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The 39th Battalion reunion

Speech by the Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO at the Reunion Lunch for the 39th Battalion, 26 July 2012.

Download the speech.

It is a great privilege to address this gathering of old soldiers and their friends, descendants and loved ones on such a significant anniversary of the New Guinea campaign. This year marks 70 years since that epic campaign to save Australia amid its greatest crisis as a nation. It is an honour to attend any event that commemorates the feats of arms of the 39th Battalion, which carved out a reputation as one of the most effective Australian units to serve overseas.

I have been asked to reflect on the importance of the New Guinea campaigns of 1942 and 1943 to the contemporary Australian Army and to draw some parallels with the significance of ANZAC.  That is altogether appropriate. There are vital and enduring lessons for the Army in the battles fought by the 39th around Kokoda, Buna, Gona and Sanananda.

First and foremost, the modern nation of Papua New Guinea remains integral to the security of our own nation. It dominates vital sea-lanes and avenues of approach to Australia. It is one of our closest allies both geographically and emotionally. You and your comrades laid the foundation of that relationship. You saved Australia. But what you did to assist the people of New Guinea is of continuing relevance to the nation.

Of course commemoration of ANZAC has become one of the most important civic rituals that bind Australians together as a people. In a relatively young nation it is one of our oldest traditional observances. In a fairly secular, pragmatic society it is as close as we come to investing any event with mystical or sacred significance.

ANZAC Day has transcended war, especially the Great War, to become a celebration of the values that Australians like to believe distinguish us as a people -caring for one another in adversity, having a go even when the going is really tough, and mate-ship.

I do not use that latter term in any exclusive way, but rather as a convenient form of shorthand for a peculiar temper of the will which Australians of any background, gender, creed or occupation can aspire to. It translates to mutual respect and compassion for the underdog just as much as for the more traditional connotation that it has within the Australian Army, of sticking together with your mates against any odds.

While ANZAC is primarily remembered because that is the anniversary of the Gallipoli Landing in 1915 it mattered to the men who fought in the Kokoda Campaigns from 8 August 1942 because it symbolised everything that Australian soldiers aspired to be. From the battle of Isurava in August 1942 until the end of the war in New Guinea the same spirit that animated those young Australians as they rushed ashore at Gallipoli into immediate danger and subsequent immortality set the standard for soldierly conduct among their sons and heirs.

While these days the name Kokoda looms nearly as large in the Australian imagination as Gallipoli I doubt that some of the individual battles of the Kokoda campaign and wider New Guinea theatre are nearly as well known as they deserve to be.

The young Australians of the 39th militia Battalion and the AIF Battalions notably the 2/14th, 2/16th and 2/27th who fought there were deeply aware of the legacy of the original ANZACS. The legacy of those who had gone before them was a powerful motive to the young men of the Second AIF. 

In the imagination of the nation, the Kokoda campaign will always be synonymous with the battle of Isurava. And that battle in turn, will always be synonymous with one unit above all others - the 39th Battalion, a militia unit. That was ensured by the remarkable documentary produced by Chris Masters in 1995 truthfully titled “The Men Who Saved Australia”.

The feat of arms performed by you and of your mates, ranks among the finest of Australian soldiers anywhere at any time. The Commanding Officer of the 39th Ralph Honner surveyed the ground there and declared that that place would become an ‘Australian Thermopylae’. How correct that rhetorical flourish proved to be.

Over four days in August 1942 the 39th Battalion stood its ground in the face of daunting odds. They had been bloodied and forced back up the Kokoda track by a Japanese force superior in training and logistics. Their higher command never really understood the conditions they faced and failed to fully support them. They lacked food, medical supplies, blankets and ammunition. Most believed that they would disintegrate or be over-run. It was hoped that like the original Spartans at Thermopylae they might just impose enough delay to allow fresher and better equipped troops to consolidate for the defence of Port Moresby.

The skeptics did not understand that the one thing the 39th Battalion possessed in abundant supply was the ANZAC Spirit. Somehow they held on but it was a near run thing and the arrival of 2/14th and the 2/16 Battalions was decisive. The courage of those ‘ragged bloody heroes’ as they came to be known reverberates down the years to inspire the nation and its Army.

The analogy with the Spartans is fitting. The combat there was brutal hand to hand to fighting with bayonets, fists and the butts of weapons being used. It was primitive in its rudimentary intensity. Men wrestled and gouged at one another in the dark with fists and bayonets. That is the inescapable reality of the viscous uncompromising struggle that took place. And of course the men who performed these epic deeds knew they had their backs to the wall. They felt deeply that they were the thin khaki line separating a brutal enemy from their homeland. They did not possess the hindsight of professional scholars and historians as to the nature of the Japanese Grand Strategy. They fought like lions because they felt they were fighting for the families and homes. The debate about whether this was really a Battle for Australia is interesting, but pointless. You knew that you had to prevail or the front door to your home was open.

When I join you today to reflect on that series of battles I am humbled by the deeds of the men who wore the uniform of the Army that I am so proud to lead. Their endurance, courage and unselfish devotion to their mates and their country are beyond mere words to dignify.

Nor should we allow our focus on the battle of 8 August 1942 obscure the fact that the 39th was thrown into the breach again and again at Buna and Gona. The Battalion was for all intents and purposes reduced to a battered rump.

The toll among the AIF Battalions was just as great. In August 1942 Brigadier Arnold Potts led two fit, trained battalions of the 21st Brigade on to the Kokoda Trail. The 2/14 Battalion numbered 24 officers and 577 other ranks, while the 2/16th Battalion tallied 600 all up. They were joined by the time of the battle for Brigade Hill in early September by the 2/27th Battalion, comprising 28 officers and 560 other ranks. This force comprised approximately 1800 hardened combat veterans.

The 2/14th left Gona with 21 soldiers, and when it collected its walking wounded and holding camp personnel it grew to 57. The 2/27th left Gona with 3 officers and 67 other ranks, while the 2/16th finished the campaign with 8 officers and 48 others. That arithmetic is brutal in its clarity. It pays testament to the sacrifice and bravery of an extraordinary contingent of young Australians, who wrote their own chapter in the history of the nation its Army and of the ANZAC legend. On behalf of the Australian Army I salute them and you the survivors of that campaign.

While your efforts did indeed ultimately save Australia, we must not let nostalgia and celebration obscure the lessons of the New Guinea campaign for contemporary Australian strategy. It was a near run thing. Too many young Australians paid the price that the nation had not been prepared to pay in defence spending in the lead up to the war. The dead of the Kokoda campaign issue a silent rebuke to us: never again should our soldiers be sent to war in the immediate region so poorly prepared for the environment and the enemy they faced. Raw courage and improvisation salvaged a lack of training and logistics. But some units failed. Far too many died for want of training or medical support.

The talisman for me as Chief of the Australian Army in a period of budget austerity is to maintain our readiness, foundation war-fighting skills and protection for our men and women. We are doing this despite the widely publicized cuts to our budget. The media comparisons between now and 1938 are alarmist. Your Army is in good fettle and since the crisis in Timor in 1999 has been expanded and honed to the finest combat edge it has achieved since Vietnam. I am determined that will maintain it. We can do so - but I would be very concerned if we have to find any more savings or to reduce our strength.

Last week I welcomed a contingent of our troops back from Afghanistan. You would have been proud of them - and I venture would have seen a flash back of yourselves on parade.

One of the units there was my original Battalion 8/9 RAR. It was taken from the Army Order of Battle in the late 1990s and restored to it after the strategic shocks of East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Like the 39th its own story warns what happens when the nation is unwilling to pay the real costs of defending itself. My message to you is the same as it was to those young soldiers. The Army is hardened and experienced. But there is no room for complacency or thinking that Afghanistan will be our last war.

One area in which we have learnt from 1942 is in the more seamless integration of our Reserves and Regular formations. The most unfortunate rift of the inter war years, which fueled antagonism between the AIF and the militia, dissolved in the heat of battle on the Kokoda Track. The efforts of the 39th silenced critics of the militia and deep mutual respect was the hallmark of the relationship between the elements of the 21st Brigade and their militia comrades in arms.

Today there is no rift between our Reserves and Regular troops. The slogan of ‘One Army’ is a statement of fact and the Reserve is effectively conducting our deployments in our Primary Operating Environment in Timor Leste and The Solomon Islands.

We have never before had such an effective plan for the employment of the Reserve, nor have they been so integral to the operational effectiveness of the Army since the Second World War. You showed us that it could be done.

In closing let me make it very clear that while the entire New Guinea campaign has become known colloquially as a Battle for Australia, I am sensitive to the fact that today our former colony is a proud, independent nation.

Many local New Guineans paid the ultimate sacrifice in the war that came to their country in 1942 and the Australian Army and nation are forever in their debt. As we reflect on the battles that were fought there in 1942 through to the end of the war we need to acknowledge that the world that existed then has faded into memory. The bonds that were forged between our peoples in 1942 laid down the foundation for the mature defence relationship that we have today. Geography made us neighbors but history made us brothers in arms. The lesson of 1942 for Australia is that a secure New Guinea is vital to our own security. Lest we forget.