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Kokoda is not just a war zone

To many Australians, the word ‘Kokoda’ is an important part of the WW 2 story. Each year thousands walk the famous Kokoda Trail. However, Kokoda is not just a battle site. It is home to the descendants of the so-called fuzzy-wuzzy angels.

In the Sixties I lived in Kokoda with my three young sons and first husband. We taught at Kokoda Primary T School. Biage children from along the Trail came down for school, staying at a mission during the week.

One day I decided to accept an invitation from them to walk south as far as Isawara. This trek was so familiar that they could pinpoint where artefacts left over from the war were hidden in the bush.

Eight hours trekking the slippery track that often crossed rapidly flowing creeks wasn’t easy. Moss-covered stones or narrow logs were a challenge, but the boys held my hands.

One found an old mortar bomb in the bush.

‘Let’s burn it!’ they all cried. I was horrified.

After holding it above his head dramatically for a few moments, the boy hurled it into a raging waterfall.

No explosion. What relief! But the boys were very disappointed.

I don’t know if that mortar bomb was Australian or Japanese. Ham writes, One saving grace was the failure of Japanese mortars; of 35 two-inch shells fired during one 15 minute bombardment only two exploded, the men calculated.

The final climb to Isawara was the steepest.

Isurava is where a famous battle took place in 1942. Paul Ham, in his book Kokoda, writes About 6000 Japanese combat troops confronted some 1800 Australians of whom 600 were untrained militia (the 39th and 53rd) and 1200 were AIF (the two battalions there were half-strength or less). At the height of the battle, 28-30 August, there were perhaps three or four Japanese to one Australian.

Isawara was deserted. Everyone was away working on their gardens. We waited until they returned. The boys asked about accommodation but no empty house was available. However, one couple were willing to vacate their house and sleep next door. They swept it for us and in we went. There was a box of blankets belonging to the Agricultural Department and these were given to lucky me. That evening as we sat around a fire, people brought enamel dishes of cooked vegetables—taro, sweet potato, cooked bananas and pumpkin tops. A feast.

Afterwards I listened to harmonious hymn singing. The fire was reflected on the peaceful faces around me. Time to sleep. The fire was extinguished. It was freezing. Even with the blankets I shivered.

After we finished our breakfast, we continued on to Alola. During WW2 it had been a resting place for wounded men on stretchers. I was enchanted by the panoramic view of the gap in the mountains. When we heard the sound of a helicopter below we ran to the edge of the village and waved.

Back to Isawara, then down towards home. We met 30 cadets from an Australian college. ‘Civilization!’ someone cried. ‘How far to Isawara?’

A teacher had hurt his ankle. He asked me to take a message to be radioed from Kokoda, asking for a helicopter to be ready with a doctor further down the Trail.

My family met us just up from Kokoda station. The ride home in the Toyota was welcome.

Now, in 2018, those boys are middle-aged, as are my sons. In my next column I will tell you more about Kokoda today.

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