AAP | Business Spectator
KOKODA, AND TO A LESSER EXTENT MILNE BAY, BUNA AND GONA, are battles as familiar to many Australians as Gallipoli.
Seventy years ago, Australian soldiers staged a dogged fighting retreat along the Kokoda track while at Milne Bay on the eastern end of New Guinea, Australian and US troops inflicted the first defeat of a Japanese force on land.
Over two hellish months, Japanese enclaves at Buna, Gona and Sanananda were eliminated.
But there would still be more than two years of bitter fighting in the New Guinea territories until the end of World War II and few know about it.
"It's quite forgotten, other than by the veterans who served there," says historian Phillip Bradley, author of a new account of Australia's war in PNG, from Kokoda through to the formal surrender of Japanese troops at Wewak on September 13, 1945.
There were many other heroic actions and Bradley nominates one, Kaiapit, in September 1943, as a standout.
This followed the fall of the major Japanese-held town of Lae, and Kaiapit, a village 65 kilometres up the Markham Valley had a small airfield desired as a base for future air operations.
The 200-strong 2/6th Independent Company, commanded by Captain Gordon King, was given the job of ejecting the Japanese occupiers.
Independent companies were modelled on the British commandos and trained to scout and conduct hit-and-run operations behind Japanese lines.
King's men were airlifted from Port Moresby to a point 46 kilometres up the valley.
They marched cross country, routed the defenders and occupied the village.
As dawn approached the next day, so too did a much larger Japanese force - about 500 men intent on retaking and holding it against an Australian advance.
King ordered his men to attack, exploiting surprise and his superiority in automatic weaponry. The unit was lavishly equipped with some 100 Owen guns and 20 Bren guns.
More than 100 Japanese fell in the first 100 yards and more than 250 by the time it was over mid-morning. Fourteen Australians died, with 23 wounded.
Bradley says it was an extraordinary feat, opening the Markham and Ramu Valleys. Had the Japanese been able to establish strong defences, it could easily have delayed the advance for weeks.
Australian commander Major General George Vasey arrived at Kaiapit about midday, astonished at the carnage and that he'd sent a single company against such a substantial enemy force.
Some months later Vasey told King they had been lucky. King disagreed.
"Because I think we weren't lucky, we were just bloody good," he replied.
By this stage the allied force had learned many lessons and mostly had their act together, with effective supply lines, an abundance of artillery and air support, and superior firepower at infantry level.
Japanese forces still maintained a dogged defence but were starving, reduced in some areas to subsistence farming in the absence of outside support. In the retreat from Lae, a quarter of the 8500 Japanese soldiers died of starvation or illness, with some resorting to cannibalism to survive.
Both sides suffered in New Guinea's heat, humidity, fetid swamps, mosquitoes, malaria and bitter cold at higher altitudes.
Malaria nearly halted the Australian campaign in the Ramu Valley.
But research by Australian scientists led to doubling of the accepted daily dose of the drug Atebrin and malaria infection fell by two thirds.
Bradley himself has contracted malaria five times and also hepatitis as one of the few historians to have visited remote battlefields of the post-Kokoda campaign along PNG's north coast.
A former industrial chemist, his interest was piqued when he trekked to the site of the battle of Shaggy Ridge in the Ramu Valley in 1995.
"Hardly anyone had been up there since the war. I thought this is fascinating because when you read the official history, there's no inkling of the difficulties of this terrain," he said.
But other than the official history, he found there was no book about this battle.
That led to his first, On Shaggy Ridge, published in 2004. Others followed on campaigns for Wau and Salamaua, all founded on visits to these battlefields and interviews with the dwindling number of veterans.
"It's hard to understand it unless you have been there. I have got a very good feel for the conditions they fought under," he said.
He's now working on a book on Gallipoli ahead of the 2015 centenary.
Bradley attributes the renaissance of interest in Kokoda to a series of developments, among them former Prime Minister Paul Keating's speech on April 26, 1992 in which he declared Kokoda the place where the depth and soul of the Australian nation was confirmed.
Then there were a number of popular books on Kokoda, including that by Peter Fitzsimons, which made the campaign far more accessible to modern readers than the worthy but dry official history.
Kokoda is also far closer than any of Australia's other battles - and it occurred when Australia was more threatened than ever before or since.
However, much of the file imagery routinely used for television programs on the Kokoda campaign stem from much later battles, he said.
"They often show the wounded digger being brought across the creek and the attacks at Timbered Knoll. It's important to put them into context," Bradley said.
"They use the same images and say this is Kokoda and the photo is not taken there at all."
Most notorious is film showing a hut blowing up. This was filmed by famed cameraman Damien Parer at Mubo and was actually a re-enactment of the commando raid on Japanese Salamaua in June 1942.
"Nothing to do with Kokoda at all," he said.
Hell's Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley, Allen and Unwin, 506 pp, RRP $49.99