him severely with sniper and mortar fire.
The 2/1st then dug in in the Japanese position which they had overrun. Among its defences were several huts which had been part of a headquarters and medical area of some kind. There were bags of rice and wheat, little barrels of plums pickled in brine, and medical stores which included quinine, morphia, bandages and crystals of mercuro-chrome—all very helpful to the Australians.
The night of the 9th, therefore, found a curious but swiftly developing situation on Eather’s front. Three Australian battalions were spaced at intervals along the northward running Gorari lateral which linked the lower and upper tracks. The 2/31st was at the lower end (in the southernmost positions) hard against a solid Japanese pocket. Beyond that the 2/25th was astride the track trying to break into the pocket from the north and force the defenders against the waiting guns of the 2/31st. Beyond them again was the 2/33rd, holding Gorari at the northern end of the lateral against waxing pressure from Oivi towards which the 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions were still pressing. East of the 2/33rd the 2/1st was in a position to stave off any attack from the east across the bridge but was itself temporarily barred from crossing the bridge in continuance of the eastward movement towards Ilimo.
It was clear now that the next day or two must bring forth a slugging match. Desperate Japanese would try to fight out of the trap which had almost closed on them; the Australians were gathering themselves for the kill. The problem was whether the 2/33rd could hold against the tide that was setting in from the Oivi end as the Japanese learned that their main defence line there was sandwiched between Australians in front and Australians behind.
This tide promised to run strongly on the 10th. Early morning patrols of the 2/33rd estimated that at least two enemy companies were located only 400 yards to the west. Then Japanese attempts at infiltration were beaten back, although they cost Captain Brinkley,17 the “B” Company commander, his life. In the early afternoon a determined threat seemed to be developing from the Northwest supported by gunfire from close range and heavy small arms fire. A force of unknown strength tried to push in on the 2/33rd but the men were able to hold. They received no rations that day and were forced to fall back on their emergency rations.
From their more easterly positions the 2/1st undoubtedly diverted some of the pressure from the 2/33rd. Early in the morning Cullen sent Captain Simpson’s company westward towards a higher feature which he imagined the Japanese to be holding against any eastward movement
by the 2/33rd. But Simpson’s company, some fifty strong, met trouble and quickly lost sixteen of their number so that they withdrew to form the Northwest corner of Cullen’s perimeter. In their fighting Simpson’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Wiseman, showed himself to be an outstanding leader, quite careless of his own life on at least two separate occasions as he tried to rescue some of his wounded men. And in this same engagement Private Ward,18 company clerk and runner, fearlessly exposed himself to heavy fire in his efforts to assist the wounded and, stubbornly committed to his duty as he saw it, crossed and re-crossed the lines of fire of Japanese guns.
Lieutenant Powell,19 commanding “B” Company, Captain Catterns being ill, was ordered to anticipate Japanese counter-attack from the west. As he waited, Leaney’s company was settling to a day of vicious give and take of fire with Japanese engaging them hotly from scattered rocks in the vicinity of the track across the creek. Lieutenant Blakiston’s platoon, right at the bridge, was the centre of this and the company lost three men killed as they exposed themselves to return the Japanese fire. Farther
south, from the southernmost corner of the perimeter, Captain Burrell’s company were trying to cross the creek with the help of the pioneers. There Lieutenant Gosnell’s20 platoon, one by one, slowly levered themselves across three thin logs which had been placed across the creek at its narrowest point. Then they moved north along the creek, about the middle of the afternoon, killing three Japanese as they went, while the rest of the company continued the slow crossing in preparation for an attack on the 11th.
On the 10th there was movement also below the 2/33rd and 2/1st as the 2/31st, pressing up the lateral from the south, and the 2/25th, bearing down the lateral from the north to crush the Japanese against the 2/31st, sparred for openings and felt round the Japanese positions to link with one another. During the morning, Crombie’s company of the 2/25th thrust into the Japanese positions on the west of the track but were then held by Japanese fire sweeping open ground over which they had to advance. Then Lieutenant Mackay,21 from Upcher’s company of the 2/31st, linked with Crombie’s company of the 2/25th and Upcher and Crombie planned a coordinated attack. But just as this attack was to start in the late afternoon the Japanese themselves struck and a wild melee began in the scrub off the track. Both Australian companies, however, broke through the outer crust of the Japanese defences, gouging at the Japanese pockets which barred their way. The end of the day found them digging in among the enemy positions.
Eather claimed 150 Japanese for the day’s killing but the cost was beginning to worry him. From 8th November to 6 p.m. on the 10th, the 2/25th Battalion had lost 1 officer and 15 men killed, 1 and 30 wounded; the 2/31st had lost 1 officer and 16 men killed (with 4 others probably killed and 1 missing) and 44 men wounded; the 2/33rd had lost 5 men killed with 5 officers and 22 men wounded; the 2/1st had lost 6 men killed and 21 wounded.
The morning of 11th November saw early indications that the Japanese were struggling in frenzy to escape the trap which had closed round them. On the Gorari lateral a number of Japanese soldiers tried wildly to break through the Australian ring but were killed in their despairing attempts to do so. Then, at 6.30 a.m., Miller and Marson moved again in a coordinated plan to crush their enemies by moving simultaneously from the south and north respectively along the lateral. They had planned with care to avoid inflicting casualties on one another, telling their men to use their automatic weapons only in depressions and to go in with the bayonet and grenades, and fire single shots instead of bursts.22
The forest spaces became grim killing grounds in that early morning. As the 2/31st forced their way into the clearing which fronted them Captain Upcher’s company on the left drove their broken enemies against Captain A. L. Hurrell’s company on the right and the other two companies were thrusting up from the rear. Soon the 2/31st had counted 89 of their enemies dead in the little clearing alone and were in possession of a complete mountain gun, two medium machine-guns, many rifles and documents and much ammunition. This success cost them only 3 killed and 8 wounded. At the same time the 2/25th were crashing down the track from the north, leaving 54 Japanese dead in their path for
the loss of 4 killed and 10 wounded. Mortars, machine-guns and much food and ammunition fell into their hands. Their trap thus sprung, the two battalions turned for the main track where the 2/33rd was having a comparatively quiet time but the 2/1st was busily engaged.
The 2/1st had spent a night of almost continuous fighting as Japanese attempted to break into their area with heavy fire, grenades and, on one occasion, bayonets. With the dawn Cullen was waiting for Burrell to complete his drive northwards along the far bank of the river and allow the rest of the battalion to cross. Lieutenant Armstrong, newly promoted, spear-headed Burrell’s attack at 11.15 a.m. and finally cleared the defenders from their rocky positions which had commanded the bridge, killing nineteen stubborn soldiers on the objective itself. Burrell then sent patrols quickly eastwards on the north and south of the track—the one a platoon under Lieutenant McCloy, the other consisting of three of the battalion’s commandos under Lieutenant Nathan.23 Within less than 300 yards Nathan had lost his two men. He then returned to Burrell with his report.
McCloy also met effective opposition. With great courage he led his platoon against a position which later was found to have contained some 300 Japanese. Corporal Shearwin’s24 section pierced the opposing positions and were not driven to ground until they had killed eight Japanese who stood in their path. Shearwin, wounded himself, did not withdraw until greatly superior numbers were closing on him and three of his men had been killed and the remaining two wounded. He himself covered the movement of his little group back to the platoon.
At the same time Corporal Stoddart’s25 section was having a similar experience farther to the left. Stoddart struck boldly for the Japanese right flank and fell upon it with such force that his few men killed eighteen Japanese and seized their objective. Counter-attack in overwhelming strength later forced the section to withdraw, Stoddart, wounded in three places, shepherding out his men of whom only one remained unhurt.
By early afternoon Cullen was pushing his companies across the bridge as rapidly as possible. Powell was sent north from the track in an encircling movement, Captain Simpson led his men along the axis of the track itself. By mid-afternoon Powell had his men flung wide without being able to locate the Japanese eastern flanks as he tried to move in from the north, while Simpson was hard against the defenders on the track. Meanwhile the 2/31st Battalion had arrived in the area and Miller and Cullen planned a joint attack for 5.30 p.m. Miller would send two companies against the defended positions from the south; Cullen would have Powell and Simpson push in from the north and Northwest.
And so it happened initially. But the Japanese, though surrounded, defended themselves savagely and aggressively. At one stage, against the
full impetus of the Australian attack, they plunged westward along the track in a counter-attack against the junction of Powell’s and Simpson’s companies. The Australians stood closely against this recoil and an encounter between Corporal St George-Ryder26 of Powell’s company and a Japanese might have been almost typical. St George-Ryder emptied his sub-machine-gun from behind a tree into the counter-attackers, killing three of them. As he was changing his magazine he was furiously assailed by a Japanese with a sword who struck off his steel helmet and cut him badly about the head. The two closed. The corporal kneed his adversary and was twisting him down with his hands when a second Australian killed the swordsman.
As the impetus of the Australian attack was thus momentarily held, Major Robson,27 second-in-command to Colonel Miller who had gone forward and been forced to ground by automatic fire and grenades, sent Captain A. L. Hurrell’s company to assist Cullen’s two hard-pressed companies, and sent Captain Thorn’s company round the right flank. Except for small gaps through which a few fleeing Japanese filtered, the defenders were thus surrounded and the area they had been holding became another killing ground.
As darkness came the firing finally ceased. The Australian casualties in the encounter were comparatively light—the 2/31st, for example, lost approximately 7 killed and 7 wounded, but many dead and wounded Japanese lay on the track and in the bush. Within the perimeter they occupied Miller’s men counted 74 dead and Cullen reported that his companies had killed more than 40 merely in repelling the counter-attack.
By this time it was clear that the Japanese Oivi–Gorari defences had been completely shattered. While the 25th Brigade had thus been engaged on the 11th the 16th Brigade had been able to move forward. The early morning patrols of the 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions found the Japanese positions on the Oivi features deserted and the battalions, with the 2/2nd leading, resumed their advance along the track. They found that very strong positions had been fronting them with well camouflaged weapon-pits, roofed with heavy logs and earth, in numbers which indicated that a large force had been opposed to them. Vines linking trees, and shielded candles every few yards along the main track, told a tale of stealthy night retreat. It was clear that the attacks which had made the night of the 10th–11 th so restless for the 2/1st Battalion must have come from the main Oivi forces as they fell back.
Now the Australians began to reorganise preparatory to taking up the pursuit to the coast. On the afternoon of the 11th General Vasey had ordered Brigadier Lloyd to hold his brigade in the Oivi area for as long as possible to rest and refit. He wanted the 25th to prepare to advance eastward from the Kumusi River (which still lay ahead) on the 14th and Lloyd to follow on the 15th. From the Kumusi onward the brigades would
advance to the coast by separate tracks. Although they were tired they felt that they had done well and were approaching the end of a long and difficult trail. Brigadier Eather expressed this in a message to his units:
I wish to congratulate all troops under my command on their splendid efforts during the last few days. To command such a body of troops is an honour and a privilege. Will commanders please convey this message to all ranks. Such fighting ability as that displayed in the recent action will surely enable us to complete the task allotted.
While the greater part of the two brigades rested and reorganised the 2/25th Battalion pressed on along the track on the morning of the 12th, through the 2/31st which followed later in the forenoon. As the 2/25th broke out of the bush on the banks of the creek immediately before Ilimo, however, they were met by sniping fire from across the bridge. Holding with some elements on the west side of the water, and with the 2/31st backing these elements on the approaches to the bridge, Marson tried a right flanking movement by having two companies ford the creek above the bridge. These two companies cut the track but darkness shut them off from their enemies, whom, once again, they had at an obvious disadvantage. The manoeuvre cost them 2 men killed and 4 wounded.
Dawn on the 13th showed that the Japanese had slipped out of their positions in the darkness and, on this new day, the 2/31st Battalion headed the Australian pursuit through the littered evidence of hasty retreat. With them went Major Tompson28 leading a small engineer reconnaissance party composed of details from his 2/14th Army Field Company, the 2/5th Field Company, and the 25th Field Park Company. In the early afternoon they reached the site of the well-known wire bridge which had spanned the Kumusi until fire from Allied aircraft had razed it and which (from the pidgin) had given the name Wairopi to the spot. Like bird dogs the 2/31st men quested up and down stream but met no Japanese, although signs of desperate haste to cross the river by small rafts, abandoned as soon as the pursuers appeared, were numerous. Some 200 native carriers who had been pressed into the invaders’ service welcomed the newcomers and told them that many of their quarry had crossed the river in two boats the previous night, struggling with the burden of their wounded and dumping rifles, ammunition and stores into the river as they fled.
Many of these were drowned, among them General Horii himself. After the encounter at Eora Creek he had readjusted his force, and brought Colonel Yazawa back from the coast and established him in strong, well-prepared positions on the high ground at Oivi with an infantry strength of about one strong composite battalion strongly supported by engineers and artillery. Later, to guard against an Australian break-through on Yazawa’s left, he settled Colonel Tsukamoto at Gorari with strong elements of the 144th Regiment (which Tsukamoto was temporarily commanding since Colonel Kusunose had become ill) and some
supporting troops. At Oivi–Gorari the 16th and 25th Brigades, however, destroyed probably about 600 Japanese on the spot and threw the survivors back along the main track to the coast or into the rugged country which flanked the left bank of the swift Kumusi. Most of Yazawa’s surviving troops took the latter way out, Horii with them, their hope being to raft down the river to the sea. The turbulent waters, however, proved too much for many of them, and others were shot from the banks by PIB patrols who were watching near the mouth of the river. Possibly several hundred, however, finally gathered with Yazawa himself at the river’s mouth.
In the pursuit the 2/25th Battalion were hard behind the 2/31st. Colonel Marson had cast off a strong patrol early in the morning of 13th November to investigate native reports that a band of Japanese containing many wounded and numbering 150 to 200 had been seen making a difficult way to the north the previous night, obviously with the intention of trying to cross the Kumusi farther down. He had been ordered to reconnoitre and prepare a dropping ground in the vicinity of Wairopi and, in the middle of the afternoon, reported a suitable kunai patch some 200 yards west of the bridge itself. By that time, however, some supplies had already been dropped there, evidence of the fact that New Guinea Force Headquarters had profited by the experience of the campaign and were not only following the advancing infantry closely with supplies from the air but actually anticipating their demands.
Soon after 3 p.m. the 2/33rd Battalion had also reached the Kumusi and at once set about trying to secure the bridgehead. Before them now an 8 mile an hour current flowed in a river which was about 12 feet deep and 300 feet wide, set between banks perhaps 30 feet high. Only empty pylons rose where the wire bridge had stood and other bridges which had spanned the swift water had also been destroyed. Major Tompson had been examining the bridging problem which was obviously going to be most difficult. Late in the afternoon he was joined by Lieut-Colonel McDonald,29 the division’s Chief Engineer, and Major Buddle30 with an advanced party of his 2/5th Field Company. But, although Buttrose got some strong swimmers from his battalion across the river, no means of making a battalion crossing were found and the battalion was forced to dig in on the near bank for the night. The next day, however, aeroplanes brought steel-wire rope and tools (in response to urgent requests which McDonald had made in advance after studying air photographs and maps which enabled him to forecast the difficulties of bridging the river); but the planes did not bring the empty drums which the engineers had particularly requested, as the pilots considered them dangerous to drop through their slip-streams. Buttrose’s swimmers then got a steel cable across the water, and the engineers, who had discovered and repaired (with bully-beef boxes) a wrecked Japanese folding boat, attached the boat to this
with a block and tackle, and began to ferry the men of the 2/33rd across. By this means, approximately one company, crossing about eight at a time, reached the far bank and thus, although weakly, established the bridgehead—without enemy opposition. The boat then swamped, however, washed away, and was damaged beyond repair. But by that time both the 2/5th and 2/6th Field Companies had been hard at work developing other means of crossing. They had two flying-foxes ready for use by the early afternoon, and a small suspension footbridge ready by nightfall. Although darkness and heavy rain then put a temporary end to the infantry’s attempts to cross, by that time the two flying-foxes had enabled Buttrose’s main force to make the passage.
Thus the 14th saw the 25th Brigade substantially immobilised on the west bank of the river with the 16th Brigade resting and refitting behind them. Brigadier Eather’s numbers were strengthened that day by the addition of the previously independent detachment known as Chaforce, formed from the fittest members of the 21st Brigade early in October under command of Lieut-Colonel Challen. Challen had Major Sublet of the 2/16th Battalion as his second-in-command and his force consisted of a company from each of the 21st Brigade battalions (each company a little over 100 all ranks strong), engineer, signals and medical detachments.
Chaforce had left for Uberi on 11th October so that most of the men in it had only a scant two weeks’ rest after the early, difficult Owen Stanleys fighting. They had been ordered to harass the Japanese along their lines of communication between Buna and Kokoda but these instructions had been subsequently so modified that their main function had become a varied maintenance task in rear of the 16th and 25th Brigades. This had irked them, burning as they were to avenge the defeat they had suffered at the Japanese hands, and it is difficult to determine just why their role had been so emasculated. The original concept was bold and soldierly, and contemplation of such little epics as those of which Captain Treacy’s was one of the best examples, suggests that its success could have been outstanding. Indeed, conditions of warfare in the mountains where the invaders’ line was stretched most tenuously and precariously through wild and tumbled country were very suitable in places for the commando role for which Independent Companies had originally been formed and trained.31 Presumably, rightly or wrongly, the Australian Command had felt that it could not spare an Independent Company for use in the Owen Stanleys at this time and thus Chaforce had been improvised as one. Any chance, however, of testing its value in that role disappeared on 14th November. By that time Challen had returned to his battalion—the 2/14th—leaving Sublet in command and the latter now became a liaison officer on General Vasey’s headquarters. The three companies were allotted to
battalions, Captain Cameron’s to the 2/31st, Lieutenant Haddy’s to the 2/33rd, and Captain A. J. Lee’s to the 2/25th.
The 2/31st and 2/25th, although temporarily checked in their main movement, were not idle on the 14th—nor had they completely lost touch with the broken Japanese elements—for the patrol which had left the 2/25th the previous day to pursue the party reported moving north returned to tell how they had been prevented from closing on this remnant, some 200 strong, by a determined and well-armed rearguard; Miller then sent three of his companies to take up the hunt while the 2/33rd and the engineers were continuing their attempts on the passage of the Kumusi.
On the 15th the crossing of the Kumusi continued—but slowly, although the engineers were at work by that time on a second bridge which they slung from the end of a partly destroyed Japanese trestle bridge. As the day wore on the 25th Brigade was still crossing. The flying-foxes could get only about 80 men across in each hour and not more than 150 could pass over the footbridge in the same time. But, in the afternoon, the 16th Brigade finally began the crossing in high spirits:
The scene at the river bank was reminiscent of an old English fair or Irish market day (wrote its diarist). Battalions of heavily laden troops in their mud-stained jungle green shirts and slacks, carrier lines with the natives gaily caparisoned in bright coloured lap laps, bedecked with flowers and sprigs of shrubs stuck jauntily in leather bracelets, all mingled as they waited their turn to cross. The means used for crossing were both hazardous and adventurous but were attempted in something of a carnival spirit. On the one hand an extremely flimsy wire suspension bridge that gave all users a bath at its sagging middle and on the other a high strung flying-fox that, whilst efficient, occasionally stopped with the occupant swinging helplessly above the stream.
By the end of the 15th, although all of the first brigade was over the river, of the 16th only the headquarters and the 2/2nd had reached the far bank. It was not until late on the morning of 16th November that the rest completed the passage. Then the 3rd Battalion, which had taken over from the 2/31st pursuit of the Japanese remnants, abandoned its fruitless chase and followed on the 17th.
And so, nearly four months after it had begun with the Japanese landings at Gona on 21st July, the Battle of the Kokoda Track ended in the complete defeat of the invaders—as the other prong of the drive on Port Moresby had been broken at Milne Bay. But the Japanese stroke had been bold in concept and brave and vigorous in execution. It had narrowly failed not (as some military critics have claimed) because it was bound to fail, but for the sum of the following reasons: that the Japanese bungled badly their attempt to secure their southern flank by establishing themselves at Milne Bay; that the mountains drained their men and means as the wash of a rockbound coast drains the strength of a strong swimmer reaching in vain for the solid platform just beyond him; that the fighting on and around Guadalcanal denied them the support which had been planned for them and which would probably have enabled them to maintain—and perhaps to increase—the original impetus of their advance; that their opponents were among the most adaptable soldiers in the world
who, having been seasoned already in war, could first match and then outmatch them in the special kind of warfare which the bush demanded.
From the beginning of the mountain campaign until its end the Japanese committed there at least 6,000 fighting men. Against them, though never more than one brigade at a time until the final clash at Oivi–Gorari, the Australians committed three experienced AIF brigades. The 2/1st Pioneer Battalion was an additional AIF infantry component but was virtually not committed to the actual fighting. Of the non-AIF units the specially raised Papuan Infantry Battalion had performed with limited usefulness in a limited role in the early days of the invasion and three militia battalions had taken part in the campaign—the 39th, the 53rd and the 3rd.
The Australian soldiers killed and wounded in New Guinea (exclusive of Milne Bay and Goodenough Island) in the period from 22nd July to 16th November numbered about 103 officers and 1,577 men, of whom 39 officers and 586 men were killed. With the exception of very small casualties sustained in bombing raids at Port Moresby, by Kanga Force, and on isolated occasions, these figures represent the Australian losses during the Battle of the Kokoda Track.32 In dissecting them further the interesting fact emerges that the three AIF battalions of the 21st Brigade (of which the 2/27th was actually only committed for a few days) lost 26 officers and 470 men killed and wounded during the early days of the campaign—heavier losses than those of either of the two brigades which continued the fight.33 With the 39th and 53rd Battalion figures added the cost of the first weeks became 40 officers and 617 men.
No accurate record exists of the casualties due to sickness during this period but between two and three men were hospitalised through sickness for every battle casualty. Perhaps the best picture of the sort of losses sustained in the campaign is given by study of the strength figures of a typical battalion—the 2/1st. It took the track on 6th October 608 all ranks strong. When it crossed the Kumusi on 16th November it numbered 355 all ranks. During that period it had received no reinforcements, many hospital cases had left and rejoined it again, individuals or small groups which had been detached for various reasons on 6th October had caught up with it again.
The major lessons of this battle were plain to General MacArthur and the Australian commanders, whose forces fought the ground battle as an exclusively Australian one, and were not to link with any American ground troops until after the crossing of the Kumusi on 16th November. First it was clear that bush warfare in difficult mountains demanded physical endurance and courage of the highest order, and an individual adaptability, skill and speed in offensive and defensive reaction, both to the enemy and the country, of a very special kind; and that, even among soldiers who developed these qualities to a high degree, the drain on mental and physical strength, and on numbers, was enormous. Second, the problem of supply had assumed a completely new guise. As petrol is to an internal combustion engine so is supply to any army in the field. But here the difficulties it could impose had to be realised afresh; and with that knowledge came a new emphasis on air power, for only through the air could supply be maintained and victory on the ground achieved.