Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009 ISBN 9781741758399
The campaign along the Kokoda Track (or Trail, as my Father’s generation would have it), is an icon of Australian military achievement. Pushed back over the Owen Stanleys by a superior Japanese force, the militia forces of Australia eventually halted the attack at Ioribaiwa and Imita Ridge, and then with the help of AIF forces returned from North Africa, they pushed the Japanese back to the Northern coast of New Guinea and destroyed them in the battles around Buna, Gona and Sanananda. There have been many Australian treatments of the campaign, with Peter Brune’s Those ragged bloody heroes one of the best, along with the Official History.
The path of infinite sorrow is that altogether rarer thing, a history of the Kokoda campaign from the Japanese viewpoint. Collie and Marutani have written the Japanese side of the story using, as a base, interviews conducted in the early 2000s with some Japanese survivors of the campaign. The result is an interesting and enlightening book.
Many Australian accounts of the campaign emphasise the terrible conditions and the fear of an unseen enemy, portraying the Japanese as supermen, with the jungle being their natural habitat. It is enlightening to read that the Japanese struggled just as much with the conditions, and saw the Australians as dangerous enemies, who were rarely seen owing to their natural ability to fight in the jungle – and brave beyond compare because they wore hats rather than helmets in battle!
The authors give a good account of the leadup to Kokoda, describing Japanese attempts to reach Port Moresby by ship failing after the Battle of the Coral Sea. When a force was landed on the coast, its task was not to reach Moresby, but merely to reconnoitre the track leading to Kokoda to see if it was suitable for an army to campaign along. Instilled with martial spirit, the over-enthusiastic officers of the South Seas Detachment turned their reconnoitring mission into a full-scale assault, and soon overwhelmed the Australian force holding Kokoda.
As the Australians dropped back, the problem of supplying an attacking force over a precipitous walking track became more acute, and by the time the Japanese reached Ioribaiwa they were at the end of their tether logistically and physically. The troops could see the lights of Moresby at night, but neither had the strength or the numbers to take the next ridge, let alone face the Allied troops that would have awaited them closer to the town. Supply was not only a problem along the Track itself, but also to the rear bases at Buna and Gona, as the combination of Allied air attacks and the prioritising by the Japanese of the assault on Guadalcanal meant that few supplies were getting onshore in New Guinea.
The Japanese withdrawal back to the Northern coast became a rout, with troops falling out of line with disease or hunger, to be left to die or make a futile final stand when the Australians came down the track. When the retreat had been completed, the coastal beach-heads were defended by a force that consisted of some infantry, engineering and other non-combatant forces, and those ill or wounded troops that could hold a rifle.
Despite an ingenious and deadly system of interlocking bunkers, it was only a matter of time before the Allied troops (the U.S. Army had now joined the fray) over-ran the Japanese defences, leaving only a few able to escape death or imprisonment. It was a complete defeat for the South Seas Detachment
This book is a well-written account, easy to follow for those unfamiliar with the battles of the campaign and - by using interviews as the basis for the narrative – brings the reader right into the misery and pain of soldiering in New Guinea in 1942. There is some discussion of grander strategy, but as this book is focusing on the soldier’s experience, it is always in the background.
While there is an acknowledgement in the text of the brutality and cannibalism of the Japanese soldiers during the campaign, it is rather lightly brushed over, perhaps in deference to the feelings of the Japanese who were interviewed. While there can be some argument that the instances of cannibalism were driven by the extreme circumstances of the Japanese troops, who were literally dying of hunger by the end of the campaign, to excuse the bayoneting of bound prisoners in cold blood with the lines “This is not inconsistent with Japanese military training….Military training is not for the squeamish; he who hesitates in hand-to-hand fighting is lost.” is a very cheap way out of looking at the issue. It’s clear in the book that the Australians were just as proficient in hand-to-hand fighting as the Japanese, and yet their superiors didn’t find it necessary to make them kill defenceless people. A greater insight into why the Japanese felt the need to kill like this would have been a welcome addition to the book. Not many prisoners were taken by the Australians, as most of the Japanese fought to the death, and after a few instances of Australians being killed by wounded Japanese, they “took no chances.” The New Guinea Campaign was war at its cruelest, of that there is little doubt.
While there is no doubt of the courage of the soldiers on both sides of this campaign, we can question the strategic and tactical nous of the officers on both sides. That the Japanese could have ever thought they could attack Moresby in any sensible way via the track was wrong thinking, and each step beyond Kokoda made the idea more absurd – they were just wasting men and material for no good purpose. The Allied tactics of island fighting had yet to be perfected, and the continued frontal assaults of the bunkers at Buna and Gona without adequate artillery or tank support were for the most part futile and wasteful as well.
In the end it was the overwhelming technological and numerical advantage of Allied ‘planes, artillery and tanks that ensured not only the end of the New Guinea campaigns, but the defeat of the Japanese Empire. After the war, veterans of Kokoda from both sides struggled to make sense of their experiences: those few Japanese veterans who made it back to Japan mostly did not want to relive what had been a terrifyingly traumatic experience. My great-uncles who fought with the AIF in the campaign also suffered for the rest of their lives, but at least they were on the winning side.
Given this is an Australian trade publication, the apparatus of the book is good – useful maps and notes, and a reasonable bibliography and index. For the student of the Pacific War, especially of the New Guinea Campaigns, The path of infinite sorrow is required reading.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell