In recent days commemorations have occurred for the 70th Anniversary of the Kokoda and Beachhead Battles. The key date of November 2 marks the 70th anniversary of the retaking of Kokoda village.

Heroes. Picture: Stephen Cooper

I had the great honour to meet a group of eight veterans of those campaigns who returned to Papua New Guinea for the commemorations.

In their late eighties and early nineties, these men sparkled with health. They had a demanding itinerary which took them in light aircraft to Kokoda village, Popondetta and back to Port Moresby. They told their stories with a clarity that defied the spans of time.

In Popondetta, the veterans met with some of the original Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who were being presented with their commemorative medallions from the Australian Government. These local inhabitants of the Kokoda Track provided life-saving help for injured diggers as they were carried from the track and nursed back from the brink.

The old diggers and the old angels chatted and reminisced about a human bond that has lasted a life time. The emotions expressed in this gathering spoke not only to their relationship but to another unique relationship that binds our two countries. This is a bond that was shared from the very first moment of our becoming a nation.

It has become customary to regard 1 January 1901 as the birth of the Australian nation. Yet on that day no-one, at the multitude of celebrations around the continent, regarded this as an act of independence. It was the birth of an Australian polity, but in the form of a new British colony forged out of the amalgamation of six old British colonies. That sense of being a colony and a part of the British family persisted through to the Second World War.

In terms of international law, the critical moment probably occurred with the passage of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 on 9 October 1942. This Act meant that the Parliament and Government of Australia were no longer legally subordinate to the Parliament and Government of Britain.

The legislation was passed in the aftermath of the fall of Singapore and during the Battle of Kokoda to make certain Australia’s full legal authority over the deployment of Australian troops. This authority had been tested when Curtin countermanded a decision of Churchill to divert to Burma Australia’s returning troops from the Middle East. The convoy stayed its course and these troops went on to play a decisive role in defending the Kokoda Track.

The argument between Curtin and Churchill was natural and appropriate, born of two countries with divergent interests. For Britain the priority at the time was understandably defeating Germany, while for Australia the priority was defending our nation against the threat of Japanese expansion.

Yet it was the act of pursuing an Australian national interest at the expense of the interests of our colonial parent that was Australia’s fundamental act of independence. And so the events of 1942 were not just the defence of Australia, they were the birth of the Australian nation.

Watching the Melbourne Cup at the Aviat Club in Port Moresby, I chatted to the veterans about their experiences 70 years ago: their battles with Rommel in the deserts of North Africa, their feelings as they made the dangerous journey across the Indian Ocean in a convoy that defined a country, the days after leaving Colombo when the clash of Prime Ministers determined their fate, and the struggles with the Japanese in the jungles of Papua New Guinea which saved Australia.

In talking to these men, I was not only touching history and meeting heroes, I was in the very presence of our founding fathers. In large measure Australians are who we are, and what we are, because of them.

Earlier on that same day all of us had attended a service at the Bomana War Cemetery for the rededication of three graves of members of the Z Special Unit who had finally been identified after 67 years. In a moving ceremony family members and one surviving commando, Henry Fawkes, laid wreaths and found closure as headstones finally bore the names of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

These soldiers lie with 3,800 of their comrades in easily the largest Australian war grave in the world. These are the soldiers who died in the battles of 1942. And there is no more sacred place to the Australian nation than the Bomana War Cemetery.

That it lies on the soil of Papua New Guinea is another vivid reminder of our special relationship.

The 70th Anniversary of Kokoda and the events of 1942 are rightly being commemorated as seminal moments in Australian history. But it is now time that we also acknowledge them as the 70th Anniversary of the Australian nation itself.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.

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17 comments

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    • Richard M says:

      08:51am | 15/11/12

      Fantastic article.  You were privileged to meet these Australian heroes.  I agree we should make more of Kokoda than we do.  Along with Milne Bay, we inflicted the first land defeat of WW2 on the Japanese Imperial Army.  I’m not sure about making it the national day, because it should perhaps be a day of solemnity and commemoration, rather than celebration, but I take your point about Australia asserting its independence.

    • fromage67 says:

      10:59am | 15/11/12

      Whilst I agree with your sentiments re Kokoda, I think you’ll find that the Chinese had given the Japs several floggings in thier war. Including several after the date of comencement of WW2, but before Kokoda.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      11:04am | 15/11/12

      I think it is time we have a National day to commemorate Kokoda as an important day in which Australian soldiers fought to defend Australia.Given what Richard wrote about Curtin and Churchill and soldiers in the Kokoda Trail this event is of greater significance.

    • Richard M says:

      03:49pm | 15/11/12

      Not according to my extensive reading, fromage67.  This not my judgment, but a statement made by any military historian I have ever read on the subject.  If you think you can contest what they say, perhaps you’d better quote the evidence, chapter and verse.

    • A Dose of Reality says:

      09:06am | 15/11/12

      Hear hear.

      You might mention that churchill refused the convoy an escort, through Japanese controlled waters (they had taken Christmas Island).  The entire regular Australian Army could have been destroyed by a single Japanese submarine or warship. This was more than having different objectives - these men had fought already for British interests - this was an obvious and massive act of betrayal.

      It should be remembered - for the reasons you outline in your article but also as a determinate for any military action Australia enters into.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      12:42pm | 15/11/12

      I like to mention here an interesting view of what happened then

      On 18 April 1942 USA launched an unexpected bombing raid on Tokyo known as the Doolitle Raid, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doolittle_Raid.

      It had a tremendous morale impact on Japan which thought they were invulnerable after Pearl Harbour.

      The important and relevance of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo for today’s story is that Japan withdrew major parts of their Navy from the Indian Ocean and hence the Australian soldiers bound for Burma could come back safely and took part in the battle on the Kokoda Trial.

    • HappyG says:

      09:19am | 15/11/12

      Another good article Richard. Written with knowledge and respect for our forebears. How come a bloke like you, with obvious common sense and a good head on your shoulders is part of this disaster of a government ? I suspect you aren’t part of the correct faction otherwise you would be much higher up the foodchain.

    • Richard M says:

      03:45pm | 15/11/12

      Is it not possible for you to comment on ANY subject without turning it into a gratuitous (and stupid) attack on the Government?  Get a life, some brains and some judgment.

    • Tony Dempsey says:

      09:38am | 15/11/12

      Richard - a very fine story about Aust and PNG legends.
      Kokoda is an amazing experience , I was fortunate enough to walk it
      back in 1976 and also knew Bert Kienzle . He was the man responsible.
      Anyone wanting a good book get ‘The Architect of Kokoda’ written by
      Berts daugther in law - Robyn Kienzle. They lived at Kokoda on the
      family Plantation called Mamba Estate.
      A guaranteed great read.

    • Colin says:

      10:38am | 15/11/12

      The men who fought these battles were the ones who helped turn the tide of the Pacific war, and did what they did to help save our country.

      But to walk the Kokoda trail or to attend a dawn ceremony at ANZAC Cove is to trivialise, sentimentalise, and alter the very fabric of the deeds themselves: These places of battle are not some stop in a long list of ‘War theme parks’; they are places where people fought for their lives and died. These places should be remembered, but left alone. Too often I hear of someone having visitied these places as if they were some set of a popular film or just another destination in someone’s genealogical tourist jaunt.

      (And don’t get me started on the hordes who descend on ANZAC Cove (for example) and put up flags, drink beer and generally camp out as if they were at some festival…)

      By all means, remember and honour those who fought and those who died but, please, stop this Disneyfication of these sites - they are places to be remembered, not included in someone’s personal photo album of places visited whilst displaying overt, misdirected jingoistic fervour…

    • fromage67 says:

      11:50am | 15/11/12

      Sorry to disagree with you mate, but I see it in a different light.

      The BOYS who have fought and died for Australia over the years would be there drinking partying and carryng on like idiots with their descendants, if they’d had the opportunity!!

    • TheRealDave says:

      12:59pm | 15/11/12

      I kind of agree with Colin - but need to point out that Kokda isn’t as ‘theme-parked’ as Gallipoli is turning out. The very nature of the place, remoteness of it and the terrain have saved it from the ‘Bogan’ Hordes and turning it into a carnival.

      I would love to one day re-trace their footsteps along the track but, like most people who do,  not as a celebration, not to trivialise or over sentimentalize but as a rememberance. These men did fight and die, often alone and the very least we can do, as future generations, is to remember them and gain some small measure of understanding.

    • kfr says:

      10:45am | 15/11/12

      Extolling the virtues of our Kakoda diggers rather than defending labor’s woeful track record. Any silent message here richard? Gillard is no colonel potts who devised the fighting strategy as the japaness advanced and you and your labor colleagues are NO Kakoda heros mate!

    • TheRealDave says:

      02:21pm | 15/11/12

      About 6 other articles and an open thread where you can crap on about how much you hate Julia Gillard, this isn’t one of them.

    • A Concerned Citizen says:

      11:18am | 15/11/12

      I’m definitely the last person who glorifies anything that happened in wartime, but I can proudly say it how it was:
      Australia was attacked by a much more powerful nation, and these men put themselves in harms way and in a rough place to protect us.

    • Tony Dempsey says:

      12:07pm | 15/11/12

      Colin - I understand your feelings but you are really off the pace.
      To walk the ‘Kokoda Track’ is no theme park outing, it is extremely
      tough and very physically demanding. Just ask anyone who has done it.
      As far as attending ANZAC Day Dawn Services I take great exception to
      your comments - each year whilst living in PNG I faithfully and humbly
      attended the Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetry and each time
      was close to tears because of the sombre nature. It was my duty as an
      Australian to respect the sacrifices of our troops .
      My Parents whilst visiting Bomana Cemetry visited the graves of many
      of their fallen comrades, this was also a very moving experience.
      I would respectfully ask you to reconsider your thoughts.

 

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