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Australian soldiers wading through the swamp
at Cape Endaiadere, during the advance on Buna



The following extracts are war diary entries and memories of the Kokoda campaign, selected from To Kokoda and Beyond: The Story of the 39th Battalion 1941-1943 (compiled by Victor Austin) [References to page numbers are in square brackets]

[34] Rabaul's garrison engendered an atmosphere of foreboding. The commandant of 8th Military District, Major-General B.M. Morris, expecting that Moresby would be attacked next, decided to mobilize every able-bodied man in the Territory. On 27 January he addressed the following message to the Commanding Officers of units of the Moresby Garrison:

[36-37] Another important event occurred on 5 February and is succinctly recorded in the Battalion War Diary by the words: 'Padre Earl marched in'. Lieutenant Alf Salmon of 13 Platoon, C Company, relates the circumstances under which this powerful spiritual reinforcement, destined to become the best-known and one of the best-loved members of the battalion, was incorporated:

Japanese reconnaissance aircraft

[45-46] On 28 February the first Japanese aircraft, a Zero fighter, was shot down over Bootless Bay by a C Company Lewis gunner. Lieutenant Noel Hall gives the details:

[60-61] Tuesday 28 April was marked by a humane action on the part of the Japanese commander at Rabaul and is recorded as follows in the diary of Max Stephen. Colonel Conran's driver: On drome defence with A Company when the Jap aircraft dropped the mysterious packets, Jim Hardie remembers: Acting-Adjutant Keith Lovett continues the story:

[61] About a fortnight before the parcels of mail were dropped on 7-Mile Drome, the Government yacht Laurabada arrived in Port Moresby with some 150 survivors who had managed to escape from Rabaul (131 soldiers, 4 naval personnel and 21 civilians). They were taken aboard the Macdhui and sailed in her to Townsville. A member of Headquarters Company, on an unloading party aboard the Macdhui, recalls meeting and talking with some of the 2/22nd Battalion survivors:

[64-66] Corporal Jack Boland recalls how the Ack Ack Platoon added to its fire power:

[66] [Victor Austin writes:]
The small arms factory at Lithgow, New South Wales, began production of Bren guns in 1941 and turned out over 3000 of them in 1942. The failure to issue Brens to our troops until after the forward elements of the battalion had fought delaying actions against the Japanese invasion force can only be described as criminal.

[66] When issued with a platoon truck, the Pioneer Platoon salvaged a forge and anvil and a considerable stock of engineering tools from the abandoned smelters. They made use of this equipment to recycle weapons taken from damaged aircraft and, like Jack Boland, they had to overcome the problem of regulating the firing mechanism. Keith Watson gives some details:

[67] It was a little later on that the Pioneer blacksmiths-cumgunsmiths-cum-plumbers set up their home-made whisky still. 'Slim' Watson tells the story:

The USS Lexington at the Battle of the Coral Sea

[67-68] [Victor Austin writes:] Meantime, Brigadier Porter was tackling the daunting task of transforming the garrison into a coherent, efficient fighting force and was developing a defence plan which was more in conformity with the military realities of the situation than the existing one (now known as Plan A). But on 6 May, before the new plan could be put into effect, RAAF Pilot Officer Pennycuick, during a routine patrol flight off the eastern tip of New Guinea some 400 miles from Moresby, detected a Japanese invasion force. The force consisted of troop-carrying ships with a naval escort which included an aircraft carrier (Shoho). It was at first uncertain whether it was heading for Milne Bay, Port Moresby or North Queensland. Another Japanese naval strike force, built around the aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, was also moving into the area from the southern Solomons. Two American naval squadrons and one Australian squadron were alerted to intercept them and a strange air-sea battle - the Battle of the Coral Sea - followed. The opposing ships did not at any time see each other and did not fire a single shot, all of the attacking on both sides being done by carrier and land-based aircraft.

At Moresby tension grew when, just after midnight of 7 May, the following message from General Blarney (Commander Allied Land Forces, South-West Pacific Area) was received at New Guinea Force Headquarters: Major-General Morris radioed the reply:

[70-71] [Victor Austin writes:] It is not the purpose of this history to enter into the details of the Battle of the Coral Sea nor to attempt to explain why the Japanese task force, despite relatively light losses, broke off the engagement. However, it must be noted that it was thanks to American naval intelligence (which had broken the Japanese codes) that Allied naval and air forces were ready and able to counter the Japanese because, as Gavin Long points out in The Six Years War: On 11 May the battalion stood down. All that we had seen of the Battle of the Coral Sea was a constant stream of aircraft coming in to refuel and rebomb and then take off again to strike the Japanese invasion force. But we had experienced in full measure the tense atmosphere of impending combat, and now that the threat of imminent danger was temporarily past it was with a mixture of regret and relief that we resumed our humdrum daily round. But no one doubted that the Japs would try again, the more so as the American surrender in the Philippines on 6 May meant that the enemy could now release powerful forces for combat elsewhere.

The following entries from Jock Reid's diary summarize the principal events of the days immediately following the Battle of the Coral Sea:

[79] [From the diary of Regimental Sar-Major Jock Reid:] The estimated number of days march to Kokoda had now been revised upwards to eight days instead of five. On 4 July Staff Sergeant Alan Collyer sailed from Port Moresby for Buna in the schooner Gili Gili with B Company's stores. On 5 July Lieut-Colonel W. T. Owen, a survivor of the 2/22nd Battalion, arrived in Port Moresby to take command of the 39th.

Men of D company, 39th Battalion

[104] Laurie Howson of the Ack Ack Platoon was with D Company that day [8 August]. More than forty years later he recalls his baptism of fire:

[125] Better than anyone else on the Line of Communication, Doc Vernon realized the need to sustain the health and morale of the carriers. He recorded in his 'War Diary': Vernon's compassion for the carriers was not limited to words, as Sergeant Jack Sim (Signals Platoon) relates:

[125-126] Meantime, the Japanese had recovered from the shock of temporarily losing Kokoda. They realized that our force was too few in numbers to sustain an offensive, or we would have sent reinforcements to A Company in Kokoda. They now prepared to launch an all-out attack against our positions at Deniki. During the afternoon of 12 August enemy formations were seen marching out of Kokoda towards the main track to Deniki and all troops were ordered to 'stand to'. Moving up from Isurava with E Company, Lieutenant Don Simonson (OC 20 Platoon) recalls his platoon's movement to Deniki:

[126-127] Next day, 13 August, the lull which had prevailed at Deniki broke as all the signs of the previous day had foreshadowed. Major Cameron reported to Moresby that he was expecting attack and that 1000 to 2000 Japanese were massing in the valley below us.

But even in times of hardship and imminent danger there are occasions for laughter, and Lieutenant Doug McClean (OC 16 Platoon, D Company) recalls one such occasion:

The 39th Battalion at Menari, 1942

[127-128] The Battalion War Diary entry for 13 August notes: The first clashes in the battle for Demki are summarized by Dudley McCarthy in South-West Pacific Area - First Year: This was E Company's baptism of fire. Private Norm Downey of 20 Platoon (wounded but remaining on duty) adds some details: In this first day's fighting at Deniki 20 Platoon alone suffered ten casualties: Lance-Corporal Hackett (killed); Private Nottle (died of wounds); Sergeant Kempton, Privates Burmiester, Cole, Downey, Read, Timms and Winther (wounded); and Private Lanigan (missing), and five of those casualties were sustained in the first five minutes of the initial attack. (Lanigan, cut off by the enemy, returned to our lines about ten days later.) Only one magazine had been allotted to the platoon's sole Lewis LMG so (like Oliver Twist) they asked for more. Don Simonson remembers:

[130] And Laurie Howson, still with C Company, remembers:

At Giropa Point during the final assault on Buna

[135-136] [From Jack Boland's account of his section's clash with the enemy:]

[146-147] Band-Sergeant Les Simmons recalls:

The track near Oivi, between Kokoda and Wairopi

[152] Transmission of messages was not the only use made of the signal line in the Owen Stanleys. Jack Sim continues:

[153] Ralph Honner continues the narrative in 'The 39th at Isurava':

[154] Merritt later recalled:

[158-159] Dudley McCarthy records how Isurava's defenders got unexpected reinforcements: The three missing platoons and Lieutenant Johnston's 'unfit for duty' contingent reached Isurava towards dusk. Ralph Honner remembers their arrival: And of Johnston's gallant band he later said:

[164] [From the recollections of John Dawes:]

[165-166] The enemy now confronting us bore no resemblance whatever to the cartoon stereotype Japanese. 'Blue' Steward notes in his Recollections of a Regimental Medical Officer:

[174] Laurie Howson remembers the march to Menari:

The "Golden Stairs" climbing to Imita Ridge
were cut into the Track after the 39th Battalion
first crossed the mountains

[175-176] 'Bluey' Jardine recalls the two-day march from Menari to Nauro and thence to Ioribaiwa: Laurie Howson evokes the movement to Uberi: Allan Smith needed a rest before going on from loribaiwa to Uberi and thence to Polo. He remembers: Lieutenant Harry Mortimore recalls the final day's march of the return from the Owen Stanleys:

The first Australian nurse to arrive in New Guinea,
Sister Phyllis Game, Nov. 1942

[204] Within a week of arriving at the Gona front the battalion had suffered total battle casualties of 121 killed and wounded. After first aid at the Advanced Dressing Station, many of the wounded were evacuated by air to 2/9th AGH at Port Moresby. 'Bluey' Jardine, wounded in the attack on Gona, remembers:

[205-206] After a halt for a meal and a reconnaissance to ascertain the true position of the village, we pushed on with Lieutenant French's B Company (which had missed the heavier fighting at Gona Mission) in the lead. Nearing the village the CO went forward himself to make an appreciation. He then ordered B Company to push on, Lieutenant Plater's platoon leading with the guides. Colonel Honner gives some details of events which immediately followed:

[210] Again detached from Headquarters Company to D Company, Corporal Jack Boland recalls an incident of the fighting on 15 December:

[212-213] During the night of 17-18 December, Corporal Andy Heraud of C Company led a patrol amongst the enemy positions, searching for a medium machine-gun post which was holding up his section. He finally located it and, in the morning, with his men, outflanked the post, killed the defenders, and captured the gun. Corporal Stan Ellis of A Company likewise went out in the early morning, wormed his way to within a few yards of another medium machine-gun post (which he had been trying to locate for three days) and, with a shower of grenades, wiped out the gun crew. The silencing of those two posts was the prelude to the final struggle of which Colonel Honner gives the following brief account: And Jack Boland gives some additional details:

[220] In the absence of fresh troops to mount an offensive the stalemate continued on the Sanananda Track, and during this period most of our casualties were due to snipers. Jack Boland relates how he became a target:

Lieutenant-General Adachi, commander of the Japanese
18th Army in New Guinea, hands his sword to Major-General
H.C.H. Robertson of the 6th Division after signing the
surrender documents at the Cape Wom airstrip

[221] [From the diary of Japanese Lance-Corporal Wada:]

[223] Corporal Bill Sitch recalls how he bagged a sniper at about the time of our relief by the Americans:

[230-231] For members of the unit evacuated sick or wounded from the Gona or Sanananda fronts the return to Australia was, in many cases, not so enjoyable. Evacuated 'unfit for duty' from the 25-pounder gun positions near Soputa, Mervyn Brown recalls his homecoming:

[235-236] Complete integration of the ex-39th men into the 2/2nd Battalion was achieved only as a result of the hardships and dangers shared during the Aitape-Wewak Campaign. But it is fitting that we acknowledge here the tribute paid to the 39th by the 2/2nd Battalion's historian, Stan Wick, in Purple Over Green, The History of the 2/2 Australian Infantry Battalion 1939-1945. That tribute, revealing sensitivity to the emotion felt by the men of a unit with a proud record incorporated against their will into another unit, and giving a brief but moving account of the role played by the 39th in the Papuan Campaign, is recorded in the following extract, which also provides an appropriate conclusion to the story of the 39th Battalion:
The Association for the Advancement of Australian Culture