Our colonel, under instructions from higher up, decided that we would make the first move and we would occupy Kokoda, which had an airstrip so that we could have our supplies – ammunition and what have you – landed. The company I was in, A Company, we had to move by a route off the main track to Kokoda to capture that whilst the rest of the battalion moved down the main track."
Alexander Joseph Lochhead, Lieutenant of 39th Battalion. Listen to his account.
After Japanese Army and Navy forces landed at Lae and Salamaua on 8 March 1942, they began to move towards Port Moresby over the Owen Stanley Ranges.
The first engagement at Kokoda on 28 July started in the areas surrounding Awala, Gorari Creek and Oivi. The combined Australian and Papuan forces had their work cut out for them. Many streams, rough foothills and tracks divided the thick, humid scrub.
The airfield was valuable to both sides. Whoever controlled it could fly in reinforcements and supplies.
Soon, the Australian forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Owen and accompanied by Major William Watson and the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB), were forced to retreat. They moved back to Kokoda from Oivi, exhausted and missing many men.
Meanwhile, at dusk on 26 July, Captain Samuel Templeton (known as ‘Uncle Sam’), was wounded then captured. Wanting to warn an approaching platoon, Templeton snuck into the bush. A burst of bullets cut through the forest and Templeton was not seen again.
Now back at Deniki, Owen was given word that Templeton’s remaining 'B' Company of the 39th Battalion had been surrounded. He decided to lead the defence at Kokoda again.
Australian casualties were seven killed in action with six wounded. The Japanese lost 12, and 26 wounded at this first engagement at Kokoda.