On the evening of Tuesday, July 21, 1942, the moon was in its first quarter.
The sound of the surf was broken by the chugging of motors as landing barges filled with silent, sweating soldiers clutching rifles made small wakes as they cut through the clear tropical waters off the Papuan coast, their hulls sliding softly to a stop on the crushed-coral beach.
The soldiers were glad to escape the confines of the steel-hulled oven that was the troop ship, only to be faced with a blanket of humidity and an unforgiving tropical landscape.
The young men had been prepared for war in Japan with often brutal training to be sent forth into Asia and the Pacific islands as soldiers of the Emperor, to carry out his god-like will to establish a Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by any means necessary to counter the colonial advancement of the Western World.
Trained to accept death before dishonour, failure was not an option. In the coming months, untried soldiers would be toughened up by being ordered to bayonet Australian prisoners of war tied to trees with signal wire.
There was little mercy in the jungles of New Guinea’s Owen Stanley Ranges. The advancing Japanese soldiers took few prisoners and as the campaign wore on, neither did the defending Australian troops.
With little moonlight to betray their approach, the Japanese Imperial Army’s 15 Independent Engineer Regiment, under the command of Colonel Yokoyama Yosuke, made its first landing unopposed at Basabua Point near Gona, on the north coast of what was then Papua.
A robber crab, its body the size of a dinner plate, lay still in the palm leaf litter, hidden in the darkness of the tropical undergrowth overlooking the beach.
It had just ripped open the husk of a green coconut with its formidable claws, each one capable of exerting the cutting pressure of a bolt cutter. Weighing more than 4kg and with a leg span of over a metre, it is the largest land crab in the world.
With the intrusion of the foreign sound, its claws froze for a moment in the mechanical act of lifting small strips of soft coconut flesh to its mandibles.
In the months to come, as the unburied bodies of Japanese soldiers mounted in the besieged beachhead bunkers at Gona, Buna and Sanananda, the scavenger robber crabs would occasionally dine on human flesh.
In the jungles of New Guinea during World War II, men would fight to stay alive.
In the ensuing months, the robber crabs would not be alone in eating human flesh to survive.
A few nights later, a second Japanese Navy convoy landed the rest of Yokoyama’s advanced force, some 2800 soldiers, supported by 1200 porters from New Britain, rounded up to carry food and equipment for the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track.
The aim was to quickly traverse the 96-kilometre long track over the Owen Stanley Ranges and attack Port Moresby, making it the Japanese Imperial Force’s most southern fortified base.
From Port Moresby, Japanese fighter aircraft could effectively attack South Pacific shipping movements between the United States and Australia, separated from New Guinea by little more than 150km of open water.
The advanced Japanese landing was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Kokoda Campaign, a series of battles along a rough, muddy jungle track which, along with Gallipoli in World War I, would lodge firmly in the Australian psyche as touchstones in the evolution of a nation.
Almost immediately on landing, an advance party of Japanese infantry were driven inland by truck. The road soon ran out, so with native bearers carrying food and equipment and some soldiers wheeling bicycles (which they soon abandoned in the harsh jungle terrain) the vanguard of the invading force pushed forward.
It was met near Awala on July 23 by brief resistance from a 38-man strong party of the Papuan Infantry Battalion under the command of Major William Watson. Outnumbered, Watson’s force fired on the advancing Japanese and then melted back into the jungle.
The Kokoda Campaign had begun.
It would take six months to push the Japanese back to the northern coast and clear the entrenched troops from their beachhead fortifications, with the endgame at Gona relayed back to Australian Army Command on December 9, 1942, by 39th Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, who signalled to 21st Brigade Headquarters two simple words: “Gona’s gone.”
The last beachhead at Sanananda would fall six weeks later, on January 22, 1943.
The Battle of the Beachheads, which followed the Kokoda Campaign, was one of the bloodiest and ugliest of all the Papuan campaigns.
The men of the South Australian 2/27th Battalion became involved in the conflict a few weeks after the Kokoda Campaign began and its remnants were in action to the bitter end at Gona. Increasing numbers of South Australians fell in battle as the weeks unfolded – killed in action, wounded or struck down by tropical disease.
The 2/27th Battalion would be rebuilt as an effective fighting battalion, reinforced by soldiers transferred from battalions raised in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland. But South Australian blood built the foundation of the battalion’s esprit de corps.
The Japanese soldiers held on grimly at the beachheads, trapped in palm log-lined fortifications, hoping for reinforcements that would never come.
They would fight to the death rather than lose face, hide live grenades in their tattered uniforms and surrender in a last-ditch attempt to kill the enemy in their final moments on earth, make death pacts with one another rather than be captured, or commit suicide.
During the Battle of the Beachheads, 1,261 Australian soldiers were killed and another 2,210 wounded while the Americans lost 734 killed and 2,037 wounded.
The Japanese Imperial Army’s failed campaign to capture Port Moresby and the suicidal attempt to hold the beachheads resulted in the deaths of 19,250 Japanese soldiers, often in pitiful conditions.
Units on the Kokoda Track
Papuan Infantry Battalion, 2/14th Battalion, 2/16th Battalion, 2/25th Battalion, 2/27th Battalion, 2/31st Battalion, 2/2nd Battalion, 2/3rd Battalion, 2/33rd Battalion (Militia), 36th Battalion (Militia), 39th Battalion (Militia), 49th Battalion (Militia), 53rd Battalion (Militia), 55/53rd Battalion (Militia), 55th Battalion (Militia), 2/1st Battalion, 2/1st Pioneer Battalion, 2/6th Independent Company, 2/6 Armoured Regiment, 7th Division Cavalry Regiment, 2/4th, 2/6th and 14th Battalion Field Ambulance, 2/5th and 2/6th Battalion Royal Australian Engineers, Salvation Army.
Sources: AWM, DVA