The Eternal Relevance of Kokoda

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“They died so young. They missed so much. They gave up so much: their hopes; their dreams; their loved ones; they laid down their lives so that their friends might live. Greater love hath no man”

Ralph Honner, former CO 39th Battalion.

Almost a century afterwards, the legendary narrative of the Australian soldier perseveres. The iconic digger has its roots during the Gold Rush of the 19th century reaching legendary status in WW1 and WW2. Since then, the eternal flame of the ANZAC has been inherited and carried by the awesome men and women who serve the Australian nation.

Courage, sacrifice and mateship are signature traits of a typical Aussie digger.  The indefatigable mentality to place ones mates before oneself even when one might not know the person very well, echoing what one digger in WW1 remarked to a group of men he had just encountered in a trench, “We’re all mates here mate”. In this sense, I would like to shed some insight regarding the Kokoda campaign during WW2, which essentially saved Australia from Japanese invasion.

Unfortunately, many Australians are unfamiliar with the battles which saved Australia from assault in 1942. The Kodada campaign began on July 21 that year and was won by November 16. The battles of Isurava, Mission Ridge, Brigade Hill and Buna are just some significant battles where young Australian men were morbidly tested in a cauldron of death.  

Most historians would explain the importance of these battles in terms of their geostrategic value; providing quantitative statistics regarding numbers, military manoeuvres, military equipment etc.

However, I would like to follow in the footsteps of Australian Historian Maria Hill who believes that historical discourse should emphasise the actions of individuals and the relationships that were formed. Before I build on this promise however, for the sake of context and in order to appreciate the sacrifices made,  one must provide a historical overview of the events that led up to the Kokoda campaign.

Led Up to the Kokoda Campaign

Sunday evening, September 3 1939, Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced to the nation, “It is my melancholy duty to inform you that in consequence of the persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and as a result, Australia is also at war…”. Droves of patriotic young men joined the AIF (Australian Imperial Force).

Within 6 months 100 000 men (one in every six males in their twenties) had volunteered to defend the mother country in her hour of need. At this point in time, Japan had not entered the war and would continue to hoodwink the Western democracies of their intended isolation. The men of the AIF sailed for Palestine for training and were earmarked for battle in theatres such as Greece and the Middle East. The AIF was every Australian’s pride; honourable and highly trained individuals who were willing to defend Australia’s interests in foreign lands. These men would prove crucial as the Japanese succumbed to their thirst for a Pacific Empire.

Australia was taken aback and shocked by the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as well as their swift expansion towards the south of the equator, close to Australia’s borders. Prime Minister John Curtin called for “total commitment” and even invited the USA to come to our aid. As our professional fighting force was in engaged in the Middle East, there was no organised force to take a stance against Japan. Even the “impregnable” British fortress in Singapore which was also defended by Australian troops was overwhelmed and subdued. The Japanese had massacred 150 diggers in cold blood and taken 15 000 prisoner; setting a stark template for war, “no quarter asked- none given”. The battle for Australia had begun.

Australia’s defence was a ragtag group of untrained, untested teenagers whose average age was 18 and a half. These men formed the 39th battalion and were sent to Port Moresby to set up a defence against an oncoming Japanese force which was intent on capturing the Port from which it could launch an invasion of Australia. These men were referred to by their older brothers (AIF) as “chockos” or “Chocolate soldiers” as they would melt under the pressure of battle. These boys however, would forever bury these slurs as they would prove themselves to be worthy not only of their AIF brothers but also of the ANZAC legend their fathers had burnt on the beaches of Gallipoli.

The Story of Corporal Charlie McCallum

Corporal Charlie McCallum resisted 4 separate waves of Japanese attack prior to the withdrawal of all his mates. The Australian line at Isurava was buckling and a retreat was called. McCullum, wounded, used his Bren gun to cover his friends as they slipped to safety. As enemy soldiers came closer he switched, using his right hand to fire his Bren while grabbing a Tommy gun and fired it from his left shoulder.  As each gun ran out of ammunition he would simultaneously reload and fire. McCullum maintained this superhuman feat until all of his mates had withdrawn. The enemy had come so close to devouring the lad that during the furore one Japanese soldier managed to tear his utility pouches from his belt. 

McCullum was recommended for the Victoria Cross, “At all times in action, McCullum was admirably calm and steady. On this occasion, his utter disregard for his own safety and his example of devotion to duty and magnificent courage was an inspiration to all our troops in the area”.

The Story of Corporal John Metson

Following this exemplar of selflessness is the story of Corporal John Metson. A group of 50 diggers of which 9 were wounded, straggled through the forest trying to avoid interception by Japanese patrols which swarmed the area. Corporal John Metson had been shot in the ankles and as a consequence was incapable of walking. Aware that 8 men were required to properly carry a stretcher, Metson wrapped his knees and hands in clothes and for the next 3 weeks crawled the unfair jungle floor. Rocks, sticks, tree roots and thorns tore at his flesh however his determination to be a burden unto himself to spare his mates would ultimately cost him his life.

The 9 wounded men decided to halt their ordeal by farewelling their mates by remaining put in the jungle. This would give the rest of the group a greater chance at survival and an opportunity to fight the enemy on another occasion. The group formally “presented arms” in a final salute to their brothers who they never saw again. Luckily after 6 weeks, the group reached safety.

Kokoda and the ANZAC Legend

John Metson and Charlie McCullum are shining ambassadors of the ANZAC legend. Staunch, courageous and fearless in the face of extreme danger. An ethos of self sacrifice, mateship and professionalism as well as an undying commitment to the security of Australia. Every ANZAC aims to externalize these values and it is precisely the struggles of our soldiers has ensured the integrity of Australia’s borders and values.

While there are some who despise the military institution as well as the ANZAC legend, as a liberal-conservative I would allow Voltaire to speak for me in response to the extremist elements of the political left, ” I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. It is a confusing and sad reality though that fine young men did make the ultimate sacrifice so future generations could have the freedom criticize them. I can only wish that people avoid exercising this right.

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