Peter Costello


Launch of "Mud Over Blood" by Carl Johnson, Melbourne





Major General McLachlan thank you very much for such a wonderful introduction. It is a privilege to be here. To Denis Baguley, to Owen Jenkin, to Alan Moore and of course also to Carl Johnson. It is a privilege for me to be here amongst the men of the 39th Infantry Battalion. You are people who deserve a special place of honour in Australia today. And I want to say on behalf of the nation, on behalf of your friends and your family, how much we recognise the deeds and the bravery that you showed back in 1941-1943 on the Kokoda Track.

Could I also acknowledge Senator Julian McGauran the Senator for Victoria who is here today? What Carl has done in this book Mud Over Blood is gather together reflections of those who served in the 39th Battalion in Papua New Guinea during World War II. This book is an addition to our war history.

It contains direct accounts of those who were there, those who were in the heat and the confusion of battle. And as time has moved on many of those veterans have passed away. Their children know some of the stories, and I find a hunger amongst the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren to know the story of Australia’s soldiers, of our servicemen, to know something of the history of this country and to know those sacred places at which Australia stood and fought:- which have made our history.

And so gathered together those stories preserve down through the generations something that I think future generations of Australians will value, and come to regard as part of their own history, their own culture.

From where we sit now in 2006 in a prosperous and a peaceful country it is hard to remember the desperation of those early years of the 1940s. Nazi Germany had conquered and was holding most of continental Europe. The Japanese had bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbour. In the waters off Malaya the mighty British warships the Repulse and the Prince of Wales had been sunk. The Japanese had taken the Philippines, laid siege to Siam, Malaya, Hong Kong, French Indochina,
the Dutch East Indies, Burma and Borneo.

On the 15th of February the "impregnable bastion" of Singapore fell and 22,000 Australian troops were taken prisoner of war. And on the 19th of February, four days after the fall of Singapore 188 Japanese bombers and fighters bombed Darwin killing 243 Australians.

In May Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour – our largest city and brought the War home to metropolitan Australia.

Australia was a nation unprepared to defend itself in the early days of 1942. On the 14th of June the Japanese Commander of the 17th Army in Rabaul received orders to take Port Moresby over land from Buna and Gona on the north coast. Port Moresby would then serve as a base for the Japanese in operations against Australia and the US Navy in the Pacific. And here begins the battle story of the 39th Battalion.

By all accounts they were a green bunch when they arrived in Port Moresby in those early days of the New Guinea campaign. What little training they had received was inadequate and unsuited to jungle warfare in tropical conditions.

The Australian army had a system of ranking the readiness of Brigades for combat from "A" to "F" with "F" signifying that training is not yet complete. That was the ranking of the 39th.

But what they had was enthusiasm and a willingness to serve their country in the most serious way possible.

When they arrived in PNG they were immediately hit with the heat, the humidity and dysentery. And in the third week of June the order came from Douglas Macarthur that Australian troops would secure Kokoda and its airfield by mid-July and then Buna by early August.

B Company led by Sam Templeton took on the task to cross the Owen Stanley Range. Conditions were appalling. Diggers quickly realised what they did and what they didn’t need from their kits. The track itself was barely known to white people. In 1927 gold had been discovered near Kokoda. Two large groups of people had set off to find it and never returned.

And the first military encounters around Kokoda made it quickly apparent that the Japanese were there in far stronger numbers, with a far higher level of training. The Australians troops faced overwhelming numbers – four or five to one. And they began to defend stoutly, to cause as much harm as possible to the enemy, and when the odds became impossible to withdraw to more strategic locations.

It was a manner of fighting calculated to exhaust the Japanese:- stretching their supply lines down that track. But it exhausted the Australians too – barely clothed, barely fed, suffering exhaustion, the fear of jungle fighting in an environment where the enemy could seem everywhere at once and indeed on some occasions was everywhere at once.

The Battle for Isurava in particular cost the Japanese dearly after wave of Japanese assault troops was cut down by Australians placed in well defended dugouts and defensive positions. By dogged defence, exhausted Australian troops turned things around and the Japanese eventually were ordered to retreat.

These are the men who saved the Kokoda Track. These are the men who defended Australia.

When the Japanese turned that wasn’t the end of the fighting. The 39th Battalion was given the task of pushing forward to the coast on the north coast of New Guinea – Gona – to push the invading force right out of the islands.

In the six months it took to secure the Track Australia lost 2,165 troops, with 3,533 wounded. The US lost 671 troops with 2,172 wounded. The Japanese of whom it is estimated there were 20,000 in Papua New Guinea lost around 13,000 killed, with practically all of the rest wounded to some degree.

Sacrifices like this were deeply felt in the small nation of Australia as it was at that time. Families today still miss their boys, their uncles, their fathers who were lost in that campaign. This is the story of the 39th Battalion.

In the book Mud Over Blood Don Daniels recounts his answer to school students who asked him "How did you feel at Kokoda when the battle started? What were you thinking of?" His answer was this:- "Well what I was thinking is if you look north you see nothing but Japanese and if you look south you see Australia. And the only thing in between the two is the 39th Battalion."

The 39th Battalion deserved special recognition from all Australians. And that recognition which I now believe is universally acknowledged took some time. There were some ill-judged comments about the Kokoda campaign even from Sir Thomas Blamey, the Australian Commander in Chief. Ill-judged and unfortunate because I believe the Australian High Command did not understand the nature of the battle and the sacrifices that had been made or indeed the method of fighting in jungle

And then of course there was the disbandment of the 39th Battalion – which even today is something of a mystery. Some have suggested that the Battalion was disbanded because it had outshone other units of the AIF. Whether that is the case or whether it is not, the truth of the matter is that the 39th can stand with any unit of the AIF or the Australian Defence Force. The Australian Defence Force which has a proud history as Major General McLachlan recently reminded us – a proud history going through Anzac, Kokoda and Vietnam right down to today in Al-Muthanna Province in Iraq and in the Gulf and in Northern Afghanistan.

These are the stories that have made Australia what it is today. These are the stories which we must nurture in the children, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of the diggers who served. This is the honour we must give our servicemen and our servicewomen.

Mud over blood are the colours of the 39th:- the Battalion which helped save Australia, that secured the Kokoda Track. These are their stories. And on behalf of all Australians I want to thank them and acknowledge those stories in launching this book today, the book of the 39th Battalion – Mud Over Blood. Thank you all so very much.


24 Mar 2006

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