newsCO.com.au | Kokoda veterans reflect on 75 years since battle against Japanese they were lucky to survive

November 1, 2017

@newsCOflash

2017-11-01 20:00:00

Posted

November 02, 2017 07:00:00

On November 2, 1942, a small Australian patrol cautiously entered an abandoned Kokoda, in what was then the Australian territory of Papua, after months of battles.

The campaign had ended 16 weeks after it began, with Australian forces battling treacherous conditions to hold back the advancing Japanese.

The conditions on the track were appalling for all combatants; it was jungle and guerrilla warfare at its worst.

About 625 Australians were killed along the Kokoda track, and several thousand more were wounded and suffered from sickness and disease.

Seventy-five years on, surviving veterans will meet today in Canberra for a Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.

Six of these veterans from across the country recently shared their experiences at Kokoda with the ABC.

Leonard Griffiths, 2/4th Battalion

Leonard Griffiths was just 20 when he arrived in Papua in 1942.

“It was May and we had finished our three months of training and were on our way to the Middle East,” he recalled.

“But things changed and the Japanese arrived at Buna-Gona, so we were transferred from going to the Middle East back to New Guinea instead.”

Mr Griffiths said most people would never know just how close the Japanese forces came to taking the aerodrome at Port Moresby.

He often reflects on how the inexperienced Australian troops were able to halt the advancing forces.

“I was very sick and had malaria badly when I was transferred from the third to the 2/4th battalion,” he said.

“It was a hard campaign. The further we went, the worse it got. We were lucky to survive.”

The 95-year-old said the anniversary would bring back a flood of memories.

“Not necessarily pleasant ones,” he said.

“The Japanese were fully trained for the jungle warfare and they were expert at it.

“We were trained for open warfare in the Middle East, so we had to learn to fight in the jungle the hard way.”

George Palmer, 39th Battalion

The face of a young George Palmer has become one of the most defining of the Kokoda campaign.

He was one of six men — and mates — captured by legendary war photographer Damien Parer trekking through the gruelling terrain of the Kokoda track.

It is a photo that captures some of the now 96-year-old’s most enduring memories of Kokoda.

Mr Palmer said there was a memorial at the Isurava battlefield of four granite pillars with the words mateship, endurance, courage, and sacrifice carved into them.

“I always maintain mateship was the most important one,” he said.

“There was a fellow, Johnny Briscoe, he was a great mate of mine, he died a few years ago.

“We went to Melbourne for a function at the shrine and I hadn’t seen him for 50 years.

“Tears ran out both our eyes — it was a very emotional reunion — but friendships like that you never forget.

“They’re alongside you in every problem. There’s always a mate there with you.”

Alex Jenkins, 30th Squadron, RAAF

Alex Jenkins had never flown in a plane when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1941.

He went from learning his trade as an apprentice printer in Melbourne to being a flight mechanic in Papua.

He said he was “at the right place, at the right time” to become a specialist in the Bristol Beaufighter, a British aircraft with “two whopping big powerful engines”.

“It wasn’t a dogfighting plane because it was too big, but it was fast enough to get away from the Japanese,” Mr Jenkins said.

“Because we had the quietest engines in the business they used to sneak in, do their damage and then race home again.”

His role was to keep the planes in service, and repair any damage done by the Japanese.

“We’d change an engine or we’d fix an engine … you might fix some of the framework that got damaged,” he said.

“We just had shorts on and the metal used to get terribly hot, and you’d have a bucket of petrol there beside you to drop the tools in to cool them down.

“You didn’t dare sit on the flaming wings at all, unless you had a towel or something underneath you.”

Bill Stuart, 39th Battalion

For Bill Stuart, the Kokoda track was just the beginning of a long war against the Japanese.

The 97-year-old said those who signed up to fight did it out of a love for their country.

“We had to defend the homeland — and we did, and we did it well,” he said.

A machine gunner with the 39th Battalion, Mr Stuart was among the first Australian soldiers to land in Papua.

“[It was] pretty rough. They had made very little preparation for our arrival,” he said.

He recalled lying in bed at the end of a day of fighting as a fellow soldier listed all the work that had been done to support their efforts, right down to who had dug the latrines.

“Most of those chaps who were lying there in bed would die on the Kokoda track,” he said.

“I wasn’t one of them. That’s about all.”

Dick Lewis, 2/33rd Infantry Battalion

Dick Lewis from Wynyard, Tasmania, was a 20-year-old corporal when he was sent to Kokoda.

His task was to help carry heavy parts of a machine gun up and down the mountainous track.

“That weighed us down terribly. It was a pretty shocking job, actually,” he said.

“I didn’t ever use it — we were always half an hour or an hour after the troops got there by the time we carried the gun.”

Despite that, he and a fellow soldier once came under fire from the Japanese.

“I was just lying in the grass talking to somebody. We weren’t attacking or anything, and they got onto us with a machine gun,” he said.

“A couple of bursts and they killed him and got me through the heel.”

Mr Lewis had to walk for a day and a half to get medical treatment for the bullet wound.

He does not often dwell on his memories of Kokoda.

“I find them uncomfortable,” he said.

Bruce Robertson, 30th Squadron, RAAF

Bruce Robertson was 21 when he was called up to join the Kokoda campaign.

Only months before, he had been working as a wireless operator at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Richmond base when a Japanese midget submarine attacked Sydney Harbour.

Eventually his battalion was deployed to New Guinea and stationed at Milne Bay, from where they flew Beaufighters to provide aerial support to the Australian and allied troops.

“You had all your mates, you’d trained with them, and when we left Richmond we had no idea where we were going,” Mr Robertson said.

“The case was all in together, and we didn’t think that much about war time coming.

“Driving up the track in those trucks to get to Kokoda track was the hairiest thing in the world.

“The truck was only a foot away from a 1,000-foot drop. I’d look over the side and see the trucks lying over the side there.

“Today, people walk the track. That’s great, wonderful. But just remember there was someone down there just waiting to kill you.”

The 97-year-old said he tried not to dwell on the memories of his time there.

“That’s days gone by. Love one another, love your enemy.”

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