Outgunned and facing an undefeated enemy, 4000 Australian diggers and 9000 Papuan allies stood fast against 24,500 Japanese soldiers… and beat the odds. Now, with 2017 marking the 75th anniversary of the epic 1942 World War II battle, we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Lest we forget.
A single-file foot thoroughfare that runs 96 kilometres overland through the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea, the Kokoda Track is formidable.
“When you look at the history, we shouldn’t have been able to do what we did,” says ex-soldier Glenn Azar.
“We were totally outnumbered and the Japanese were undefeated on land at that time. The Japanese were so confident, they actually gave themselves 10 days to complete the battle (which lasted six months).
“The number one take-away message for me is that, no matter what, never give up. The fighting happened right on our doorstep (2.5 hours from Brisbane) and our soldiers knew their families were at risk.”
Glenn, who joined the Army at 17, has walked the track an amazing 58 times. He and his daughter Alyssa co-founded Adventure Professionals in 2010 and have taken thousands of people on the journey.
“People want to do it for different reasons – some want to learn about the military history, others are seeking a physical challenge, and some are a bit lost in life and looking to test themselves,” Glenn says. “We also run post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) programs for the RSL and Mates 4 Mates. I’ve got a soldier in the PTSD program who says walking the Kokoda Track has helped him leave his demons behind. Something changed in him up on that mountain and his life has been so much better since.”
Glenn says people who aspire to walk the track should start training at least 12 weeks in advance. He recommends a minimum of three hill training sessions a week including one long session between two and four hours.
“It’s tough. It’s eight days up and down some of the roughest jungle terrain you can possibly walk,” he says. “You have to back up day after day after day. It pays to be prepared so you can enjoy the experience and not be looking down at your feet the whole time, wondering how you’re going to get through it.”
Glenn’s daughter Alyssa, who was born in Townsville when Glenn was serving with the Army here in 95 through 2000, is the youngest person to have completed the Kokoda Track – she was only eight years old at the time. Alyssa is now 20 and last year was the youngest Australian to summit Mt Everest (on her third attempt).
“We both go on every Kokoda trip we book (about seven or eight a year) and we believe in giving back to the Papua New Guinea people, who are the most amazing, caring humans,” Glenn says. “We spend thousands of dollars each time we go over on medical supplies, school books, clothing, mosquito nets and solar hot water and lighting for villages.”
But, ultimately, Glenn says walking the Kokoda Track is about honouring the soldiers who never returned home.
“I know quite a few old diggers who fought in Kokoda but those numbers are dwindling fast and we need to ensure their story lives on,” Glenn says. “I asked three of them what they think of the commercialisation of people walking the track and they all said the same thing – that they’re happy they’ve lived long enough to be remembered.
“A lot of their mates died forgotten. For 50 years a lot of them didn’t talk about the war and it wasn’t in the media much back then.
“I think walking the Kokoda Track is something that all Australians should have on their bucket list.”