|Thermopylae, Balaklava and
In Bello Parvis Momentis Magni Casus Intercedunt
by Larry Parker
History is replete with examples of courage under fire; gallant stands by a
handful of men against overwhelming odds, small battles that greatly influenced
the outcome of major wars.
In 480 B. C. Xerxes led a Persian host estimated at 200,000 against the Greek
city-states. The upstart Greeks were fomenting trouble in Ionia with their
radical ideas regarding democracy, ideas the all-powerful autocrat despised.
Knowing they could not match Persian numbers in open battle the Hellenes
abandoned northern Greece, choosing instead to make a stand at Thermopylae. At
the middle gate the defile along the coastal plain spans a mere fourteen feet.
At this perfect defensive point superior Greek arms, armor and tactics negated
Persian numbers. For three days Leonidas, King of the Spartans, with 7000
hoplites mustered from the various Greek city-states, stood firm. Then a Greek
traitor revealed to the enemy a little-used mountain track around their
position. Outflanked by the 'Immortals', Xerxes elite infantry, many Greek
contingents fled. Spurning surrender, Leonidas and his Spartans fought to the
death, buying precious time for their countrymen to prepare. Despite their
sacrifice at Thermopylae, Athens was lost. When combined with the subsequent
naval victory at Salamis however, Greece was saved.
In 1854 French, British and Turkish forces invested Sevastopol. On 25 October
Prince Alexander Sergeievich Menshikov attempted to lift the allied siege.
After a three hour preliminary bombardment Russian infantry charged and carried
a Turkish redoubt. Russian heavy cavalry poured through the broken line and
raced for Balaklava, the British supply base. In a bloody clash the remnants of
retreating Turkish forces and the 'Thin Red Line' of the famous 93rd
Highlanders threw the Russian Cuirassiers back.
In the context of valiant struggles against long odds the Battle of the Alamo,
Rorke's Drift and the RAF during the Battle of Britain also come to mind.
Continuing the theme, "In war great events are the results of small causes"
espoused by Julius Caesar in his war commentary, Bellum Gallicum ,
this paper will address the lesser known but equally deserving Battle of the
Kokoda Trail which saved Australia during the initial Japanese onslaught of
World War II.
The editors of Life magazine could not be accused of sensationalism
for their 02 March 1942 cover page banner headline, NOW THE U. S. MUST
FIGHT FOR ITS LIFE . In the spring of 1942 Allied prospects were
indeed grim. Rommel was on the offensive in North Africa. In Europe the
Wehrmacht survived the debacle at Moscow, blunted the Russian winter counter
attack and would shortly launch a summer campaign that would take them to
Stalingrad on the Volga and the mountains of the Caucasus. The Japanese
blitzkrieg continued unabated in Burma, China, the Dutch East Indies, French
Indo-China, Malaya and the Philippines. Feature articles pondered Japanese
invasions of Australia, Hawaii, even the United States. With only 100,000
hastily mustered, poorly trained, ill-equipped and inadequately supplied troops
to defend the entire Pacific coast, these stories were not as far-fetched then
as they appear now.
If America was unready, then Australia was even less prepared. Her best units
were fighting with the British 8th Army or languishing in Japanese POW camps
after the fall of Singapore. Protection by the Royal Navy sank with HMS Repulse
and HMS Prince of Wales. With the remainder of the fleet fighting for England's
survival in the Atlantic no additional ships could be spared for the Pacific.
The location of existing and potential airfields dominated strategic decisions
in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. Land-based air power projected sea
control / sea denial capabilities out 300 miles or more. If Imperial Forces
captured the airstrips around Port Moresby, New Guinea, isolation of Australia
was probable; invasion of Queensland quite possible. In either case damage to
the Allied cause might be irrevocable. The naval battle of Coral Sea (3 – 8
May) ended the sea-borne threat to Port Moresby. Well aware of New Guinea's
strategic significance, on 21 July 1942 the Japanese countered by landing
11,000 troops at Buna and Gona on New Guinea's northern coast. With 6000
troops, Major General Tomitaro Horii immediately pushed inland along the Kokoda
Trail toward Port Moresby 130 miles south. It was now a race against time for
both the Australians and the Japanese. Thousands would fight and die in some of
the worst terrain imaginable along the Kokoda Trail, the narrow track that
crosses the Owen Stanley Range linking Gona and Port Moresby.
The world's second largest island, New Guinea is geologically young, with
volcanic peaks reaching 16,000 feet. The Owen Stanley Range divides the island
North and South. Numerous streams and rivers further split the island East and
West. Located just eleven degrees below the equator, constantly inundated with
heavy rainfall, and covered with dense vegetation, most of New Guinea is a hot,
humid, equatorial jungle. Violent rains dump up to an inch of water in five
minutes. Rivers rise as much as nine inches per hour. Yet at altitude trekkers
suffer from hypothermia brought about by sudden hailstorms. To call New Guinea
inhospitable is an egregious understatement. It is a primordial world, like
something penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Jules Verne. Not even the
discovery of gold in the 1930's could tame New Guinea. As James Bradley writes
in The Boys That Saved Australia , "a road just seventy miles long was
deemed impossible to build and planes had to ferry supplies in and ore out."
To reach their objective, the Japanese first had to traverse the formidable
Owen Stanley Range via the Kokoda Trail. Trail implies a peaceful, winding
path. The Kokoda Trail is nothing of the sort. A dangerous, narrow track hacked
out of the jungle and carved out of the mountains, it crosses the Owen Stanley
Range at 7000 feet via a series of twisting switchbacks and rough-hewn steps
cut into steep slopes. Prior to the war it was considered passable only by
natives and provincial officers. The optimistic figure of 130 air miles from
Gona to Port Moresby held a far different reality on the ground where exhausted
soldiers struggled first through dense jungle followed by a backbreaking climb.
As if thick rain forests, rugged mountains, swift, treacherous streams and
muddy, precipitous drops were not daunting enough obstacles in themselves, a
plethora of poisonous insects, dangerous wildlife, tropical diseases and
cannibalistic headhunters awaited those who strayed too far from the beaten
Australian versus Japanese Forces
To counter the Japanese threat, Australia rushed a militia unit, the AMF 39th
Battalion, up the Kokoda Trail. Clad in Khaki uniforms appropriate for desert
conditions but completely unsuited for jungle warfare, shod in leather boots
which soon rotted away, equipped with World War I vintage Enfield rifles, the
Aussies were supported by nothing heavier than light mortars and Bren and Lewis
machine guns. Further, the 39th had just completed basic training, had no
combat and certainly no jungle experience.
In contrast Major General Horii's command, designated the South Seas Detachment
(Nankai Shitai), was comprised of elite troops, veterans of earlier campaigns.
Clothed in green camouflage uniforms and shod in functional jungle boots,
they carried little food (hoping to live off the land and captured supplies)
but large quantities of ammunition. They also carried heavy mortars, heavy
machine guns and even mountain artillery for support.
For the Japanese, success depended upon speed. They must cross the Owen Stanley
Range, capturing Port Moresby before Allied reinforcements arrived in
substantial numbers. Once in Japanese hands, the airfields would allow
Japan to ferry in the troops, supplies and equipment necessary for further
operations. Foregoing provisions for mobility, Horii counted on Yamato Damashii
(Japanese Spirit) and overwhelming firepower to carry the day. Pushing forward
relentlessly, scouts sprinted ahead of the main body, sacrificing their lives
to flush out and target enemy positions.
For their part, the 39th pushed across the Kokoda Trail, first halting the
Japanese at Wasida 23 – 27 July. Outnumbered and outgunned, for sixty days the
Aussies conducted a heroic fighting withdrawal, turning to face their
determined opponents at Kokoda (28 July), Deniki (29 July – 11 August),
Seregina (2 – 5 September), Efogi (8 September), and Menari (16 September). The
final confrontation took place at Ioribaiwa (17 – 26 September). At that point
the depleted South Seas Detachment held positions within thirty miles of Port
Moresby. At night its lights beckoned the weary Japanese. Scourged with
malaria, racked with dysentery and weakened by hunger, the Japanese could
advance no further. On 23 September, two months after the Japanese landings at
Buna and Gona, the 7th Australian Division counterattacked. Now it was the
Japanese who conducted a bitter fighting withdrawal over the Owen Stanley
Range. By November the remnants of Horii's force were entrenched in the Buna –
Gona area. Pressing forward relentlessly Gona fell to Australian forces,
reinforced by the recently-landed American 32nd Infantry Division, on 9
December. Buna finally capitulated in January 1943.
The Human Cost
Fighting in New Guinea was especially gruesome. With so much at stake, the
rugged terrain, foul climate, tenuous supply lines and the desperation of both
combatants magnified the always-brutal nature of close-quarters combat.
Provisions were limited to what the soldiers carried and what could be packed
in. Ammunition got top priority, with food second and hospital
supplies third. Consequently medicine was always in short supply, often
non-existent. Lacking any other medical care, soldiers like Jim Moir allowed
blowflies to lay eggs in their wounds. The resultant maggots ate their rotten
flesh, keeping the wound clean and preventing gangrene.
Out of necessity, stretcher-bearers were limited to only the most severely
wounded. When Japanese machinegun fire shattered his lower leg, medics
fabricated a splint out of banana leaves. Refusing a litter, Charles Metson
wrapped his hands and knees in rags and crawled down the trail he had so
laboriously climbed just days before. Such was the spirit and the fortitude of
the 39th Battalion.
The Supreme Commander, Allied Forces, Southwest Pacific, never visited the
front, ignored reports on conditions and dismissed intelligence estimates on
Japanese strength. Far removed from the desperate fighting, comfortably housed
and safely ensconced at their Brisbane Headquarters, the "Bataan Bunch" (as the
Aussies derisively labeled MacArthur and his staff) railed against the
Australians, first over their continuous retreat, then for the time-consuming
counter-offensive. In a dispatch to Washington at the height of the battle
MacArthur cabled, "The Australians lack fighting spirit." MacArthur further
damaged relations when he signaled, "Operation reports show that progress on
the trail is not repeat not
satisfactory." Given an undeservedly deficient reputation by the refugees from
the Philippines, Australian units were relegated to secondary fronts for the
remainder of the war.
MacArthur's questionable opinion does not bear close scrutiny. Fighting
horrendous conditions as well as the Japanese, the Australians gave Japan its
first defeat on land. The significance of that achievement cannot be
A Japanese victory in New Guinea could have changed the entire strategic
picture in the Pacific. Japanese planes based in Port Moresby could have
interdicted Allied supply lines, further isolating Australia. To
ensure Australia remained in the war, troops earmarked for the Solomons
would have been diverted, postponing Guadalcanal for six months or a year.
Given additional time to dig in the inevitable Allied counterattack would have
become even more costly.
The battles described in the prologue were not chosen randomly. The naval
victory at Salamis overshadowed the deadly confrontation at Thermopylae, just
as the naval engagement at Midway eclipsed the battle of the Kokoda Trail. Even
though they fought courageously in the Crimean War the Turks were vilified by
Lord Raglan (covering his own desultory performance and deadly tactical
mistakes) and used as human pack animals for the remainder of the conflict. So
too MacArthur used the Australians badly, maligning them publicly and giving
them subordinate roles in inconsequential areas for the balance of World War
Nevertheless, if Midway was the turning point for the United States, then New
Guinea was the defining moment for Australia. Although comparatively few troops
were engaged, their spirit was unmatched and the battle of the Kokoda Trail
greatly influenced the outcome of the Pacific War. On 29 August of each year
Australians rightfully observe 'Kokoda Day' to honor the young men who endured
"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand
ready to do violence on their behalf."
Those who have already forgotten 11 September 2001, those who second-guess and
rail against the War in Iraq would do well to heed those words. Even now a
precious few men and women in distant lands confront the forces of terror,
preserving the freedoms others take for granted. By their service they preserve
and carry forward the legacy of Thermopylae, Balaklava and Kokoda.
Copyright © 2006 Larry Parker
Written by Larry Parker. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Larry Parker at:
About the Author:
Lieutenant Commander Larry Parker, United States Navy, served as a Surface Warfare Officer, with afloat tours onboard USS De Wert (FFG-45) as
Ordnance & Fire Control Officer, USS Portland (LSD-37) as First Lieutenant, and USS Butte (AE-27) as Operations Officer.
Rotations ashore included Navy Reserve Center Cheyenne, Navy & Marine Corps Reserve Center Denver and Navy Reserve Readiness
Command Region 16 Minneapolis. He retired in July 2000 and taught Navy Junior ROTC until June 2011. LCDR Parker holds a Bachelor's
degree in English and History from the University of Kansas and a Master's degree in Military Studies - Land Warfare from American Military University.
In his free time LCDR Parker pursues a lifelong passion for military history. His articles are the result of extensive research and personal
experience in surface warfare, fleet logistics and amphibious operations.
Published online: 01/21/2006.