Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Digger Legend 

Stephen Matchett's article shows much more than the usual superficial understanding of Kokoda and the fascination it has for so many of us.
He is correct that we tend to grow more, not less fascinated as time passes.
One of the most persuasive drives for the individual and the society is the quest for identity. Gallipoli gave us something that, painfully, we needed; Kokoda is a major, more recent, closer-to-home supplement.
This applies, I think, to the migrants and their descendants who have joined theAustralian society, soon after or even decades after the largely Anglo-Saxon/Irish Australians fought the battles of the Second World War.
The newcomers, as I wrote once, tend to change the adopted society less than they are changed by it. That is arguable in the light of our history since 1945; but the newcomers are no less hungry for an identity that they can claim - and of which they can be proud.
Matchett is right of course that "not all Australians who slogged across theKokoda Track were heroes." The performances of the 39th and the 53rd were remarkably different.
The 39th has been described as "a scratch unit" but its tough courage and fortitude are deservedly a thing of legend.
Why is that true of the 39th and not of the 53rd?
All the kids up there were scared a lot of the time. Remember the "big, likeable seventeen-year-old" at Oivi who "artlessly admitted he was 'shit-scared': "Wish the bastards'd come," he added, "or I'll be yelling for Mum."
The average age of some of the platoons of the 39th was 18, so many of the soldiers were younger - often much younger. However, that applied to most units in New Guinea at that time.
Matchett correctly writes of the discipline demanded by Honner. That is fair enough and must have had some effect. However, Honner did not command the 39th in the period of what might be regarded as the battalion's greatest gallantry.
Only about thirty officers and men made it to Kokoda by air from Moresby in July 1942.The other aircraft that tried could not land. A day or so before, a company of the 39th had set out to walk to Kokoda by what was to become the famousTrack. These two groups were about the only troops available to confront the Japs inthe early stages of the campaign - along with a few of the PIB.
At the same time, keep in mind that the Japanese landed thousands of seasoned troops,well-equipped, at Buna and Gona in the week or so after 21 July.The "force" that held up the overwhelming numbers of Japanese at Oivi for a time could not have been more than a couple of dozen. Escaping through thejungle, they linked up with Lt-Col Owen, the CO of the 39th, and about 60 men at Deniki.
That "force" of about 80 men then returned to Kokoda and tried to hold back the Japanese so as to keep the Kokoda airstrip open for reinforcements and supplies.They fought a courageous battle against overwhelming numbers and firepower which again was surely the stuff of legend.
Two things are worth special note. It was Lt-Col William Taylor Owen who actively and courageously led his small force and inflicted severe casualties on the Japanese. His deployments to defend the airstrip were sound: he knew that they would try to climb a steep slope to take his men by surprise and it was there that he was fatally wounded in the head while he was hurling grenades at the Japanese climbing the slope. Mortally wounded, he was taken back unconscious to a rough RAP and there he had to be left to die when the Japanese overran the Kokoda plateau.
Sadly, recognition is rarely given to Owen for his part in creating the legend of the 39th in its earliest days.
His leadership helped to create the spirit and the morale that enabled the survivors of Kokoda to retreat to Deniki and then to Isurava where they held back the Japanese until - and only then - they were reinforced by fresh troops. ("Fresh" of course after having slogged over the Kokoda Track. Initially the reinforcement was by a company only of the 2/14th.)
Even the Japanese, in their diaries, acknowledged the "stubborn resistance" of the 39th at Isurava - resistance that, in its persistence, was ultimately decisive in the Japanese High Command's instruction to General Horii to withdraw his force from Iorabaiwa back to the coast at Buna/Gona.
The other thing worthy of special note is the way in which a 20 year old youngster, Snowy Parr, deployed, with great skill and courage, the only Bren the small force had and forced the Japanese to pull back for long enough for the remnants of the Australian force to withdraw safely to Deniki.
This sort of story helps to put the Kokoda campaign into better perspective. The Australians never got the credit they deserved for what they achieved. Blamey was guilty and so, of course, was Prime Minister John Curtin who had to make the tough decision whether it was more to Australia's advantage to keep Macarthur on side or to defend the Australian soldiers - and their generals.
We needed the Americans at that time and we were extremely glad to have them; but, brilliant general though he often showed himself to be, Macarthur always wanted his heroes to be all-American - with himself at the top of the list.
We should remember that it wasn't only the Kokoda officers who were criticised by Macarthur, largely through Blamey. The victor at Milne Bay - Clowes - had to put up with a lot of ill-conceived advice and instructions during the fighting itself and never received afterwards the accolades which he had surely earned by winning the first land victory of WW2 against the Japanese.
My own novel, Haverleigh, covers Milne Bay as well as Kokoda. So far as I know, Haverleigh is the only dramatisation of either of the two vital campaigns - and the only one done by someone "who was there." That does not mean that it is necessarily the "best" account - the most accurate rendition of history. Often, the perspective of time enables a more accurate story to be told. However, a story told by a contemporary who lived through many of the events has an authenticity and engenders an interest that few later accounts, however well researched, can offer.
This applies not only to the battles themselves but to the society from which the mostly teenage diggers came - and the families they left behind. Those families were often more panic-stricken, in 1942, than the "shit-scared" youngsters at the front; and they suffered terribly, not only when their boys were killed or wounded, but also in waiting for the bad news to arrive.
This is what our martial history is all about and what gives us much of our identity.
As Stephen Matchett notes, we are "not an especially martial mob"; but we like to think that we'll get in there and fight when the chips are down.
That is perhaps what Kokoda - and Milne Bay - are all about.
James Cumes

----- Original Message ----- From: "Jozef Imrich" <chezimrich@hotmail.com>To: <jcumes@chello.at>Cc: <Vision@lazette.net>; <Charlie.Lynn@parliament.nsw.gov.au>Sent: Saturday, June 25, 2005 9:07 AM

Subject: In the tracks of Kokoda I thought you would enjoy reading Galbraith's story, James>> I thought I share this story too in case you have not seen it - published> today>> CC: Charlie Lynn>> In the tracks of Kokoda>> June 25, 2005>>
WITH World War II fast passing from the land of living memory, perhaps we> are at the beginning of the end of the Australian interest in our ancient> wars.>> But don't bet on it. Interest in the national military achievement will> strengthen for as long as Australians look to history for ideals to bind> us together and to provide people to admire and values to respect. In> fact, if anything, interest in matters military, from Anzac Day attendance> to book sales, are on the up.>> This has nothing to do with nationalism. Despite the occasional outburst> of big-noting about wartime achievement, we are not an especially martial> mob; ordinary Americans are far more aware, and respectful, of their> military than we are. But as a nation of immigrants we have a particular> need for rituals that express values we all can share.>> Historian Miriam Dixson, in her excellent The Imaginary Australian (1999),> made a case for remembering the values of the old, once almost universal,> Anglo-Celtic culture that, Aborigines apart, was synonymous with being> Australian before the age of mass migration. Writing with the Hansonite> horror fresh, she warned that to ignore them was to risk weakening the> bonds that hold together our multicultural civil society.>> To extend her argument, one of the key sources of traditional Australian> values is the ideals of Anzac. It is this interest in Australian military> achievement that accounts for the spectacular success of Les Carlyon's> history of the Gallipoli campaign.>> But World War I was fought a long way away and a long time ago. And there> is a growing interest in fighting much closer to home, in Papua New Guinea> during World War II.>> Some specialist studies commemorate extraordinary feats of Australian arms> there, notably Phillip Bradley's 2004 study of the 7th Division in the> Ramu Valley in 1943, On Shaggy Ridge, which, in parts, is a minor> masterpiece of campaign history.>> However, it is the Kokoda Track that is becoming an equivalent of> Gallipoli for writers looking for a definitive Australian experience of> war. Peter FitzSimons's canter through the secondary sources has sold just> under 100,000 copies in about a year. A less florid writer, journalist> Paul Ham, has enjoyed a more modest, 15,000-plus, sale for his history of> the Kokoda Track.>> The master scholar of Kokoda and the campaigns that followed, South> Australian writer Peter Brune has sold 100,000 copies of his six books. By> the small standards of Australian military history writing, these are all> bestsellers rather than supersellers.>> Perhaps it is propinquity that makes them popular. Of all Australia's> wars, the fighting in Papua in 1942 was the closest we have come to facing> a direct threat. The Australians falling back along the Kokoda Track in> the middle of 1942 could have easily believed that if they were beaten> other Australians would find themselves fighting the Japanese in Darwin or> even far north Queensland.>> This sense that Kokoda was a battle in the defence of Australia will> cement its appeal as the reasons for invading Turkey in 1915 become ever> more remote. But the fascination with Kokoda has a much deeper basis. The> history of the campaign reinforces the lore of the Western Front, that the> Australian way in war shows us how we can prosper in peace if we hold true> to three great Anzac lessons.>> The first is to always innovate. When they arrived on the Western Front in> 1916 the Australians did not do well. But, like the Canadians and Kiwis,> they first learned, then transformed the craft of trench warfare, from> squad all the way up to army corps. There was a repeat performance in 1942> when Australian militia learned jungle warfare largely on the job and> finally stopped the extraordinarily tough and resourceful Japanese.>> The best Australian soldiers have always looked sceptically at the> accepted wisdom and worked out ways to improve on it.>> The second lesson men in both world wars believed in was not to trust> anybody too far from the fighting. Even now the popular understanding of> World War I can be summed up in a sentence: "The Australians reached their> objectives with heavy losses due to bad British staff work.">> It was never that simple but the idea that the more senior the officers> the more likely they neither knew nor cared about the blokes at the front> was common on Kokoda. With some justice. The Australian commanders on the> ground endured with their men. One key commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph> Honner of the 39th battalion, was respected by his men because the> discipline he imposed and the tactical skills he possessed gave them the> best chance they had of doing their jobs and staying alive.>> But Australian army chief Thomas Blamey was, and still is in much of the> Kokada writing, presented as a careerist, with no concept of campaigning> across mountainous jungles and no concern for the welfare of the blokes> doing it. In the way he sacked three generals, Sydney Rowell, Arthur> "Tubby" Allen and Arnold Potts, he protected his own arse rather than> covered the backs of competent officers. In telling veterans of the 21st> Brigade that it was the running rabbit that got shot, Blamey confirmed for> life every bolshie bloke's suspicion that bosses were dills at best.>> The third lesson refutes any idea of Aussie exceptionalism. Even in> FitzSimons's florid tale there is no attempt to disguise the truth: not> all Australians who slogged across the Kokoda Track were heroes.>> Although Honner's 39th performed well, a formation that served with them,> the scratch 53rd Battalion was a catastrophe. Badly led, poorly trained,> the unit included angry men who had been press-ganged into service. The> 53rd fought badly when it fought at all.>> The two units show that Australians are not natural-born killers. But when> training and discipline are balanced by a belief that all citizen soldiers> are social equals and that every Digger can move up a rank whenever> required, and above that they will look out for each other, and that they> are hard to beat. It is an excellent application of the ideal of mateship.>> Kokoda will not supersede Gallipoli or even Villers-Bretonneux as the> primary Australian military shrine. It may be closer, but conditions on> the track make it much harder to visit.>> But as the last generation to have any special affection for Britain> passes, we will likely look closer to home for popular sources of> patriotic pride. Which Kokoda delivers in spades. Different war, same Anzac icons.
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