Site of Darley Camp.

At Kokoda, Darley’s 39th Battalion were the first Australians to fight the Japanese invaders on home territory

At Kokoda, Darley’s 39th Battalion were the first Australians to fight the Japanese invaders on home territory

As a home guard, the 39th Battalion were considered a bunch of duffers – essentially held in equivalent low esteem to that bestowed on the members of the TV series, Dad’s Army. The Militia, however, were the only troops that Australia had on home soil when the Japanese invaded New Guinea in mid-1942 during the Second World War. Sixty thousand of the nation’s finest soldiers were a long way off by troopship fighting the Germans in Europe and Africa.

Before the new Labour Prime Minister, John Curtin, could override Britain’s war-time leader, Winston Churchill, and bring 20,000 of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) home, he had no choice but to rely on the ill-prepared and inadequately trained Militia battalions. They were rushed to the frontline in New Guinea to halt or, at least, slow down the Japanese thrust southwards over the Owen Stanley ranges to capture the country’s capital of Port Moresby.

Depression-era boys, many aged 18-19yo, the 1,000 members of the 39th Battalion hailed mainly from Melbourne’s inner city and northern suburbs. The 39th were trained over a mere six weeks at the Darley Military Camp, graduating in October 1941. A commemorative plaque on the now vacant plateau on Camerons Rd is all that remains to mark Darley Camp’s existence.

Regular long marches into the Lerderderg Gorge toughened the men ‘raised’ for the militia when they came together for troop training at Darley Camp. Most, however, had never fired a gun and preparation for battle was basic with heavy old WW1 single bolt .303 rifles equipped with bayonets. They didn’t get training in automatic weapons or the Bren machine gun until they reached New Guinea. In April, 1942, an army assessment of the 39th Battalion graded them as an F, the lowest in terms of combat readiness.

Two months later the hardened Japanese veterans who had swept down the Malay Peninsula to take Singapore landed on New Guinea’s north coast at Gona. One hundred and twenty members of the 39th set off from Port Moresby to defend the Kokoda Plateau, a vitally strategic airfield in the north. It took eight days to traverse knife-like ridges up and down through dense trackless jungle.

In late July, 400 Japanese soldiers charged up the short, steep slope leading to the Kokoda Plateau in the middle of the night. Only 77 of the 39th were entrenched there and soon found themselves engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Despite a sniper’s bullet claiming the life of their leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Owen, the men of the 39th fought on in the confused and chaotic dark, only retreating in the face of fresh waves of Japanese mounting the plateau. In early August, 80 men of the 39th retook Kokoda. For two and a half days, they held off successive waves of hundreds of Japanese. Never had the invaders faced such fierce resistance. A Japanese commander wrote: “…their bravery must be admired” and that his soldiers had “suffered unexpectedly heavy casualties.”

The Kokoda battles immortalised the name of the 39th Battalion. They were the very first Australians to fight the Japanese on what was considered home territory. They went on to distinguish themselves, displaying extraordinary bravery at other battles that eventually ground the Japanese invading force to a halt. Their feats have been described as “a triumph of hope and courage over experience.”

Their bravery and renown became to some extent the undoing of the 39th. By the end of the year, the Japanese were in retreat back to Gona. Dug in on narrow strips surrounded by malarial swamp, the Japanese took a heavy toll on inexperienced American forces. Despite being physically spent and much reduced in number, the 39th were swung back into the frontline. They were to prevail, but at a horrendously high cost. By invasion’s end in January 1943, the 39th had been reduced to just seven officers and 25 malaria-ridden men.

Standing in a grassy clearing at Kokoda in 1992, Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said there could be “no deeper spiritual basis for the meaning of the Australian nation than the blood that was spilled on this very knoll, this very plateau, in defence of Australia.”

Mr Keating distinguished between the New Guinea campaign and all other Australian wartime engagements, including Gallipoli, which he described as “mostly imperial conflicts.” Thousands of Australians have now followed in the soldiers’ footsteps along the 96km long Kokoda Track. Crossing seven razor-edged ridges as they climb jungle-clad mountains reaching 2,190m, trail walkers are supported in this challenging endeavour by local porters. Fittingly, these are descendants of the New Guinean people, who the Australian soldiers dubbed the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ – the local villagers, who played a pivotal role, risking their lives in the Second World War to portage vital supplies and to aid aid wounded soldiers, backing the Australians in battles up and down the Kokoda Track.