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The Ultimate Oceania Travel Guide
Papua New Guinea

PNG’s special Remembrance Day role

The playing of a Remembrance Day bugle fell silent among the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

But its distinct sound was heard thousands times over across the Torres Straits on Thursday at every place that has erected a war memorial.

That silence was no disrespect on the part of the country whose sacred Kokoda Track marks one of the most important battles in Australia’s proud war history.

Kokoda Track Walk
A patrol of 2/25 and 2/33 Australian infantry battalions crossing Brown’s River. Picture: National Museum Australia.

PNG is one of the few nations of the Commonwealth that does not celebrate Remembrance Day – often referred as Armistice Day – on November 11 but instead on July 23 to commemorate the first battle of Kokoda that occurred during the New Guinea campaign of the Pacific war.

But during Covid-19 times, the solemn date has never felt more eerie.

Large numbers of Australian adventurers and history tragics would annually trek the same path that descendants of their own soldiers once did.

But where the pandemic has reached its zenith has put a halt to the ritual.

The Kokoda Track had initially been a series of interconnecting, small trails that was used as a mail route for settlements around the area from 40 kilometres north of Port Moresby.

It was along this informal track that crossed incredibly rugged and isolated terrain that the Australian troops repelled the intimidating Japanese invasion force.

Soldiers relax in PNG
Men of the 2/31st Australian infantry battalion stop for a rest in the jungle between Nauro and Menari in 1942. Picture: National Museum Australia.

The story of Kokoda remains one of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice that was inscribed on the Australian memorial erected at Isurava, where the major attack by the Japanese in the middle of the battle occurred.

One Australian soldier recalled in 2018 how physically tough it was.

“We were sent by a DC3 (transport) plane to Kokoda, but couldn’t land due to bad weather,” a 96-year-old George Palmer told three and a half years ago to Claire Hunter for the Australian War Memorial blog.

“We then made our way by foot to Kokoda (and) it took four days.”

The length of the Kokoda Track has never been truly measured in distance, but by how many hours it took to traverse.

Soldiers were challenged by steep, treacherous inclines, deep valleys, dense jungle, a debilitating climate and drenching rain that frequently turned the ground into quagmire.

Between July 21 and November 16 in 1942, the Australian army would slowly halt the furthermost southward advance and then pushed the enemy back across the mountains.

George Palmer
Kokoda veteran George Palmer. Picture: Australian War Memorial.

“Our battalion had attempted to retake Kokoda, but we were overwhelmed and we were pushed back to Isurava,” Palmer said.

“During the battle of Isurava, the Japanese were attacking in wave after wave and our commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, informed us that if the 2/14th battalion who were coming to relieve us didn’t arrive, we would be over-run that night.

“Fortunately they did arrive and they were magnificent.”

Under conditions of extreme hardship, soldiers were forced to fight the Japanese from reaching Port Moresby.

They could only do this with some certainty after Australia began recruiting Papuan and New Guinean soldiers just prior to Japan entering World War II.

They eventually formed five battalions of the Pacific Islands regiment fighting on behalf of Australia.

Despite the acclaim the Australians have held for nearly 80 years since, the role of the locals never has been forgotten.

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In one of the toughest actions of World War II, some of the men acted as defiant carriers for more than 600 dead and a further 1600 wounded soldiers.

They played a vital role in carrying supplies and evacuating the incapacitated troops back to safety, sometimes under fire from Japan’s imperial forces.

The compassion and the care of the Australian casualties earned them both admiration and respect, and were later dubbed the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.

The Australians who died at Kokoda are buried at the Bomana War Cemetery, outside Port Moresby.

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