EORA CREEK: WHERE THE WATER RAN RED
It was sheer, bloody murder. The Nambu machine gun firing from the narrow slit of the Japanese bunker tapped out another deadly tattoo. Its innocuous nickname was ‘the woodpecker’, but it shredded rather than pecked its victims. A digger screamed as the burst of rounds punched him in the chest, tipping him into the swirling, pinking waters of Eora Creek.
Orders were barked, the wounded screamed and steam hissed from the woodpecker’s barrel as it traversed left and right, impatiently searching for new blood through the curtain of teeming rain. Thirteen Australian soldiers had died in the suicidal bid to cross the creek. Some of them lay strewn, eviscerated on the rocky banks; others had been washed away between the massive water-blasted boulders that studded the fast-flowing white waters of the creek.
Two other machine guns raked the steep slope from their jungle eyries high on the north side of the creek.
Adding to the din was the sinister crump of a 50-millimetre Knee mortar bomb leaving its tube somewhere high in the jungle. Men cowered and tensed as the bomb arced high and unseen, and waited for the inevitable blast. Most terrifying of all was the freight-train screech of an artillery shell from one of the Japanese field guns sited on the high ground above their side of the water. The Jap guns were so close and the countryside so steep and thick with jungle that, instead of being pointed upwards so they could lob their shells high into the air and reach distances of up to a couple of kilo-metres, their crews had sighted the barrels to fire on a flat trajectory, line-of-sight bearing. They were pointed directly at the Australians, particularly at the open ground on which the diggers had to assemble before they could even attempt a crossing of Eora Creek. The guns had picked off some of the 16th Brigade boys already. At this range they could hardly miss.
As the next men in the platoon waited for their turn to die, hands gripping the slick, wet wood of their . 303s hard to stop their fingers shaking, their astonishment and dissent rose like a ripple up the military chain. These were sun-tanned, hardened warriors whose mettle had been tested in bloody battles and fighting retreats in mainland Greece and on the island of Crete. They weren’t cowardly, but nor were they ready to be sacrificed like their fathers’ generation, forced to march obediently to certain slaughter in a frontal assault on a well-sited machine gun.
As men who had been forced to retreat, they knew, too, that the ignominy of having to run could be channelled into a fierce will to slow an enemy’s advance. Even when you were on the run you could take a toll on your pursuers by digging in at a choke point, like a swirling river where the only bridge was a couple of slippery logs. Retreat, or ‘advance to the rear’ as the obstinate Japs called it, pissed a man off. The Japanese had been stopped within sight of Port Moresby, firstly by the ‘chocos’, the part-time militiamen of the 39th Battalion, and then subsequently by the 21st Brigade, which had executed a fighting withdrawal from Isurava. Now it was up to the boys of the 16th Brigade, who had just relieved the 25th Brigade from the advance to Templeton’s Crossing, to keep up the pressure on the enemy. They were on the attack, chasing the Japs back north from where they came. They weren’t supposed to stop. But nor were they supposed to be fed into a mincer.
Lieutenant Ken Burke, who had led the ill-fated patrol that had lost a baker’s dozen of good men at the log bridges, struggled back up the steep, slippery, muddy slope on the Australian side of Eora to a plateau above the village of Eora and reported his grim news to the commanding officer of the 2/1st Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Cullen.
Cullen’s position, the battalion headquarters, was not much safer than the creek crossing. When Burke’s men had gone, the headquarters had also come under fire from the Japanese field guns, machine guns and mortars. Three Australians had been killed, and nine wounded, with two of the injured later succumbing to their wounds.
Amid the chaos Burke explained it was madness to keep trying to cross the creek. The men were sitting ducks, who had to first try to run across a log over a tributary of the creek and then, on the off chance that the Jap gunners missed them, move from the island in the middle to a second log directly in front of the enemy bunkers.
Cullen agreed with Burke and had argued against the plan of attack, which had been formulated by Brigadier Lloyd, who was fifteen years his senior and a veteran of the First World War, when it had been perfectly acceptable for Brigadiers to send men to certain slaughter. Lloyd had ordered that a company move around to the left, the west, and cross the creek upstream and ascend the high ground in a bid to outflank the Japanese positions on the north bank. Under Lloyd’s plan, when the flankers, under the command of Captain Sanderson, were in place they would launch a two-pronged assault.
It had all turned to shit. Sanderson and his men were forced to scale near-vertical slopes and an impatient Lloyd had ordered the 2/1st to start crossing the creek before Sanderson had a chance to get all of his men into position. Lloyd was being bombarded with unforgiving signals from higher up, with the Australian commander, General Blamey, telling Lloyd: ‘Operations reports show that progress on the trail is NOT repeat NOT satisfactory. ’
Blamey had a poor reputation among the soldiers, and respect from his subordinate officers was less than average. The common view was that Blamey didn’t have the guts to stand up to the man above him: the flashy yank, General Douglas MacArthur who had promised the American public he would quickly kick the Japanese out of New Guinea; this from a man who had fled with his wife and kids from the Philippines to Australia in a B17 bomber leaving thousands of his own men to rot in Japanese prison camps.
MacArthur hated the fact that the Aussies had fought a fighting retreat from Kokoda, and missed the point that in doing so they had chosen their own times and places to stop and bloody the Japanese, and to slow them down so that hunger, disease and the stinking jungle wore them down. The tide had turned, but now the Japanese were giving the diggers a taste of their own medicine.
The 16th Brigade had arrived at Templeton’s Crossing three days earlier, to relieve the 25th Brigade. Although they had fought the Italians and the Germans, the 16th was new to the jungles of New Guinea and had never faced the Japanese. The terrain favoured whoever was defending the track. The narrow pathway funnelled attackers into choke points, such as river crossings, where a defending force could pick off men when they tried to cross, and flanking assaults were difficult to achieve up steep mountains covered in thick jungle. MacArthur and Blamey were looking at maps, the American from his headquarters in Australia and the Australian from the comparative comfort of Port Moresby, and neither had a true appreciation of the terrain, the weather or the Japanese. It might have taken a man one-and-a-half hours to walk from Templeton’s, up the steep slope to the ridgeline and then gingerly down the equally steep descent to Eora Creek – that is if he was unimpeded by Japanese bullets and artillery fire, and unencumbered by a pack crammed with his own gear plus a couple of 2-inch mortar shells, fifty rounds of . 303 rifle ammunition, 200 rounds of ammunition for the Thompson submachine gun, two grenades, eight Bren gun magazines and two days’ rations. Instead it had taken three days of fierce fighting, with the Japs making the diggers pay for every inch of ground.
As well as the difficulties of soldiering in thick jungle, over precipitous slopes in driving rain, the diggers were quickly learning that this enemy was different to those they had already faced. Not only were the Japanese fanatical and dangerous, they were also desperate. As they passed through the area where the 25th Brigade had engaged with the Japs they came across Australian bodies with flesh flayed from their calves and legs, meat hanging in trees and what they assumed to be human flesh still cooking in warm pots.
The enemy had dug himself in and camouflaged his fighting pits and log bunkers along the track so that often the first the Aussies knew of a Japanese position was when men were cut down by gunfire. With no heavy artillery or air support of their own, the diggers had to root the fanatical enemy fighters out by getting close enough to them to lob grenades into the concealed slits of their bunkers.
Cullen explained to the shaken Ken Burke that despite his protests the obstinate Lloyd was still insisting they send men over Eora Creek, through the gauntlet of the mortars and field-gun shells and, if they survived those, into the face of certain death at the hands of the machine gunners.
‘Fuck Brigadier Lloyd, ’ Burke said.
Cullen wound the handle of his field telephone and called the brigade commander, once again pointing out the folly of sending men across fallen tree trunks in the face of at least three machine guns, a field gun and Knee mortars. He asked for more time, at least, to be given for Sanderson’s company to get into position. But Lloyd, still harangued by Blamey and MacArthur, was adamant the attack across the log bridges must proceed.
Sanderson and A Company of the 2/1st had skirted left of Eora Creek village, which was located west of the log crossing, about 100 metres up the slope. Sanderson and his men had ascended the upstream gorge and crossed the creek, safely out of sight of the Japanese. Their climb on the other side to reach the high spur line and encircle the Japanese, however, was hand-over-hand up a near-vertical, jungle-covered slope.
So tough was the going that only one of Sanderson’s three platoons – just himself and seventeen men – had made it to the spur line and were in position to attack. Like the men below at the creek, Sanderson’s exhausted soldiers wanted none of it.
‘Colonel Cullen has ordered us to attack and attack we will, now get going,’ Sanderson told them.
Cullen went to Lloyd’s headquarters, which was sited on the highest and safest ground to the rear of Eora Creek village, in person to make a last-ditch plea for more time so that all the flanking force could get in position, preferably to the rear of the Japanese defences. Cullen knew that in jungle warfare it was important to gain the advantage of high ground, and to get behind an enemy. Lloyd had set himself up on a high ridge, not far off the track. Pits were dug in defence around the tarpaulin-covered, sandbagged bunker where the Brigadier and his staff officers pored over maps. A radio set linked to an antenna strung in the trees was his line of contact back to Port Moresby and Australia.
As Cullen tried to explain again, Lloyd silenced him and told him in no uncertain terms Eora Creek was to be crossed, via the log bridges, before dawn. Lloyd looked him in the eye. ‘If you don’t cross the bridge it’s because you haven’t got the guts. ’ Cullen had nothing more to say to the Brigadier, and returned to his men.
Paul Cullen was a good leader and he would not ask his men to do something he would not do himself. Despite his complete lack of faith in Lloyd’s plan he gave the order that C Company would move across the log bridges at 0430 on the morning of 23 October 1942. He would be the first man on to the logs and, most likely, the first to die when the Jap gunners opened up.
In the cold, dank jungle night Cullen moved down towards Eora Creek, early, at 0230 hours. On either side of the steep track were the old pits that had been dug by the Australians who had defended this side of the creek as the Japs pursued them from Kokoda. The raging creek in the ‘v’ of a steep mountain valley was, Cullen mused, a bloody good place to defend, and a bastard of one to attack.
As he and Captain Geoffrey Cox approached the killing ground they dropped to their hands and knees and began to crawl forward. Their eyes strained in the darkness, every sense on full alert and their nerves at breaking point as they waited for the shouts and the shots from across the river.
The two men used elbows and knees to propel them through the mud, passing the twisted bodies of the thirteen Australians from Burke’s patrol who had been cut down earlier that day.
Hardly believing their luck, Cullen and Cox made it on to the first log and, still crawling, made their way undetected across the slippery wooden bridge to the ground that separated Eora Creek from its tributary. They still had about 30 metres to go, across the second fallen tree trunk. The fast-flowing white water roared beneath them, wetting them further with its spray and, they hoped, drowning out any sound as they made their way closer to death. They crawled straight into the line of fire of the machine-gun bunker’s position up the opposite slope.
A lapse in security sealed the fate for the Japanese at Eora Creek. Their sentry was either asleep or missing and Cullen and Cox made it across, undetected. They signalled for the rest of their men to follow. Captain Peter Barclay’s company followed the small white pieces of paper stuck to sticks showing the way down the steep slopes to the creek and made it to the first crossing at around 0400, half an hour ahead of the schedule Cullen had set.
The diggers started to cross, with the two officers on the far bank urgently waving them on from positions of cover on the enemy side of the creek. Looking up, Cullen saw the clouds starting to clear. Moonlight broke through and an alert Japanese soldier saw movement on the log bridges. A machine gun opened fire and Barclay was killed on the north bank.
Even though men were streaming across the logs, running the gauntlet of the Japanese fire, once they got to the other side the log bridge ended on a rock that sloped down steeply into another pool of water before they could reach dry ground. Men were sliding down on top of each other, floundering in the water as they struggled up in the face of the Jap fire.
Captain Basil Catterns’ men surged forward towards the Japanese ridge but came up against a rock face that was so steep it was actually concave, providing cover from direct Japanese fire from the bunkers above. The Japanese lobbed hand grenades over the edge of the precipice, inflicting casualties. Diggers used their tin helmets to scrape out holes in the mud and burrowed into them for protection from the shrapnel. The Aussies were trapped between a rock and the raging creek, with no way up and no way back.
People think it’s hot and steamy all the time in New Guinea, but up high as it gets dark the mist descends and mixes with the drizzle and it’s cold, bloody cold. Captain Sanderson and his seventeen men had endured a bone-chilling night in the jungle on the north-west flank of the Japanese position.
At daylight on the 23rd they roused themselves and moved out. Creeping through the dense foliage, they came across a dozen Japanese soldiers in a clearing adjacent to a small creek, talking loudly.
The Australians, perhaps over-confident at finding the tenacious enemy relaxing, quickly attacked, probably thinking the fight would be over in minutes. But the Japanese, although taken by surprise, quickly gathered their wits and fought back. Now it was the Aussies who were taken unawares, by the ferocity of the counter-punch.
The exhausted diggers found themselves fighting for their lives as one by one they were picked off by Japanese rifles and machine guns. Sanderson returned fire with a trusty German Mauser rifle, a trophy he had taken from the campaign in Greece. He had carried a good supply of ammunition for the exotic weapon, but now, as a result of the fierce fighting, his 300 or more bullets had been reduced to empty cartridges, lying all around him.
During a pause in the killing cacophony a Japanese soldier taunted them in English. ‘Have you had enough, Aussie? ’ came the voice through the mist and cordite smoke.
Sanderson directed a mouthful of abuse back at the voice, but the enemy zeroed in on him and emptied the contents of a machine-gun magazine into his body.
Of the eighteen men who had made that strength-sapping climb to the ridge and stormed the Japanese troops in the clearing, only four made it out alive. The victorious Japanese, buoyed by their small victory during what they considered a shameful advance to the rear, swarmed over the Australian position. Hungry, ill, dressed in rags, they had nonetheless gained their side some precious time.
The Japanese picked over the dead Australians, stripping them of food, clothes and ammunition. Sanderson’s stripped and naked body was found some days later, surrounded by hundreds of expended cartridges from his German Mauser.
The Australians were stuck. Sanderson’s flanking attack had failed and Catterns and his men were trapped at the foot of the concave cliff. Hardened veterans were so scared that they were fouling their pants and morale in the battalion plummeted.
The Japanese still held the upper hand but there were no longer sufficient targets across the creek for their heavy guns and mortars to fire on. The guns and mortars were withdrawn 500 metres up and back, and re-sited at their main defensive position hidden high up in the mountainous forest, near Last Water, a natural spring that both sides had drawn from as the battle had ebbed and flowed.
Despite the loss of Sanderson and most of his men, Cullen knew the only way to regain the initiative was to hook around to the west, and to push higher and deeper than Sanderson had been able to. The Australians needed to get behind Last Water.
A fresh battalion, the 2/3rd, was directed forward, commanded by Major Ian Hutchison, a nuggety, tenacious man who was determined to carry out the crucial job given to him. Hutchison and his 600 diggers crossed Eora Creek where Sanderson had, and threw themselves into the arduous task of scaling 700 vertical metres of mountain and getting behind the Japs.
Higher and higher Hutchison climbed, cajoling his men ever onwards, ever upwards. Scratched by thorns, slick with mud, soaked with their own blood from leech bites, they finally made it to the high ground and found the Japanese below them. The position was far bigger than Hutchison had expected.
Instead of digging in on the highest point, as the Aussies would have, the enemy commander had decided to build his forest fort around Last Water, which was 200 vertical metres below the peak of the mountain. Hutchison and his men attacked from the crest, charging into the Japanese from the rear, firing from the hip as they used the blessed momentum of a downhill run to roll through the position.
Surprised by the number of Australians, and the fact that they had come from behind them, the Japanese broke. It was the first time in the war that Allied soldiers had seen their much-vaunted foes actually thrown down their weapons and run.
The Australians had been held up at Eora Creek for six days and had lost seventy-nine men killed and 220 wounded. It had been the single biggest battle and loss of life on the track. At last the men of the 16th Brigade could reunite, with Catterns’ brave but dejected force finally able to leave their fouled scrapings as Hutchison and his men mopped up the Japs and cleared the forest fort position.
As the Australians moved through, looking for survivors and clearing the battlefield, they found empty artillery shell casings and deep, wide pits showing where the hated field guns had been set up. But, surprisingly, the heavy weapons themselves had been spirited away over the mountains. It beggared belief that the Japs could have handled the heavy guns over the muddy, winding track back across the Owen Stanley Range towards Kokoda.
Amid the shattered trees and torn bodies were strewn machine guns and rifles – Australian and Japanese; discarded helmets; a Japanese radio; bits of clothing; and everything else men carry with them to war.
The sickening job of identifying and dealing with the dead went on. Dead Japs – there were sixty-nine of them – were mostly dragged into their pits, or left where they had died, and mud was scraped or shovelled over them.
The Australian dead were accorded more respect. A grave was dug and one of the man’s two identity disks was taken. The grave was filled, perhaps a few words spoken, and a sapling was cut and stuck at the head of the mound of fresh, wet earth. His other identity disk was hung from the sapling and someone made a note of the site, giving identifiable references that would help the war-dead teams when they followed up.
A body lay in a freshly dug grave, cradled in the exposed roots of a tree. The men charged with filling it, as often happened, didn’t like to look at the pale face of the dead man, the staring eyes frozen wide in shock at the moment of his final reckoning. A Japanese helmet, lying nearby, was placed over the man’s face. His leg was off, probably the cause of his traumatic death, and that was laid on top of him as well. The mud was shovelled. The deed was done.
The advance had to continue. When the order was given the surviving Australians hoisted their gear and picked up their rifles. There were still dead Japs lying around the position in the jungle, but there was no time to stop and bury them all – the Australians had regained the momentum and the advance had to press on. The bodies were left where they lay, to rot slowly in the jungle along with the detritus of war: bullets, bombs, grenades, weapons and even the medical supplies and surgical instruments that had been used to treat the wounded.
The diggers moved off into the dense, enveloping jungle. For a time this high mountain clearing that the outside world had scarce known existed had played host to a turning point in a war that engulfed the world. An ancient empire had marched victoriously through South-East Asia and conquered a string of islands in the Pacific, only to be stopped by some ragged citizen soldiers and turned back by men who were fighting on their third continent of the war.
Silence reigned once more as the mist closed in and the jungle began to reclaim this place of death. The forest fort, high above the main Kokoda Trail, was no more. A battle had been won, and a battlefield was now lost.
This is sheer bloody madness. It’s dark, I’m on my own and I’m running along the top of Mount Bellamy, the highest and coldest point on the Kokoda Trail and the furthest distance in any direction from any native village on the trail. This is, officially, the middle of nowhere.
It’s nearly 8 pm and already it’s jungle black. My only illumination is a head torch as my feet slip and slide on the track, each step a potential ankle-breaker. I’d be shivering if I wasn’t running. I’m still cold, though, and wet, because I have just swum across the fast-flowing white water of Eora Creek.
The heavens have unleashed an aerial tsunami, with the Owen Stanley Range copping an unprecedented 660 millimetres of rain in just six days. The trail is a river of mud. What are usually gently babbling mountain streams are now rivers, and crossings such as Eora – the term ‘creek’ is a bit of a misnomer – are pumping. If it is dangerous to walk the track in daylight, it is borderline suicidal to run it at night.
As I run it’s not just the wet clothes that give me a chill. I’m in the company of ghosts, and although they soldiered and died two decades before I was born there’s a feeling I have that I almost know some of them, or could have known them. It’s not about reincarnation, it’s about shared experiences.
Many of the men who fought here enlisted as teenagers – the average age of soldiers in the 39th Battalion was just eighteen. The militia citizen soldiers, the equivalent of today’s Army Reserve, were to serve on Australian Territory only, which included New Guinea at the time.
It’s quiet. It’s hard to imagine the din of war here, in 1942, when Lloyd and Cullen and Sanderson and the others had mortars and machine guns and artillery to deal with. I’ve got it easy compared to them, and even though Kokoda can be argued as the toughest sea-level track in the world, what I’m doing now is nothing compared to what those men went through.
When I reached the second crossing of Eora Creek, at the base of Mount Bellamy, there was no sign of the log bridge that normally spans the watercourse. Generally it’s white-water rapids curling around smooth boulders; tonight it was like someone had opened the sluice gates on a dam. The logs were out of sight, washed away. I am racing myself and the clock, trying to see how far I can get along the trail from Kokoda towards Owers Corner in just twelve hours. The record for running the track, solo, is twenty-eight hours, fourteen minutes and thirty seconds, and I’m in training, having set myself an eventual goal of doing the track in less than forty hours. While I’m eating up the k’s, this time trial is pushing me to the very limit.
There was nothing else I could do when I reached the creek, and my task was to complete twelve hours on the trail in one direction, no stopping, no turning around. So I launched myself in. Instantly I felt my body snatched by the raging current, dragged downstream no matter how fast or hard I tried to swim. There was 7.5 kilograms of rations and gear in a pack on my back, and a hydration pack full of water. It felt like a lead sinker. In daylight, this might be fun, but the current had me and it could have been nasty if I didn’t fight through the water. By the time I managed to struggle to the far bank I was 200 metres downstream from where I jumped in.
Keep moving, keep moving, I told myself as the cold night air bit me. I shook the water from my body as I stumbled about for a while, heading back upstream, trying to find the track again. The problem here is that log bridges are regularly washed away when the rains come. To rebuild, the local villages scout along the shore until they find a big tree, then cut it down to make a new crossing where it falls. This is my thirteenth crossing of the Kokoda Trail, so I think I know it pretty well, but to find the right pathway in the dark isn’t easy.
Eventually, I located it and started the long, slippery struggle uphill to Mount Bellamy. Behind me, on the other side of the creek, is where the Australian 16th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Lloyd, had relieved the tired 25th Brigade and begun their advance up and over the large ridge to my rear. They endured three days of fighting towards the second crossing of Eora Creek, where the Japanese were dug in with their artillery pieces and machine guns. As tired as I am, as wet as I am, as disorientated as I am, none of it can compare to what those blokes went through. I feel their spirits, and I hope they’re on my side.
I’m soaking wet as I make my way up towards a small campsite at Templeton’s Crossing. I half slide, half run up the far side of the slope where in the little camp trekkers can pitch their tents. Later there will be guesthouses for tourists. When I started leading treks on the Kokoda Trail there were three operators; in the coming years, business will boom and there will be over fifty.
I can see the flicker of flames through the rain and mist as I close on the campsite. There are four logs arrayed for seating around a camp fire and exhausted Australian trekkers are sipping coffee, gazing into the flames or the bush TV as it has come to be known.
I burst into the clearing out of the pitch black beyond the firelight like a mud-spattered, half-drowned, sweat- and water-wrinkled ghost. As I close on the group a couple of their local porters jump to their feet. They recognise me.
‘Brian, Brian! Something wrong? ’ one asks.
He knows I have been leading treks in the past week, so I guess he thinks I’m with a group and there’s been a problem and I’m running for help. The Australian tourists are looking up in astonishment, gobsmacked at the arrival of this dishevelled figure. The last thing they expect to see, I’m sure, is a white man shuffling through the night.
‘No, I’m just going for a run. ’ I wave at him and his group as I jog past them.
The porters crack up, holding their sides laughing. ‘You mad, Brian! You mad, Brian!’
Up, up, up. The steepness of the hills of Kokoda are agonising when you first assault the track, but I know the only thing that will get me up and over is sheer determination to finish the set task. The goal tonight is to push myself to the limit and see how far across the trail I can get in twelve hours.
Some people think the track’s going to be a few metres wide and nicely landscaped with treated pine logs and stairs. It’s not. It’s the slick, winding, narrow pathway it was back in 1942. All around are reminders of the battles that saved Australia: first when the diggers bloodied the Japanese in their fighting withdrawal back from Kokoda towards Port Moresby – the way I’m heading; and then when our boys chased the Japanese all the way back to the north coast of what was then known as Papua.
At the top of the mountain I pause to catch my breath, legs burning, lungs working overtime. I’ve trained solidly for nine months for this. I can do it.
I’m back into the cold, dark embrace of the jungle, slipping, sliding, climbing, falling. When you learn to parachute in the army there’s a drill they teach you, in case you end up landing in trees, which is not a preferred option but sometimes an unavoidable one. What you do is tuck your head down with your chin on chest, your arms above your head on the rises of the parachute and your elbows facing forward and tucked firmly in against your ears, and you lock your legs and feet together. You steel your body to meet whatever comes and, in the parlance of the Parachute Training School, ‘accept the landing’. That’s how I feel now on the track. I knew this was going to hurt and, mentally, I’m gathering my body into itself and barrelling on, bracing myself as if I’m about to come crashing through a forest of trees in my parachute.
On and on, legs pumping, lungs straining. The climbs are arduous, and the downhills, which place near-crippling strain on my knees, are torturous. As the hours tick over I’m almost delirious. I’m surviving on will power now as my body screams at me to stop. But I can’t, not until my watch tells me, in the light of my head torch, that it’s been twelve hours.
When the hour comes I’m at the point of exhaustion, near the village of Kagi. I’m so completely shattered I stop where I am, panting and gasping, in the middle of the narrow, wet, muddy track. I don’t bother to walk off into the bush, to maybe find a slightly more comfortable patch of grass to lie on, or to seek shelter under a towering jungle tree, or to push on to the village in the hope of finding a hut or a woven mat.
No. I open my pack, wrinkled fingers trembling, steam hissing off my overheated body as the mist and rain settle on me, and I pull out my sleeping bag and an army ration pack. I collapse to the ground. It’s painful to even slide into the bag. My calves and hamstrings are shot.
I tear open the contents of the rat pack and shovel food into my mouth. Up here food is just fuel; it doesn’t matter how bad it tastes. I feel no elation, no sense of achievement after pushing my mind and body for twelve hours solid up and over the mountains, through raging rivers and cloying mud. In fact, I feel the opposite.
I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’m just so tired. How on earth am I going to be able to run the whole track in less than forty hours? I lie down in the bag, the empty plastic wrappers of my plastic food stuffed into my pack. I don’t care any more. I’m fucked.
Like a lot of the soldiers who fought on the track, I joined the army young, in 1981 at the age of seventeen. I grew up in a small country town called Minlaton, population about 300, on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.
It was farming country, wheat and barley mostly. The countryside couldn’t be more different to the dramatic ridges and valleys of Papua New Guinea (PNG); it’s as flat as a tack, hot and windy during summer and cold and windy during winter. My parents were the local newsagents in town and we had no tradition of soldiering or wartime service in my family.
I wasn’t great at school work, and as I sat in class, mostly bored, I would look out over the footy oval, which was where I really wanted to be. There wasn’t much for kids to do in Minlaton, so most of us were heavily into sport. I lived for it: for the training on Tuesday and Thursday after school and the game on Saturday, when the whole town would turn out to watch – Australian Rules footy in the cooler months, and cricket in the summer.
Although I was no genius at school I was a reasonable football player, and when I was given an opportunity to play in the South Australian Football League I left school having completed Year 10 only and moved to Adelaide. I boarded in the big city with an elderly couple who were good to me, but I found that it was a bit like being back at school. The high points of my week were training and the game on the weekend and everything else in between seemed like a waste of time. I had newfound freedom, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I was bored, again, and restless. Looking back, maybe I should have thought about the opportunities playing footy would provide me, but while I loved playing, I think I knew I wanted something more in my life.
One day I was walking down the main street of Adelaide and saw an army recruitment caravan parked in the mall. A recruiting Sergeant accosted me and asked how I was, and what I did for a living. I told him my situation and, predictably, he seemed to have the perfect answer.
‘Why don’t you join up and we’ll make you an army fitness instructor? ’ I would be employed – and paid – full-time, he promised, to work out, stay fit and get other soldiers into shape.
Five minutes later I was sitting in the Sergeant’s caravan completing a written aptitude test. Ten days later I was on a bus, leaving Adelaide for the 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka, at Wagga, in southern New South Wales.
My mum and dad were supportive, although I do think they had their hearts set on me becoming a better footballer. I did think I might have made something of myself as a footballer, but I couldn’t be satisfied just working the few hours a week required for training and the game, and I hadn’t been able to think what I wanted to do in between. I felt I had a strong work ethic and I was sure the army would keep me busy. And, as the recruiter had said, I would be paid to stay fit and I would be able to play footy in the army.
‘Well, whatever you do, don’t join the infantry – all they do is walk everywhere, ’ my father said.
Kapooka was full-on. We were up early every morning and didn’t get to sleep until late at night. The days were crammed with lessons on weapons, and hours on the parade ground learning to march and various other drills. It kept me busy, but in some ways it was an extension of my life so far. I would sit in the classrooms and steal glances at the timetable to see when the next physical training session was, or the next footy game. In those days recruits could play for the unit. I had joined thinking that I would be pushed, physically, to new limits, but in fact the army’s basic fitness turned out to be just that – basic.
Nothing at Kapooka was as challenging as I had hoped it would be, including the fitness training. The main thing I learned was how to conform and be part of the system, which I found frustrating – although I was learning lessons that would stand me in good stead for the rest of my life, and I was kept too busy to dwell much on anything, including whether or not I had made the right career choice.
I did, however, make some very good mates at Kapooka, the kind I know will be friends for life. I tended to cruise through the physical side of training and was able to relax and enjoy the camaraderie. As soon as we were allowed out of barracks and back out into the big wide world, we certainly enjoyed our freedom, particularly as most of that freedom was so far from home.
When I finished basic recruit training, the army decided that I would go to the infantry. I was sent to Singleton in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales to do my initial employment training as an infantryman. I found it to be a terrible place, stinking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, and when we were let off base into town we received a very cold reception from the locals, as recruits occasionally caused problems around town during their time off. Again, I was learning basic skills and tactics that would help me later in life, when it came to investigating historic battlefields, but at the time I felt like I was jumping through hoops like a trained dog (which, to be fair, was exactly what the army wanted me to do).
At the completion of my infantry training, in 1981, I, along with about eighteen of my fellow recruits, was posted to the 8/9th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), based at Enoggera barracks in Brisbane. Although I didn’t find it a particularly welcoming place – the older soldiers seemed a bit dubious of juniors straight out of training – I again found myself in the middle of a big city.
I bought a car, and when we weren’t out bush on an exercise once we finished work, I was free to explore. It was a great sense of freedom, and once again I could play football to my heart’s content – I played footy for the battalion, I played football for the brigade, I played football for the army and I played football in the QFL competition for Mayne, and was paid quite well to do so, which added to my military pay.
For a while I was happy. I had a reputation among the other soldiers as a jock, but that was fine by me. I got to travel all over Australia playing representative footy, which often got me out of proper work. Once, to the disgust of my mates, I was choppered out of the Shoalwater Bay jungle training area in the middle of an exercise because I had a big game to play with the brigade footy team.
While I enjoyed the football I started to notice, after a few years, that while I was still a Private, most of the guys I had joined up with had gone on to be promoted to Lance Corporal or Corporal. My days on the footy field were doing nothing to advance my career. I thought to myself, at the age of twenty-two, that it was time for me to focus on my career and do some soldiering.
I found then, as I know now, that I’m at my best when I apply myself to something and that when I do actually focus I can achieve just about anything I want in life.
I was accepted on my first promotion course, Subject 1 for Corporal. I applied myself, passed the course and was promoted to Lance Corporal, and then went on to the next step and made it to full Corporal. At last I felt inspired to apply myself to something in my army life, and was being rewarded. The junior leader promotion courses were heavily slanted towards teaching soldiers how to train people, as well as leadership. I was learning skills that still help me today.
We were taught how to give presentations in a classroom, and how to lead soldiers in the field.
After being promoted I found myself back where I started, at Kapooka, training recruits. While I had been ambivalent about the place when I went through as a recruit, I enjoyed being an instructor. I found I loved teaching and I thrived in the environment of structure and discipline. I was focused on the job, and on my career.
When my time was up at Kapooka I was sent back to Queensland, to 2/4 RAR where I was soon promoted to Sergeant. After just a year there I was sent back to Kapooka.
My life took a more interesting turn in 1996 when I went to a new unit and a new state, as a training Sergeant at the 2nd Commando Company (2 Cdo) in Melbourne. The commandos were army reservists – part-time soldiers – but they were a dedicated bunch and their training was specialised and, in many areas, different to what I had been exposed to.
Being in relatively close proximity to Australia’s ski fields, this Special Forces unit specialised in mountain warfare. Much of the training involved rock climbing and abseiling in areas such as Horsham and Mount Arapiles, although there was also training on Victoria’s waterways in other core commando skills such as small-boat handling, kayaking and diving. In the infantry battalions I had served in we had little in the way of specialist equipment – our boots were our main form of transport and our rifles our main tools – but these guys had a yard full of toys to play with: boats, scuba gear, abseiling tower – just about anything we wanted. While I was with the commandos I also qualified on the army parachute course, and passed the commando training course, which qualified me to wear the Green Beret. I also started to develop a real interest in adventure training, which is something the army does particularly well.
My career called again after a couple of years and I was sent to do my Warrant Officer’s promotion course, with over thirty other aspiring Warrant Officers, at Canungra, in Queensland. I passed it, and the second subject course at Singleton in the Hunter Valley. It was at this time that I really started to excel in my career. Of the six awards presented for both of these courses (each of which were six weeks long), I received five, including the Operations Award for both courses. I was now starting to appreciate that I had the ability to read battlefields and site weaponry. Although my early military career had been sluggish thanks to my interest in football, I had made up for lost time and had risen through the ranks from Private to Warrant Officer in just seven years. It might normally have taken an extra three years, or longer, to reach this rank.
Enjoying what I was doing, I decided to press further with my career, but there were things holding me back. There are two streams in the army; people who join as soldiers – or ‘other ranks’ (ORs) – and those who join as officers, who are commissioned and start at a higher level, as a Second Lieutenant. An OR can move from Private to Corporal and then become a senior non-commissioned officer (NCO), in the ranks of Sergeant and Warrant Officer, but that’s usually about as a far as people go in that stream. As a Warrant Officer, there was opportunity for me to take a commission and skip being a Lieutenant by virtue of my experience. However, the range of jobs for people who made the jump from Warrant Officer to Captain would be limited, mostly to the logistics side of things. These jobs were known as SSO or ‘special service officer’ positions, as opposed to mainstream commissioned officers, which were known as ‘general service officers’. The fact that I had not finished school was also a limiter.
However, when I was posted back to the School of Infantry at Singleton, as a Warrant Officer in command of a platoon (this would have normally been a Lieutenant’s job, but the army was short of junior officers), I heard about an interesting program the army was initiating that would allow Warrant Officers under the age of thirty-two who met certain criteria to be promoted to Captain, but as a general service officer. I could make the leap to Captain, but instead of being limited to SSO positions, I would have the same, full range of career options open to me as any other officer who had graduated from the Royal Military College at Duntroon or the Australian Defence Force Academy. The catch was, I needed my higher school certificate (HSC) or equivalent and I had to pass the same aptitude tests and selection boards as all general service officers.
At Singleton I learned of a course that had been introduced for young soldiers who had left school short of completing their HSC. The army would put these youngsters through the equivalent of Years 11 and 12, and this would allow those who were suitable to be trained as officers.
Without telling anyone in the headquarters above me, I submitted an application to the Year 11 and 12 education course. It wasn’t meant for thirty-year-old Warrant Officers like me who had preferred the footy oval to the classroom but, to my amazement and that of the commanding officer, I was accepted, and I left the platoon I was commanding and headed back to Brisbane and into a classroom, full time
I was the oldest person in the class by a long shot; the rest of the students were aged between nineteen and twenty-two. I enjoyed the course and passed all my subjects, finally being rewarded with my HSC. I had thought I just wasn’t very good at school, but it was looking as though I was just a late bloomer.
My career continued on the up and I was promoted to Captain with three years seniority. The army careers adviser asked me my preferred posting, and I was fortunate to be given my first choice: adjutant of the 4th Battalion, RAR (Commando). My old battalion, 2/4 RAR, had been split back into two battalions, the 2nd and the 4th, and 4RAR had been re-designated from a standard infantry battalion to a Special Forces commando battalion. I had enjoyed my time with Special Forces with the 2nd Commando Company and was keen to be involved again. The opportunities, training and budgets given to Special Forces units greatly exceed those afforded to Infantry units. Also, the myriad ‘toys’ and specialised training on offer was difficult to ignore.
I’d had six interstate postings in six years and I was looking forward to spending more time at 4RAR. It turned out to be a fantastic battalion headquarters, staffed by a great group of men who upheld a strong work ethic – we knew how to work hard and, when the work was completed, play hard. Lieutenant Colonel Neil Thompson was the commanding officer (CO) and his executive officer (XO) was Marty Colyer. I also met Al Forsyth, a Warrant Officer who had been the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) – the most senior soldier – of the SAS Regiment and would later play an important role in my life after the army.
The infantry corps careers adviser, Major Marty Glass, came to the battalion to interview all the officers about their next moves in the army. As the adjutant it was my job to set up all the appointments, and I left myself to last. I had already, with Neil Thompson, mapped out my next steps: I knew Marty Colyer was going to be made a company commander, and my plan was to move up a step and become Colyer’s XO. It would allow me to stay in the battalion for another couple of years, which would be fine by me because I’d had enough of moving and I enjoyed being involved with the 4RAR (Cdo) transition to a full time Special Forces capability.
Once all the interviews were done, I sat down with Major Glass in my office. ‘I want to make an example of you for the rest of the corps and the rest of the army, ’ he said.
It sounded ominous. ‘Yes, sir. ’
Glass leaned forward, elbows on my desk. ‘I want to post you out of here at the end of this year, get you to do your staff appointment for one year, and then promote you to Major, one year early. Then we’ll bring you back here. ’
His offer took me by surprise. I knew that in time I would have to leave the commandos to do my staff appointment
– a desk job every Captain had to go through, at a higher headquarters, shuffling papers and learning the administrative side of army operations. Major Glass was offering me a chance to get this out of the way sooner than I expected, and in half the time. In effect I would be leapfrogging the job I’d had in mind for myself, and coming back sooner rather than later as a commando company commander. He explained to me that the corps wanted to show the army that it was serious about this new scheme from which I had benefited, in which Warrant Officers could make the leap to commissioned officer and not be relegated to boring logistics jobs. I had worked hard to get where I was and Glass wanted to reward that by fast-tracking my promotion to the next rank, Major.
I’d had my heart set on following Marty Colyer to B Company and being his XO, but the offer was too good to knock back. As an added sweetener I asked Major Glass if he could find me a staff appointment in Brisbane, because I had bought a house there a few years earlier but had hardly had a chance to stay in it. To my surprise, he agreed and he gave it to me in writing.
I packed my bags, still somewhat reluctantly despite my good fortune, and drove north to Brisbane where I reported for duty at the Headquarters of the Army’s 1st Division, which also went by the name of the Deployable Joint Force Headquarters (DJFHQ), or DJs for short.
DJs was commanded by a junior General I had briefly heard of but who would go on to play an integral part in my later career and life; a Vietnam veteran who people seemingly in the know reckoned was on the last posting of his career. His name was Peter Cosgrove.
Excerpted from The Lost Battlefield of Kokoda by Brian Freeman. Copyright © 2012 by Brian Freeman.
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