Very good in general, although I agree with this review on how long it takes to get tot he actual battle. But I assume that reflects what happened in reality:
This book should be mandatory reading for all Australians.
Nightmares plagued my Grandfather for the rest of his life after serving on the infamous Kokoda Track. Like many veterans, he rarely spoke of it. On the rare occasions he did, he would tell me stories that involved such things as: Japanese killing all his friends (and using them as bayonet practice), everything always being soaked through, and hacking his own path through the jungle because the Japs would hide up in trees and ambush them.
It was time I learned more about the Kokoda campaign and the horrors my Grandfather was unable to speak about. After all, if he hadn’t survived, I simply wouldn’t exist. I could already feel a lump in my throat just reading the prologue, so I know this was going to be an emotionally tough read.
This was my first Peter FitzSimons read, and I was a little concerned I may not enjoy his often talked about writing style (non-fiction in a novel-style). But I did, and found it quite effective in telling multiple stories at once. Kokoda
reads a lot like a documentary: it’s filled with loads of historically accurate info from multiple sources, re-enactment type passages that bring battles to life, and some central characters – which you develop personal connections with.
It becomes very apparent, that those in chain-of-command (politicians and military alike), were clueless and mostly incompetent. It’s truly a miracle and testament to the courage of soldiers, that we won this battle at all. It was enough for me to place my head in my hands in dismay at what my Grandfather had been sent into. If it wasn’t “Pig Iron” Bob Menzies forcing Australian workers to ship iron to Japan immediately prior to the war, then it was the debauched insanity of General Blamey or clueless arrogance of General MacArthur. FitzSimons doesn’t hold back in his (just) criticism of these and other muppets. Thank god for the likes of Ralph Honner!
Just a small example of how clueless Robert Menzies was is made evident when he went on a 16-week visit to England in 1941. There, he told an international audience, “not only does Australia have no emerging problem in the Pacific”
, but in fact wanted it to “draw closer to Japan and appreciate its problems”
. These examples are everywhere in the book.
There was a lot of detailed talk about military command and similar roles away from the frontline. While definitely relevant, it got a little bogged down (no pun intended), with soldiers not getting onto the Kokoda Track itself until page 150. Yet again, I was made to feel frustrated by our troops fighting against our own senior military incompetence, as well as the Japanese (example: no camouflage or jungle clothes available and 60% of air drop supplies never recovered)
It was slow-reading because I kept pausing for amazing pieces of information to sink-in, or just due to how angry situations made me feel. I felt the need to regularly come up for air. The suffocating conditions my Grandfather spoke of were always present in the book. The horrible humidity, mosquitoes, flies, weather, terrain, food going bad in under 3 hours. I couldn’t help but feel my Grandfather was with me while reading, due to specific echoes of him throughout:
- Soldiers using their machetes to hack a walking stick out of the jungle which helped walking the track.
- Soldiers having a dingo’s breakfast (a scratch, a leak and a look around).
- A whole lot of ambushes and people getting lost or making their way off the track.
- The moment the AIF arrived on the track to help out the decimated, yet heroic 39th.
The only time I liked the Japanese perspective being shared in the book, was when it was describing the courage of our Australians:
“If the invasion is attempted, the Australians, in view of their national character, would resist to the end.”
"Though the Australians are our enemies, they must be admired."
The horrific brutality of the Japanese made my stomach churn. I’m glad FitzSimons didn’t hold back on gory details, as the truth needs to be told in such books. The barbaric beheading of men, women, children, nuns, and priests in New Guinea came across like a forerunner to modern-day terrorists - especially when paired with events such as the Rape of Nanking. Cannibalism among the Japanese wasn’t omitted either.
However, due to terrain and supply issues, there was a time when no prisoners and no mercy was shown by both sides. Such was evident in the story of Lik Lik, the native helping the Australians, who disappeared after a battle. Later coming back with a bulging sack containing 13 Japanese heads. When criticized; "But they were not dead when I found them boss, they were only wounded."
The heroism of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels was thankfully displayed throughout the book too, because without them, many Australian mothers would never have had their sons return home. Welcome comedic relief was when they began muttering the English phrase, "bloody awful job that" - because of how often they had heard it. Unfair treatment of them and being unable to drink from a local river for generations (due to the blood once flowing through it) was heartbreaking though.
There were many stories of heroism in Kokoda
and it's those which I'll probably remember forever. The book wrapped up with FitzSimons talking about the significance of Kokoda over the likes of Gallipoli in WWI, and I have to agree. Thanks to these brave soldiers, (my grandfather included), Australians can enjoy the freedoms and fantastic way of life we have today. Thanks Peter FitzSimons, for highlighting these brave soldiers' plight.
"They shall grow not old, as we that 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."