Thursday, July 3, 2008

Independence Day is not just for Yankees

Wenchliness aside for the time being, Cat W takes us on an important historical, emotional and ultimately fulfilling journey:

With Independence Day in the United States fast approaching, I would like to share an event with you that commemorates an independence of a different kind for all Australians. Independence Day in the US is a commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, in which they declared independence from Great Britain. Phew. That’s a lot of declarations and independences in one paragraph, but how else do you say it? On July 21, 1942, several thousand Japanese forces under General Tomitaro Horii landed at Gona, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. Over the next four months they were to fight a brutal war against the Aussies and Papua New Guineans for what, they hoped, would give them free access to the capital, Port Moresby, and ultimately, this wide brown land of ours. Of course, they didn’t bank on the strength, courage and endurance of our troops and of course, they were out fought while trying to take Port Moresby. Their eventual withdrawal, completed on the 16th of November, 1942, helped to ensure that Australia would be free from the scourge of invasion from the East, and able to develop as the country that we know it today.

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of walking the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. Stretching 96 kilometres over the spine of the Owen Stanley Ranges, it was the scene of much of the fighting that took place in the grab for Port Moresby. It holds a special place in the hearts of many Australians, who these days have relatives who fought and died in PNG, but also because of what it represents to us. In 1942, we were still finding our feet on the world’s stage, and trying to cement our place within its context. We had fought, for Great Britain, in Gallipoli, now here we were again, fighting an enemy that was much closer to our shores and who represented a very, very real danger not only to our borders but also our national identity.

Kokoda was tough. Words cannot describe how difficult it was. But to put it into perspective, those of us walking it were not fighting an often unseen enemy, hiding in that thick jungle and waiting to take us out. We battled heat, altitude, head colds, constant rain, sore feet, muscles and shoulders, and engaged in a never ending battle of wills with ourselves. We did not carry up to and over 50 kilos of weaponry and supplies. We slept at night, ate 3 times a day, applied our insect repellant, swallowed our malaria tablets and did not even consider taking a drink of water that wasn’t treated with purifiers. Our troops had none of those things. Poorly trained, supplied, equipped and dressed in the ridiculous khaki army uniform, a hangover from the Middle East where there, they blended in but stuck out like sore thumbs in the jungles of PNG, they overcame an enormous and viciously cruel Japanese force with a tenacity that is beyond me.

Memorials are dotted all along the track in remembrance of those soldiers and of course, the remarkable Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, without whose help the Australian forces would probably have floundered. But by far the most extraordinary is the memorial at Isurava, situated within a day of Kokoda Village. For four days here, the undermanned but incredibly proud and brave 39th Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, stood resolute against 6000 crack Japanese combat troops, inflicting large losses and throwing the Japanese timetable for crossing Kokoda off track, giving time for Australian reinforcements to be brought up. Today, four large marble pillars at Isurava represent the characteristics most reminiscent of the Australian soldiers on Kokoda – Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice.

And so I saw in Anzac day at Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby, a mere hour and a half from our shores, and paid a silent tribute to those young Aussie boys and men who gave so much for the freedom we are able to enjoy today. In quiet contemplation, I leave you with the ode –
They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

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