Seventy-nine years ago on the 2nd of November, 1942, the village and aerodrome of Kokoda in the Owen Stanley mountains of Papua, was re-entered by Australian soldiers.
What follows is not a campaign narrative – there are plenty of those already in existence – but a small collection of related and lesser-known facts. All have been sourced from primary documents, and references for specific pieces of information can be provided on request.
The first substantial information of Japanese interest in a land route to Port Moresby after their attempt to occupy the latter was temporarily thwarted in the Battle of the Coral Sea, came from signals intercepts. On the 18th of May, 1942 Japanese Naval Intelligence Division in Tokyo sent the following to their 8th Naval Base Force at Rabaul:
“Enemy air strength in the Australia area at present will make it impossible to keep Moresby supplied by the sea route between Rabaul and Moresby after the latter is occupied… although all preparations for the occupation are complete we consider it necessary to begin the construction of a land route to Moresby from Lae [in the Huon Gulf, New Guinea, which the Japanese had occupied on the 8th of March, along with its southern neighbour, Salamaua]. Request we be informed immediately as to the feasibility of this based on your investigations, and what you will require in the way of labour.”
8th Base Force, Rabaul, replied on the 27th of May: “Following obtained with the aid of 106th Air. For information on the Mambore-Yoruda road see our [message] No 79 which was based on conversations with natives. This road begins in Mambore and – river valley and Tama (Loma), Yodda, and Kokoda, skirting Mount Service to the south and passing over a range of mountains about 2300 metres in height (this section is now being studied) then passes through Laloki River area (which is an extension of Brown River) and thence to Moresby. 40 years ago road was built in order to haul out ore from the mines at Yodda – – – – 8 to 10 days. There is no other road running across the island. Although this would be a difficult route for a campaign we are studying the possibility.”
General Douglas MacArthur’s GHQ messaged the following to the Senior Air Staff Officer [then still General Brett] on the 7th July, 1942: “Recent reports indicate renewed interest of the Japanese in the Mambare River route: i.e. Ioma-Kokoda, New Guinea …It is requested that aerial reconnaissance be made of the Kokoda area, particularly routes therefrom to the northeastward. Information is requested as to the practicability of landing aircraft on the Kokoda field. Can a trial landing be made?”
Little more than one week later, an operation code named ‘Providence’ by the Allies was planned to send a small force both overland and shore-to-shore to the Buna area on the northern coast of Papua – chiefly to develop a forward airfield. The advanced party for Providence, however, consisted only of one Australian infantry battalion – the 39th, then in Port Moresby – and a small party of U.S. engineers. Greater resources were then being husbanded for another operation code-named ‘Fall River,’ which was the building and defence of airstrips on the western shores of Milne Bay. For reasons unknown, on the 17th of July, the launching date for ‘Providence,’ which was to have been between the 3rd and 5th of August, was postponed for seven days. Four days after the initial Japanese beachheads were established on the 22nd of July, Operation Providence was cancelled.
Major Toyofuku, Tetsuo, Intelligence Officer, Nankai Shitai Headquarters: “At a conference of senior officers held at Nankai Shitai Headquarters prior to the landings in New Guinea, Staff Officer Tanaka had stated that commanders holding appointments above that of company commander would be authorised to dispose of prisoners, other than those classed as important who would be sent to Nankai Shitai Headquarters and ultimately sent to Japan. From Tanaka’s remarks I believe the unit commanders [later, during the campaign] considered they had authority to execute prisoners and acted accordingly. Major-General Horii was present at this conference but made no utterance following Tanaka’s remarks. He only laughed.”
It is possible that the earliest Allied casualty of the Japanese occupation of the Papuan Beachheads was a Constable Tembora, of the New Guinea Police Force, who died on the 22nd of July at the Basera Rest House near Buna. While no details surrounding Tembora’s death are available, the Japanese were certainly present at Buna on that day from the early hours.”
Similarly, Constable Osovi-Nagasu of the Royal Papuan Constabulary, is recorded as having died on the 25th of July in or near Sanananda Village, Buna area.
The Japanese vanguard lost no time in pushing towards Kokoda. While the PIB (Papuan Infantry Battalion) were the first to exchange fire with the Japanese, the most forward AMF unit was “B” Company of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion, under the command of Captain Sam Templeton. Templeton “became missing in the afternoon of 26 Jul 42 near Oivi Village, Papua [east of Kokoda].” Later, an extract from a captured Japanese diary, the owner possibly a 2nd Lieutenant Onagawa, stated that Capt. Templeton was one of two Australians taken prisoner at that time.” No trace of him was ever found, despite extensive post-war interrogations.
Sgt. R.S. Rosengreen of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion, later recalled his last memory of VX68190 Pte. C.R. Winch, of the same unit: “At the end of July or the beginning of August our Platoon was in position in the village of Deniki. The Japs attacked us and mortared us very heavily. Winch had big holes blown in both his legs and also small holes in his back. We carried him back about 200 yards and dressed his wounds. He was then carried back to the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post] but the Japs cut us off behind with machine guns and we were forced to leave him behind. He was in a very bad way when I last saw him and I think it was unlikely he would live without medical aid. I doubt if he would have been taken prisoner.”
In the absence of a quantity of accurate information from the field, the Allied high command remained cautious, as an extract from the Advanced Headquarters, Allied Land Forces Weekly Intelligence Summary No.1, of the 7th of August, 1942, reveals: “… it would appear that the enemy intends establishing a series of outposts, forming a protective screen, around the North Eastern Section of Papua thus covering their bases in Buna-Gona areas against Allied land attacks … Yodda, as well as Kokoda, is now being used as a landing ground by the enemy for N.G. operations. (These could serve as useful A.O.B.’s [Advanced Operational [Air] Bases] for operations against Port Moresby.”
Corporal. R.C. Baxter, of the 39th Aust Inf Bn, later told of one of his experiences during this early period: “We held the bridge until ordered to withdraw to Kokoda plateau where the balance of A Coy were in position. We reached them about 1630 hrs … On 9 Aug 42 about 1100 hrs the Japs attacked and we held them until about 1830 hrs on 10 Aug. I was in a shallow trench with Norm. Watkins. I was operating the Bren Gun when Norm asked for it as he could see some Japs firing discharger cups [grenades] or something similar approximately 20 to 30 yards away. He fired on them and almost immediately fell backwards in the trench. As only his head was visible, I am practically certain he was hit in the head, probably by small arms fire …By this time it was very dark, and I didn’t have time to examine Norm before the Japs closed in on the Pit. I did not see him again after that.” Watkins’ body was never recovered.
Yanagiba, Yutaka: “Following the retreat of the Australian forces [from Kokoda itself], supplies of food and ammunition were dropped from Allied aircraft with the aid of parachutes. The Japanese soldiers were at first frightened because of their fear of a parachute landing. I heard that one of the [Australian] prisoners was told “how foolish for these airmen to be dropping supplies to the Japanese forces.” The prisoner replied that it was a good will gesture to the Japanese forces for dropping at Port Moresby some letters from Australian prisoners at Rabaul.”
According to Major Toyofuku, Tetsuo, mentioned above: “… about 20 Aug 42 – near Isurava, an Australian Captain who had been injured in the thigh by a fall, was captured in front of a large wood house – possibly a church – and was interrogated by Lt-Col Tsukamoto [a battalion commander] and himself (Toyofuku). After a simple interrogation the prisoner was executed by rifle fire and buried in a nearby trench.
About four days later, on the 24th of August, 1942, an unnamed Australian soldier, thought to have been a private, was captured “about a mile east of Kokoda,” was interrogated by Toyofuku and Staff Officer Tanaka, and then executed immediately.
Major Toyofuku was wounded near Isurava on the 30th of August, 1942 “and evacuated to the Nankai Shitai Field Hospital at Kokoda, and later, on 3 Nov, embarked as a stretcher case for evacuation to Rabaul.” Toyofuku survived the war.
VX23480 Pte. Herbert Frederick Paxford, 35 years of age, born in Shropshire, England, was wounded in at least one arm at or near Isurava. Like other ‘walking’ wounded, he made his way back along the track, reaching the second ridge south of Efogi, where he built himself a small shelter just off the track, and died there. Though buried sometime later by a Padre – identified only by a name written on his shorts – his grave was never relocated.
Gradually, several experienced A.I.F. infantry battalions came forward to assist the beleaguered 39th. One of them was the 2/14th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel A. E. Key. Key, however, along with six of his men, “became missing from a position about 800 yards south of Isurava, Papua during the late afternoon of 30 Aug 42.”
Private George Joseph Cudmore, of the 39th Bn. described his last memory of a fellow soldier, V44440 Private A.A. Daniels: “When the battalion was withdrawing in August, 1942, during an attack about halfway between Isuavi [Isurava?] and Euri [Eora?] Creek, we took up a position near the main track in thick growth where we came under severe rifle and machine gun fire. I was between 10 and 15 yds. from Daniels when he was wounded. I saw him last lying face downward, with both hands to his face, and his knees drawn up under his body. He showed no movement and gave no sound.” Daniels’ body was never recovered.
According to a Japanese 1st Lieutenant veterinarian with the Nankai Shitai Headquarters, there were 980 horses transported from Rabaul to Basabua (between Gona and Sanananda) “but they were of no use beyond Kokoda and through lack of suitable fodder most died but many were killed for food. Fodder for 20 days only was taken for the landing.”
Okada, Seizo, was with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. He and a team of 9 members arrived at Buna on the 13th of Aug ’42, and embarked for Rabaul again sometime in the last ten days of Oct ’42. The voyage took 3 days. Years later, Okada recalled: “On a peak, probably near Kagi, we saw a young Australian soldier lying on the ground with his knees covered by a blanket as he was probably wounded in the legs. He was looking up at us with cool and calm eyes as we hurriedly moved along the track. This was the first Australian soldier we had seen in New Guinea. About two days later I heard from an orderly attached to Nankai Shitai Headquarters that this young Australian soldier had been executed by shooting. According to the rumours widely circulated among the Japanese soldiers at this time, he was told to stand on the edge of a cliff and when a Japanese soldier was going to blindfold him he shouted, “It’s unnecessary” and kept his eyes open even at the moment of shooting. This was an unforgettably tragic story.”
WX11085 Lt. Donald Andrew Paterson, 2/16th Aust Inf Bn was Killed in Action on the 2nd of Sept ’42: “KIA just north of Eora Creek village. Body was seen to fall into Eora Creek from cliff. It was not recovered.”
WX12332 Pte. Albert George Thomas Osborn, 2/16th Aust Inf Bn, was last seen alive on the 9th of September, 1942, walking through the village of Menari with a head wound. His body was never found. He was 27 years old, from Victoria Park in Western Australia.
Lt. Col. Key and three other unidentified Australians were captured on the 10th of Sept ’42.
The diary of a 2nd Lt. Hirano of Tsukamoto Regiment, recorded that the party was captured by Superior Private “Doi and five others captured Lt. Col. K and four others. Though questioned, the prisoners stubbornly refused to speak. Tied them securely for the night and decided to send them to the Battalion Commander tomorrow morning.”
Superior Private Doi later died in Rabaul.
One Japanese Kempei Corporal, Inazawa, later described Lt. Col. Key as “very weary, due to malaria, malnutrition and loose bowels.” Lt. Col. Key allegedly gave one of his identification discs to the corporal, to be forwarded to his wife in Australia. (The disc was given to another Japanese, Pte. Yoshimine, who is thought to have later been killed).
Major Toyofuku, who we have already met, stated in a post-war interrogation that Key – though he was then unaware of his name, was “subsequently severely dealt with during interrogation by Staff Officer Tanaka,” though it is uncertain if Toyofuku witnessed the beating personally.”
Other Japanese, including Medical Warrant Officer with the Nankai Shitai, Okada, Shigeaki, recalled seeing Lt. Col. Key with two other Australians between Menari and Ioribaiwa.
The fate of those captured with Key is unknown, though it is likely they were murdered soon after capture. Key himself was escorted back to the beachhead, and on one of the first few days of November, evacuated to Rabaul on the last of two Japanese Army transports.
Newspaperman Okada, Seizo again: “On the morning of our arrival at Rabaul I unexpectedly happened to meet up on deck the Lieutenant-Colonel [Key] whom I had seen previously in the mountains of New Guinea. He was very weak and emaciated at this time and was in a half lying position with blankets on his knees. … He recognized me too, and I spoke to him only for a few minutes. Viewing the harbour from the deck he asked me “Where am I now?” When I told him it was Rabaul, he said “Oh, Rabaul,” and nodded faintly. Mentioning a silver cross which was handing [sic; hanging] from his neck, he said “This is the memory of my wife” and showed me the back of the cross on which his wife’s name was engraved. It made me think of my own wife and children and I was moved by a heavy feeling mingled with heartfelt sympathy for the Lieutenant-Colonel at this time. The bearing of the Lieutenant-Colonel was to me extremely splendid, he maintained the dignity of and calmness of a cultured Briton both up in the mountains and aboard the ship.”
Back in Papua, on the 14th of September, the fresh 2/31st Australian Infantry Battalion entered the battle. An extract from their war diary of the same date: “We had barely cleared the 2/16 Aust Inf Bn along the track on the ridge running NW from Ioribaiwa when the Jap opened fire on the leading elements of D Coy… At this point it may be mentioned that the ridge was on the average 20 yds wide at the top, and at some points it had bottle-necks five yards wide. So that an extremely narrow field of advance was possible. B and A Coys [of the same battalion, the 2/31st] tried flanking movements, but the steep sides of the ridge and the presence of well camouflaged snipers in the treetops prevented any more advance than the bottom of the ridge. To add to the difficulties of the initial entry [of the battalion] into this campaign, rain began to fall in torrents.”
On the 3rd of October, at or in the vicinity of Ioribaiwa, First Class Private Yamamoto, Taro, born in Tojima, Kitawa Gun, Ehime Ken, on the 1st of December, 1920, was captured. Yamamoto had been a silk work artist prior to the war, and had served 13 months in the army. He survived his captivity in Australia – many of his fellow prisoners perished at Cowra – and was repatriated to Japan in early 1946.
Also captured on the same day, but approximately 1 ½ hours north of Menari, was Private First Class Ikeda, Masuyoshi. Born in 1906, Ikeda died 13 days after capture in the 2/9th Australian General Hospital in Port Moresby, of Malaria M.T., “Subphrenic Abscess, General Peritonitis.”
When companies of the 2/31st Bn entered Kokoda on the 2nd of November, 1942, an emaciated Rabaul native explained that the area had been evacuated several days previously.
This was not the end of the campaign, however, for the Australians pushed hard after the withdrawing Japanese, and in the Oivi-Gorari area between Kokoda and the coast, trapped and killed a great number of them.
Private First Class Igawe, Takiwo, 2 Platoon, 1 Coy, 1 Bn, Kusonose Butai [presumably 144 Regiment], was captured at Papaki on the 13th of November. Born on the 1st of May, 1920, in Ukiana-Mura, Onsen-Gun, Ehime-Ken, Shikoku, Igawe had been a clothing salesman in civilian life. An interesting notation on his record stated: “To be kept in separate cell please.” Diagnosed with malaria after capture, also “Both feet bad – bad boots,” Igawe survived captivity and was repatriated to Japan in 1946.
Some who had survived the torturous fight over the Owen Stanleys, perished in the Gona-Sanananda-Buna Papuan Beachheads campaign that followed.
The 30th Australian Infantry Brigade, for example, sustained 111 men missing “as a result of action early in Dec ’42 along Sanananda Road. Burial parties could not reach the area until five weeks later, when in most cases bodies were unrecognisable.”
NX91222, Private Herbert Edward Miller, of the 2/6th Australian Independent Company, after serving in Papua, disappeared without trace from the transport ship taking his company home to Australia on the 3rd of March, 1943.
Note from author: I have attached a lengthy post about a military history topic which might not interest too many Cats. I have not included the references because I do not want anyone plagiarizing my many hours of research, however they exist and can be produced on request. As stated at the top of the article, all information has been sourced from primary documents. In other words, I have not used anything from in-print secondary sources (recent authors).
The AWM has many photographs, most of which are now out of copyright and could be used with the usual acknowledgement: Advanced Search | Australian War Memorial