The Kokoda Campaign
The Kokoda Campaign covers the period between the first Japanese landings on the north coast to their subsequent defeat on the same beaches six months later. First, the Japanese advanced south along the Kokoda Track as the Australians made a fighting withdrawal from July to September. Then the Australians advanced and the Japanese withdrew back to their northern beachheads. The latter part of the fighting took four months from September 1942 before all hostilities ended on 22nd January 1943.
Fighting in the ranges along the Kokoda Track and on the northern beaches is collectively referred to as the Kokoda Campaign because the pre-war track ran the entire way from the north coast to the south coast. The track was a native path that linked Owers’ Corner approximately 40 kilometres northeast of Port Moresby with the village of Wairopi in the north where it crossed the infamous Kumusi River. From Wairopi, it continued onto the villages of Buna, Sanananda and Gona on the north coast. Its name is taken from the village of Kokoda on the northern side of the range, the site of the only airfield between Port Moresby and the north coast.
After their attempt to take Port Moresby by a seaborne invasion was thwarted during the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese saw the Kokoda Track as a means by which to advance on it overland. The Japanese South Seas Detachment began landing near Gona on 21st July 1942 to test the feasibility of the track as a route of advance, however, a full-scale offensive soon began. The first contact took place near Awala between elements of the Australian 39th Infantry Battalion and the Papuan Infantry Battalion. Despite being reinforced by the 30th and 21st Brigades, the Australians couldn’t hold back the Japanese. They were poorly equipped, hadn’t mastered jungle warfare tactics, and were fighting at the end of a long and difficult supply line. They fought delaying actions as they withdrew along the Kokoda Track before stopping at Imita Ridge only 8-kilometres from the road to Port Moresby at Owers’ Corner. The Japanese held the opposite ridgeline at Ioribaiwa about 6-kilometres from Imita.
The tactical situation soon swung in favour of the Australians. Their artillery was in range and most of their supplies could reach them by trucks whereas supplies for the Japanese had to be brought in all the way from the north coast. As the Australian 25th Brigade began to move forward on 23rd September, the Japanese withdrew the very next day. The South Seas Detachment was ordered to withdraw and defend the northern beachheads because of heavy losses suffered at the hands of the US on Guadalcanal. As determined as the Australians, the Japanese fought a number of delaying actions as they retreated. Several costly battles took place before the 25th and 16th Brigades crossed the Kumusi for even bitterer fighting against the Japanese-held Buna, Sanananda and Gona.
The Kokoda Campaign was one of the most desperate and vicious battles to have been fought by the Australians in WW2. There was very little chance for an invasion of Australia with the capture of Port Moresby, however, victory on the Kokoda Track meant Allied airbases in northern Australia which would play a very important part in the upcoming counter-offensive against the Japanese were not targeted by enemy air attacks.
The “Kokoda Track” and “Kokoda Trail” has been in use interchangeably since WW2. In October 1957, Kokoda Trail was adopted by the Battles Nomenclature Committee as the official British Commonwealth battle honour.