Kokoda recaptured

Australian soldiers at Kokoda, 1942

On 2 November 1942, a small Australian patrol led by Lieutenant Alexander Black of the 2/31st Battalion cautiously entered Kokoda. Expecting to encounter the Japanese, Black’s patrol found the village abandoned, the enemy having withdrawn to the Oivi Pass several days earlier.

The Kokoda Trail campaign had ended with a whimper, some three and half months after it had begun. The actual moment is best summarised by the Official History: ‘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.’

Two relatively small but intense battles were fought in Kokoda during the early stages of the campaign, but on this occasion no shots were fired. This was a relief to the Australians who only a week before were involved in brutal fighting during the Battle of Eora Creek.

Seizing Kokoda village was important because it contained the only serviceable airfield between Port Moresby and the Japanese base at Buna on the north coast of Papua. Yet to the surprise of the Australians, they found the airfield had fallen into disrepair and had not been used by the enemy. Working parties were immediately detailed to clear it and prepare the strip for aircraft landings to allow much-needed supplies, ammunition and comforts to be flown in.

The Kokoda campaign cost the Australians more than 450 lives, while several thousand were wounded and suffered from sickness and disease. The Japanese thrust southwards was curtailed by their own difficulties in resupplying their troops, combined with the fading fortunes of their forces on Guadalcanal. For the Allies, protecting Port Moresby ensured that the lines of communication between Australia and the United States remained open, and Australia’s northern cities were protected from the threat of aerial attack that might have occurred had the Japanese captured the Papuan capital.

On the afternoon of 3 November, Major General George Vasey, commander of the Australian forces on the Kokoda Trail, led a flag-raising ceremony on the Kokoda plateau. A brand new nylon-weave Australian flag had been air-dropped by an American fighter pilot earlier that morning specifically for the purpose. The occasion was described by Lieutenant Herbert ‘Bert’ Kienzle as sombre: ‘there was no band, no cheering, just hundreds of weary Australians standing silently to attention in the rain’.

Three days later, a further ceremony was held next to the air field in a show of gratitude to the Papuan natives who had assisted the Australians throughout the campaign. Bravery medals were awarded, knives and ramie (a type of plant-based textile used to make rope) were given as gifts, and a feast was organised to reward the loyal and dedicated service of the Papuans.

Within a week of Kokoda’s recapture, the Australians were again committed to battle, fighting the Japanese at Oivi and Gorari. The recapture of Kokoda immediately alleviated the problem of supply, with stores able to be flown into the village and transported to the troops at the front. This enabled Vasey to redirect manpower from labouring duties to combat roles. This was an important shift to make every man available for the difficult battles that lay ahead.

Nicholas Anderson is an historian with the Australian Army History Unit. His book, To Kokoda, is available for sale from 2 November from the publisher Big Sky Publishing and selected bookshops.

An electronic copy of To Kokoda will be made available to Army personnel via iArmy.