An anniversary passed a couple of days ago marking 70 years since a defining moment in Australian history, the Kokoda Track campaign in the jungle of Papua New Guinea.
Starting on July 21, 1942 and lasting until 16 November of the same year it was more than a battle to save Port Moresby, and possibly Australia from a Japanese invasion, this was a time where the attributes of mateship truly shone through like a beacon to lead and guide future generations of Australians.
It is hard to stand at the monument at Isurava, which looks down to Kokoda and not be moved. The fighting here was intense, and it was in this very place that Private Bruce Kingsbury committed an act of bravery and valour that ultimately led to his own life being lost, and for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Australia’s highest Military Award.
A few years ago I stood at the very rock where Private Kingsbury fell, the scene was serene, and it was hard to imagine the heavy fighting that resonated from this hillside, the sound of Bren guns rattling, of Japanese mountain guns being fired over the ridge from nearby Deniki, not knowing where the shells would fall, or whose life they would next claim.
The story of the 39th Battalion is legendary, and the enormity of the task they faced has only in recent years started to be truly understood. Increasingly Australian’s are making the pilgrimage to Kokoda, walking the track in recognition of the suffering and sacrifice these men made, to pay homage where a family member fell, a father, an uncle.
Often mocked by the regular Australian forces, the 39th were essentially the equivalent of a Citizens Military Force. They faced an elite Japanese fighting force, the Sasebo, in the initial stages of the battle, but what they may have lacked in military prowess, if anything, was certainly overcome by the qualities of, mateship, courage, and endurance.
In 2006 I was fortunate to walk the track with a good mate, and a group of like-minded people and led by a man passionate about telling the story of the 39th. Adopted by Australia, but of Irish descent, Aidan Grimes is an infectious person, with a typical Irish humour, who believes that the Australian quality of mateship is one of our country’s greatest assets.
Aidan has walked the track more times than he can remember, and has spent countless hours talking to those involved in the campaign. He relayed their stories as we progressed along the 96 kilometre track to Owers Corner.
There wasn’t one dry eye to be seen as Aidan sang Danny Boy at the very spot that Stan Bissett cradled his mortally wounded brother, Lieutenant Harold ‘Butch’ Bissett, in his arms before he silently slipped away.
And we should never forget the sacrifices that were made by our good friends. Our Wantoks, legends of the Kokoda Track, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, the Papuan New Guineans who carried supplies and our wounded, often making the ultimate sacrifice at the hands of an unyielding foe.
Standing at the top of the final hill after six days along the Track, we looked back over the ranges and I swear we could hear that distinctive Aussie drawl, the sound of mates helping their mates, our memory of them will live on forever…Lest We Forget.