The Path of Infinite Sorrow

BOOK REVIEW: The path of infinite sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track

 

by Fred Lane

 

Collie C. and H. Marutani. The path of infinite sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest. 2009. 291 pp plus, maps, footnotes, references, index and 16 pp of photos. $28 to $35 paperback

(This review was first published in NOCN 82, 1 September 2010.)

 

Three score and more years on, the gut-wrenching wartime Kokoda Track tragedy remains vivid in the minds of those of both sides who were there, and many others who were spared the fighting. This book, by historian-researcher Hajime Marutani and television producer Craig Collie is a compilation of unit records, diaries and personal stories of Japanese, Australian and other soldiers who fought there. This is the first book to present the coherent story in the words of  Japanese participants.

 

Errors and brilliance

Examples of errors and of brilliance were common, in both sides. Brilliant commanders were summarily relieved in the field, by both sides. Others should have been, but were not. Armchair strategists did not understand the terrain nor why some battles were won or lost.

 

Malaria, dysentry and other diseases and accidents felled more soldiers than bullets, even with the jungle-savvy Japanese. The environment and excellent layered Japanese defence towards the end of the New Guinea campaign frustrated high commands, including Douglas MacArthur, ensconced safely in Brisbane, and Thomas Blamey, chafing in Moresby.

 

Did the brutal environment predispose brutal human behaviour? “For the troops, it had been a descent into hell in a deceptively majestic land,” say the authors eloquently, of the six-month campaign.

 

The 20-chapter book starts with a description of the terrible Japanese conditions on Ioribaiwa Ridge, overlooking Port Moresby. The next three chapters go back to describe the Japanese political and military history that led into the 1941-45 Pacific War. The last eight include descriptions of the tenacious post-Kokoda mop-up fighting, including American contributions, around Buna, Gona and other Japanese New Guinea bases.

 

South Seas Force

The South Seas Force, then a 2000-strong element of the Japanese 17th Army, is the prime Japanese force of interest. It started landing at Gona on the northern coast of New Guinea in the evening of 21 July 1942, under the command of Major General Tomitaro Horii. Initially ordered to capture Kokoda and explore the feasibility of an overland approach to Port Moresby, the sortie was suddenly upgraded in Rabaul by a blow-in gung-ho officer with good political connections and a great Malaya record, Lieutenant Colonel Tsuji. The task transformed into a reinforced spearhead attack on Port Moresby, with a traditional  Japanese “left hook” from Milne Bay. Tsuji did not have the authority to make such an order, but the decision was not reversed at 17th Army Headquarters, Rabaul, when the ruse was discovered some weeks later, “because of the possibility of having to re-reverse it in a few weeks”.

 

After a punishing fighting march across the Owen Stanleys, the Japanese reached Ioribaiwa Ridge, 42 kilometres from Port Moresby and within sight of the Gulf of Papua by 16 September 1942. The four- to six-week fight over 160 kilometres of unforgiving terrain and intermittent strong opposition is described in graphic detail. Only 1500 of the eventual 6000 Japanese troops who set out were in any condition to fight. Even then, survivors were starving and exhausted. Some companies of 180 had only 50 or 60 fit men, many of whom had to act as stretcher bearers for their own sick and wounded.

 

Other, much greater, events interacted with the fate of the South Seas Force. Between 4 and 7 June American carrier aircraft destroyed the cream of the Japanese carrier navy at Midway and turned back the Midway Island invasion fleet.

 

Milne Bay

The Japanese invaded Milne Bay on 25 August, but were defeated and pushed out within a fortnight. Their Guadalcanal toehold was also being seriously challenged by American Marines. Importantly, the extended Japanese supply line was proving vulnerable to Allied aircraft and submarine interdiction.

 

The Japanese expected little opposition to their Milne Bay landing. Instead, there were 5000 infantry and 4000 others dug in and waiting, including two RAAF squadrons of P-40 Kittyhawk fighter-bombers. Of 1940 Japanese Marines landed on 25 August 1942, only 1320 were evacuated a fortnight later. Of those, 310 were wounded.

 

Sir William Slim quote

Field Marshall Sir William Slim, in a widely cited quote (McDonald and Brune, 1999) said, “Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australians, in conditions very like ours, had done it, so could we. Some of us may forget that of all the Allies it was the Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army; those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember”. Although the Milne Bay action is described  in refreshing and accurate detail, Slim’s statement was not mentioned in this Kokoda book.

 

Then, as Guadalcanal operations drained more and more support from Rabaul, Horii’s South Seas Force was ordered to withdraw, back over the punishing Owen Stanleys, to the original targets, Isurava and Kokoda.

 

“Chockos”

The authors refer to the appellation “chockos” given to the poorly trained B Company of the Australian 39th Battalion, Civilian Militia, whose average age was only 18 years. They were so poorly equipped that all they had to dig in with were bayonets, bully beef tins and helmets. They were the first to be thrown into the defence of Kokoda and the Owen Stanleys, before better-trained and war-hardened AIF soldiers could be rushed back from the Middle East (at Curtin’s insistence and to Churchill’s chagrin). Even these professional soldiers found it hard going. At Isorava, directly after Kokoda, the Militia had retired to the rear, but determined Japanese attacks on 29 August pushed back even the fresh AIF 2/14th Battalion.

 

“Chocko” was certainly a derogative term at the time, but perhaps not so much because they were regarded as “chocolate soldiers”, as the authors attest, but, in the PC-speak of the times, because of the single-band chocolate-coloured rough texture puggaree on their slouch hats. The AIF pugaree was made of lighter-colored finer woven multi-layered khaki material.

 

Wharfies to soldiers

After working the Port Moresby wharves for months, B Company of the 39th Battalion Militia suddenly kitted up and tramped across the Owen Stanleys to be thrown virtually immediately into battle. Despite facing well-trained professional Japanese soldiers skilled in jungle warfare and particularly adept at outflanking strongpoints, these part-time soldiers acquitted themselves well. Finally, the staged withdrawals of the AIF’s 2/14 and 2/16 Battalions of the Seventh Division, achieved one desired effect. Exhaustion, starvation, sickness, low ammunition and long supply lines were now Japanese worries.

 

As we have seen in more recent times, guided tourist “Track” excursions can have fatal results even for fit adult males with abundant medical precautions and support. In 1942, soldiers not only negotiated this same terrible terrain, but in appalling weather. They moved to a life or death timetable and prepared for life or death firefights every few days. In the Owen Stanleys, the soldiers of both sides could rely only on what they carried on their own shoulders.

 

By September 1942, many of the Japanese at Ioribaiwa were close to death. Boots, clothing and equipment were rotting. By the time they staggered back to Kokoda, two thirds had a serious thiamine deficiency and related beriberi with impaired strength, restricted mobility, reduced mental capacity and night-blindness. The Gona field hospital had 500 beds but more than 2000 patients. Cannibalism was not uncommon. “Troops were reduced to a primal level, such were the inhuman conditions,” in which Kokoda battles were waged, assert the authors. The diaries, unit records and personal recollections all strongly support this statement.

 

Army Support

Despite some heroic and effective efforts, poor air/ground cooperation led to a number of errors, ranging from supply drops falling into enemy hands to bombing own troops. Honed and sustained chiefly by the American Marines, the early days of modern Close Support systems can be seen developing from the Kokoda Track experience.  The lessons were there for those who would listen. Unfortunately, many of these lessons had to be painfully re-learned in Korea.

 

Apt title

The path of infinite sorrow is aptly titled. This ultimately sad tale  is nevertheless very easy to read. Importantly, for the first time, this book describes Kokoda in the words of the Japanese who fought there.

 

The text is well supported by 16 maps, 41 photographs, a dozen or so pages of footnotes, a comprehensive index and an impressive bibliography.

 

***

 

HMAS NIRIMBA – What’s in a Name

HMAS Nirimba – what’s in a name?

by Ron Robb

 

This article was first published in NOCN 82, 1 September 2010.)

 

Originally parts of two land grants made in 1814 and 1816, to Major West and John Pye respectively, the site of Schofields Aerodrome, Quakers Hill,  was acquired in 1941 as a satellite field to RAAF Richmond. Air base construction started in 1942 but with the formation of the British Pacific Fleet in November 1944 it was allocated to the Royal Navy (RN)  for a MONAB (Mobile Naval Air Base). MONAB III arrived and  commisioned the base as HMS Nabthorpe 5 February 1945.

 

MONAB VI

In November 1945 the RN shut down MONAB VI, HMS Nabstock, in Brisbane, and transferred most of its personnel and equipment to Schofields. The name went with it, so Nabthorpe evolved into Nabstock.

 

A ship’s pennant with the name HMS Nabstock on it is the only known remaining tangible link of these times. The pennant was in the Nirimba Wardroom but is now in the Fleet Air Arm of Australia Museum at Nowra, an air station that coincidentally also had a life as a MONAB.

 

RAAF Schofields, again

In 1946 the RN vacated the base and as it reverted to the RAAF, it became known, for the second time, as RAAF Schofields. Then, in 1952 the RAN began to move in under an Acting CO, a Commander we quickly got to know  as “VAT” Smith.  Later there was an XO named Stevens, who achieved some notoriety as the captain of HMAS Voyager.

 

The establishment was commissioned HMAS Nirimba,  RANAS Schofields, 1 April 1953. The plan was to make it a depot repair facility (the birdland equivalent of Garden Island) and jointly an air technical training school.  The former never really got off the ground but the training function did, and very well too. Naval Officers Club long-serving committee member  Fred Lewis was a “bootlace” Warrant Officer in the Air Electrical School.

 

The civilian repair lobby (mainly Hawker de Havilland) managed to convince the RAN and the politicians that they could do a better job repairing naval aircraft. On the pretext that H. de H. was a strategic national industry, a political decision was made that it had to be kept alive and they got the job.

 

RANATE

On 4 January 1956 RANAS Schofields was decommissioned and on 5 January the Royal Australian Navy Apprentice Training Establishment (RANATE) was commissioned.  RANAS had run down to a LCDR as CO but RANATE commissioned under the legendary CAPT F.L. George.  The name Nirimba was similarly decommissioned on 4 January, but recommissioned the next day.

 

The business of the RN naming its MONABs is a story in itself and the naming of Nirimba by the RAN was sometimes a story of high farce.  Together with all the relevant Navy Office and other documents it was so convoluted that it deserved a separate annex in my book,  The Flight of the Pelican.  The ship’s crest also underwent three metamorphoses and the one that is still on the University of Western Sydney’s  Administration block is actually the fourth version.

 

Nirimba finally decommissioned on 25 February 1994, having trained some 13,000 young men and women from the RAN and other Commonwealth navies.

Reference:

Robb, R.K. Flight of the Pelican. ISBN: 0959194223. 1993.

 

***

A Relative in Peking: MIDN Arthur Leslie Walker

A relative in Peking: MIDN Arthur Leslie Walker

by John Ellis (Leslie Walker was a cousin of John Ellis’s grandmother.)

 

(This article was first published in NOCN 82, 1 September 2010.)

mid_walker

As the 19th century was drawing to a close, China had attracted many representatives of Western countries eager to trade.  With the trade missions came western influences and local resentment of these influences grew.  By 1898 organisations emerged to challenge these foreign influences of missionary evangelism, imperialist expansion and cosmopolitanism.

 

The boxers

They called themselves the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. To the British they were Boxers.  The Qing Dynasty suppressed the Boxers initially and attempted to expel Western influence.

 

June 1900

In June 1900 the Boxers beseiged the foreign embassies in Peking (presently Beijing).  The embassies were in a quarter known as The Legations and were defended by diplomats, soldiers and some Chinese Christians.  VADM Sir Edward Seymour, who had been Commander in Chief, China Station, since 1898, led an eight-nation alliance of 20,000 troops and relieved the Legations.  They had held out against the seige for 55 days.

 

These events did not pass unnoticed in the Australia where most colonies had a Naval Brigade, a forerunner of the Naval Reserve.  South Australia declared HMCS Protector would be despatched to join the fray.  The Government of Victoria did not have a warship suitable for such operations, but declared they could send  a contingent of the Naval Brigade.  This spurred the Government of New South Wales into action and by August a contingent was ready to sail from Sydney.  SS Salamis, with the Victorian contingent aboard, called in to Port Jackson to allow the NSW contingent to embark.  The NSW contingent was under the command of CAPT Francis Hixson.

 

Contingent sails

The Salamis sailed from Sydney on 8 August 1900.  One of CAPT Hixson’s junior officers was MIDN Arthur Leslie Walker.

 

Leslie Walker, as he was known, was born in 1880 at Bega, NSW, where his father, Henry Walker, was the branch manager of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney.  Young Leslie Walker was just nine when his father died and 15 when his mother died.

 

Living with older siblings, he settled in Mosman where he completed his secondary schooling at Mosman High School, leaving when he was 15.  He joined the Sydney office of Colonial Sugar Refinery as a junior clerk when he was 16 and remained with the Company until he was 34.

 

Records lost

Records of the New South Wales Naval Brigade, a forerunner of the RAN Reserve, have been lost and the following information comes from two books published on the involvement of Australian colonial naval detachments in the Boxer Rebellion. The books are based on diaries and accounts from magazines and newspapers.

 

Walker probably joined the NSW Naval Brigade in 1898, aged 18. By 1900 he was a midshipman and would have trained at the site that later became known as HMAS Rushcutter.  Following the call to arms, Walker took leave of absence from CSR and was appointed to D Company of the NSW contingent, which totalled 20 officers and 242 men.

 

Legation relieved

Salamis touched at Hong Kong, where CAPT Hixson and five others were landed, declared medically unfit.  The ship reached Taku, China, on 9 September 1900, to learn that the Legation in Peking had been relieved over three weeks previously.  On 19 September, 300 men from the NSW and Victorian contingents landed to attack and capture Chinese fortifications at Peitang.  On arrival they found the Chinese had destroyed the fort and the Russians, under VADM Seymour’s command, had captured the position.  The NSW contingent arrived in Peking on 20 October, where their garrison duties included policing and firefighting. There were some punitive expeditions and raids on Boxer villages.

 

NSW contingent returns

Although the Boxer Protocol, ending the uprising, was not signed until 7 September 1901, the NSW contingent departed five months earlier.  They embarked in SS Chingtu at Taku on 29 March 1901, and returned to Sydney four weeks later.  Quarantine regulations delayed their landing until 3 May, when a belated march through Sydney was held.  Two years later the officers and men were presented with the China medal at Government House in Sydney.  Officers and midshipmen were given honorary membership of an unofficial award, the Military Order of the Dragon.

 

European forces looted Peking extensively and Walker brought home two large vases that he presented to a sister-in-law.

On his return to CSR, Walker moved to North Queensland and became an Assistant Inspector of Cane, a job involving visits to plantations to check growers’ methods at different stages of growth, note complaints and report on environmental aspects considered harmful to cane development.  He left CSR to grow cane on his own account at Gordonvale near Cairns, where he also owned a service station.  Leslie Walker died in 1945 at Edmonton, QLD.

 

References:

Atkinson, J. J. Australian contingents to the China field force, 1900-1901, New South Wales Military Historical Society: 1976.

Nichols, R. Bluejackets and Boxers.Allen & Unwin: Sydney.1986.

Notes on the Walker Family. J.N. Walker, AM, OBE. October 1975.