Monday, October 22, 2012

kokoda’s 70th anniversary


Simpson and His Donkey

We make a big deal in Australia of ANZAC day, which commemorates the landing of Australian troops at Gallipoli [now part of Turkey] in 1915. Many young Australians had joined the army during WW I to help Britain because at that stage in our history we still thought of ourselves as British.

If WW I was a particularly brutal and pointless war, the Gallipoli campaign was a particularly appalling waste of human life. If any good resulted from it at all, it marked a turning point in the national psyche – Australians came to see themselves as, and be seen as, possessed of a unique national character. It was a point in our history when we not only showed the world we had value in our own right, but came to learn the British did not think of us as British so much as mere colonials – as second class Poms.



For some reason we make less of a big deal in Australia of the New Guinea campaign, which consisted of a series of battles fought between July and November 1942 between Japanese and Allied—primarily Australian—forces in what was then the Australian territory of Papua.

This campaign marked another important turning point in our national psyche.

To be sure, WW II was not quite so pointless as the first had been, though the devastation it caused was horrific.
A death, is a death, is a death, regardless of when it occurs.

We had been at war since September 1939 when our fellow Brits first declared war on Germany. Many of our troops were located in Europe and the Middle East, with some in Britain’s Asian territories, when the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour [Hawaii] in December 1941, and then managed to overcome Singapore a few months later.

As Japan had been bombing Darwin and other parts of Northern Australia since February 1942, it was reasonable for Australians to believe the Japanese advance through New Guinea was just another step in their plan to invade Australia.

Most of the Forces who fought in the “Kokoda” campaign were soldiers in the Australian Militia – citizen soldiers who volunteered to fight the Japanese and so protect Australia.

We were no longer fighting for a Britain we thought of as our Mother country, or even a Britain we thought of as a military Ally in WW II – when we started to fight in New Guinea, we were fighting for our lives.

This also marked a turning point in another important respect: As the US had entered WW II after Pearl Harbour and had decided to use Australia as a base for their Pacific campaign against the Japanese we were, for the first time, thinking of the US as our most important Allies.

Being the smaller country in any military Alliance, our sense of security comes at a cost: To some extent we are now simply sucking up to a different world power when we get involved in various wars around the globe. But none of this should detract from the greatness of the gifts we were given by those who fought in New Guinea.


Crucial to Australia's Kokoda campaign were local villagers, many of whom were press-ganged into helping but went on to become heroes for the Australians caught up in this fight.

This picture of Raphael Oimbari giving a blinded Private Whittington a helping hand
has become something of an Australian icon.

The locals, who came to be known [God forgive us] as “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”, carried supplies, assisted with the construction of airfields and bases, and helped evacuate the sick and wounded through some truly inhospitable terrain.

Oimbari and 5 of his fellow Angels were finally recognised with medals in 2010.

“Fuzzy Wuzzy Day” - November 3 - is becoming an increasingly significant day of commemoration, in The [now] Independent State of Papua New Guinea [Niugini]


Rude and Ruder

On 22 October 1942, after a setback in the campaign, our General Blamey addressed the men of the 21st Brigade on a parade ground. The men of the Maroubra Force expected congratulations for their efforts in holding back the Japanese. However, instead of praising them, Blamey told the brigade that they had been "beaten" by inferior forces, and that "no soldier should be afraid to die". "Remember," Blamey was reported as saying, "it's the rabbit who runs who gets shot, not the man holding the gun.”

He is not fondly remembered for this remark.

Historians – based on paper evidence – now insist that Japan had no intention of invading or occupying Australia.
Fast forward 70 years to the anniversary of the Kokoda campaign, and there is some argument abroad that it’s ridiculous to elevate the significance of the WW II Kokoda campaign to the same significance as WW I’s Gallipoli campaign.

Given the significance of Kokoda to Australia’s sense of self, this attitude is extraordinary.
Putting aside any conviction that war is ultimately stupid, the notion that Kokoda or any other battle is less important than Gallipoli is an insult to everyone involved – Australian or Allied Soldiers, Papuans, families, and even the Japanese soldiers themselves.

A death, is a death, is a death, regardless of when it occurs. It’s not a competition.


  1. I had not heard of Fuzzy Wuzzy Day. I see the name as affectionate.

    On a personal note, years ago I worked with a woman who was serving a meal to Blamey and she deliberately tipped hot soup on him as he was so rude to her.

    I can never imagine the predominantly Anglo Saxon Australia of the 1940s under Japanese rule.

    Nice work, Fruit Cake.

    1. The name 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel' is one Australians will see as affectionate, even if the rest of the world thinks it might have been patronising.

      The story of the hot soup is a 'heart-warming'story. There are probably plenty of people in Oz with similar tales to tell.

  2. Whether or not the Japanese intended to invade Australia is not the point of Kokoda the purpose of Kokoda was to stop the Japanese in their tracks from invading Australia from the outset and our Aussie Diggers succeeded. Doesn't really matter what is written on a piece paper which has come to light after all these years which in fact could be a work of fiction.

    1. Windsmoke, I totally agree with you. Even if there were no immediate plans to invade Australia [tho' I believe there were] there would be nothing to stop Japanese leaders from changing their minds.
      If mini subs as far south as Victoria, and bombing way beyond Darwin didn't at least make our coastline a target, I don't know what it would take to convince so called experts.
      It's a total insult.

  3. War is ultimately stupid and should be forgotten not glorified.

    1. Hi Diane, I'll agree it is ultimately stupid and should never be glorified. Perhaps we could agree to disagree about the forgotten part?

  4. It makes me furious to see memorials that speak of the dead as giving their lives for 'god, king and country' when with the benefit of hindsight we know that wars are not so much about those things. But that is a separate issue to the courage and bravery of those caught in the middle of it - ie the soldiers - who, in my opinion, should be compensated to the hilt for being put in the impossible scenarios of war.

    1. Hi Red, You would have seen quite a few memorials in your travels - as time goes by the attitude to WW I and the Empire seems increasingly as weird and remote as life in the middle ages.
      But yes, it is a separate issue. Whether or not we agree with our soldiers being in this or that place, they are there on our behalf and we should - through our government - show a little more respect in many specific cases.

  5. Excellent post FC. and I love Andrew's comment of The Soup Lady Revenge. I bet Blamey was right up himself.
    I did housesitting for some people who went on the Kooda Trek for their 3rd time, and then on to Europe. The phone rang late one night and it was a villager from the route, asking for 300 dollars so his 7-y-o daughter could have a kidney operation in a far village he had to carry her to.
    I wondered how he diagnosed. When the travellers returned they sent the money. I wondered how she had lasted another 3 weeks. He probably made more than one call. canny. It's a jungle out there.

    1. Hi MStacks. As someone who hates even having to go back upstairs because she's forgotten something, I find it inconceivable that anyone would do the Trek 3 times. There must be something special about it.

      Perhaps we ought to commemorate 22 Oct as Soup day?

  6. War is so very hard to understand, so many young men going away never to return to their loved ones, it makes me want to cry for man's greed and insanity. Excellent post FC.

    1. It is difficult to understand how so many people get caught up in the insanity of a handful.