It was not the fault of 39 battalion that Kokoda was lost. The fault lay in the failure to make an early assessment of the trail, to foresee the possibility of the Japanese using it ... And to take in good time the steps necessary to meet such a development. (Colonel E.G. Keogh, South West Pacific 1941-45)
Australia's involvement in the long battle for the Kokoda Trail began on 21 July when the Japanese landed in Papua. A partial resolution of the conflict was not to come until November. The Japanese were finally driven out of Papua in January 1943.
In 1942 the administration of the island of New Guinea was divided into three sections. The western section was governed by the Netherlands and the eastern half, now the nation of Papua New Guinea, was further divided into two. The northern section was administered by Australia under mandate from the League of Nations while the southern part, Papua, was an Australian colony. The indigenous population of both Territories was estimated at about 1.5 million. The European residents numbered about 6,000. After Pear Harbour European women and children had been encouraged to return to Australia and by mid-February 1942 the Territories were under military control.
In mid-July General Douglas MacArthur, Allied Supreme Commander of South West Pacific Area, ordered that a force of Australian infantry and American engineers should move across the Koloda track to Buna to construct an airfield at Dobodura. (From 1942, under American influence, the track became known as the Kokoda Trail). By mid-1942, however, there was great pressure on troop numbers. Experienced soldiers of the AIF were fighting elsewhere, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa.
Major-General B.M. Morris, commanding the 8th Military District, had to rely at first only on the three militia units of the Australian Military Forces (AMF), the 39th, the 49th and 53rd and a Papuan Infantry Battalion, manned by indigenous Papuans under Australian officers. the AMF was originally formed by volunteer, part-time soldiers. Then, at the out-break of war, this force was augmented by the call-up of conscripts for home defence. New Guinea had been declared the 8th Australian Military District in mid-1942 to enable the use of conscripts in the war-zone. The 39th Australian Infantry battalion was a CMF unit. It was raised in October 1941 from volunteers in Victoria and arrived in Port Moresby in January 1942. When it was relieved during the Kokoda operations in September, the Battalion's strength of about 1500 had decreased, because of battle casualties and illness to 185.
In July 1942 the Papuan Infantry Battalion was joined by recent conscripts who arrived with little military training and whose average age was eighteen and a half. It was these forces that had to be called upon to mount the offensive. At first these young and ill-trained soldiers earned the pejorative nick-name of 'chocos' or 'chocolate soldiers'. This term came from George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man, about a man who would not fight. It was first used during World War I about soldiers who had arrived in Egypt after Gallipoli. After their 'baptism of fire' at Kokoda and Milne Bay, however, the 'chocos' proved that they could fight bravely and well.
The Japanese had first landed in New Guinea in March, at Lae and Salamaua. Buna and Gona, where the Japanese landed in July, are south of these areas on the north east coast of Papua. 'As the crow flies' the area is less than 200 kilometres from Port Moresby. It is, however, separated from that town by the steep range of the Owen Stanley mountains. The only way over this range was by foot. Their losses at the battle of the Coral Sea and Midway had prevented the Japanese from invading Port Moresby by sea. Their objective in July was to approach the garrison town over the precipitous mountain track. The village of Kokoda was about half way between Port Moresby and Buna.
In the meantime, in June, the Australian Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Thomas Blamey, had ordered Major-General Morris to secure the village of Kokoda. Morris gathered together the best of his under-trained Australian and Papuan forces for the task.
Calling the troops 'Maroubra Force', he sent then towards Buna over the Kokoda track, with the object of preventing any Japanese advance and the job of holding the 'Kokoda Gap', a flat stretch of the Owen Stanleys. They left Port Moresby on 7 July reaching Kokoda on the 15th. Even before the troops met the enemy they had to fight conditions horrific to men untrained in jungle warfare. As well as the steepness of the track the young soldiers had to contend with rainforests dripping with moss and leeches as well as mosquito-infested swamps. Large numbers of men contracted malaria. Despite being in the tropics they were continually wet and cold in the incessant rain and high altitudes. Their equipment, with 27 kilogram packs, heavy boots and khaki summer uniforms, was unsuitable for the conditions. Indeed the khaki allowed them to be seen against the green of the jungle. Camouflage and jungle-green uniforms arrived later in the campaign. In his Recollections of a Regimental Medical Officer, Major H.D. Steward wrote, “it seemed strange that the Army had not provided us with 'Jungle Greens'. The Japanese had already shown in Malaya and the Pacific their mastery of camouflage, yet we were in khaki shirts and shorts”.
The Kokoda Trail covered seemingly impossible terrain: from nearly impenetrable rainforest with muddy ground, to agonisingly steep ascents and descents. (Later in the operation Australian Engineers cut 3,500 steps in one ascent near the village of Nauro). While the bare-footed indigenous people had little difficulty on the track, it was obviously unsuitable for large numbers of soldiers marching in boots. Many believed that the Trail would be too difficult for the invaders to traverse. Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels
On 21 July, however, a force of 1,800 Japanese landed between Buna and Gona with the object of building a road to cross the Owen Stanleys and taking Port Moresby. Initially, they proved better jungle fighters than the Australians. Although attacked by Allied aircraft, the Japanese forces advanced rapidly up the track. The Papuan Infantry Battalion and part of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion, still strung out along the track, were driven back to Wairopi on 24 July. On 29 July the Japanese captured Kokoda. By early August, the situation was desperate. Supplies of food and ammunition were running out. Withdrawal continued to Isurava, south of Kokoda. By 10 August the Japanese had dug in preparing for an onslaught on Port Moresby. The Australians, in turn, dug in at Isurava.
In August 1942 the advance guard of the seasoned 7th Australian Division arrived in Papua under Brigadier A.W. Potts. He soon took over the command of the Maroubra Force which was not holding its ground effectively against superior Japanese forces.