Anzac Day 2018 – Kokoda Trail

Wayne Fitcher won’t forget the sound of the Blackhawk bringing the Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, to Isurava Battlefield Memorial on Anzac Day this year.

‘It’s an incredible noise’, he said. ‘You can hear the throbbing well before you can see anything, and it just gets louder and louder.’

The Governor General’s attendance at Isurava followed his address at the Dawn Service at Bomana Cemetery. Bomana is the main War Graves site in Papua New Guinea, resting place to 3,779 souls. It is also beautiful and spiritual, and Wayne has attended Anzac services there as well.

‘Anzac Day is special, regardless of where it’s spent’, says Wayne. ‘A Dawn Service with a backdrop of so many headstones is a stark reminder of the losses resulting from action in Papua New Guinea, and it’s also very humbling. But Isurava is something else again.’

The Battle for Isurava lasted for 5 long days and tested the Australians against the might of the vastly superior Japanese forces. Their position at Deniki becoming untenable, the 39th Battalion, then the only Australian unit confronting the Japanese, had withdrawn to Isurava on the night of 14 August 1942. Without proper equipment, they had to dig in using their helmets, bayonets and empty bully beef tins.

Clashes and engagements followed, the 39th holding on, battling not just the enemy, but fatigue, illness and a comprehensive lack of preparation. A militia battalion never intended to fight on foreign soil, the 39th were thrown into battle with little in the way of training, significantly under resourced and poorly equipped. Their average age was 18 and a half – technically, this was a campaign that should have ended only one way.

At the Battlefield Memorial there stand four granite pillars, each bearing a single word: Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice. These are words that can apply to all who served, and indeed continue to serve, but in that place, at that time, they talk directly of the men of the 39th.

On 26 August, the Japanese attacked heavily and fighting was fierce. On this same day, the 39th was finally reinforced with the arrival of the 2/14th AIF Battalion. Although the 2/14th then assumed command of the area, Lieutenant Ralph Honner, Commander of the 39th, asked for, and was granted permission for his men to be allowed to stay.

On 28 August, 30 of the 39th’s sick and injured were sent back to Alola, considered too weak to continue fighting. The Australians continued to face heavy fire from the Japanese, and on 29 August, reinforcements were requested.

John Barrett in We Were There quoted a veteran:

‘The battalion was in trouble, so twenty-seven out of thirty went back. The three who didn’t were: minus a foot, had a bullet in the throat, had a forearm blown off. We never did it for God, King and Country – forget that. We did it because the 39th expected it of us.’

As a Kokoda Trek leader, Wayne has been to Isurava Battlefield many times. ‘It’s emotional every time’, he says, ‘perhaps even more so as we learn more about individual actions and their collective courage. The Governor General only added to that, and I feel like everyone there really appreciated his presence, because it just shows how important this is, and how much we value our history.’

Lest we forget.