Don’t Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story: Retelling Kokoda

“Good Afternoon Australia, tell me a bit about yourself”

When Kokoda is mentioned in conversation, it holds a similar reverence to that of Gallipoli. Yet it’s only in the past two decades it has really been adopted into the ANZAC story. Australia has latched onto the ANZAC story when attempting to describe our national identity.

Debates around national identity often venture into the question:

“Why is it important at all to be able to articulate a specific national identity?”

The simple answer to that is, it’s national identities which can create patriotism and patriotism is an incredibly powerful tool for politicians, journalists or even a sporting coach to utilise.

Kokoda in context

Kokoda has become a victim of a young nation searching for courageous moments in our history. As one of few major battles Australia has been involved in, the troops in Kokoda displayed impressive amounts of bravery in the face of hardship. Their incredible feat has influenced an exaggeration in popular memory of many factors of the campaign.

This exaggeration has been shaped by several key people and works. In addition to countless media reports, Paul Keating and John Howard both gave famous addresses expressing the importance Kokoda had to Australia’s national identity and in both addresses made several misleading statements which I’ll address later. The two other works which shape Australia’s popular memory are Kokoda (2006), a feature film directed by Alister Grierson and the book, Kokoda by Peter Fitzsimons which became a bestseller.

The Story of Kokoda (with directors commentary)

The World’s Most Difficult Battleground

There is no doubting the difficulty of the terrain faced during the campaign. The problem with some recounts of the conditions, is that as the popularity for people to make the pilgrimage grows, there has become a trend of attempting to out-do previous descriptions. It’s not uncommon to hear the track described as “green hell” or “the toughest terrain in the world”. In fact this year, Kevin Rudd commented that he was a “survivor” of the Kokoda track, sparking a justified outrage among veterans.

The fact of the matter is with the terrain, that it isn’t even the toughest track in Papua New Guinea let alone the world. So hyperboles can mislead people in understanding the difficulty of the terrain.

The Owen Stanley Rabbit Infestation

Another factor that is often exaggerated is the incompetence of the officers in charge. One well-known event that occurred after the 2/14th battalion had just finished a week of enemy assaults was when General Blamey came to address them. Expecting praise for their efforts, he called them “running rabbits” and issued orders that no retreat shall be made. This sort of ignorance was typical of the commanding forces with their lack of reconnaissance and knowledge of the fighting conditions their troops were facing.

Highlighting the incompetence of many leaders, leaves a few omissions such as the desertion of the 53rd battalion during a battle, who were sent back to Australia as a result. (It’s worth noting, that it was again the commanding officers fault, for lack of training and preparation that the 53rd battalion was ill equipped for combat)

The Youngsters that Prevailed

It’s also an exaggeration to say that the troops average age was 18. It was in fact closer to 25.

Mr. F. W. Angel

The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels are often remembered as the brave and generous helpers who carried our wounded back to medical help. What is not often recalled is the fact that they were mostly forced labour. They were punished if they deserted and suffered poor conditions with little food etc. There is also a distinct lack of memory for individual Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels and as a result the memory is an anonymous one.

Japan Invades!

The most common and key exaggeration that occurs in the retelling of the Kokoda story is its strategic importance. This is what Paul Keating and John Howard are guilty of. Its worth noting that there is a genuine (and historically proven) belief that the troops thought they were defending Australia from invasion however it has since been discovered, after examining Japanese sources, that they had no intention of ever invading Australia.

What should be remembered?

If Kokoda is going to be consistently attached to Australia’s national identity, then respect needs to be paid to the facts, otherwise generations to come won’t be able to respect the sacrifice which should be remembered. The retelling of Kokoda doesn’t need to take the form of “A legendary battle, where 18-year-old kids without direction saved Australia from certain invasion”.  What actually happened was incredible and the troops demonstrated values that we should and can aspire to. Remembering individual stories of troops is an effective way to identify what the Australian forces experienced. One example, even though is unique is something that should always be included in the retelling of Kokoda. That story is of Victoria Cross recipient, Bruce Kingsbury. His award citation is found at http://www.awm.gov.au/people/8275.asp and below is a picture of his platoon.

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9 comments on “Don’t Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story: Retelling Kokoda

  1. jesseclark9 says:

    Really well explained Charlie – the myths and exaggerations were new to me and your explanation of the historical context were really clarifying of the issue. I particularly liked how you proposed an alternative story in the final section that exemplifies the values that Australians see in their Anzac legend. Two questions for you: Did you come across any other stories or facts that would serve the legend of Kokoda well whilst maintaining the truth? And were barbaric depictions of the Japanese in Kokoda accurate or an attempt to demonise the enemy through exaggeration? I am referring to their ‘take no prisoners’ practices, and alleged cannibalism.

    • Thanks Jesse, to me the stories and facts that serve the Kokoda story really well are those of the battalion diaries which record their movements from Port Moresby to Kokoda and recount the men’s morale. Also there are a few really inspiring accounts of some officers such as Lieutenant Colonel William Owen who was one of the first killed during the Kokoda Campaign.

      In terms of the Japanese depictions, I didn’t go into too much depth with their justifications for their cannibalism and brutality which there seems to be enough evidence to suggest it did happen. One thing about their side which i think often isn’t told, is they came 30km within Port Moresby and arguably could have taken it however Japanese stretch in resources in other campaigns such as the Battle of Guadalcanal meant they were ordered to retreat and their supply lines were so weak they were surviving on a cup of rice a day (whilst being chased by the Australians along the treacherous Kokoda track)

  2. emmabigham says:

    Despite hearing about the ANZAC legend and Kokoda countless times during school history, I did find this blog post unique and interesting. I enjoyed being surprised to learn new things about Kokoda. In particular I was surprised to learn about the conditions surrounding the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. I did not realise they were forced labour! In school I had the impression they were volunteers. It is no surprise however, that politicians embellished and exaggerated the event. I do find it disappointing though that Australia feels the need to cling to events such as Kokoda and manipulate them into something they weren’t in order to construct what it seems to feel is an inadequate national history. Australia has a unique past and attempts to exaggerate parts of that past in order to help shape a national identity leaves me feeling a little dissatisfied as both an Australian and a history student.

    • Absolutely Emma, I actually began this paper as a sort of biographical dedication to Kokoda’s troops until i found out the amount of manipulation of the legend that has taken place. Which is such a shame because as i said, without the exaggeration, what the troops involved went through is something to be admired and respected

  3. edmorgo12 says:

    An intriguing article Charlie and I feel it has much merit. As Australian’s we are often found guilty of exaggeration – something that is fairly ironic considering the constant references to ‘tall-poppy’ syndrome. Starting with Russel Ward’s endlessly scrutinised Australian Legend, we as a nation have constantly hoisted the little man up and brought the big man down and as a result, as you have made evident, in doing so we leave out the facts, the necessary niceties, and the not so glorious achievements of those who really made the effort. There is no taking away from the efforts of any of our soldiers, be it Gallipoli, The Rats of Tobruk (also highly exalted), the Viet Vets, or the men in the Gulf. But do we need to take the accolades away from the men who fought and died quietly, amidst trenches of British and American soldiers? Those who simply worked at home, organising rations or sewing the uniforms. These men and women are all part of the Australian Identity and when looking to hoist the little guy, maybe we should start here.

  4. markrayner2013 says:

    This was an interesting read. While it is obvious to all that politicians use people and events for their own ends I found it quite enlightening when you said the track isn’t even the hardest in New Guinea. The story of ill equipped and under trained men going to fight the undefeated Japanese Army is well known but what of the lesser known facts. Milne Bay being the first Allied victory over Japanese forces but mostly New Guinea was an Australian protectorate so technically Kingsbury’s VC is the only one on Australian soil. But what you showed really well was the fact that modern PM’s, Rudd, Howard and Keating all used the suffering of these young men to score some political points.

  5. domcaron says:

    Great stuff. Kokoda is now (for better or worse) considered a part of the Australian identity and as such correcting the myths that have developed around it is important. The idea that what happened there was impressive enough without our exaggerating it was well said.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post as I am a big fan of Kokoda and everything related! Although having walked the track myself back in 2006 whilst struggling through tropical food poisoning I’m not completely sure about your point regarding overexaggerated accounts of the track’s difficulty. While it may not be the toughest terrain in Papua New Guinea it does come in a very close second behind the Kapa Kapa trail with which it runs parallel to. I can most certainly vouch for the term ‘green hell’ as this quite accurately describes the mountainous, muddy terrain with soaring humidity levels and abundance of mosquitoes. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been for young inexperienced Australians to face this under combat conditions. While I agree with your point about it being wrongly described as the ‘toughest terrain in the world’ when it comes to fighting a war in an environment such as Kokoda conditions for combat cannot become much worse. Despite this I thought this was an incredibly well put together account of the retelling of Kokoda. Excellent work!

    • Thanks Luke! Incredibly jealous you’ve been able to make the trek and you’re exactly right in pulling me up on the terrain point. I’ve poorly explained it, in fact i think i’ve ironically done what i’m criticising others of doing to the Kokoda story. The fact I’ve left my point at “it’s not even the toughest track in Papua New Guinea” is not what i was trying to say, so my mistake there. As i’m sure you can vouch for, I read accounts in Battalion diaries of sections of the track which were 3 hours of uphill climbing in knee deep mud, carrying 20kg of equipment and knowing they’re about to go into battle.

      My main point that i actually make in my paper (and one of the weaker points in the context of my argument) is that accounts which are remembered are the particularly early accounts which focus on the primitive nature of the track that highlight the extreme difficulty and how little they knew about it. As those accounts have travelled through the sieve of media and hyperbole, we see the exaggeration that I’m talking about. So basically, the problem in writing historically about the terrain in that sense is it forgets to point out that Australian officials had been walking it for decades and it was one of the most well-known tracks in Papua New Guinea (Baffling considering the Australian command didn’t taken advantage of these Australian officials knowledge of the track).

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