Returning to the Kokoda Track two years after COVID-19 closed international borders was always going to be an emotional pilgrimage for David Howell, but when he packed his rucksack for Port Moresby in March, he was also carrying very precious cargo.
The former Army Reservist who takes Australians to Kokoda to share the stories of our soldiers and honour their efforts during WWII, was looking forward to reconnecting with the Papua New Guinea locals he has called friends since he began Kokoda historical tours in 2005; but first he had a special task to carry out.
After Kokoda veteran George Cops passed away in 2019, his family asked David if he would fulfil George’s wish to have his ashes scattered over the graves of his lost mates. No one could have predicted it would be two long years before David and his colleague Mick O’Malley, a friend to George Cops, were able to honour the family’s request.
The little hamlet of Templeton’s Crossing has been uninhabited for a while, the village huts are dilapidated, and the once manicured grass clearings have been reclaimed by the jungle.
"Mick and I stood in the cool early morning mist, the hairs on the back of our neck stood to attention, we said a few words, recited the Ode and sprinkled George’s ashes near to the spot where George had buried his own cousin during the war, almost 80 years ago. We both left with a sense that we had honoured George’s service and that of his comrades."
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kokoda, regarded as some of the most desperate and vicious fighting encountered by Australians in WWII. So, it’s fitting that those wishing to honour the herculean efforts of our soldiers may soon be able to return to the sacred track.
The Kokoda Track holds a special place in the hearts of Australians and like Gallipoli, it has become a place where younger Australians can connect with and honour the generations whose courage and selfless bravery shaped the nation across two World Wars.
Prior to the pandemic 5,000 Australians took up the challenge of walking the Kokoda Track each year and in 2004 David Howell was one of them. The experience changed his life.
When he returned to his home in Wollongong the local paper ran a story about his efforts, prompting Kokoda veteran Phil Dobbs, President of the local Corrimal RSL Sub-Branch to reach out. David struck up friendships with Phil and a cohort of veterans who’d founded the Friends of Kokoda at the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway at Concord Repatriation Hospital which specialised in veterans’ health.
"They were wonderful men who shared with me stories of Kokoda and their service. My grandfather who fought in the Second World War had been a father figure to me, but he’d passed away and I think these men reminded me so much of him and I really connected with them and that generation."
A year after his first visit to Papua New Guinea, David was invited to return to Kokoda with a group of veterans and he accompanied them by helicopter to the Kokoda memorial at Isurava, high in the Owen Stanley Range. The experience inspired the then 26-year-old to join the Army Reserve where he was deployed as a Peace Keeper to the Solomon Islands. However, something about the spirit of Kokoda had captured his heart and as his interest in the stories and history of Kokoda grew, he wanted to share the experience with others and actively help keep the memory of the Australians who fought there alive. He has since walked the Kokoda Track more than 70 times.
One of the highlights was in 2007 when David was asked to host the Kokoda Dreaming trip, taking 15 Indigenous Australian students and 15 New South Wales Police Officers across the Kokoda Track. They were the first Indigenous Australian group to walk the track and the experience was filmed for an ABC documentary, highlighting Indigenous service. It cemented his belief in the importance of Kokoda to our national history and awareness of the Kokoda story for future generations.
"Kokoda provides a lasting legacy of Australian service and sacrifice, and this is not something that happened hundreds of years ago, this is recent Australian history."
"Although there are only a few veterans left, there are so many families who are shaped by these events. You can reach out and touch the history. The lives of young Australians today have been shaped by this and we have a duty to remember and acknowledge those who so selflessly gave themselves for us."
Young George Cops was just 20 years old when he was sent off to Kokoda. The grocer from Beeac signed up to defend his country in May 1939 and by 1941 he’d joined young men from all over Victoria in the 39th Battalion, a ‘scratch’ unit that was originally created to perform home duties. On Boxing Day 1941 the battalion was deployed to Port Moresby to perform garrison duties. They had little military training and were armed with ramshackle weapons left over from WWI. Their role was intended to be passive but in June 1942 they were ordered to proceed up the Kokoda Track to block the Japanese advance.
Little could George or his mates imagine what would await them in the jungle or the role they would play in the conflict described as ‘The battle that saved Australia.’
"Walking up the track was very tough as were carrying a very heavy 50-pound load with ammunition and food. It took us six or seven days to get to the Kokoda area."
George recalled in an interview he gave to his local newspaper in Ocean Grove to mark the 70th anniversary of Kokoda.
"We were wearing T-shirts and shorts and not much else, and carrying battle equipment. We had nothing in the way of tents, we slept where we could on the root of a tree with one eye awake looking out for the Japanese."
Conditions throughout the campaign against the Japanese were horrendous. While there are some flat areas along the track, the terrain is largely unforgiving with rising and falling peaks of the Owen Stanley Range. It is surrounded by dense jungle and the soldiers found the tropical conditions stifling; intense heat and humidity along with the torrential rainfall. As George recalled, “It rained every afternoon”.
Very quickly, tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, scrub typhus, tropical ulcers and dysentery took their toll on the soldiers. Some 625 Australians from a number of battalions were killed during the Kokoda campaign and more than 1,000 were injured while 4,000 suffered illness.
Sergeant George Cops credited a spirit of camaraderie and the help of the local villagers, affectionately nicknamed the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, for saving them.
The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels worked tirelessly to aid the Australians by bringing food and supplies and caring for our sick and injured.
“The Japanese were excellent soldiers, you never saw them,” George said. “They were the masters of camouflage and would crawl up on their bellies. They thought nothing of dying for their Emperor.”
“Courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice describes the whole attitude of the Australian fighting man,”George said.
"Mateship is what carried the Australians through because you can’t let your mate down."
Keeping the memory of Kokoda alive
It is that very spirit which David Howell and other authorised Kokoda operators hope to recapture once again when tours recommence this year, emphasising how important it is to teach the next generations this history.
“These young men who lost their lives fighting weren’t fighting an old war, they were fighting for the new world and the people of Australia, not just in defence of country and land but in defence of freedom and the way of life we have. Fate and a letter in the post sent them off to war, and we should never be complacent because something like this could happen again at any time, look at the world situation today,” David said.
In his ‘spare’ time, David is the incumbent Secretary of the East Malvern RSL Sub-Branch and the co-opted Secretary of the Mornington RSL Sub-Branch. He is
passionate about encouraging veterans, especially younger veterans, of recent conflicts to become involved in their local RSL.
The East Malvern RSL Sub-Branch has been undergoing a million-dollar renovation due to open soon, which will feature some of David’s vast collection of memorabilia and in August they will host a luncheon for the 2/14th Battalion association and the 39th Battalion association commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kokoda.
"There is still so much to learn. I learn something new about myself, the history, and the world every time I walk the Kokoda Track. It is a profound experience. It is hard, it is uncomfortable, but it’s about remembering, and that’s the very least we can do for this generation and the next."