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In this uniquely balanced history, Paul Ham recounts the story of the first major land defeat of the Japanese Imperial Army, by the Australian forces on a hellish Papuan jungle trail where thousands fought and died during World War II. 'Kokoda' intimately relates the stories of ordinary soldiers, on both sides, in 'the world's worst killing field', and examines why commanders sent ill-equipped, unblooded Australian troops into battle against veteran Japanese jungle fighters.

Kokoda, the first major land defeat of the Japanese army, was a battle of unrelenting ferocity, fought back and forth along the Kokoda Track that cross Papua - 90 miles (145 km) of river crossings, steep inclines and precipitous descents, with both sides wracked by hunger and disease. Defeat was unthinkable: the Australian soldier was fighting for his homeland against an unyielding aggressor; the Japanese were ordered to fight to the death in a bid to conquer 'Greater East Asia'. Paul Ham captures the spirits of those soldiers and commanders who clashed in this war of exceptional savagery,


Prime Minister John Curtin:


Curtin inherited a near-defenceless country and, in the absence of a British saviour, America was Australia’s only hope. Inevitably, the price of freedom was US control of the war effort. Yet Curtin’s great wartime achievement was to articulate — through his actions, by securing the return to Australia of Australian troops, and in his inspiring oratory — an independent destiny for a nation that had scarcely loosened its grip on the coat-tails of the mother country.

'Silent' Cyril Clowes, hero of Milne Bay:

There is a quiet sort of Australian man who, in obscurity, achieves great things for which a few people are eternally grateful; he then fades away unsung and is soon forgotten.You can see him on weekends tinkering in his shed, or sanding a little boat, or pursuing an odd hobby. He does his duty, fails with dignity and, when he succeeds, succeeds without trumpeting his success. He is remote, and self-absorbed, and is liked by his grandchildren. His life is one of ceaseless curiosity within his chosen field, of which he is a supreme expert. He is scarcely comprehensible to women — one of whom, tolerating his self-absorption, rewards his devotion and loyalty with her unstinting love. 'Silent' Cyril Clowes, commander at Milne Bay, seems to have been such a man.

Japanese night attacks:


Daylight discouraged combat. The troops withdrew into their trenches like small nocturnal creatures. The Japanese waited until dusk for another try. This time they would unleash their speciality, honed in China: a night attack in force. At sunset a low chant, a primitive dirge, rose from the jungle below the escarpment. It paused. Then a Japanese voice shouted out, ‘That should frighten you!’ The Australians swore back. Smoke candles burst on the edge of the jungle, and through the cloud the Japanese came. The screams of Tsukamoto’s warriors split the night.

Japanese atrocities:

The Japanese bound and bayoneted dozens of tribesmen who refused to cooperate with them. Women were raped, sometimes with bayonets. One native woman was pegged down and slit from her throat to her vagina; a teenage girl was nailed to the ground with a bamboo stake through her chest. The genitals and anuses of several native men and women were mutilated; the breasts of several women were chopped off and left on or beside their bodies. One woman was disembowelled, and one man’s buttocks were hacked off...

Australian sworn affidavits describe a dead native woman tied by her hands and legs to a hut, with 70 condoms lying around her.

[They recorded] 36 atrocities against Australians troops. Many were the victims of bayonet practice... Several soldiers were bound to trees and repeatedly stabbed. At least two were disembowelled, one decapitated, and one bayoneted in the rectum. The heads of several were crushed in. One soldier’s fingers were cut off. Another soldier was tied by a long rope and used as a running target...

The end of the Japanese army in Papua, January 1943:

The memory of Sanananda lingers in the minds of veterans with the immediacy of a dreadful dream. Singular details — the whiteness of a skull in a village hut; endless mosquitoes; swamp water lapping a gun platform — tend to fix in their memories, and augment the misery of the unsaid, or the unrecalled...


The last days of Sanananda entered the realm of the diabolical. A spectacular tropical storm deluged the coast on the night of the 16th. It was fittingly biblical. The black clouds amassed and lowered over the jungle, ‘so close that a man reaching out and trying to touch them would not be regarded as in the throes of a malarial nightmare’.

The rain fell steadily in heavy, monsoonal sheets all night. Twelve inches of rain fell.Water filled the bunkers and trenches.The swamps spilled their banks, rose about the mangrove roots and lapped at the boards on which Allied troops sat. Bloated, waterborne corpses were commonplace. They nudged amidst the mangroves with a ghastly gregariousness. Near the beaches the swamp and tide — whipped up by the wind — merged into a stew of abandoned supplies, palm leaves and human detritus...

The Australians entered the smouldering village of Sanananda on 22 January. They found signs of organised cannibalism. Human flesh, it seemed, had become part of the Japanese soldier’s regular diet...




"Ham's work stands above the rest and will quite possibly become popularly recognised as the book on Kokoda. He has researched this book with fastidiousness and passion, which shows throughout... What makes 'Kokoda' exceptional is that Ham has researched both sides. By examining translated diaries and interrogation reports compiled by the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section that are now held at the Australian War Memorial, Ham has interwoven Japanese experiences at Kokoda. The result is that when Ham's writing is at its best, and it often is, the reader is immersed in the Kokoda campaign from the perspective of both sides. Few writers have done this before.' ― The Age


Kokoda: A two-part documentary which tells the true story of the brutal World War II military campaign fought between Australia and Japan in the green hell of the mountains of Papua New Guinea. Based on Paul Ham's book, Kokoda. ― ABC and Pericles Films

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