THE AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE OF ISURAVA — 26 TO 30 AUGUST 1942

 

THE FIRST DAY - 26 AUGUST

Major General Horii begins his attack on the Australians at Isurava

On the morning of 26 August 1942, Major General Horii unleashed the first stage of his offensive against the defenders of Isurava in the form of a bombardment by one of his light mountain guns and two probing actions. The Australian forward patrol on the track to Deniki commanded by Lieutenant D. J. Simonson came under heavy attack by advancing Japanese troops. Simonson's men drove the Japanese back and searched for their mountain gun with a view to destroying it, but could not find it.

 

In this image, sick and wounded members of the 39th Battalion are shown walking along the Kokoda Track to a medical post. When they heard that their battalion
was in trouble at Isurava, twenty-seven of the walking sick and wounded members of the 39th Battalion turned back to Isurava to fight beside their comrades.

Under cover of the bombardment, Japanese troops moved through the dense jungle and into the village garden on the northern side of the Australian defensive perimeter. The Australians attacked the Japanese troops aggressively and drove them out of the garden and back into the jungle.

The first company of the AIF 2/14th Battalion arrives at Isurava

On the afternoon of 26 August, while Major General Horii was probing the Australian defences at Isurava and his troops were being thrown back by the weary men of the 39th Battalion, the first company of Brigadier Potts' AIF troops arrived at Isurava. The men of C Company, 2/14th Battalion began to take over the position of C Company, 39th Battalion in the right forward position of the Australian perimeter. The gaunt, ragged scarecrows of the 39th Battalion were astonished at the sight of these tall, fit young Australian troops wearing clean, "jungle-green" uniforms who had come to relieve them. They had not been abandoned to death at the hands of the Japanese. The morale of the 39th Battalion soared. More 2/14th Battalion troops would arrive that evening and on the following day. The Australians knew that the Japanese had greater firepower in the form of mountain guns and mortars, and that they would face heavy bombardment to which they could not reply in kind. Perhaps it was fortunate for their morale that they did not know at this stage that the Japanese outnumbered them by at least six to one!

During the night of 26 August, Lieutenant Simonson's forward patrol on the Deniki track came under attack again, and Simonson and several of his men were wounded. Lieutenant Sword’s D Company platoon came forward to reinforce Simonson’s platoon, and to allow Simonson and his wounded men to return to Isurava. The wounded men arrived safely back at Isurava, but by daybreak on 27 August, Lieutenant Sword’s reinforced forward patrol had been cut off by the Japanese.

Unaware that his troops are outnumbered by ten to one, Brigadier Potts prepares for battle

While the Australians were under attack at Isurava, Brigadier Potts established his Brigade Headquarters at Alola, which was the first village down the track from Isurava on the Port Moresby side. He was not unduly concerned about the situation at Isurava. Owing to faulty intelligence provided to him by General MacArthur's headquarters in Australia, Potts still believed that the 1,100 troops of his two AIF rifle battalions would be facing 4,000 Japanese combat troops on the Kokoda Track. He had no inkling that Major General Horii had assembled 10,000 of Japan’s best combat troops for his drive along the Kokoda Track to Port Moresby.

Potts’ AIF 2/16th Battalion was still making its way to Alola from the supply dropping ground at Myola. His 2/27th Battalion was being retained by senior commanders at Port Moresby until the outcome of the Japanese landing at Milne Bay on the night of 25/26 August was decided. Until the first company of the 2/16th Battalion arrived, Potts had only the untested militia recruits of the 53rd Battalion at Alola to counter any move by the Japanese to outflank Isurava by using the roughly parallel eastern track between Deniki and Alola via the villages of Kaile, Missima and Abuari.

To counter any move by the Japanese to outflank Isurava by means of a western track running along high ground and through the village of Naro, Potts ordered Honner to establish a forward patrol at Naro. Lieutenant Pentland’s C Company platoon drew the short straw. When Pentland attempted to reach Naro by the established western track, he found the area swarming with Japanese. Pentland’s platoon was forced to cut its way through thick jungle to rejoin the Naro track beyond the area of Japanese occupation. Contact was then lost with Pentland‘s platoon.

THE SECOND DAY - 27 AUGUST

 

Japanese troops have dismantled a light mountain gun for easier movement across rugged terrain. This portable artillery could be
quickly reassembled when required for combat and gave the Japanese a deadly advantage over the Australians on the Kokoda Track.

Early on the morning of 27 August, under cover of a heavy mountain gun and mortar bombardment, Japanese troops poured out of the jungle and rushed at the northern and western sections of the Australian perimeter held by E and B Companies respectively. The attack on E Company's northern perimeter was beaten off, but the jungle was now swarming with Japanese troops who rushed in wave after wave at B Company's western perimeter throughout the day. The Japanese appeared to care little about their losses; fresh troops were always available to replace those who fell. B Company could not replace its fallen, however, and by late afternoon its ranks had thinned to the stage where it appeared likely that the Japanese would overrun the Australian position. Just when it appeared inevitable that B Company of the 39th would be overrun, AIF troops of B Company of the 2/14th Battalion arrived at Isurava to strengthen the rapidly thinning line of the militia company. As night approached, the Japanese had had enough and withdrew into the jungle.

With nightfall came further reinforcements in the form of D Company of the 2/14th Battalion. D Company would relieve E Company of the 39th Battalion at first light on the following morning. At daybreak on 28 August, three fresh AIF companies would be facing the Japanese on the most vulnerable northern and western sections of the Australian defensive perimeter. As each company of the 39th Battalion was relieved, the exhausted troops were moved to the eastern and southern sections of the Australian perimeter where a steep slope and dense jungle respectively prevented the Japanese massing in large numbers for an attack. Two 39th Battalion patrols were still missing. These patrols had been cut off as the Japanese tightened their grip on Isurava.

The resolute stand by the exhausted troops of the 39th Battalion against massive and repeated Japanese frontal assaults, throughout the day of 27 August 1942, deserves to rank as one of the great defences in Australia's military history. If the young militia troops of the 39th Battalion had been unable to resist the awesome power of the Japanese attacks until relieved late in the day by AIF troops, Horii's drive to Port Moresby would have achieved an instant momentum that would probably have been unstoppable.

Major General Horii moves to outflank the Australians at Isurava

While the Australians at Isurava were occupied in repelling Horii's repeated frontal attacks, a battalion of his troops had been moving along the parallel eastern track between Deniki and Alola. Their aim was to outflank the Australians at Isurava by occupying Alola. This eastern track was being patrolled by militia troops of the 53rd Battalion whose function was to resist any attempt by the Japanese to outflank Isurava. Their first contact with the Japanese on the eastern track occurred on 25 August when an Australian militia patrol was ambushed by Japanese troops as it approached Kaile. The Australians withdrew towards their base camp at Alola, but found the track blocked by Japanese who had already occupied Missima. The patrol was forced to leave the track and make its way back to Alola through dense jungle.

It is necessary to make the point here that many of the young militia troops of the 53rd Battalion had never handled a rifle before they were put aboard the ship for Port Moresby. Not only were they untested in battle, but they were sent to face elite jungle-trained Japanese troops with only the barest minimum of training, and without adequate supplies and equipment. Despite these serious deficiencies, it was necessary for them to be assigned the vital task of resisting an outflanking tactic which the Japanese had used to devastating effect in Malaya and the Philippines. For what followed, only the flawed judgment and inexcusable ignorance of senior military commanders in Australia can be blamed.

On 26 August, another 53rd Battalion patrol went looking for the missing patrol, and encountered Japanese troops at Missima. The second patrol withdrew towards Alola with the Japanese in close pursuit. Towards nightfall, a full company of the 53rd Battalion was sent down the eastern track to counter this new threat to Alola. On the morning of 27 August, while the battle at Isurava was raging, Brigadier Potts realised that his troops at Isurava were in grave danger of being outflanked and ordered the 53rd Battalion to retake Missima. In response to that order, the Commanding Officer of the 53rd Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel K. H. Ward, sent a second company to reinforce the first company and recapture Missima. Towards nightfall on 27 August, Ward was informed that his two companies were advancing towards Missima, and he set out to follow with only two members of his battalion. They were ambushed and killed by the Japanese. The raw militia recruits of Ward's two forward companies had made contact with the Japanese and then broken and scattered into the jungle.

By nightfall on 27 August, the arrival of AIF troops of the 2/14th Battalion had partially stabilised the situation at Isurava, but Brigadier Potts was facing a grave danger of being outflanked by the Japanese on his right flank. Late in the afternoon, he had ordered what was left of the 53rd Battalion to leave Alola and deploy at Abuari, a small village on the eastern track between Missima and Alola, and to hold that line until reinforced by AIF troops of the 2/16th Battalion. The first company of the 2/16th Battalion was not expected to reach Alola before nightfall on 27 August. Fortunately, for the Australians at Isurava and the survival of Port Moresby, the Japanese troops on the eastern track stopped short of Alola when the prize was within their grasp. They dug in near Abuari and contented themselves with sending out patrols towards Alola.

THE THIRD DAY - 28 AUGUST

At first light on 28 August, Major General Horii unleashed the full power of his artillery. Mountain gun shells and mortar bombs rained down on the beleaguered Australians at Isurava, while heavy machine guns lashed their positions and levelled the tall grass and sugar cane that screened them from the Japanese. It was the prelude to the main attack. Troops of Japan's elite South Seas Detachment stormed out of the jungle in waves of a hundred or more. Shouting "banzai", they rushed at the Australians on the vulnerable northern and western sides of their defensive perimeter. The Australians responded to these frontal assaults with hand grenades and a storm of fire from their sub-machine guns and rifles. If the Japanese reached the Australian lines through sheer weight of numbers, they were met with bayonets and desperate hand-to-hand struggles.

The Japanese human wave attacks continued throughout the morning, and Japanese bodies covered the ground thickly in front of the Australian lines. Horii could afford to be careless with the lives of his troops because he knew that the Australians were heavily outnumbered. B Company faced the open ground to the west of the Australian perimeter and took the brunt of the repeated human wave attacks. By early afternoon, many members of B Company had been killed or wounded.

The Japanese continued to attack throughout the afternoon, always probing for weaknesses in the Australian perimeter that would enable them to outflank the defenders. The Japanese attacks often threatened to overrun the thin line of Australian defenders, but fighting desperately, the Australians repulsed each attack. By mid-afternoon, the Japanese had found a weakness between B and D Companies where the jungle extended between the two companies. Members of 16 Platoon, D Company occupied this patch of jungle, and the jungle was so dense that the Australians had only a limited view of the advancing Japanese before the enemy was upon them. To compound the problem, the dense vegetation made communication between the sections of 16 Platoon difficult. Using their overwhelming superiority in numbers, the Japanese finally breached 16 Platoon's defensive line and created a highly dangerous situation for the hard-pressed Australians.

Fortunately, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Key, Commanding Officer of the 2/14th Battalion, arrived with his Headquarters and A Companies during this critical time. A determined counter-attack by fresh troops of A Company stopped the Japanese, and by nightfall, expelled them from the Australian lines. With the arrival of the additional reinforcements, it was now possible to establish a strong reserve to assist when a section of the Australian perimeter was in danger of being overrun.

Towards nightfall, the fighting at Isurava slackened as Major General Horii took stock of the situation. He had watched the battle with binoculars from high ground north of the village, and had seen wave after wave of his elite troops thrown back by the thin lines of hard-pressed Australian defenders. He quickly realised that the depleted and exhausted 39th Battalion had been reinforced by fresh Australian troops while he was bringing up his five combat battalions and carefully deploying them for the attack on Isurava. By delaying his attack, Horii had lost an opportunity for a quick victory over the weakened 39th Battalion, and the momentum such a victory would have provided for his drive towards Port Moresby. His strict timetable allowed only ten days for the crossing of the Owen Stanley Range. He had now fallen several days behind, and he had unforgiving masters in Tokyo. The Japanese general had lost about 350 men killed and about 1,000 wounded in the first three days of his attack on Isurava, and he had failed to break through the Australian lines. He decided to bring up his reserve battalions, and throw everything at the Australians on the following day.

The 39th Battalion elects to remain with the 2/14th Battalion at Isurava

The arrival of all companies of the 2/14th Battalion at Isurava should have led to the exhausted troops of the 39th Battalion being relieved and allowed to return to Port Moresby, but Ralph Honner felt that one battalion could not hold the Japanese at Isurava when the Australians would be outnumbered by about ten to one. He persuaded Brigadier Potts to allow the 39th to stay and support their comrades of the 2/14th. This very generous offer must have been gratefully accepted by Potts. His heavily outnumbered AIF troops faced more tough fighting at Isurava on the following day, and his approaching 2/16th Battalion troops had to be diverted to the eastern track to counter a dangerous outflanking move by the Japanese.

THE FOURTH DAY - 29 AUGUST

At first light on 29 August, a heavy barrage of mortar bombs and artillery shells crashed into the Australian lines at Isurava as a prelude to Horii's massive "do-or-die" attack. From early morning, Japanese troops began massing in front of the northern and western sections of the Australian perimeter, and then, screaming "banzai", they rushed at the Australian defenders in seemingly unstoppable human waves. Despite heavy fire from the Australians, sheer weight of numbers enabled some Japanese troops to reach the Australian lines, and fierce hand-to-hand combat followed. These frenzied human wave attacks by the Japanese continued throughout the day, and despite very heavy losses, the Japanese appeared to have inexhaustible supplies of men to fill the places of those who fell. By late afternoon, the Japanese had penetrated the western perimeter, and B Company had been forced to fall back from its perimeter after suffering heavy casualties.

Private Bruce Kingsbury prevents a Japanese breakthrough

During the morning, C Company had also been repeatedly subjected to human wave attacks in its right forward position facing Deniki. The Japanese had mounted these attacks with such ferocity and determination that C Company had suffered heavy casualties, and there was a real prospect of a Japanese breakthrough that would imperil all of the Australians at Isurava. A platoon from the A Company reserve was called upon again to prevent the Japanese overrunning C Company's position, but in fierce fighting this platoon also suffered heavy casualties. Sensing victory, and with no apparent regard for their heavy losses, the Japanese continued to storm the C Company position in wave after wave, and the situation for the Australians remained critical. With the survival of the two Australian battalions at Isurava now under serious threat from a Japanese breakthrough, Lieutenant Clements of C Company gathered men for another counter-attack that was to be led by Sergeant Bob Thompson from Headquarters Company and Private Bruce Kingsbury from A Company.

Private Kingsbury had taken a Bren light machine gun from Corporal Lindsay "Teddy" Bear who had been wounded while leading an earlier desperate counter-attack in defence of the C Company position. When another wave of Japanese stormed the C Company position, Kingsbury called on his comrades to follow him. Firing his Bren gun from the hip, Kingsbury charged through a storm of fire towards the approaching line of Japanese troops. Kingsbury's charge broke the Japanese line and they fled back into the jungle. As his comrades caught up and gathered around him, a Japanese sniper's bullet cut down the gallant private. Kingsbury was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Since the action at Isurava took place in the Territory of Papua, Bruce Kingsbury was the first Australian to win a Victoria Cross on Australian soil.

 

 

Private Bruce Kingsbury, VC, 2/14th Battalion, led a desperate counter-attack against a ferocious Japanese human wave attack that threatened the survival of the Australians at Isurava. Firing his Bren gun from the hip, Kingsbury charged through a storm of fire at the approaching line of Japanese troops. Kingsbury's gallant charge broke the Japanese line and they fled back into the jungle. He was killed by a bullet at the very moment that the Japanese attack was repulsed. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

The 2/16th Battalion frustrates Horii's plan to encircle the Australians at Isurava

While the fighting was raging at Isurava on this day, two companies of the 2/16th Battalion encountered forward troops of a Japanese battalion between Missima and Alola on the eastern track. These Japanese troops were engaged in carrying out Horii's plan to outflank the Australians at Isurava and, by seizing Alola, cut them off from supplies and reinforcements from Port Moresby. The initial confrontation occurred at Abuari on 29 August when A and B Companies of the 2/16th Battalion were moving towards Missima. Despite heavy and determined fighting, the Australians could not dislodge the Japanese from their entrenched positions above the village, and Captain F. H. Sublet, commanding the two Australian companies at Abuari, requested assistance from a company of the militia 53rd Battalion to attack the Japanese position from the rear on the following morning. When Captain Sublet had received no indication by 11.00 am on the following morning that troops of the 53rd Battalion had engaged the Japanese, he decided to wait no longer, and ordered an assault on the Japanese positions above Abuari. Both Australians and Japanese suffered heavy casualties in this action on the eastern track on 30 August, but the attack by the 2/16th Battalion troops played a vital role in frustrating Horii's plan to capture Alola and encircle the Australians at Isurava.

The failure of the militia troops of the 53rd Battalion to support Captain Sublet’s assault on the Japanese at Abuari needs to be explained. These inexperienced militia troops had walked into a deadly Japanese ambush. The dazed survivors were found in the jungle by a 2/16th platoon which guided them back to Alola.

The Japanese penetrate the Australian defensive Perimeter at Isurava

Despite Kingsbury's gallant sacrifice, by nightfall on 29 August the Australians were in a grim position at Isurava. By sheer weight of numbers, the Japanese had penetrated the Australian perimeter on the western side and were occupying vital high ground that had previously been held by B Company. The Japanese would be able to rake the Australian defenders with heavy machine-gun fire from this high ground. The 2/14th had suffered heavy casualties in continuous heavy fighting over the previous two days. The 2/14th troops were tired, and any attempt to retake the high ground would require commitment of the reserve troops at Isurava. However, those reserves were not fresh troops but the exhausted men of the 39th Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Keys realised that the position of the Australians at Isurava had become untenable in the face of overwhelming enemy numbers, greatly superior enemy firepower, and the loss of the western high ground. He sought, and received permission from Brigadier Potts to abandon Isurava and withdraw his troops to the Isurava Rest House which was situated about half way between Isurava and Brigade Headquarters at Alola.

Before leaving the Battle of Isurava, it is appropriate to mention two incidents on 29 August that provide a measure of the devotion to duty and camaraderie of the men of the 39th Battalion. Lieutenant Sword’s reinforced forward patrol had been cut off by the Japanese after Lieutenant Simonson and the other wounded members of his patrol returned to Isurava on the night of 26 August. Contact with Lieutenant Pentland’s platoon at Naro on a ridge west of Isurava was lost when the Japanese cut the Naro track on 27 August. Both platoons kept to dense jungle to avoid the Japanese and reach Australian lines. On 29 August, the platoons of Lieutenants Sword and Pentland reached Alola. The men were exhausted, starving, and their clothing and bodies had been torn by the jungle. Their feet were bleeding through the holes in their boots. Despite their poor condition, they insisted on returning to Isurava immediately when they heard that their comrades were in trouble.

On 27th August, in anticipation of the complete relief of the 39th Battalion on the following day, Lieutenant Colonel Honner sent thirty of the weakest sick and wounded members of the battalion down the track to Alola under the command of Lieutenant Johnston. Two days later, when word reached these sick and wounded men that the 39th and 2/14th Battalions were in trouble, all but three gravely injured men volunteered to return and fight beside their comrades at Isurava.

ISURAVA IN RETROSPECT

Between 26 and 29 August, the men of the 39th and 2/14th Battalions had endured constant and ferocious fighting. During that time, the Australian defenders of Isurava were without shelter, soaked by rain,deprived of sleep, unable to brew a mug of tea or partake of a hot meal. As the Japanese were storming their thin lines in overwhelming numbers, the Australians knew that they were all that stood between the Japanese and Port Moresby. They also knew that, if Port Moresby fell to the Japanese, Australia would come under heavier aerial bombardment and face a real possibility of Japanese invasion of areas of the mainland.

Although the Australians could not have known it at the time, their heroic defence of Isurava had cost the Japanese dearly, and made an important contribution to the eventual Japanese failure to capture Port Moresby. It has been estimated by Australian Maroubra Force commander Brigadier Arnold Potts that the Japanese suffered "over 700" dead and wounded in repeated attacks over four days on the Australian lines at Isurava.* The combination of very heavy casualties at Isurava, and the loss of four vital days from Horii’s ambitious ten-day timetable for crossing the Owen Stanley Range, would blunt the momentum of the Japanese general’s drive towards Port Moresby. These factors, when combined with the continuing stubborn resistance of the Australians along the length of the Kokoda Track, a chaotic supply situation produced by the rugged mountain terrain and lengthening Japanese supply line, and the starving and exhausted condition of Horii's troops, would eventually cause the Japanese to give up and retreat when Horii was only about 65 kilometres (40 miles) from Port Moresby and he could see searchlights sweeping the sky above the town.

* Australia's Official History "South West Pacific Area - First Year: Kokoda to Wau" (Volume V) by Dudley McCarthy at Page 219.

In the history of gallant defensive actions against overwhelming odds, few deserve to rank with the Battle of Isurava. When interviewed many years later, Japanese participants in the battles on the Kokoda Track have paid high tribute to the extraordinary courage of the Australian soldiers who blocked their drive towards Port Moresby.

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