This is by no means Peter Brune’s first book about Papua in World War II. So A Bastard of a Place proceeds with welcome confidence and competence. Brune (like Les Carlyon with his magnificent Gallipoli) in his own stout boots has covered kilometres of the weary terrain. Both authors know that there is no other way of getting the scene exactly right.
This is a big book with various ambitious themes that at times elbow each other aside, seeking attention. Brune tries to make the three Papuan mini-theatres coherent and bring them into context so we can appreciate the relation to each other of Kokoda, Milne Bay and Gona-Buna-Sanananda. He thinks (and I agree) that Kokoda occupies a disproportionate share of Australia’s public imagination and celebrity. Kokoda was but one phase of the Papuan campaign and the others – just as bloody and just as heroic – are less understood and renowned. For example, the Australian victory at Milne Bay should enjoy far more fame than it does, as the first land defeat inflicted on the enemy in the whole Japanese war. (Not, it must be stressed, that Brune plays down the Kokoda achievement).
It is marvelous what he has packed into this book. We see the reality of fighting along appalling mountain tracks and through stinking coastal swamps; the character and spirit of the young Australian troops, their courage and suffering; the problems of front-line supply – usually on strong black shoulders; the evacuation of casualties, frequently on the identical black shoulders that had just laid down a load of rations or ammunition carried forward.
We see aspects of the wider context of World War II as it ravaged the globe. A surprising amount relates in one way or another to the Papuan campaign. For example, the experience of Australian Imperial Force troops in their tough battles in the Middle East and Greece turned them into superb fighting units, although they still had to learn even the rudiments of how to fight in the jungle.
Australia’s military effectiveness was hobbled by our absurd system of two armies: the AIF, ready to serve anywhere in the world; and the militia, enlisted for home defence only and often disparaged as ‘choccos’ – chocolate soldiers – although by no means were all of them conscripts.
Brune is judicious in his elucidation of this vexed matter. He concludes that, although the AIF and militia began sometimes with mutual suspicion, before long they operated together with respect, acknowledging that they were both, after all, Australian. No AIF veterans today would deny the heroism of the militia’s 39th Battalion that fought with them on Kokoda. And as soon as the Australian government allowed, militiamen in their tens of thousands volunteered to transfer to the AIF.
Brune appreciates the wider strategy. For example, the Australians in Papua, although under the supreme command of US General Douglas MacArthur, seemed to carry alone the burden of the land fighting. Brune reminds us that the superb, bloody fighting on Guadalcanal Island by the US Marines significantly eased Japanese pressure on the Australians battling it out on the Kokoda Track.
The author relies extensively on our official war history, especially on Dudley McCarthy’s humane and heartrending Volume VII (Kokoda to Wau), and on classics such as Raymond Paull’s Retreat from Kokoda; Vic Austin’s book about his own brave 39th Battalion, To Kokoda and Beyond; Sydney Rowell’s autobiography Full Circle; and ‘Blue’ Steward’s immortal Recollections of a Regimental Medical Officer.
But Brune’s many detailed interviews with serving soldiers, and his personal acquaintance with the track enable him to treat those authors as – almost – collaborators rather than as mere references. (Professor David Horner believes Brune is the most knowledgeable expert on the participation of Australians in the Papua campaign).
The book is agreeably free from errors of fact and there are few significant omissions. I would have liked just a mention of Lieutenant Colonel John Minogue. When no generals and few staff officers risked muddying their boots, Minogue of his own initiative slogged forward with his pack on his back, sending terse messages back to New Guinea Force Headquarters in Port Moresby – to small effect. Brune’s account of the media’s role is admirable – no television in those days. Journalists Osmar White and Chester Wilmot should remain famous for their courage and their dispatches, as should Damien Parer and George Silk for their pictures. Aspiring war correspondents today might still turn to them for lessons.