The ‘Golden Stairs’ rise towards Imita Ridge
on the Kokoda Track, photographed in
October 1942. [AWM 26837]
Peter Brune, in "A bastard of a place" (Allen and Unwin, 2003) wrote:
"In 1942, take the best of the youth of Australia and take them at their physical peak, burden them with equipment weighing anywhere between 50 and 70 pounds (22 to 31kg). Dress them in a khaki uniform designed for the desert, not the jungle,pose them to a claustrophobic environment that will test their alert minds; and send them across terrain that will exhaust the fittest of them. Feed them so sparingly that they will lose two or three stone in weight (13 to 19kg) over a period of six to eight weeks; expose them to humid sweating days and cold wet nights, blessed only with half a blanket or a groundsheet; put them in a weapon pit full of water; isolate them, by creating a situation where they can only be re-supplied by air or overtaxed Papuan carriers, and never to a degree where they can gain sufficient strength to perform at their optimum level.
These young soldiers are not naive; they know that the further they struggle forward, the further they slip away from their supplies - bullets and tucker - and in everyman's mind the daunting thought of a wound. Will there be enough stretchers, enough carrier, to take them out, and critically, if they cannot crawl out or stagger out the price of falling into the enemies hands."
The Kokoda Track [DVA]
Prior to the outbreak of the war in PNG travellers had two ways to move from Port Moresby to the north coast across the Owen Stanley Range - fly over it or sail around it. There were no roads. The Papuans had their own trails, including the hazardous one over the Owen Stanley Range. A primitive foot track, at most three or four feet wide (about a metre wide), restricting movement in most places to single file and only scant knowledge of this track had reached the outside world through occasional reports of patrol officers, planters, miners or missionaries.
The "Golden Stairs" consisted of several thousand pieces of wood shoved into the ascent and held in place by wooden pegs. Filthy, putrid, mud constituted the rest of the 'step'. At some points the exposed roots of trees formed the 'steps', thus making them irregular. The stairs became permanently soaked and sodden because of the daily rains that saturated the jungle. Men fell, banged knees, shins and ankles on the exposed steeps, gave vent to their anger and struggle agonisingly to their feet; and orderly progress became impossible as long strings of exhausted climbers backed up down the track waiting for a chance to move forward.
Lieutenant Hugh Dalby, 39th Battalion:
"They were so steep . . . we soon had it worked out that instead trying to walk over the mountain range in sections as we started off doing, and nearly killed ourselves, the next day we set off at intervals . . . so you might be five minutes getting rid of your men. But instead of getting to the next staging place at five o'clock at night when t was dark, you'd get there at two o'clock in the afternoon 'cos you wern't hampered by this stop, start, stop, start routine."Whether the overburdened soldiers travelled up or down, he experienced the unending aching of strained knees and a suffering back never designed to carry a heavy load over the Owen Stanley Range. After his last sporadic bursts, of desperate joint-wrenching, lung-bursting scaling of the "Golden Stairs", many a sweat-sodden campaigner reached Ioribaiwa utterly worn out, disoriented and huddled in the chill of the night nearly 3,000 feet above sea level , completely exhausted, unable to fight and only seeking to rest and recuperate for the next day of trekking the trail.
When the Japanese first landed in Papua there was much talk of "the Kokoda Pass". But there was no pass—merely a lowering of the mountain silhouette where the valley of Eora Creek cut down into the Yodd a Valley south of Kokoda . From Kokoda the track slipped easily down towards the sea for three full days of hot marching . First it passed over undulations fringed by rough foothills and covered with thick bush. It forded many streams, passed through the villages of Oivi and Gorari, went on down to the Kumusi River which, deep and wide and swift, flowed northward and then turned sharply east to reach the sea between Gona and Cape Ward Hunt.
This was the country of the fierce Orokaivas, unsmiling men with spare, hard, black bodies and smouldering eyes . They were still greatly feared by all their neighbours although it was many years since Europeans first came and forced peace upon them. They suffered at the hands of the Yodda Valley gold-seekers at the end of the nineteenth century and the severity of the magistrate Monckton at the beginning of the new century, and it was said that they had not forgiven either occasion. Their kinsmen, the coastal Orokaivas farther on, were of the same type. The track crossed the Kumusi by a bridge suspended from steel cables. The place of crossing came thus to be known as Wairopi (the "pidgin" rendering of "wire rope"). A little farther on, in the vicinity of Awala, began a network of tracks which passed over tropical lowlands through or past Sangara Mission and Popondetta into spreading swamps and thus reached the coast on which were the two little settlements of Buna and Gona—the former the administrative headquarters of the district, the latter a long-established Church of England mission. Up to July 1942 Australian military interest in this lonely coast and the even lonelier track which linked it with Port Moresby was of slow growth.
On 2nd February Major-General Rowell, then Deputy Chief of the General Staff, had signalled Major-General Morris:
Japanese in all operations have shown inclination to land some distance from ultimate objective rather than make a direct assault. This probably because of need to gain air bases as well as desire to catch defence facing wrong way. You will probably have already considered possibility of landing New Guinea mainland and advance across mountains but think it advisable to warn you of this enemy course.Morris, with a difficult administrative situation on his hands, only meagre and ill-trained forces at his disposal and more likely military possibilities pressing him, that month sent a platoon (Lieutenant Jesser) of the Papuan Infantry Battalion to patrol the coast from Buna to the Waria River, the mouth of which was about half-way between Buna and Salamaua, and watch for signs of a Japanese approach.
On 10th March a Japanese float-plane swept over Buna about 11 a.m., bombed and machine-gunned two small mission vessels there, then settled on the water . However, it was promptly engaged with rifle fire by Lieutenant Champion,' the former Assistant Resident Magistrate, and the small group with him, who were staffing the Administration and wireless station on the shore, and it quickly took the air again. At the end of March the Combined Operations Intelligence Centre, in an assessment of the likelihood of Japanese moves to occupy the Wau-Bulolo area after the seizure of Lae and Salamaua, had suggested the possibility of a landing at Buna with a view to an overland advance on Port Moresby.
But little serious consideration seems to have been given to this suggestion.
The Japanese expedition against Port Moresby, turned back by the Allied naval forces in the Coral Sea, had underlined the need to reinforce the troops and air squadrons in New Guinea. On 14th May MacArthur wrote to Blarney that he had decided to establish airfields on the south-east coast of Papua for use against Lae, Salamaua and Rabaul, that there appeared to be suitable sites between Abau and Samarai, and he wished to know whether Blarney had troops to protect these bases. Blarney had already ordered the 14th Brigade to Port Moresby and it embarked at Townsville on the 15th. He replied, on the 16th, that he could provide the troops, and MacArthur, on the 20th, authorised the construction of an airstrip in the Abau-Mullins Harbour area . At the same time he ordered that the air force bring its squadrons at Moresby up to full strength and that American anti-aircraft troops be sent from Brisbane to the forward airfields at Townsville, Horn Island, Mareeba, Cooktown and Coen.
The 14th Brigade, with only about five months of continuous training behind it (although most of the individual men had had more than that), was thus the first substantial infantry reinforcement to reach Moresby since General Sturdee had sent two battalions there, making a total of three, on 3rd January, four months before the Coral Sea battle. When the inexperienced 14th Brigade was sent forward there were, in eastern Australia , three brigades of hardened veterans—the 18th, 21st and 25th—but unwisely none of those were chosen.