As I stood at the graveside of Private Bruce Kingsbury VC at Bomana war Cemetery outside Port Moresby,I felt a lump in my throat at the huge sacrifices by so many young Australians.
This cemetery,where about 2000 Australians are buried,was at the end of a nine-day walk I made in mid-1999,across some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.
To walk the Kokoda Track had long been my ambition.
Our party consisted of tour leader Neil Stephens,a farmer and shearer from Forbes; father and son,Ian and Paul MacDougall from Tumut;and Gavin Wright,an old school mate from Sydney plus our two native guides Jackson and Nagi.
Delays at Popondetta,north of Port Moresby,meant an opportunity to travel further north to the coastal village of Gona,in the area where 17,000 Japanese soldiers had landed between July and August of 1942.
The first part of the walk from the monument at Kokoda was comfortable,as we became used to having 20kg on our backs.
But the trek took on a new dimension as we started the 800-metre ascent to the village of Isurava,making us aware of the might of the Owen Stanley Ranges.We were fully laden with supplies and the late afternoon sun really tested us.On the way up I met three natives who had walked from Port Moresby back to Kokoda in only three days.Some feat! One of the men had a handful of live spiders which they planned to eat for dinner. With relief we arrived at Isurava in the late afternoon,but our head guide was feeling the effects of malaria and decided to walk back down to Kokoda that night to seek treatment.
With a replacement guide,the next day we reached the vicinity of the old battle ground of Isurava,for four days the site of one of the fiercest battles in the South-West Pacific.The Australian 39th Militia Battalion (average age 19),under the command of Lt Col Ralph Honner,had fought an heroic battle against the much larger Japanese numbers.They were on their last legs when relieved by the fit and seasoned soldiers of the 2/14 Battalion AIF,recently returned from fighting the Vichy French in Syria. When the remains of the 39th Battalion pulled themselves together and fought alongside the 2/14,an AIF man made the legendary comment: “They must be good,those ragged bloody heroes.”
Private Bruce Kingsbury of the 2/14 Battalion took a Bren Gun from his wounded section leader and proceeded to blast his way through the Japanese soldiers. He inflicted heavy casualities,and in the words of his commander,Lt Col Phil Rhoden: “Saved battalion headquarters from being overun by the Japanese and ultimately saved the track.” Kingsbury was subsequently shot dead by a Japanese sniper and became the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Australian territory.
After a night at Eora Creek,we started scaling the highest mountain on the track,Mount Bellamy.
During a rest at the half way point at Kagi,the locals sang their traditional songs to us, and we responded with theme songs from the Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island.There’s nothing quite like Australian culture!
After more creek crossings,we arrived at the village of Efogi,where the rain set in and we delivered some school books to the local school.
From Efogi we walked to Brigrade Hill,where about 1000 Australians encountered some 6000 Japanese,and many Australians were cut off from the bulk of their force.
In the next two days we walked through the lower country around Nauro,muddy,humid and mosquito-ridden,and then onto Ioribaiwa Ridge.It was here that the Japanese offensive was stopped.Totally exhausted,those troops retreated with the Australians in hot pursuit.
It was on the beachheads of Buna,Gona, and Sanananda in November and December of 1942 that an horrendous battle took place between the two forces.Ninety per cent of the Japanese who originally landed never left those shores.The Japanese had fully exhausted their supply line and their numbers had been decimated by the Australian defences,and they faced a new enemy,the Americans in Guadalcanal.
It was on Iroribaiwa Ridge that we found a stash of some 50 live three-inch mortar shells and hand grenades.
Our last night was spent camped on a rocky precipice on Ule Ule Creek.
The next day we crossed the 30-metre wide Goldie River.There was one final test as we struggled up the muddy slope,slipping and sliding towards the finish at Owers Corner.It had taken us nine days to walk 100 kilometres.
As we neared the end of our journey,we refelcted on what had been a physical,mental and spiritual test.
As I strolled through the numerous Australian graves in Bomana war cemetery,I could almost hear that epitaph from every Anzac Day.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”