SGT J.P. CAMPBELL, 55/53rd Battalion, 7th December 1942, Age 21
This is a tribute and story about the life and service of SGT J.P. Campbell, who was killed in action at Sanananda on 7th December 1942, written by his niece Jenna Gallard who toured with Kokoda Trail Expeditions.
John Parkin Campbell was born in Sydney in June 1921, the second child born to his parents after his father had returned from serving on the Western Front in World War 1. He grew up with a brother and 3 sisters and was particularly close with my mother, who was born just a year later. It was a simple and frugal life growing up in the 20’s & 30’s. More than once the family had to hastily vacate their home in the middle of the night as they couldn’t pay the rent. John left school while still in his mid-teens, and on being fired from one job, declared to his boss ‘you can’t fire me, I quit!’ As young adults, John and Mum often went out together, and would be mistaken for sweethearts.
John was working with his father in the family boot making business when he enlisted in the Militia (CMF) in February 1939, at the age of 17. Training at various camps followed: Dapto, Liverpool, Ingleburn, Wallgrove, Narellan, Greta, and by the end of 1941 he had been promoted to Sergeant and had had a short stint in hospital with a bad knee. The 55/53rd Battalion had separated into 2 battalions and John was with the 55th.
With the increasing Japanese threat in the Pacific, troops were being moved to New Guinea, and John sailed from Sydney in May 1942, arriving in Port Moresby in early June. For several months the men of the 55th were used as labourers, unloading ships and digging defences around Port Moresby, all the while dodging Japanese bombs during air raids. In September, after the Japanese had fallen back along the Kokoda Track, John was attached to Honner Force, a special force of approximately 500 men led by Colonel Ralph Honner, their task is to cut the enemy’s line of communication between Manari & Nauro. Supply difficulties hampered the operation, and the group returned to Port Moresby in October.
Late in October, the 2 battalions came back together and the 55/53rd was one unit again. The next 2 months saw the battalion continuing with building defences, and patrolling the areas around the city. These tasks were to be carried out with ‘vigor and boldness, and the object to be attained is the destruction of every Jap entering the Bn area’ (War Diaries). John had by now transferred to the AIF.
The fierce fighting on the Kokoda Track, the terrible loss of life at Gona, and tropical sickness had decimated the ranks of the Australian soldiers, and more men were needed to defeat the Japanese on the northern beachheads. The 55/53rd was assigned to fight at the Battle for Sanananda. On December 5th John and his mates were flown over the Owen Stanley Ranges to either Popondetta or Dobodura airfields, his first and only plane ride, and from there they marched about 18 miles to an overnight camp in Soputa. In the book ‘That Mob’ there is a photo of B Company crossing a river during this march. My uncle John is in that picture somewhere.
On the afternoon of December 7th, John’s B Company was ordered to attack a heavily fortified Japanese position on the Sanananda Track. According to Frank Budden, John was ‘one of the first’ to be killed that afternoon, by a Japanese sniper. He was 21 years old.
This year is the 75th anniversary of that battle. To honour the uncle we never met, and for our mother, my brother and I booked a tour with Kokoda Trail Expeditions and travelled to PNG to follow John’s path as best we could. We landed at what had been the 7 Mile airstrip, which he had helped to protect. We drove from Port Moresby to Owers’ Corner, where he would have marched in regular patrols, and the beginning of the Kokoda Track, where he would have climbed up and down mountains, and waded through mud and rivers as part of Honner Force. And we had the privilege to deliver a letter found in our mother’s belongings, a letter she wrote 10 days after John was killed, unaware that her favourite brother was gone. It was returned, of course, with the dreadful news, and she kept it hidden away. So we sat by his grave on a rainy afternoon in the beautiful and peaceful Bomana War Cemetery and I read him mum’s letter, so proud to have been able to deliver it at last. The following day we flew over the ranges, just as he did but in considerably more comfort and safety, landing at Popondetta then going on to the abandoned Dobodura airfield. Then through Soputa and up the muddy Sanananda Track. Here the jungle was thick all around us. The friendly villagers welcomed us, wanting to hear John’s story, and telling us their memories of wartime. They walked with us into the jungle to an area where the fighting took place. We stood in the long kunai grass and tried to imagine what had happened here all those years ago. The heat, the mud, the fear that those boys must have felt going into battle for the first time. And finally, we made it to the village of Sanananda, to finish John’s trek for him. So very emotional. And there in the village is a memorial stone dedicated to the men of the 55/53rd who died here. It was comforting to know that they are not forgotten.
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