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As the tattered British empire hobbled down the dark alleys of 1941, Australian troops were committed to protecting the motherland, not the home country. Churchill actually suggested that Prime Minister Menzies join his War Cabinet.

Menzies compatriots back in Australia were less than pleased with his willingness to kowtow to Churchill and he was forced to step down. In October, 1941, John Curtin took up the reins of power in Canberra. Within two months, Australia was at war with Japan.

Pearl Harbor shattered the illusion of invulnerability embedded in the psyche of Americans and Australians. The oceans were no longer big enough to keep the enemy at bay. Aircraft carriers, long-range bombers and submarines had changed the nature of war. As the Japanese carriers steamed out to attack the naval base in Hawaii, the Japanese army island moved south, toward Australia.

When Australians woke to the news of Pearl Harbor, its 120,000 seasoned soldiers were scattered around the world. Within five days, 114,000 conscripts were called up to begin training. Ironically, Prime Minister Curtin had attracted the attention of the Labor Party through his newspaper attacks on conscription.

By Christmas Day, the Japanese forces had landed in Sarawak and overran Hong Kong. Prime Minister Curtin turned to the Americans for help, writing in the Melbourne Herald that “The Australian Government… regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say….” This was tantamount to treason in the eyes of the British. Despite his plea, Curtin’s hands were tied. He had no say over the disposition of the Australian army.

On January 4, 1942, the Japanese bombed Rabaul, the main town in New Guinea, an Australian territory. Six weeks later, “fortress” Singapore, the last bastion of the British empire in Asia, fell to the Japanese juggernaut. Four days later, 200 Japanese planes attacked Darwin, sinking half a dozen ships, destroying the airport and razing the city.

Australians panicked and fled. On May 31, three midget submarines came into Sydney Harbour. One became entangled in the boom laid across the harbor; one was hit by a depth charge after sinking a former Sydney ferry. The third disappeared.

In early March, the Japanese moved to take the New Guinea mainland. Port Moresby was the ultimate target, a short jaunt from mainland Australia. They were opposed by four plantoons of New Guinea Volunteer Rifles and the hastily trained 53rd battalion, to be reinforced by the 39th.

The track itself was enemy enough, snaking through thick jungle up and down a rugged mountain range between the coasts of PNG. The troops wrestled with inadequate training, heavy clothing, malaria, leeches, torrential rain, mud, little food, low morale, desertion by the natives and exhaustion. Many of them were eighteen years old.

Despite it all, they fought on. Gradually, with the help of a small contingent of Americans, the Australians, contemptuously termed “chocolate soldiers,” began to turn the tide. When the 39th battalion was relieved in September, its 1500 troops had fallen to 185.

The war in Papua New Guinea would rage on into the new year, but Kokoda became a battle cry that strengthened the resolve of the Australian people in the dark days of WW II.

A fine feature film of the same name, based on actual events inspired this post. It was released in 2006 and is available on DVD.

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