Neither the Japanese or the Australians had proper maps of the tracks over the mountains. The country was so rough that distance was not measured in kilometers, but in how many hours or days it would take to walk it. Opposing the Japanese were the 39th Militia Battalion. Many of the 39th soldiers were only 19 years of age and had about 1 year of army training - they were going into battle for the first time. The 39th soldiers fought a small Japanese advance force at Awala, but were outgunned and outnumbered and fell back to Kokoda Village. Lt Colonel Owen, the commanding officer of the 39th, was killed in action. The Japanese soon caught up and launched a counterattack. Dr. Vernon, who was deaf, slept through the heavy attack on Kokoda Village. The Australians were pulling out of the village at midnight in heavy rain and left Dr Vernon behind , asleep in one of the huts. Luckily someone remembered to go back and get him.
The Australians withdrew to a place called Isurava, where on the 14th of August 1942 they dug in using their steel helmets and bayonets and awaited the Japanese onslaught. The Australians numbered less then 300 men - many were sick or wounded. Meanwhile, in Port Moresby (the main Australian base in New Guinea), the 21 Brigade arrived from Australia - immediately two infantry battalions from the 21 Brigade (the 2/14th and 2/16th) were sent on the exhausting march up the track. Brigadier Arnold Potts was given command of all Australian forces on the track wich were known as Maroubra force.
The soldiers of the 21 Brigade were well-trained and had already fought in Lebanon and Syria. At dawn, on the 26th of August, the Japanese attacked at Isurava. The Australians were on their last legs when the fist companies of the Victorian 2/14th battalion arrived at the front. The 39th soldiers refused to leave, because they knew the Australians were outnumbered about - five to one. On another track, several kilometres away, other Australians of the 2/14 battalion were sent to help the 53rd. The Australians were playing a cat and mouse game with the Japanese. Meanwhile, at Isurava, the Japanese were throwing everything thay had at the Australians, who dug in to hold off the Japanese onslaught. The battle at Isurava was a "David and Goliath" story. On the fourth day of the battle, General Horri decided upon a final massive attack on the Australian positions. From sunrise to sunset the Japanese attacked in overwhelming numbers.
The story of 10th platoon, 2/14th battalion indicates the ferocity of the fighting that day. 10th platoon (about 32 men), commanded by Lt Harold Bisset, fought off 11 separate attacks. Each time, over 100 Japanese attacked, but were thrown back. Afterwards, over 200 enemy bodies were counted in front of 10th platoon’s position. Lt Bisset was hit by machine gun fire and carried out by his men and later died in the arms of his younger brother. In another action, Private Charlie McCallum, with a bren gun in one hand and a tommy gun in the other, covered the withdrawal of 12th Platoon .
Calmly, McCallum shot down about 40 charging Japanese soldiers. The Japanese got so close to him that one was even seen to grab at the pouches on his belt. McCallum was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but was killed several days later. He was an only son and his mother proudly carried his medal in her handbag for the rest of her life.
In another Australian position, Corporal Lindsay Bear took command after his officer had been killed and his Sergeant wounded. The situation seemed hopeless as the Japanese threatened to break through the Australian position and overrun the whole battalion. The wounded Corporal Bear was manning a bren gun and was weak from blood loss. He passed the gun to the man next to him , Private Bruce Kingsbury (pictured at the right). Suddenly, Kingsbury leapt up, and firing the bren from his hip, charged the Japanese positions through a storm of enemy machine gun fire. He cleared a path of 100 meters before being shot down by a sniper. Kingsbury’s action stopped the Japanese breakthrough and restored the battalions position. Kingsbury was awarded Australia’s highest medal for bravery, the Victoria Cross. Later his mates said he’d thrown his life away to save theirs.
After four days of non-stop and often hand-to-hand fighting in which over 500 Japanese were killed, the Australians were forced to withdraw from Isurava to avoid being outflanked. The withdrawal took place in nightmare conditions of mud, rain and total darkness. The modern day bushwalker can walk the same distance to Alola in one hour that the exhausted Australian soldiers carrying their wounded took all night to do.
There were many other stories of courage and devotion to duty. Captain Ben Buckler led 41 men through the rainforest for 6 weeks after they were cut off from the main Australian force during the Isurava withdrawal. For several weeks during their epic journey, Buckler's party was behind enemy lines. A medical officer in the group, Tom Fletcher, volunteered to stay with seven wounded at Sangai village while the rest of the party went for help. When a rescue party returned, they found the wounded men shot dead in their stretchers and Tom's body next to them. Tom could have saved himself, but he chose to stay and protect his friends.
Maroubra Force was now very short on food and ammunition because it was so difficult to get supplies up the track. R.A.P (Regimental Aid Post) doctors patched up the wounded and urged them on their way to the next aid post. From Isurava, the Australians withdrew to Efogi, then to Mission Ridge (named because of the abandoned roofless mission building on the ridge) which had a hill on it which the soldiers named Brigade Ridge (also known as Butcher Hill). Mission Ridge was chosen because it offered the defenders high ground, which would make it more difficult for the Japanese to attack. The South Australian 2/27 Battalion, which had been held in reserve, had now arrived.
Brigadier Potts had roughly 1000 men against over 6000 Japanese. The 39th Battalion was no longer a fighting force, because so many of its men had been killed or wounded. The survivors were sent back to Port Moresby.
What was Potts to do? His orders were to hold on until fresh soldiers and supplies could reach him. Potts knew that his pitifully small force stood between the Japanese and Port Moresby. He knew he had to fight this battle and then withdraw before his force was wiped out.
Back in Australia, American General Douglas MacArthur was demanding to know why the Australians were not advancing. MacAurther had never visited New Guinea and had no idea what conditions the Australians were facing on the track.
For more information about this subject, please contact the author, Shane Thew