On 2 November 1942 battle-wearied Australian troops cautiously marched into the war ravaged Papuan village of Kokoda on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Ranges. Instead of meeting expected Japanese resistance the village was abandoned. The Battle of the Kokoda Track was over.
For our diggers this day marked the end of months of hard fighting, firstly to stop the invading Japanese forces’ unrelenting push across the ranges to reach Port Moresby and them to chase the defeated invaders back.
While Kokoda fell quietly back into Australian hands it was still an important objective. It had the only serviceable airfield between Port Moresby and the Japanese base at Buna on the north coast of Papua, although for reasons unknown the airfield had fallen into disrepair and had not been used by the enemy. Working parties were immediately set to repair the strip to allow supplies, ammunition and comforts to be flown in.
The village and airstrip had fallen to the Japanese on 28 July when the fresh Japanese invasion force swept south toward the ranges that separated them from Port Moresby and their objective – the capture of a major sea and air base within striking range of the Australian mainland.
Over the ensuing months Australian forces, outnumbered by the Japanese, fought in abysmal conditions along the Kokoda Track, sustaining more than 600 dead and more than 1,600 wounded or struck down by illness or disease.
Yet the retaking of Kokoda village did not mark the end of fighting. Our forces continued to chase the retreating Japanese back to the ocean where the Japanese made their last stand. This battle at the Beachheads was costly for all sides. Between November and January 1943 Australia lost more than 1,200 men and more than 2,000 were wounded. American casualties counted as almost 700 killed in action and almost 2,000 wounded. Japanese losses are estimated at around 7,600 killed.
As we remember the end of the Kokoda Campaign and the Battle of the Beachheads we also reflect on the 50,000 or so courageous Papuans who earned our nation’s respect and gratitude by re-supplying Australian soldiers and evacuating our sick and wounded.