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The Battle of Isurava

The Battle of Isurava by all accounts stands as a truly remarkable story of the mythical grit, courage and tenacity of Australian troops. It also marks a desperate fighting withdrawal that stopped the momentum of the Japanese and bought the Australians some time in the Pacific Theatre. Most notably it is the only battle where Australia fought essentially alone in defence of it's own country. Isurava is located nearly midway between Port Moresby on the south coast and Gona on north coast of Papua New Guinea. The Australian forces were the first and last line of defence preventing a Japanese invasion of Australia through Port Moresby. Port Moresby was accessible by land forces via the 90 kilometre Kokoda Track that crossed the Owen Stanley Ranges. The Battle of Coral Sea in May and The Battle of Midway in June, prevented alternative routes, such as a sea landing on Port Moresby itself.

By mid-July, 13,500 Japanese Troops had landed in the Gona area on the north of Papua New Guinea. In late July, first contact was between the Japanese and small forces of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and later, as they were forced back to Gorari and then Kokoda, with the 39th Battalion. This marked the beginning of the battle on the Kokoda Track. The Japanese expected to reach Port Moresby in 10 days or less and therefore carried few rations and supplies with the hope of capturing enemy goods as they progressed.

"The fighting at Kokoda began late in July (the 23rd), days after the Japanese landing. For the next month fewer than 500 men from the Victorian 39th Militia Battalion resisted 13,000 Japanese. The Australian's largest weapon was one obsolete first war machine gun." (Four Corners, The Men Who Saved Australia). The Australians were armed with with rifles, revolvers and a Lewis machine-gun with a drum of ammunition. The average age was 18.5 and they formed the 11th platoon of the 39th battalion.

It should be noted that most of Australia's best troops and best equipment was on the other side of the world fighting battles in Europe. Instead of sending the few remaining experienced soldiers on Australian soil to fight at Kokoda the Australian government chose to send a militia of young conscripts. The belief previously was that the "chocos" ("chocolate soldiers") would be used to defend home territory. Some soldiers were press gang onto the ship in order to make up the numbers. Against the well equipped Japanese, who had long range mountain guns and camouflage, they did not stand a chance (the Australians lacked things like shovels so they could dig in). An excellent documentary on the battle reports that the Australians fought the fit and tanned Japanese with fist, boot and rifle butt, the steel of crashing helmets, and the straining of strangling fingers. Their eyes were sunken from continual battle and hunger, they tottered on bleeding, swollen feet and when relieved of battle they were marched back to face them again. Sickness (from diseases such as malaria), not battle has been estimated as taking the greatest toll - somewhere between 2 to 3 men were said to be hospitalised through sickness for every battle casualty.

Into August, fighting, retreating and consolidating was the order of battle despite the Australian troops becoming increasingly isolated and weary. Being strongly pressed by the Japanese and running low on food, supplies and ammunition the decision was made on the 14th of August to retreat to Isurava.

Men from two battalions (the 39th Australian Militia Battalion and the 2/14th Battalion), the Second Australian Imperial Force with help from the 2/16th Battalion and the 53rd Battalions at Ilola attempted to hold back the advance of the Japanese South Sea forces at Isurava(a short distance to the south of Kokoda) and to the south. The Japanese renewed attacks on positions around Isurava on the 26th of August. On the 27th of August the 53rd Battalion attacked Missima (near Isurava) but came under heavy fire losing its commanding officer. On the 28th of August, the Japanese forces attacked in waves at Isurava breaking through the Australian lines and engaging in hand to hand combat. Initially the 2/14th Battalion (veterans of the 21st Brigade which had seen service in Syria) were sent to relieve the tattered 39th, but the full force of the Japanese broke through the 2/14th battalions right flank seriously threatening its position.

On the 29th, Private Bruce Steel Kingsbury, joined a platoon of volunteers to form a counter-attack as a desperate attempt to save the Australian position. He single handedly rushed the enemy, holding and firing a bren gun from his hip (a very difficult thing to do), succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy and causing a large number of casualties. He inspired others in his platoon to attack. Private Kingsbury was shot dead by a snipers bullet but managed to prevent the isolation of his fellow soldiers and allow the Australian troops to briefly secure Battalion headquarters.

However, the Japanese continued to probe and attack - a bugle call announcing each new surge of Japanese troops. On the 30th of August the 2/14th and the 39th were forced to retreat. Heavy casualties followed and throughout the previous month, three commanding officers had also been killed adding to the difficult circumstances. The removal of casualties was also a huge problem for both the Australians and the the Japanese. This is where the native Papuan carriers gained a reputation with the Australians for their care of the wounded. They were given the title of "The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels" as they carried wounded (sometimes with maggots infesting their wounds) away from battle. They also helped the walking wounded - one who was shot in the ankle and didn't want to be a burden to his own men so he used blankets to wrap his wounds and crawl away from battle, and another who had struggled along for five days with four bullets in his chest.

"By this stage (the 2nd of September), the 21st Brigade had endured nearly a week of constant fighting, during most of which time they had been unable to even brew themselves a mug of tea and had certainly received no hot meals." http://www.onthenet.com.au/~vetnet/papua.htm

Reinforcements from the 2/27th Battalion arrived at Efogi on the 5th of September taking the automatic weapons from the remaining 185 men of the 39th Battalion who then retreated. Again the Japanese attacked and while the main attack was held back the Japanese threatened to flank the Australian troops. This forced the 21st Brigade to retreat along side tracks and by the 10th of September the 2/14th and the 2/16th formed a small unit of 307 men further South. The remaining isolated men retreated. The Japanese took the Iorabaiwa Ridge, only 40 miles from Port Moresby and truly the last allowable line of battle.

With an overextended supply line the Japanese encountered problems. The battle went into a lull for a fortnight during which time the Australians laboriously dragged 25-pounder guns into through mud and rain into position on a ridge. The guns combined with incessant fragmentary bombing by the US Air force do eventually force the withdrawal of the Japanese beginning on the 28th of September. As with the Australians, the Japanese, despite being weary, sick and near starvation fought tenaciously back over the Kokoda track, through every town before being driven out of Kokoda on the 2nd of November, 1942. Each of the Japanese tried to run faster than the other to get out alive. One Japanese soldier recounts the sheer disappointment in being told to retreat and instead calling it an "advance backwards". The campaign then entered into a phase known as "The Battle of the Beaches".


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