The Kokoda Track | Australians in World War II | The Pacific War

Exploring the site of the battle fought by Australians in World War II

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A Fighting Retreat

First engagement at Kokoda 28 July 1942

At the first of two engagements at Kokoda the Japanese defeated Lieutenant Colonel Owen's force and captured the airstrip from which they expected to receive supplies from Rabaul...

Studio portrait of VX45223 Lieutenant Colonel William Taylor Owen DSC (Distinguished Service Cross), 39th Battalion, of Leongatha, Victoria. He enlisted on 8 July 1940 at Caulfield. Lt Col Owen was taking part in close fighting with the Japanese on the Kokoda trail, in the most forward position at the most threatened point in Seekamp’s sector, on the very lip of the plateau. He was throwing grenades when a bullet struck him. Lt Col Owen died on 29 July 1942, in Papua, aged 37 years. He was the first Australian to receive the American Distinguished Service Cross. [AWM P05414.001]
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After the stand at Oivi the combined Papuan/Australian force fell back to Deniki. Then, as the Japanese did not immediately take Kokoda, Lt Col Owen reoccupied it on 28 July 1942. He expected to be reinforced by air. Two Allied transport aircraft did circle the field but, unsure if the Japanese were present, they did not land.

Owen had 140 men, mostly 39th Battalion but including at least 29 Papuans from the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Royal Papuan Constabulary. He placed them in an arc around the northern end of the plateau on which the Kokoda administration buildings stood. His opponent was Captain Ogawa, commander of No. 1 Company of the first battalion of 144 Regiment. Both Ogawa and Owen were to be killed in the engagement.

Video Still of Kokoda airstrip

In 1942 Kokoda airstrip was the only viable airstrip for 100 kilometres.

Ogawa's company was 135 men strong when it arrived in Papua. It was reinforced with a few Orokaiva scouts and a platoon each of engineers, machine gunners and artillery, with one 70mm gun. About 240 men when they left Sanananda, casualties thus far in Papua reduced this force to close to 200 men at Kokoda.

Ogawa began his attack at 2.30 on the morning of 29 July. Approaching from the north his men were halted by the Australians on the plateau where Owen was shot early in the fighting. Ogawa then sent a platoon out to the west and another to the east to feel for the Australian flanks. At this time the Japanese artillerymen found the correct range and their shells began inflicting casualties on Owen's force. The mortal wounding of Owen, the enemy to the flank, combined with accurate artillery fire, caused the Australian line to collapse about an hour after the fight commenced. Major Watson of the Papuan Infantry Battalion assumed command and ordered the force to make for Deniki. A fortunate mist obscured the moonlight and concealed the retreat. The Australians lost seven killed and six wounded at Kokoda. The Japanese lost 12 killed and 26 wounded.

Owen's decision to try to hold Kokoda was correct. New Guinea Force was hoping to fly in a company of infantry each day. All day on 29 July a company of 49th Battalion was sitting by the runway at Port Moresby waiting to be airlifted to Kokoda. This potential doubling of Owen's force did not occur as communications between Port Moresby and Kokoda were not functioning. Had it occurred the outcome of the campaign may well have been different. The main body of the Japanese was still at Sanananda, six days march away. It could easily have transpired that by the time Ogawa attacked with one company there were two Australian companies present and by the time the Japanese could attack Kokoda with a full battalion there could have been two Australian battalions defending it. If on 29 July the Australians had held Kokoda airstrip, there may not have been a campaign in the mountains along the Kokoda track at all.