The Japanese objective was to take Port Moresby by an overland strike. For the Australian forces, holding Port Moresby was vital to the defence of Australia.
Another Japanese force would later land at Milne Bay at the eastern tip of Papua to secure aircraft landing grounds and to prepare for an assault on Port Moresby from along the south Papuan coast. This landing was defeated by Australian and American forces at the Battle of Milne Bay in August 1942.
A formidable physical barrier between the north and south was the Owen Stanley Range, a series of rugged mountains which are crossed only by a few foot tracks, one of which is the Kokoda Track.
Between July and November 1942, Australian forces fought to prevent the Japanese from reaching Port Moresby and then pushed them back over the Owen Stanley Range.
Assisting the troops were civilians who became affectionately known as the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. They carried supplies, built bases, airfields and other wartime infrastructure, and evacuated the sick and wounded from fighting zones.
The first encounter between Japanese and Australians took place on 23 July 1942 at Awala, where began a fighting withdrawal that carried the Australians back down the track. Within a week the strategically important village and airstrip at Kokoda were in Japanese hands.
In early August, the 39th Battalion temporarily retook Kokoda, before withdrawing to Isurava where they were reinforced by the 53rd Battalion and the 21st Brigade. The Japanese struck Isurava in late August in what became the largest engagement of the battle so far.
During the fighting, Private Bruce Kingsbury attacked the enemy, clearing a path though which his mates could push the Japanese back. Kingsbury was killed and for his bravery was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Australians held their ground for four days before they began a fighting withdrawal that carried them back to Imita Ridge on 17 September 1942, within 48 kilometres of Port Moresby.
During this time, various groups were cut off by the Japanese advance including the 2/14th and 2/27th Battalions, with men of the 2/27th isolated in the jungle for two weeks, experiencing starvation and illness before the battalion found its way back to friendly troops.
An Australian counter-offensive began at the end of September, forcing Japanese troops slowly back along the track.
By 2 November 1942 the Australians had retaken Kokoda. The following day, now commemorated as Kokoda Day, the Australian flag was raised at Kokoda.
By 18 November the Australians had reached the Kumusi River and the battle for the Kokoda Track was over.
Australians who served
- 16th, 21st and 25th Brigades
- Militia – 3rd, 39th and 53rd Battalions.
- Papuan Infantry Battalion.
- More than 600 Australians died during the Battle of Kokoda and more than 1,600 Australians were wounded.
- Over 10,000 Japanese died from January 1942 to January 1943
- Private Bruce Kingsbury of the 2/14th Battalion was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of Isurava.
- The Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery contains the graves of more than 3,300 Australian service personnel of the Second World War.
- Contains the graves of more Australian war dead than any other cemetery.
- The Port Moresby Memorial to the Missing within the cemetery commemorates more than 700 Australians who lost their lives in operations in Papua during the Second World War and who have no known grave.