In the Papuan campaign, thought to be the most significant battle fought by Australians in World War II, 2165 Australians were killed, 607 died on the Kokoda Track, 3533 were wounded and 29,000 suffered from tropical disease.
Forced to repel a Japanese invasion force, which landed at Gona on the north coast of Papua on 21 July 1942, the Aussies fought in appalling conditions over the next four months. The Japanese objective was to capture Port Moresby, the main Australian base in New Guinea, by an overland strike across the Owen Stanley Range. The most direct way across these rugged mountains was by a jungle pathway known as the Kokoda Track.
During the next four months, until 16 November 1942, Australian soldiers fought the Japanese, first to keep them from reaching Port Moresby and then to push them back over the Owen Stanleys to their north coast strongholds at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
45,000 indigenous people of New Guinea and Papua were conscripted into the Australian Army to work as stretcher bearers. Called Fuzzy Wuzzies because of their characteristic frizzy hair, they became a welcome sight for the embattled Australian soldiers on the Track. They carried 750 wounded on stretchers up and down the Track in search of medical assistance. They also worked as scouts on airfields and road installations, barrack constructions and swamp clearings. 2,500 men were put into uniform and formed three infantry battalions in the Australian Army.
The efforts of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, as they became affectionately known, were tireless and valuable. Their assistance to the Australian troops should never be forgotten.
In October 2013, 13 of us, from all over Australia, each with our individual reasons for doing the trek, walked the 96km together, over some exceptionally rugged terrain in all sorts of weather. We travelled with our personal porters, who not unlike the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels in WWII, were watching our every step, helping us up and down the mountains and carrying our packs.
Our personal trek over 9 days, following in the footsteps of our Aussie soldiers, went in the same direction as the Japanese advance – from Kokoda towards Port Moresby.
It was to be the experience of a lifetime.