Heavy machine-guns – the dread “wood-peckers” – chopped through the trees … the enveloping forest erupted into violent action as Nippon’s screaming warriors streamed out of its shadows to the assault … The enemy came on in waves over a short stretch of open ground, regardless of casualties … They were met with Bren-gun and Tommy-gun, with bayonet and grenade; but still they came, to close with the buffet of fist and boot and rifle-butt, the steel of crashing helmets and of straining, strangling fingers. [It was] vicious fighting, man to man and hand to hand.

Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner. Read more of his story.

The attacks on Australian troops at Deniki continued until the tired defenders ran low on vital food and ammunition.

They withdrew to Isurava, digging trenches into an overgrown garden using their bayonets, bully beef tins and steel helmets. Fatigue from weeks of fighting in the cold, wet conditions reduced their morale as they crawled into their weapon pits. The sun would have been a welcome comfort, had it been able to reach them through the thick canopy.

The new commander of 39th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, had arrived on 16 August. He described the troops as "Worn out by strenuous fighting, exhausting movement and weakened by lack of food, sleep and shelter."

Until their arrival at Isurava in the last week of August, the Australians' aim had been to retake control of the Kokoda airfield. It was vital infrastructure that would allow the Allies to supply their troops with food and ammunition. But high command now considered the Japanese force too strong, and they saw the potential danger of their advance to Port Moresby. So, they issued new orders to Brigadier Potts, the new Maroubra Force Commander.

They were to defend and hold the Kokoda Track to prevent the Japanese advance.

As the days passed, the Australians continued to clash with the Japanese on the outskirts of Isurava. Their intensity increasing, the nearer they got. Then at dawn on 26 August, Japanese troops from 1st Battalion, 144th Regiment attacked the 39th Battalion.

The jungle erupted with heavy machine gun fire. The Japanese charged at them in waves over a stretch of open ground. The Allied forces held their position, despite the onslaught.

On 29 August, the Japanese broke through the lines of the 2/14th Battalion. One of the survivors was Private Bruce Kingsbury. He volunteered to lead the counterattack and charged the Japanese firing his Bren gun from the hip, breaking through the enemy line. Unfortunately, he was killed by a sniper, but his actions earned him the Victoria Cross.

The Japanese forced the Australians back, but they failed to destroy Maroubra Force as planned.

During this bloody campaign, 6,000 Australians, Papuans (of the Papuan Infantry Battalion) and Japanese fought for five days, and 300 men were killed.

Papua New Guinea
26 to 31 August 1942
Image caption
Exhausted members of the 39th battalion on parade on 22 September 1942. They're being addressed by their commanding officer after weeks of fighting in the dense jungle, near Isurava.

In front is Lieutenant Johnson. Behind him from left are: Arnie Wallace, Bill Sanders, Harry Hodge, Kevin Surtees, George Cudmore, George Puxley, Kevin Whelan, Len Murrell, Dick Secker, Neil Graham, Clive Gale and Jack Boldand.
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. AWM 013289. Photo by Damien Peter Parer.