By Susan Ramage
(Australian Associated Press)
In brutal jungle fighting at Eora Creek on the Kokoda Track in PNG the cold, wet and battle-weary Australians troops watched the Japanese drop their weapons and run.
It was a key World War II victory that proved a turning point in the Kokoda Campaign, and helped lead to Victory in the Pacific on August 15, 1945.
But the Australian heroics of October 1942 went largely unrecognised for 75 years because of Japanese subterfuge, revealed in the book Kokoda Secret.
Translated Japanese documents from the Australian War Memorial reveal enemy leaders lied about a withdrawal from Eora Creek, falsifying and backdating orders to hide a humiliating defeat.
“We sailed into them firing from the hip… Suddenly the Japanese began to run out. They dropped their weapons and stumbled through the thick bush down the slope, squealing like frightened animals,” Lieutenant Bruce MacDougal, 2/3 Australian Infantry Battalion, said of the fighting in Kokoda Secret”.
Eora Creek was the largest battle on the Owen Stanley section of the Kokoda Track during the Australian advance of October 1942.
The rugged high ground provided the best position for defence along the entire Kokoda Track between Port Moresby and Kokoda. The Japanese wanted to control Kokoda as well as Port Moresby and airstrips with bases on the north and south PNG coasts.
Japan’s General Tomitaro Horii, commander of the South Seas Force, assigned great tactical importance to Eora Creek where he had fortified the high ground and entrenched the Japanese position.
From October 23-26, 1942, the Australians were stuck in a stalemate, bogged down and suffering heavy losses.
In the dripping jungle dawn of October 27, Major Ian Hutchison MC, then officer commanding Don Company, was told he was to take command of the 2/3 Australian Infantry Battalion.
Aged just 29, Hutchison had won a Military Cross in Bardia, Libya, where he was one of the first Australians in World War II honoured for battlefield leadership. Battalion history describes Hutchison as an experienced tactician, a daring leader and a man of great determination, possessing the confidence of all ranks.
Thrust into command, Hutchison decided to resolve Eora Creek, calling for more troops for an attack that morning where the Australians clashed with a determined enemy.
Hutchison ordered his men to regroup for a final assault but darkness fell and another bitterly cold night set in, claiming the lives of three PNG bearers who died from exposure.
At first light on October 28 the whole Australian front was embroiled in action. In the late afternoon Don Company, now commanded by Lieutenant Luke ‘Kanga’ McGuinn, ascended to high ground on the left and struck the Japanese using a hail of grenades and rifle fire followed by bayonet charges.
Cleverly they employed a new tactic, throwing hand grenades with a four-second fuse. While they exploded the men charged and dropped, threw more grenades and charged again.
McGuinn struck downhill from the left while C Company simultaneously struck from the high ground on the right, so the Japanese were caught in a savage pincer attack.
Ignoring a hail of fire from Japanese posts along the ridge, the Australians’ ferocity increased as they pressed home with a bayonet charge on the main enemy positions.
It was ‘do or die’.
Hutchison and his men smashed the Japanese and sent them running. Yet for the past 75 years Japanese deception covered up the magnitude of the Australian victory.
The Japanese claim that disastrous events on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, had 17th Army chief General Harukichi Hyakutake order General Horii to withdraw from Eora Creek.
But the orders issued by Horii at 9am on October 28 indicate that in fact he did not receive any message from Hyakutake about a disaster at Guadalcanal.
As late as 5pm on October 30, Horii writes of Guadalcanal that ‘The situation of the battle area … is not known.’
Horii’s Operation Order No.131 tells the Japanese to secure their position with all their might, but if unable to hold on, to withdraw after dusk on the 28th at the earliest.
But the Japanese were loath to admit defeat; indoctrinated that a servant of the Emperor dies before retreating or surrendering.
For these reasons General Horii never publicly admitted to the defeat on Eora Creek ridge. To protect his own position he construed it as a heroic withdrawal.
Australian War Memorial documents reveal Horii’s cover-up began 48 hours after the Australian victory. At 4pm on October 30, Horii issued Operation Order No.132 in which he said that although the Japanese were attacked ‘on the 28th, along the entire front…, they broke through, taking advantage of the dark, and withdrew.’
On November 2, Horii further entrenched his deception by falsifying written records and altering the orders he had made on October 28. He covered his deceit by referring to these falsifications as ‘Corrections’. In Operation Order No.38 Horii ordered that Operation Order No.131 be changed to read ‘0900 hrs 26 October’ instead of ‘0900 hrs 28 October’.
Horii back-dated his orders by two days. They were disseminated to the relevant Japanese battalion commanders so that they, too, would correct their records to ensure the cover-up.
In short, having lost the battle, Horii planned to cheat the Australians of their victory on Eora Creek ridge, or at least to minimise it.
Eleven Australian died on the high ground at Eora Creek ridge, and in all 79 Australians died in the battle at Eora Creek.
The Japanese cover-up of this significant Australian victory against formidable odds also begs a re-examination of other Japanese war documents that may have repercussions for the rest of the Kokoda Campaign, the War in the Pacific and beyond.
* Susan Ramage is an Australian historian and award-winning author of the book Kokoda Secret, edited by David Horner, AM, Professor of Australian Defence History ANU, and published by Eora Press RRP $45. Available at the Australian War Memorial bookshop and online.