Remembrance Day: Kokoda 80 years on
Just over 80 years ago, at half past one in the afternoon, an Australian flag was raised.
It was the Second of November 1942.
The place was Kokoda.
There was no band, no cheers, just weary Australian soldiers standing to attention, in the soaking rain.
The raising of this flag is important.
It marked the end of one of the most dangerous and important moments in our history.
For the first time, we weren't fighting to defend another country. We were fighting to defend ourselves. Our own country. Our own people.
The men who fought and died in New Guinea were fighting to defend their homes, their families and their country.
They were fighting for us.
We are a lucky country. We didn't have to fight for our freedom. But we did have to fight to keep it.
This was a battle on our border. An enemy at our own gate.
That’s why what happened at this place is so important. Why the ground at Kokoda is so sacred.
It’s why the men who fought there are so honoured in our national story.
Men who were shearers, truck drivers, barmen and barbers in Australia became heroes in the mountains of the Owen Stanley Range.
They believed they were the only people who stood between an invincible enemy and Australia.
And they fought like it.
There are few better examples than the battle of Isurava – a small village on the Kokoda Track.
That's where Bruce Kingsbury charged alone into the enemy, with a Bren gun at his hip, mowing down dozens of Japanese soldiers and pushing the rest back into the jungle.
When he ran out of bullets he leant against a rock to reload his weapon. As he did, he was struck by a single sniper's bullet. In an instant he was gone.
His actions earned him the first Victoria Cross on what was then Australian territory. His courage helped to halt the Japanese offensive that day and stopped the Australian headquarters from being overrun.
He was a real estate agent from Melbourne.
Bruce Kingsbury was in Bob Iskov's unit, the 2/14th.
Bob says, ‘like most VC winners, he was just an ordinary bloke...heroes don't come with a label on them’.
A few days before Kingsbury was killed, three platoons were cut off north and west of Isurava.
They struggled through the jungle for four days before they finally made it back to the nearby village of Alola.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner described what happened next:
“It was enough to make a man weep to see those poor skinny bastards hobble in on their bleeding feet.
They were greeted with the news that the 39th and 2/14th were fighting for their lives.
Without a word, or a thought for the food their stomachs craved, they turned and hurried off to Isurava as fast as their crippled feet could carry them.”
At Isurava today there is a memorial with four black granite pillars, with four words etched into them:
Those words are there because of the actions of men like Kingsbury, and other hungry, tired, often wounded men. Men who refused to let down their mates.
More than 600 Australians died between Kokoda and Imita Ridge.
Twice as many died between Kokoda and Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
More were wounded. One of them was my grandfather.
And many only made it out because of the people of Papua New Guinea.
Not all heroes carried a Bren gun or a 303.
They carried the wounded on makeshift stretchers.
Fuzzy haired heroes who forged a very special bond between our two countries.
To them we owe a debt that can never be repaid.
10 years ago, the Australian flag was raised again, at Kokoda.
Then, twelve men stood to attention as the flag was raised, much like they did in 1942.
Cyril Alexander. Ray Baldwin. Les Cook. Len Griffiths. Bob Iskov. Kenneth Kell. Eric Sambell. Bill Stuart. Bede Tongs. Owen Baskett. Garnett Tobin. George Palmer.
I was privileged to be there with them when Len Griffiths raised the Australian flag, just as he did in 1942.
This year, ten years later, his great mate Les Cook went to the Australian War Memorial to lay a wreath in honour of the men of Kokoda and watch the flag be raised again.
Speaking of his fellow soldiers, Cook said: “It was the thing to do in our generation, that was just what people did."
A Bankstown boy, Paul Keating, told us “not all generations are called on to risk and sacrifice their lives for their beliefs – but all generations need to believe”.
To believe in Australia.
To believe that what we have and what we hope for is worth fighting for.
On this day we come together to do just that.
We come together to remember men like Les and Len and their mates.
To remember the angels who carried them home.
To remember all of those like Bruce Kingsbury who never came home.
And make good that solemn promise made more than a century ago.
That we will remember them.
Lest We Ever Forget.