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Of all the magnificent units and regiments of the Australian Army I doubt if any have a better claim to have been the one that saved Australia than the 39th Infantry Battalion, the first to advance down the Kokoda Track to confront the Japanese.

There are a number of units who could claim this title. The 25th Brigade in the defence of Milne Bay so ably presented a few days ago and the Coral Sea Battle. The former was supported by the RAAF. The Coral Sea Battle was a largely American enterprise. The 39th held the Japs at bay alone and unsupported until the 7th Division arrived fresh from the Middle East. For that they get my vote without detracting in any way the efforts and performance of all of our other units, and the Americans, who took on the Japs.

When WW2 broke out there were two Australian armies. The AIF which was a totally volunteer force and made was the permanent standing army. Then there was the AMF, Australian Military Forces (Militia) made up of volunteers and conscripts who, by law at the time, could not be sent to overseas service. Further, men under 21 years of age could not volunteer for overseas service unless they had parental written consent. 21 was then the age of consent. It was reduced to 18 years well after the end of the war.

At the time, Papua New Guinea was an Australian mandated territory and officially part of Australia thus conscripts and under-age troops could be sent there, and they were.

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After WW1 the 1st AIF was abandoned and militia units formed of volunteers raised in the same areas as the former 1st AIF units to maintain its structure. This was the Citizens Military Forces (CMF) and continued right through to the end of WW2. The 2nd AIF was a new formation brought into being for the war. The 39th was first raised in 1921 in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. In the tween war years there was little enthusiasm from volunteers and in 1937 it merged with two other battalions to form the composite 37/39th. In October, 1941 it was again raised as the 39th and filled its ranks with 18 year old conscripts called up for National Service. Officially, these lads were not men until they attained 21 years of age.

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In January, 1942, the 39th, together with the 53rd Infantry Battalion raised in Sydney, was sent to Port Moresby to form part of the garrison already established by the 49th Infantry Battalion to form the 30th Infantry Brigade. The average age of its members at the time of embarkation was 18 years & six months. None of these units had much military training and were used for garrison duties and work parties. This new formation, designated as 30th Infantry Brigade, and known as Maroubra Force was not given any real training for what was ahead of them.

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In June, 1942 the 39th, in company with the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB), was sent up the Kokoda Track to Kokoda, where there was an airstrip, to block any overland attempt to invade by the Japanese. In those days there was little on ground knowledge of the Kokoda Track. It had not been surveyed and was impassable for anything other than foot traffic but its existence was well known to the native people.

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On 15th July the 39th reached Kokoda. On 22nd July a large Japanese force landed at Gona and quickly moved inland .The 39th had its first encounter with the Japanese at Awala, north of Kokoda, the next day, severely outnumbered, the 39th and the PIB fell back to Kokoda but were again forced to retreat further through sheer lack of numbers. The 39th counter attacked on 8th August but, again, lack of numbers and ammunition forced it to retreat again back to Deniki. On 14th August, in the face of continued Japanese attacks a further retreat south was made to Isurava where they stemmed the advance for about two weeks.

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At this point the 53rd Battalion was ordered to relieve the 39th. It was under-manned, under trained and under equipped. It failed dismally and the 39th continued to face the Japanese with what remained of the PIB.

When Japan entered the war the 7th Division of the AIF was rushed home from the Middle East and on 23rd August its first units from the 21st Brigade arrived to reinforce the 39th. The position was so desperate that rather than retiring back to Port Moresby the 39th volunteered to remain fighting alongside the 7th Division.

At that point we were fortunate that two of the most outstanding leaders of WW2 were appointed. Brigadier Arnold Potts was promoted to command the 21st.Brigade and Maroubra Force. Lt. Colonel Ralph Honner became the commander of the 39th Battalion. Both had distinguished records with the 7th Div. in the Middle East and Greece. Their orders were to stop the Japanese at Isurava.

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When Honner arrived at Isurava on 16th August he found the 39th was so depleted by malaria and battle casualties, and severely outnumbered, it could not mount any counter offensive.. Instead of attempting to hold the Japanese in this impossible situation, he lead the 39th on a fighting withdrawal south and keeping the enemy at bay until the arrival of the first elements of the 7th Division, the 2/14th Battalion.

The key to success on the Track was the ability to maintain supply. The Australians were very dependent on air supply to Myola where there was a dry lake bed to be used as a drop zone. When Potts embarked with the 2/14th Battalion he was promised that 40,000 rations would be waiting at Myola. Before he arrived an air raid at Port Moresby had destroyed two of the Dakota Transports and only 5,000 rations were available. The troops of the 2/14 had started with 5 days rations per man but when Potts reached Myola and Isurava he found that the 39th was in such a bad way starting a counter offensive was out of the question and ordered an offensive withdrawal.

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By this time Pott’s second battalion, the 2/16th had arrived for further reinforcement but it was too little. His request for his third battalion, the 2/27th, to advance, was denied. Macarthur wanted it to stay at Moresby in case the Milne Bay encounter failed. Finally, on 4th September the 2/27th was released and arrived to relieve the 39th which had retreated to Kagi. The 39th then made its way back to Koitaki where it was assembled and received an address from General Blamey who had been ordered to the front by Macarthur. General Blamey delivered an address that shattered the remnants of the 39th and the whole of Maroubra Force in general. He accused them of cowardice and incompetence for not turning the Japs back to the coast. His recorded statement “It is the rabbit that runs that gets shot” resounded through the Australian Army and earned Blamey the reputation as the most detested officer in the whole of the Australian Defence forces.

There were rumblings of mutiny within the 39th but Ralph Honner was able to keep the lid on it. These words are confirmed by four members who were present and recorded in Peter Brune’s book “Those Ragged Bloody Heros”. 

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The 39th were then withdrawn from the line and proceeded back to Port Moresby. As they approached on properly prepared roads Honner insisted that they march in proper order and with as much bearing as their ragged uniforms and equipment allowed. A unit of fresh troops was moving in the opposite direction towards the Track. A call went out “Who’s that mob?”

The reply came back “We are not a mob. We are the 39th.”

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After a brief period of rest and recuperation the 39th was again committed to battle in the Japanese defeat at Gona. In January, 1943, they were withdrawn back to Australia for reorganisation but their numbers were so depleted that the battalion was disbanded in July, 1943 and its personnel re-distributed among other units of the 21st Brigade. Ralph Honner was appointed to command the 2/14 Battalion. In the later campaign of the Markham Valley he was severely wounded and medically discharged from the Army in January, 1945.

Honner was the only commanding officer from the desperate days of the Kokoda campaign to retain a battlefield command. Those who Blamey did not relieve died in battle. To justify his incompetent involvement in that campaign Blamey demoted all of the other senior commanders, Potts, Allen, Rowell and others to non-combative roles for the rest of the war. Those he retained were part of his own personal clique and for this he earned the vigorous contempt of the rank and file and which he retained for the rest of his career. His statue in Melbourne’s Kings Domain was periodically defiled in the years following the end of WW2. Blamey’s controversial career is a topic worthy of discussion in itself.

UPDATE:

 

I have just deleted the photo of Blamey. I put it there to show the contrast between his well pressed uniform, his well shaved face and his well fed body.

However, on reflection, I can see that it could be misinterpreted as a seal of approval for this man.

I will be writing about him at a later date - MONTY.

General Sir Thomas Blamey was commander-in-chief of the Australian Military Forces during World War II. 

No doubt there would be much conjecture as to whether the efforts of the 25th Brigade at Milne Bay or those of the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track deserve the greater accolade. This was not a competition and comparisons are odious but I really believe that the 39th holding the Jap advance, alone, until the 7th Division arrived was a feat that is and was unsurpassed.

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Some members of D Company, 39th Battalion, returning to their base camp

Perhaps a verse written by Banjo Paterson in 1916 would be a good way to sum up the Kokoda Campaign.

Brotherhood never was like it 

Friendship is not the word

But deep in the body of marching men

The soul of a nation stirred.

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