Belinda Cleary’s Kokoda adventure piece, as seen in her school news letter, and the Toronto RSL News Letter.
The 14th of August 2008 will be a date that will stay in my mind forever. I met at the airport with 25 other youths from around the state, many of us had never been out of the country and now we were being offered a opportunity of a lifetime, an experience that would be so deep and meaning full that in our own way we could never share the full benefit of our epic journey, except with those who we learnt to know so well during our stay in PNG.
62 years ago this country was being invaded by Japanese troops in an attempt to capture the Kokoda Airstrip, it was the first time Australia had been made to fight on home soil, to keep invaders out of the country we know and love in order for us to have the lifestyle we enjoy today. But this fight unfortunately is not given much attention when learning about the war in schools so much of the Australian population know little about, what’s Brigade hill, or What happened at Isurava, why is Imitta Ridge important to our history? Why is it we learn more about Gollipolli than we do Kokoda in schools? At Gallipoli we were fighting for allies on foreign ground and lost, in Kokoda we were fighting to defend our country and won! Both campaigns are important in our history as they both reveal the same qualities about Australians that we must now fight, not an army of enemy soldiers but ourselves to keep. Mateship, above and beyond the call of duty. Courage to stand up and be a part of something we believe in, Sacrifice, being able to give a part of ourselves in order to help another cause and Endurance to be able to stand up and stay strong through the hard times. These attributes are not only important to Australians in war fare but in the day to day running of our lives.
On our arrival in Port Moresby we were sat down in a conference room adjoining the hotel which we were staying at for the night.
I looked around, and saw 25 anxious faces doing the same thing. Then to make the situation even more frightening our tour leader John Nalder marches in to set us all straight. Nobody Conquers Kokoda, Her spirit can never be beaten, samples of it can be captured and she will let you take these home but when you try to beat her you will find there is only one winner, and she will be there long after any evidence you were is gone. If at any time any of you want to give up, don’t tell me about it the pain is bullshit (he said) grow up and deal with it, there will be no quitters in this group, and I would like to remind you right now, it’s as simple as one more step it doesn’t get any more complicated than that. If you complete this journey it’s your fault if you don’t it’s your fault, what would you rather be blamed for? Doing it or quitting at the first sign of trouble, now go upstairs and repack your bags. Anyone with a bag weighing more than 15 kg will have their contents spread out in front of the group at Kokoda airstrip and we will give all unneeded goods to any villages that are there. I’ll see you in the restaurant at 6pm I shouldn’t have to remind you not to be late.
Our first impression of John Nalder was probably equally shared. I know my first thought was OMG what have I gotten myself into.
We arrived at Kokoda airstrip at around 8.30 and from there set of with our native carrier boys and John Nalder across to the town of Kokoda. John led us up to our first, "small" hill which we came to know as Kokoda plateau. This "small" hill took it out of most of us and so we had a 15 minute break at the top before continuing on to the Australian memorial museum. From there we continued to the small village of Kovello where we went across to the local school and gave them some desperately needed school supplies.
At camp we all got to know each other, pretty soon we were friends. Just as well because the first day, was, kind of like a warm-up exercise and we soon discovered we would need to bounce of these new friends of ours as we climbed relentless mountains, fell down steep descents and slipped over crossing creeks and slippery logs. WE cursed the rolling mountain ranges together, and sang to our much loved cook sonny hoping that he might somehow bring us ice-cream for dessert. We laughed together had tantrums together and realised that there are nice people left in the world, given half a chance and most people are caring and compassionate, even if you have to get through the tough exterior most people are willing to give you a helping hand, if you have the courage to accept it then it shows the world your willing to meet halfway. With this kind of mentality I think the world could become once again a beautiful place full of laughter, and free of fear.
At Isurava we gazed around, we saw beautiful garden and a millionaire’s view of the Kokoda gap. Not too far from the campsite was a huge clear area where the Australian Government has built a tasteful monument in recognition of the struggle our Australian soldiers, average age 19, had against the Japanese which outnumbered them around 4-1.This was a really touching experience. We were told stories about the men who fought there and one in particular, that of Private Kingsbury has stayed in my mind.
Private Bruce Kingsbury was a member of the 2nd/14th battalion, posted at Isurava in August 1942. Kingsbury was just 24 years old, he had been told a few weeks earlier that he was being shipped to a training camp in QLD, imagine his surprise when instead of Queensland the doors opened up to a strange country, a country known as Papua New Guinea. Kings bury and his platoon was sent to hold the lines at Isurava on the 27th of August 1942, he had a fiancé at home, they were child hood sweethearts destined to marry at the end of the war.
Alan Avery Bruce’s best mate had enlisted on the same day, and they were now in the same platoon, fighting alongside each other as brothers. The 2nd/14th battalions were back up soldiers sent to aid the militia 39th battalion that was beginning to grow tired as they fought back line after line of Japanese troops. On the 29th of August the 1000 strong Japanese force managed to break through the 300 Australians holding up Isurava. At this moment Private Bruce Kingsbury took charge, he was not a leader in the army but he was a leader in his own rights. Seeing the Australian lines break Bruce picked up a nearby Bren gun and charged down the hill at the Japanese Invader firing upon them until his fellow soldiers had time to regroup and hold the lines. Through this act of bravery Kingsbury gave the rest of the soldiers courage to keep fighting. And in doing so fell to his death, he was shot by a Japanese sniper. His mate of 24 years, Alan Avery ran down the hill and scooped up his lifeless mate. He carried his limp body up to the first aid post, but it was too late. Dead on Impact.
Kingsbury’s bravery earned him a Victorian cross, which is the highest decoration for bravery in the army.
The native townspeople in Papua are really friendly. It was amazing, beautiful, and peaceful. It sounded as though angels had come down from above to sing about the happiness they possess in their lives.
This moved all of us because we looked around and saw poverty; they looked around and saw prosperity, what a different a positive outlook on life can make. The people are always smiling. They have nothing and they are willing to share every bit of it with you. They work together to survive in their environment and they love to talk to anyone who will listen, and after talking with a few I encourage you to open you minds and ears to other peoples stories as they are fascinating no matter what cultural differences are present.
Moving along the track was hard at the best of times. We would always ask 'How long till we get there' and the carriers who would walk with us would smile at us and reply ten more minutes or, in a jocular fashion, do you want to run? Sometimes they would say, for me... it is I don’t know twenty minutes. for you guys probably 2 hours because you walk really slow. With that they would often run up to the top of the hill or do cartwheels in front of us...Their back packs weighed more than ours and they were still racing around!!
Generally we reached our campsites by dark, it was a great feeling climbing up to the top of a hill then glancing over at the flat terrain of the village we would call home for a night, it was even more exciting when we discovered that some of the villages had toilet seats built over the pits. It’s actually hard without them, the next stop after checking out the toilet arrangements was usually the beautiful creeks which we would happily jump into to wash away the daily build up of sweat and grime.
After that we would naturally wander over to wherever Sonny was so we could stare at our dinner being made. Pasta and rice has never tasted so good, somehow the hungrier you are or the harder you work makes you appreciate food more. After tea, the general routine was to sit around a campfire telling everyone about how good people had stacked it that day and to generally tease each other. This was followed by us crawling to our tents, at around 8.30 because we were that exhausted and going to sleep. Knowing that at around 5 am the following morning John would be waking us all up with the sound of his didgeridoo.
The biggest battle of the Kokoda campaign was that of Brigade Hill. On the 6 September 1942 approximately 6000 Japanese Soldiers attack the 1000 Australian troops defending the area. Brigade hill has only one slope that could be attacked by the enemy, and Potts the Australian General at the time soon realised this and made it the strong hold for their campaign. Brigade hill headquarters was almost taken at many times during these few days of fighting as the Australians were finding it difficult to hold back the huge amounts of enemy fire. 75 Australian Diggers died on this treacherous battle field, 200 Japanese men died and a further 150 were wounded. Brigade hill was used as a temporary grave site, as the Japanese troops were pushed backwards other Australians buried there mates in shallow graves to watch over the Owen ranges forever.
This battle proved to the Japanese soldiers that the Australian legends of Courage Mateship and Sacrifice had endured the test of time. The Japanese looked at the Australians in a new light they looked at them with respect. They respected them as fearless warriors and it became an honour to fight against them in the upcoming battles. Which left Australia Victorious against all odds.
As we came over to the top of brigade hill it was a strange feeling, kind of like shivers going up and down your spine. We looked over at the small memorial, and then back to the slope we just walked up where all those people died. It was a bit scary to think we could be sitting in the place where an Aussie died 60 years ago.
The next part of the track is especially dangerous because it’s extremely steep and there’s dozens of river crossings. This area is prone to malaria so there was lots of mozzys. Unfortunately there is still a lot of death in the region due to malaria because the medical supplies are not readily available.
On our last night of Kokoda'ing as we liked to call it the village people from Uberi came to sing to us. After that there was a dance off between some of the carriers and one of the other trekkers (Andy).
The next morning we were looking forward to going back to a hotel in Port Moresby. So we excitedly woke up before John and packed our stuff so we could get to the finish quicker. After getting dressed into damp clothes every day for the past 8 days I decided to do the last day in my pyjamas. Probably not the best idea as they get pretty warm when you’re walking. We climbed the last hill and there it was the RSL archway. The gateway to the Kokoda trail. We slowly (as we were tired and some of us were cripple) rose to the top of the mountain cheered on by our carriers who cheered us on until we reached the top. We collapsed exhausted. Then to our surprise we were treated to a bbq, an Australian bbq. No rice, pasta or oats. Just sausage sizzles.
The bus ride to Port Moresby was like a party on wheels. There was a radio, and we hadn’t heard music for 10 days, we screamed out the words at the top of our lungs and danced all the way to the hotel.
My trip To Papua New Guinea was the most amazing experience and the RSL Club Association of Australia is doing a fantastic thing for the youth of today by giving us this adventure of a lifetime. I have grown a better knowledge and respect for the Aussie Diggers, and an appreciation for the work that RSL clubs like Toronto. If you get the chance to go to Kokoda, you should. Just remember, if you train hard, and have the right mind set then you can do anything. If you believe in yourself your already more than half way to success.