Kokoda reveals a secret, 70 years on.
Anne Barrowclough From: The Times June 10, 2010
Guns, helmets and ammunition at the site of the battle. Photo: Channel Seven
AFTER hours of trekking through the steaming jungle in the heart of Papua New Guinea, Brian Freeman finally reached his destination. Walking through the rising mist into a large clearing he was confronted by the remains of a Japanese soldier, still wearing his helmet, slumped against the tree where he had fallen in battle nearly 70 years ago. The man's boots lay near by and only a few yards away were piles of ammunition, Australian machineguns, Japanese shells and hand grenades.
Everywhere he looked, the explorer saw helmets, boots, waterbottles - and bones - scattered in the foliage.
Mr Freeman, a former soldier with the Australian Defence Force, had found the lost battlefield of Eora Creek, the site of the costliest battle of Australia's campaign against Japan in Papua New Guinea. "It was like walking into a living museum," Mr Freeman said yesterday, before starting another trek back to the site.
"I thought we might just a find a couple of old weapons but there were guns, mines, helmets, waterbottles. It was incredibly emotional knowing that you were looking at items that had been dropped as those Japanese and Australian soldiers lost their lives. And the dead lay just where they had fallen or were laid by their comrades.
"It was as if the battle had just happened."
The site, about 130ha, is the only known battlefield in the world where weapons and war dead lie in situ exactly as they fell. Buried beneath the enveloping canopy, it has lain undisturbed for 70 years, unknown to all but the local Alolo village people who hunt on the surrounding plateau. For decades they have called the site their "village secret" and avoided it, out of respect for the spirits of the dead.
It would quite possibly have remained their secret if it were not for Mr Freeman, something of an authority on the Kokoda Track - the 98km, single-file footpath that runs through the Owen Stanley mountain range - and a trusted friend to the Alolo villagers. He had started questioning the accuracy of the official location of the Eora Creek battle, some distance away on the Kokoda Track itself.
The plateau above Eora Creek, which runs through a deep gorge in the Owen Stanley range, was a behind-the-lines medical centre for the Japanese as they advanced along the Kokoda Track in the early stages of the Pacific War and, months later, a battle site as the Australians began their own advance, with the Japanese in tactical retreat - or "advance to the rear", as they called it.
In October 1942, the two armies met in battle, with the Japanese soldiers forced to flee into the jungle after sustaining hundreds of casualties. The Australian dead numbered 99. The clash was significant in that it prevented the Japanese from reaching Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, which would have put them in striking distance of northeastern Australia.
Every year thousands of Australians walk the track, a beautiful and rugged path through the jungle, to honour their fathers and grandfathers. Mr Freeman is one of the track's foremost guides.
"I used to stand at the site where we thought the battle was fought and brief the trekkers about it - but things didn't add up," he said. "It was too small, it wasn't in a good defensive position. I mentioned this to a villager one day and he pointed up the hill and said: 'That's our village secret up there'."
"Up there" was only a few hundred yards away, but it was through impenetrable jungle, up a near vertical slope, so Mr Freeman gave the villager his camera and asked him to take some pictures of the site.
"What I saw astonished me," he said. "There were large gun pits there that indicated there had been a major battle. I went back to the battle maps and war records and the positioning made sense."
Months later Mr Freeman, accompanied by Kila Elave, an Alolo man, walked into the site.
"The very first thing I saw was a Japanese soldier who still had his helmet on. We went on to find the bones of another three Japanese soldiers," he said. "I had never expected to find war dead. It's one thing going into a place like that and finding weapons or artefacts - it's quite another finding soldiers who died as they fought. I was a soldier for 20 years and I was shocked at the sight."
The priority of Mr Freeman and his team now is to identify the remains of the soldiers and return them to their homes. "We have since been in contact with the Japanese Embassy in Port Moresby to discuss how this can be done," he said. "We will also honour their memory by ensuring that all the other elements on the site remain intact and untouched. It would be wrong to remove them and put them into some museum far away."
If the remains of Australian soldiers are found they will be buried in the nearest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery - which, in this instance, will be in Port Moresby, a spokesman for the Australian Defence Force said.