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.
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.
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.
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.
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.