Kokoda: In Their Own Words

Japanese forces bombed Port Moresby for the first time on 3 February 1942. There were more than 100 air raids in the campaign that followed. In May 1942, the Japanese navy tried to invade Port Moresby by sea. However, Australian and American forces turned back the invaders during the Battle of the Coral Sea. After these failed attempts, the Japanese command decided to advance on Port Moresby overland. They would follow a local footpath from north to south called the Kokoda Track.

In preparation for a possible invasion, Australian operations on the Kokoda Track began on 7 July 1942. This was several weeks before the Japanese landed at Gona to start their advance on Port Moresby.

The conflict in Papua along the Kokoda Track was a series of intense struggles where many lives were lost.

New Guinea's pivotal location

During the war, both Allied and Japanese forces regarded the Territory of Papua as an important location. The reason was its close proximity to both Australia and Asia. The Japanese viewed Port Moresby as a key point to launch aerial attacks on the northern part of Australia. Their strategy was to capture Port Moresby by following the Kokoda Track over the mountains. Australian and Papuan troops fought the Japanese to prevent them from achieving their goal.

For more information, read Why was Port Moresby important?

Map showing the main points along the overland track leading from the north-eastern coastal villages of Gona and Buna to Port Moresby in the south-west.

Map of the Kokoda Track across the Owen Stanley Ranges in the Territory of Papua in 1942. The inset shows nearby nations. Source: Keith Mitchell (2012), Kokoda: Exploring the Second World War campaign in Papua New Guinea, p 8.

Getting supplies to the troops in challenging conditions

The Kokoda Track passed through dense jungle and over steep, misty countryside. The uneven dirt trail quickly turned to mud during heavy tropical storms. The troops' progress along the track was slow at best.

Australian veteran Alan Ward served with 183 Supply Depot Platoon at Port Moresby. He helped to replenish and maintain supplies for the troops moving along the track. Alan and his group were constantly vulnerable to attack.

Five shirtless men standing knee-deep in water rushing over rocks are securing large hand-cut logs and ropes while 2 men walk a plank bridge overhead and other men work in the background.

Engineers building a bridge along the track from Kokoda to Buna, photographed by George Silk, Kokoda Track, 19 November 1942. AWM 013598

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. Using your own knowledge and Alan's story, explain the purpose of a searchlight in wartime. Name other inventions with a similar function.
  2. Imagine how Alan and his platoon may have felt when bombs landed close to their positions in the slit trenches. Describe what this situation would have looked and felt like.

Discover more about The problem of supply.

Fighting on the Kokoda Track

Combat on the Kokoda Track has been described by some as 'night fighting'. In some places, the jungle was so thick that little or no light filtered through. Soldiers were easily disorientated and became separated from their section. Neither side was especially skilled in this type of combat when they first arrived in Papua.

Veteran Bob Iskov served in the 2/14th Australian Infantry Battalion. He fought in the Battle of Isurava and participated in the long retreat to Imita Ridge. Bob was one of hundreds who got cut off from their battalion in the jungle. It was a while before they could rejoin the unit.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. Bob is referring to battles at Efogi. Locate Efogi on the map above. Read more about Efogi. Using dot points, note the challenges the Australians faced in this location.
  2. Explain why Bob's platoon threw its mortar over the cliff. Do you think the men had an alternative?
  3. Bob explains that usually, a sniper would first target an officer and then a sergeant before Bob himself. What reasoning can you provide for this? In your opinion, why was the young man (Norm) shot? How might this event have impacted the lives of those in the platoon?

Learn more about jungle warfare and other dangers on the Kokoda Track.

Nursing in Port Moresby

Veteran Helen McCallum learnt to cope with the intense heat and to help patients with terrible burns when she was posted to the Middle East. Helen later served at the 2/9th Australian General Hospital in Port Moresby during the conflict on the Kokoda Track. It was here that she helped many soldiers who were not only wounded but very sick. Many had infectious diseases common in tropical areas, like malaria, dysentery, dengue fever and scrub typhus. Skin ulcers that did not heal commonly became terrible infections. Some patients were so unwell they had to be transferred to hospitals in Australia for longer treatment.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. Helen talks about relying on the Port Moresby hospital patients to do jobs in the wards. Explain what tasks they performed. What does this tell you about the conditions in the hospital and the pressures on the nurses?
  2. Helen describes the hospital as having a 'wonderful atmosphere'. How do you think this atmosphere impacted a patient's mental and physical health?
  3. Helen explains that hospital meals were not very good, but she noticed many patients put on weight while in care. Read about Malaria and dysentery. Using your own words, describe what insights Helen's story gives you about conditions the soldiers faced along the Kokoda Track.

Going further: research questions

Read a timeline of events along the Kokoda Track.

  1. Research one of the battles that took place along the Kokoda Track.
  2. Imagine you were serving during the battle you researched. Write about the experience from your imagined perspective. You could write a letter home to your loved ones or create a series of social media posts about your experience.

Discover more about the Kokoda Track: 1942 and today.

Curriculum notes for teachers

The videos and activities align with Year 10 History, v 9.0 Australian Curriculum.

  • the places where Australians fought, and their perspectives and experiences during the Second World War, such as the fall of Singapore, prisoners of war (POWs), the Battle of Britain and Kokoda ACHH10K02
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