The Kokoda Campaign - Templeton's Crossing

Contributed by Michael Hall, March 2014

The Kokoda Track splits in two as it crosses the Owen Stanley Range. The route of the Track has changed since the Second World War but in 1942, the main branch passed through Kagi and the second branch through Myola. The Kagi branch of the track rose to around 2500 metres above sea level near Mount Bellamy (as a comparison, Mount Kosciuszko is 2228 metres) then plunged into the Eora Creek gorge where it met the Myola branch of the track near Templeton's Crossing. Templeton's Crossing was the site of a major battle between Australian and Japanese forces.

After the fighting at Ioribaiwa and Imita the Australians sent out a series of patrols, several of them by the 3rd Battalion, to keep contact with and harass the retreating Japanese. On 6 October Sergeant Bede Tongs was instructed to lead a patrol from Menari through Efogi and Kagi and on towards Templeton's Crossing. His second in command was Barry Flint from Oaks Estate. They passed Brigade Hill and Mission Ridge near Efogi, the site of a fierce battle during 7-8 September, where the unburied bodies of Australian soldiers lay around the ridge including six on stretchers. On the steep slope to Kagi were the bodies of 15 dead Japanese. The village was burned but in one hut the patrol found three Rabaul natives who had been used as carriers by the Japanese. Two had been shot and left for dead and the third had escaped but returned to look after them. They were the first natives to have been left behind by the Japanese. On 8 October the patrol’s forward scouts found the Japanese. Tongs and his men carefully retreated, as per their orders, and reported to the 3rd Battalion’s commanding officer who had arrived at Efogi.

The following day Tongs guided a patrol of men from A Company’s No.7 Platoon towards the Japanese position on the track. Two members of No. 7 Platoon were Norman Lloyd and Trevor Trevillian, both from Canberra. The most dangerous position in a patrol was that of the forward scout, and Lloyd was one of two forward scouts. On 11 October, the patrol was ambushed by the Japanese near Mount Bellamy and both scouts were killed. Trevillian attempted to rescue the men but was forced back by Japanese machine gun fire. Much to the disgust of Tongs, Trevillian and other members of the patrol, the platoon commander decided to withdraw and leave their dead mates to the Japanese.

Despite their losses, the Australians were forcing the Japanese back to Templeton's Crossing. Templeton's Crossing is a five to six day march from Owers Corner and was named by Bert Kienzle in August 1942 after Captain Sam Templeton of the 39th Battalion. At 1700 metres above sea level it is as high as much of the Brindabella Range west of Canberra. It might be close to the equator but the frequent chilling rain and fog meant that conditions were cold for those fighting along the track. The thick overhead canopy of the jungle created a dense light and the noise from the rushing streams made the wild country difficult for an attacking force. During the advance of the Australians in October 1942 the conditions were ideally suited for the Japanese who created strong points along the track and defended in depth.

By 17 October 1942, D Company of the 3rd Battalion was positioned across the Kokoda Track just to the north of Templeton's Crossing. Meanwhile the battalion’s B Company, led by Captain Stan Atkinson, probed forward to the right of the track with its No.10 Platoon in the lead. Both forward scouts were killed when contact was made with the Japanese and Lieutenant Colin Richardson, the platoon commander, was shot in the chest. As he huddled behind a tree, Atkinson attempted to bandage him. A sniper shot at Atkinson, the bullet passing between his back and his pack and hitting his dixie.

As three men stretchered Richardson to the rear, Atkinson urged Bede Tongs, the platoon sergeant, to press on with the attack. He first had to silence a Japanese machine gun. Tongs took the pin from a grenade and with his rifle in his other hand, began to crawl along the firing lane towards the machine gun pit. Thinking to himself that “this is a dangerous thing to be doing”, he lobbed the grenade at the Japanese machine gunners from ten yards away, blowing up the position. “That started the ball rolling”, according to Atkinson, and the men of B Company began “yelling and whooping” as they charged “headlong over vines and logs and through scrub with guns blazing and mortars exploding.” They advanced 200 yards, overrunning the Japanese position and a headquarters area where they found food, equipment and documents.

After the battle one soldier recalled Atkinson breaking out into song. “I knew he had a fine baritone voice from his Canberra days”, he wrote, “and it was pleasing to hear as it was unexpected.” For their work that day, Tongs would be awarded the Military Medal for his bravery and Atkinson the Military Cross for his inspiring leadership. Unfortunately there were casualties including Bill Barnes.

Despite the success of B Company’s attack the Japanese were still entrenched along the track and began shelling Templeton's Crossing from mortars and a mountain gun positioned near Eora Creek village a few kilometres down the gorge. Captain Charlie Boag led A Company and C Company of the 3rd Battalion up the steep ridge to the right of the track, cutting a path through the jungle to come in behind the forward Japanese positions. While A Company watched over the line of retreat, C Company found a route down the ridge and surprised several dozen Japanese in a camp. Thirty men were killed and C Company withdrew without loss.

The following day, 19 October, Colin Kennedy’s No.15 Platoon were guarding a track leading to the top of the ridge to the east of Templetons Crossing. The other two C Company platoons, led by Captain Allan Johnstone, moved down the ridge towards Eora Creek to a position above the Japanese. A company of men from the 2/25th Battalion were supposed to pass through them and attack the Japanese but, while they met up with Kennedy near the top of the ridge, they failed to reach Johnstone’s position and the attack did not take place as planned. This left Johnstone and his men in a precarious position where they had to hold on for more than a day.

While they waited for the 2/25th Battalion, the Japanese began to surround them. Johnstone sent a runner, the company cook Martin Gregory, back to battalion headquarters. Gregory was well aware of the danger C Company faced and despite the difficulty of reaching their position, he was sent back with orders for Johnstone to retreat. As C Company extricated itself from the dangerous situation, Ken Laycock was shot in the left leg. It would take him more than nine weeks to reach hospital in Port Moresby.

The 3rd Battalion, occupying the most forward position of the advancing Australians, were relieved on 20 October by the fresh battalions of the AIF’s 16th Brigade. The 16th Brigade’s three battalions, the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions were veterans of the campaigns in North Africa, Greece and Syria.

Wal Hall was an aspiring actor, a lover of Shakespeare and commander of No.10 Platoon in B Company of the 2/2nd Battalion. On 20 October his platoon was one of two leading the attack on the Japanese who were entrenched across the main track. He led his men down a spur above Templeton's Crossing where “nothing could be seen from the track except the rain forest pressing in as it made its way over the torn side of the mountains before it fell steeply down again” towards Eora Creek.

To attack the enemy Hall and his men were forced to cross a ravine but despite quickly overrunning the outposts of the Japanese they found themselves in what one described as a death trap - fifteen concealed enemy fox holes supported by four machine gun posts. The Japanese opened fire and Hall, leading his men from the front, was shot dead. His men regrouped, encircled the Japanese and one-by-one rooted the defenders out of their holes.

The Japanese retreated down the gorge to a strong point at Eora Creek village (identified by Palmer and Young of the 3rd Battalion during their reconnaissance patrol in June 1942 as a defendable position) where the 16th Brigade would need a week to dislodge the enemy. However, Templeton's Crossing represented the first major battle during the advance of the Australians that would eventually end at Gona, Sanananda and Buna on the north coast of Papua.


Sources

Peter Charlton, 'The Thirty Niners', 1981 (pp. 230-231) 

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

Bede Tongs, ‘Patrol from Menari to find the Japanese’, Sabretache Vol. XLIV, March 2003

2/2 Battalion War Diary - September 1942-December 1942 (AWM Item Number 8/3/2)

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