Kk is for – Kokoda Track and the 39th…

Family History Through the Alphabet

The year is 1942 and all that stood between us and a Japanese invasion was a bunch of untrained schoolboys… many were my mum’s class-mates. This post, for Gould’s “Family History Through the Alphabet” challenge, is dedicated to the young lads of the 39th Australian Militia Battalion… most never made it home. To them we owe our freedom and may their courage, determination and fortitude never be forgotten. This date, 21 July 2012 is the 70th Anniversary of the “Battle for Australia” and is a time for the remembering.


“They were just ‘cannon fodder’ Catherine. Little boys in World War 1 uniforms that were too big for them. They were sent up there to keep the Japs busy… to give them something to shoot at as Curtin kept on fighting with Churchill to bring our troops home.”

I can still hear the sob in mum’s voice and see the pain in her eyes as she told how public outrage stopped the “marching” of her classmates and other young blokes through the streets of Adelaide, South Australia.  

“They couldn’t march like soldiers… they had no training. They were just kids from the Depression taken from their homes and sent up there to be shot at. Most hadn’t had a decent feed in their lives, you know.”

This is my mum’s story which I’ve researched at great length, and in great detail, suspecting that maybe she’d exaggerated matters. What I discovered was info that maybe she wasn’t even aware of and is why this has been a particularly difficult Family History story to write.

Before going any further, nothing has made me happier than to have my mum’s insistence that it’s the “Kokoda Track” … NOT “trail” and her insistence “That’s just an Americanism!” confirmed. All research shows that it was an American journalist who first described the “Kokoda Track” as a trail but was always known, by the Ozzie soldiers who fought it’s length both backwards and forwards, as the “Kokoda Track”.  It wasn’t a trail, it wasn’t a road nor even a pathway… In fact:

“Until this time the ‘Kokoda Track’ had been simply a native pad considered passable only by natives or by patrol officers carrying little or no burden. It climbed mountains as high as 7000 feet, clung to the sides of gorges, descended preciptously to cross swift flowing torrents on moss covered stones or fallen trees, and then rose steeply again to traverse dankly dripping rain forests.”

Research showed that mum’s school mates were indeed “conscripts”. They were conscripted into the Militia with the job of protecting “the homeland”.  However, as the Japanese threat escalated and with no troops to protect Australia the 39th were sent to New Guinea initially to unload boats, planes etc. Before you could blink an eye the 39th Battalion was all that stood between us and a Japanese invasion.

I still remember mum’s wry smile as she suggested that “the Japs must have rued the day that they bombed Pearl Harbor”. That fateful day, on 7 Dec 1941, forced the United States to abandon their “non interventionist policy” and to finally join England, Australia and other allies in World War 2. The Pearl Harbor attack “crippled” the United States Fleet.

The Japanese moved swiftly and, on 15 Feb 1942, they took Singapore. Some 20,000 Australian “diggers” (soldiers) became Japanese POW’s and about only a third survived.

“Japan was not a foe like the Germans. They did not recognise the Geneva Convention and due to fervent Japanese nationalism and a reinterpretation of the Samurai code of Bushido, prisoners were either massacred or treated inhumanely as slave labour.”

The Japanese swept down through South East Asia at an alarming rate. The United States were routed in the Phillipines and, in March 1942, their President Rooseveldt ordered General McArthur to relocate/ retreat to Australia and continue the battle for the Pacific from there.

Your can read about the “Battle of the Coral Sea” here. Was the first time that the Japanese were stopped in their tracks.

At this time my mum, aged 17, was living at 55 Langham Place, Portland, South Australia. Her street ended “smack bang” at the railway line, and still does. Her stories of how our Ozzie diggers/troops were finally brought back to Australia, landed in Port Adelaide, and then sent via railway straight up north “to fight the Japs” is indeed true. It made my heart ache to hear how the soldiers, of the AIF, who were expecting R & R before going into battle again were mis-informed, and threw messages down the em-bankment to be passed onto their loved ones.

What my research has shown, and I’m sure my mum didn’t know, is that these battle hardened, seasoned and skilled troops were not sent direct to New Guinea to support the 39th Battalion there on the “Kokoda Track”. Instead they were positioned on “the Brisbane Line” way up north in Queensland …  leaving the 39th Battalion still fighting on alone, in New Guinea, and in the most unimaginable of cirmcumstances.

Our Australian Prime Minister at the time, John Joseph Ambrose Curtin, is renowned and honoured still for the sterling job he did in defying both Churchill and Rooseveldt by bringing our troops back home to defend and protect Australia in our hour of need.



Well, that’s my mum’s story of the “Kokoda Track” told. It has permeated our Family History. Just one example is that my eldest child, my mum’s first grandchild, has “done the Track” twice already. You can read a little about this here.

I reckon this story is but one example of how ur individual Family History is passed on. Some take it up and are totally focussed. Others confirm it in but in different ways. Always the truth will live on and I finish this post by re- focussing on those brave young boys of the 39th Battalion.

On Kokoda Remembered, it’s written that:

“When the last Japanese beachead at Sananada fell in January 1943, the 39th mustered only 7 officers and 25 other ranks. The RMO considered some of these unfit for the next day’s march to Dobodura Airfield. Higher authority refused a vehicle for them, providing transport only for stragglers who should fall out on the march. But in the 39th marchers didn’t fall out, so they all marched, all the way-for some a long torture on the verge on unconsciousness that only pride and the solicitious support of their mates made endurable. Pale, silent and sweating under the fierce sun, they toiled in the wake of truck loads of of cheering, fresh-looking ‘stragglers’; and at last they straightened up to march at attention across the airfield. When an amazed bystander exclaimed ‘What mob’s this?’ he was ignored except by my second-in-command at the end of the line who barked: This is not a mob! This is the 39th!


For resources just “click” on the links already provided. Cheers, Catherine.

Copyright © 2012. Catherine Crout-Habel. “Seeking Susan ~Meeting Marie ~ Finding Family

15 thoughts on “Kk is for – Kokoda Track and the 39th…

    • Thanks darling… yep, you sure do know how very hard that story of mum’s was to write. I felt her emotions all the way through and finally had to stop before I’d really finished, or proof read it. Can’t go back to it. It just has to stand as is. xxx

  1. You’ve excelled even your usual writing this time Catherine. I had goosebumps almost from the first sentence. Those personal anecdotes married with formal history really bring the latter to life. I’ve never been tempted to do the Track but I do admire those who do….I know what that country is like and it must have been hell on wheels for those men. They deserved to stand tall after going through that and be proud…definitely not a mob except in the indigenous sense perhaps. You would have “enjoyed” the Kokoka and Milne Bay exhibition at the Shrine in Melbourne. Those two battles did indeed keep Australia safe, more than any others I believe.

    BTW I also have a story of WWI Diggers passing through Murphy’s Creek, Qld as told by my Kunkel’s granddaughter..she remembered long trains of khaki clad soldiers going off to war (in the opposite direction from yours). My Dad would have many stories from WWII and the soldiers going through Roma St but he virtually never talked about it. Being in a protected occupation in the railway he may have still felt vaguely ashamed that he wasn’t among them.
    BTW#2 I love that Kirrily always reads and comments on your post. Great support! You could have used K is for Kirrily!

    Sorry this is such a long winded comment…never one for a short word.

    I LOVE your writing always!

    • He he he. I don’t get to read them all, but when I do, I try to make a comment. I know how much it spurs you Bloggers on to have some responses 🙂

    • Thanks Pauline… we share a lot of common history/understand and your feedback is always appreciated. Thankfully Cullen “did the track” before mum died and she so loved/ cried, etc… when he took his computer and showed her his marathon trek and told of his great pride in those young blokes who did it, carrying their packs, ill equipped, short on food and fighting all the way.
      There’s more historical facts I could have added e.g. bombing of Darwin & yes Battle of Milne Bay… not to mention the amazing feats/ dedication of the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”, New Guinea Native Patrol & Salvation Army right up at the front line when “the 39th” finally made it back… but just couldn’t do it. There are enough “links” there for anyone interested to follow up on, I figure. Considering it’s the 70th Anniversary of the “Battle for Australia”, how disgraceful is it that so little has be made of it nationally, eh?
      My husband’s grandfather was “in the trenches” in WW1, around the area where your Mr Cassmob’s rellie was, and he’d NEVER talk about it… except praise the Salvation Army for being up at the front, where even the Red Cross wouldn’t go. He sufferred from “trench foot” for his entire life.
      My dad was also in a “protected occupation” during WW11 & mum was very
      That’s another thing we share… the joy in l-o–n-g comments and conversations 🙂 … you were the FIRST to ever comment on any of my blog posts and I was delighted and amazed that someone, apart from family, was interested in my writing. Thanks for you continuing en-couragement, Pauline.
      Yes, could have been: Kk is for – Kirrily Ann… the sunshine of my life 🙂

      • It’s always my pleasure to comment on your posts Catherine, and we do indeed agree on so much including those semi-forgotten battles. (short comment for once!)

  2. That beautifully written, emotive post brought tears to my eyes and gave me goosebumps as well Catherine. As Pauleen commented the bringing together of family memories and historical information was brilliant. You know about my interest in war history, albeit mainly WW1, so you’ll understand just how much this story touched me. Thank you once again.

    • Thanks Kerryn… yes, I just HAD to research it to check out mum’s story and was horrified by a lot of what I uncovered. Of course, much was kept from the Australian’s at that time. That Churchill argued to keep our troops in the Middle East, because his priority was for India… “the Jewel in Britain’s Crown”, horrified me. Not to mention the behaviour of General McArthur and our Blainey who pandered to him. Phew… I must not get “started” again 😀
      We are all touched by the events of history, aren’t we Kerryn? … some pass their stories on through the family and others keep them bottled up inside. So glad you appreciated my mum’s story.
      btw… I am totally in love with that beautiful new little (not so little now) grandson of yours. He’ll be fascinated with the stories you’re recording, I’m sure.

  3. An truly amazing story Catherine. As the others have already said, it is so well written, and it is not a story not only for Australian history, but your own personal family’s history.

    • Thanks Alona… and thankyou for initiating the “Gould Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge” which has encouraged the telling of such stories.
      Always amuses, surprises & amazes me that if you live long enough you, and your family stories, actually become entwined in history. e.g. this was my mum’s story and it was her schoolfriends who were “conscripted” to be shot at… but at least Australia was directely threatened, I guess. Mine, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, was the Vietnam War and it was my schoolfriends and brothers who were “in the conscription lottery” to be sent
      to war. Thanks again, Alona… appreciated.

    • Thankyou Susan and especially for being interested in my sharing of Australian & South Australia history, immigration etc. We Australians are not very good at “blowing our own bags”, so to speak 🙂 … It’s been suggested that if this “Battle for Australia” had been a “Battle for America” it would be well known throughout the world. Many, in our own country, know little about the true sacrifice of the young lads of the 39th Battalion and threat to Australia, even if they’re aware of the “Kokoda Track” etc. Thanks for caring Susan.

  4. Pingback: Family History Through the Alphabet – K is for … | Genealogy & History News

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