The Kokoda Campaign - the Agony of the Wounded

Contributed by Michael Hall, March 2014

The terrible conditions endured by the soldiers in the campaign over the Kokoda Track and on the north coast of Papua made life even more miserable for those who were wounded or sick. The conditions were unsanitary and with hundreds of men daily churning the track into strength-sapping mud, dysentery and diarrhoea became endemic. Most of the sick and wounded had to walk the track back to Owers Corner from where they could be evacuated for medical treatment. For serious cases this was not always possible.

Colin Richardson from the 3rd Battalion was shot in the chest at Templeton's Crossing on 17 October 1942. As his men began to stretcher him away, the lashings parted and Richardson fell to the ground, blood frothing and foaming from his wound. They reached the doctor from the 2/33 Battalion who treated him. Years later the doctor wrote to Richardson:

“You had a bloody great hole in your chest which was sucking and so impeding your respiration. I had been pretty busy fixing up a few of my own wounded and supplies as usual were very, very low. However, I found some cat gut in the bottom of my haversack and, without any attempt to observe the good surgical principles of sterility, I closed the hole. I then rolled you over and to my horror found a bigger bloody hole coming out of your back. I had run out of gut! First of all I dug a few bits and pieces of uniform out of your chest to see what was going on. I found a few safety pins in my haversack and was successful in closing the wound. The Padre, Father James Lynch, did the right thing and said the last rites over your fast declining body. I had another look at you and it was then that I decided you were dead. However I decided that we would not tell the troops and would move up the track before burying you. My Sergeant let out a yell, ‘Sir, this bloke just opened one eye!’ Well we did what little we could to keep you attached to this world. Of course the priest took all the credit for bringing you back to life.”

It took a dozen Papuans three days to carry Richardson back to the field ambulance at Myola. He later recalled how at night “they built a quick shelter from leaves to keep out the rain, staying forever alert to groans of discomfort – so gentle and concerned they truly were the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels of the poem. If I could have showered them with sovereigns I would have happily done so for no words could give adequate thanks, and within minutes of depositing me at the Aid Post, they had the task of carrying stores forward again.” Richardson spent eleven days at Myola before he was flown out to a hospital in Port Moresby in a tiny single-engine Stinson plane. He was one of the few to be evacuated by air. Richardson not only survived his ordeal but lived to an old age.

Evacuation was a lot slower for Ken Laycock. He was shot in the ankle during the fighting at Templeton's Crossing and had to use his rifle as a crutch, hopping from tree to tree to reach the Regimental Aid Post. He was stretchered to the field ambulance at Myola where he was operated upon at night in a tent lit by hurricane lamps, on an operating table made from packing boxes, with instruments sterilised in an open fire. After the operation he was moved a short distance to a makeshift hospital where the beds were made from blankets and poles and the roof from palm leaves with a ground sheet over the top to keep out the rain. Laycock spent nine and a half weeks at Myola before being stretchered by eight Papuans to Kokoda (by then re-occupied by the Australians) and flown to a hospital near Port Moresby.

By November 1942 the Japanese had been forced back to their beach heads at Gona, Sanananda and Buna on the north coast of Papua. The 3rd Battalion had been in the vanguard of the Australian advance over the Owen Stanley Range for ten weeks and it had taken its toll on the health of the men. Malaria was rife amongst the soldiers and Stan Atkinson, Charlie Boag, Doug Marchant and Arnold Helson were amongst those hospitalised at the 2/4 Field Ambulance Main Dressing Station at Soputa, on the banks of the Girua River about 12 kilometres from the coast. Allan Johnstone was also there with an ulcerated eye. The hospital was little more than a large tent in a clearing, marked with a Red Cross on its roof. The operating theatre was under a tarpaulin and there were a few small huts scattered around with beds for the patients.

On 25 November 1942 Ted Young was seriously wounded in both legs during the fighting at Gona. He was evacuated to Soputa where two days later surgeons from the 2/4 Field Ambulance gave him a grim choice: “Go back with one leg soldier or don’t go back at all.” Young made his decision and his leg was amputated above the knee.

As Young lay in bed after the operation, still groggy from the anaesthetic, he was awoken by a loud booming noise. The first thing he saw was the stump of his amputated leg, but the noise came from a Japanese air raid. Despite the Allied air superiority over Papua, Japanese Zeroes were still operating in the area and on 27 November they attacked Soputa, bombing and strafing the clearly marked hospital. Unable to move, Young was carried to safety in the jungle by Johnstone and another man. Helson, like many of the patients, sought cover under the banks of the Girua River but they were strafed by the Japanese. The air raid killed 22 men including the surgeons who had operated on Ted Young.

But his ordeal was far from over. With the remaining leg in plaster, he was evacuated to Port Moresby and then to Brisbane where he was admitted to the army hospital at Greenslopes and his other leg was amputated. Young and other badly injured soldiers were then transported by train to Sydney. The journey was long as the train was continually shunted aside for US troops moving north. When the patients arrived in Sydney there no beds for them, so the train, with its load of seriously ill passengers, was sent to Tamworth where the army had established a hospital in a number of sheds. The ‘death train’, as the locals called it, finally arrived on Christmas Eve 1942.

Young spent three months at Tamworth before being transferred to a hospital at Baulkham Hills in Sydney where he spent a further year in rehabilitation and being fitted with artificial limbs. Upon his return to Canberra in 1944 his neighbours in Reid presented him with a wheelchair and the Red Cross provided a specially adapted car. Young returned to work in June 1944 where, in a first for the Public Service, a ramp was built at East Block for his wheelchair.

Sources

Bill James, ‘Field Guide to the Kokoda Track’, 2008 (p.289, letter from Dr. Geoffrey Mutton to Richardson)

Colin Kennedy, ‘Port Moresby to Gona Beach. 3rd Australian Infantry Battalion 1942’, 1992

Ken Laycock, 'Memories of a Militiaman', 1995 (unpublished typescript in the ACT Heritage Library)

Gavin Young, ‘A Kokoda survivor’s harrowing war ordeal’, The Canberra Times, 25 April 2003