The Kokoda Campaign - Ioribaiwa and Imita

Contributed by Michael Hall, March 2014

On 5 September 1942 the 3rd Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Albert Paul from Canberra, entered the Kokoda Track at Owers Corner. They were part of Maroubra Force, which was the name given to the Australian forces opposing the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby. Around 500 men from the 3rd Battalion would serve in the Kokoda campaign over the next three months of whom about fifty are included on the ACT Memorial.

By this time, the Japanese had progressed about half way along the track and had reached the village of Efogi. Three of the four rifle companies of the 3rd Battalion (A, B and C companies) and the Headquarters Company were initially sent up the track to be joined a few days later by D Company. Most of E Company, the machine gun company, stayed behind in Port Moresby. 

Though the battalion had already been in Papua for three months, the lowlands around Port Moresby were comparatively dry and free of the thick jungle vegetation they were about to enter. They had not trained for the conditions nor were their khaki uniforms suitable for fighting in the jungle. Heavy rain fell as the men climbed down from Owers Corner to Uberi in the Goldie River valley where they camped on the first night. 

The first two ridges faced by those entering the Kokoda Track from the Port Moresby side are at Imita and Ioribaiwa. It is six to seven kilometres between the tops of the ridges which are both about 850 metres above sea level. As a point of comparison, Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie in Canberra are around six kilometres apart and are, respectively, 812 metres and 843 metres above sea level. The descent to the Canberra plain is between 230 and 270 metres (Northbourne Avenue is roughly 570 metres above sea level). Ua Ule Creek, which flows through the bottom of the valley between Imita and Ioribaiwa, is about 330 metres above sea level; a drop of 520 metres or about twice as deep as the Canberra valley.

Men fighting in the Kokoda campaign had not only the ruggedness of the terrain to contend with, but also the jungle, the rain, poor diet, poor sanitary conditions and lack of sleep. Perhaps most significantly they had to face their fears; the fear of an enemy that was difficult to see and an enemy that was battle-hardened in the conditions. Despite years of fighting in jungles throughout Asia, the Japanese only suffered their first land defeat in the war at Milne Bay at the eastern tip of Papua, around the same time that the 3rd Battalion entered the Kokoda Track.

Each man carried his own equipment plus basic rations including corned ‘bully’ beef and ‘dog’ biscuits. The daily ration consisted of one 12 ounce tin of bully beef and a six ounce packet of biscuits which were square like a Sao biscuit but darker, harder and slightly sweet. To cook the beef a hole was punched in the side of the tin (usually with a bayonet) and the tin thrown into a fire. The beef was allowed to cook in its own fat for ten minutes before being eaten. However, in practice fires were rarely used along the track because the smoke could be seen by the enemy, so the bully was eaten cold. Occasionally the diet would be relieved by tins of stew or baked beans and, very rarely, a twelve ounce tin of cheese. The men also had powdered eggs, powdered milk, sugar and tea to wash it all down.

After breaking camp at Uberi the 3rd Battalion climbed ‘The Golden Stairs’ to the top of Imita Ridge. Ken Laycock was told that there were 1200 steps on the climb, cut into the side of the hill and edged with saplings. For Albert Paul, at 52 years of age and a highly decorated veteran of World War 1, the physical strain was too much. The unit’s war diary, kept by the Intelligence Officer Ralph Harry, reports that Paul was “2 hours from Uberi unable to continue march” and so, on the second day on the track, he relinquished command of the Battalion.

Charlie Boag commanded C Company and he was ordered to move up the track to Nauro to assist the retreating 21st Brigade of the AIF who had been fighting the Japanese for a fortnight. The 21st Brigade passed through their position on Engineers Ridge on 11 September and suddenly C Company became the most forward Australians on the track. Colin Kennedy was a platoon Sergeant in C Company. He remembered the initial fear which all soldiers face the first time in battle as they skirmished with the advancing Japanese. C Company then withdrew to Ioribaiwa ridge, only about 22 kilometres from Port Moresby.

The 3rd Battalion were one of several fresh units positioned on the ridge at Ioribaiwa along with the remnants of the 21st Brigade. The 2/6 Independent Company, a commando-type unit occupied the left flank. The 2/33rd Battalion arrived on 14 September and were positioned on the right. Both sides probed each other’s positions with patrols but the Japanese had the advantage of artillery support, as they had man-handled a mountain gun across the Owen Stanley Range, and it shelled the Australians with deadly accuracy.

On 15 September a Japanese attack surprised a 3rd Battalion platoon belonging to D Company. Bill Brown, the D Company Quartermaster Sergeant, recalled the mountain gun, machine gun and rifle fire. Some of the mountain gun shells landed close to D Company Headquarters and Brown collected minor shrapnel wounds. Enemy snipers in tree tops were also causing casualties as the Japanese wedged themselves between the 3rd Battalion and 2/33rd Battalion. Simultaneous pressure on the Australian left flank led to a withdrawal to Imita ridge, the last defendable position on the Kokoda Track. 

For the next few days both the Australians and the Japanese tested each others defences. On 20 September a composite 3rd Battalion patrol of 58 men under the command of Captain Stan Atkinson and Lieutenant Bill Dullard was ordered to locate and harass the enemy. Progress was, by necessity, slow. After two days they reached a track across the top of Ioribaiwa ridge which ran westwards from the main Kokoda Track to a point known as Spotters Hut. 

Sergeant Bede Tongs led a section of the patrol around to the right flank where they ambushed some of the enemy and cut the Japanese signal wire. Dullard took the leading section of the patrol to the left where they encountered enemy machine gun fire and an almost sheer drop from the track to the gully below. In the fire fight Dullard was hit and rolled down into the gully. When one of his men called down to him Dullard was heard to say “I’m all right”. It was they last they heard from him. Having achieved their aims the patrol withdrew amidst the din of Japanese rifle and machine gun fire.

At night the Japanese could see the lights of Port Moresby in the distance, but Ioribaiwa ridge was as close as they would get to their objective. By the time the Atkinson patrol had rejoined the 3rd Battalion, the 14th Field Regiment had hauled two guns into place near Owers Corners and begun bombarding the Japanese on Ioribaiwa. The Australians’ tactic of a fighting withdrawal had worn the Japanese down and the logistical difficulties of the long line of communications back to Kokoda meant the enemy were in poor physical condition. On 24 September they began their own withdrawal back towards Kokoda.


Sources 

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

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

Lex McAulay, ‘Blood and Iron: The Battle for Kokoda 1942’, 1991

Raymond Paull, ‘The Retreat from Kokoda: The Australian Campaign in New Guinea 1942, 1983

3 Battalion War Diary - September 1942-April 1943 (AWM Item Number 8/3/39)