This volume is concerned mainly with the operations of the Australian army in Papua and New Guinea (except those in New Britain and New Ireland, which were dealt with in the preceding volume of this series) from the beginning of the war with Japan up to the end of April 1943. It records also (though naturally in lesser detail) the operations of the American ground forces in that area, and during that period, from the time of their first entry into action in November 1942; and the American operations on and around Guadalcanal which, in certain vital respects, were the key to developments in Papua and New Guinea from August 1942 until the end of that year. While these Australian and American operations were taking place, a small Australian guerrilla force was fighting in Timor, and the story of that fighting is carried forward from March 1942 where the author of the preceding volume left it.
Principally, however, this is the story of the fighting along the Kokoda Track, at Milne Bay, in the coastal swamps of the Buna–Sanananda–Gona area, and around Wau—and of the events which led immediately up to that fighting. In it there is none of the wild, heart-thrilling drama of great bodies of men meeting on wide battlefields in the shocks of massed encounter. Instead, for the most part, it is the story of small groups of men, infinitesimally small against the mountains in which they fought, who killed one another in stealthy and isolated encounters beside the tracks which were life to all of them; of warfare in which men first conquered the country and then allied themselves with it and then killed or died in the midst of a great loneliness.
Fundamentally this story is concerned with the Australian infantryman whom I first knew when in the ranks myself (and later as an officer) in the 2/17th Battalion, AIF, and whose qualities of courage, endurance, comradeship and skill-at-arms, from personal experience first roused my love and admiration in the deserts of North Africa and in Tobruk. I had then no inkling that it would fall to my lot in these later years to chronicle the doings of such men in other battalions of the Australian Army in the vastly different setting represented by New Guinea—a setting in which, from my own earlier experiences as a young New Guinea Patrol Officer, I would have said it was quite impossible even for these great men to perform the deeds which they made their commonplace daily occasions. And so, first from my own experiences among them, and later from years of steeping myself in the records of their deeds to such an extent that I could truly say that the contemplation of them indeed changed the whole basis of my own approach to the problems of living and dying, I offer whatever of merit and personal sacrifice this book might represent as a tribute to these men and with the hope that others may be inspired as I have been by the stories of their lives and deaths.
Because the story is primarily that of the infantry soldier, I have feared that less than justice might have been done to many other brave and devoted
men—gunners, sappers, signallers, staff officers, and the many thousands in the various services which kept the infantryman in the field. I take comfort, however, from the certainty that these men will agree that the emphasis is as properly placed as it can be within the covers of one book. Similarly the story has in it comparatively little of generals and generalship; for it belongs most of all to the private soldier, the infantry NCO and the battalion officer. Nor have I forgotten that the campaigns could not have been fought at all without the air forces and the magnificent application of their skill and courage at critical times, and without the naval forces whose operations were vital to the success of the operations ashore; but it is the purpose of other volumes to record the exploits of these in detail.
It would be a poor tribute to the Australian soldiers who defeated them, and poor history, not to recognise the outstanding martial attributes of the Japanese. Their record is marred by deeds of barbarism and wanton cruelty of a kind quite beyond our own understanding. But despite this they were superb in their acceptance of death as a soldier’s obligation, and they were worthy of any soldier’s steel in the way they themselves fought and died.
The stuff from which this story is made is to be found primarily in the war diaries of all the units which were engaged. But round that strong thread have been woven details gathered from many other sources: from various published works; from letters and other personal papers; from conversations and discussions and personal accounts; from the many most valuable interviews recorded by Gavin Long while the war was still in progress; from War Cabinet papers. I would like to pay a personal tribute to the work of my old friend, Lieut-Colonel A. G. Fenton, who wrote the first narrative of the earlier part of the Kanga Force operations before his death in the last stages of the war in one of the many aircraft which set out across New Guinea and never returned. I am also deeply indebted to Samuel Milner, American war historian and good friend of Australia, whose Victory in Papua provided the broad basis for the story of American operations in Papua and much of the material for “the Japanese story”. I am grateful also for the help of those many former officers and men of the Australian Army who have read and criticised and added to this narrative, and given their time for discussion and patient explanation.
Throughout the years of work which this book has represented I have been unfailingly sustained and guided by the wisdom, scholarship, patience, faith, and friendship of the General Editor, Gavin Long, and by the quiet and humorous comradeship, ever-ready aid and great skill of Bill (A. J.) Sweeting of Mr Long’s staff.
12th June 1958