The following information has been taken from the Kokoda Track Foundation’s website:
Using bayonets, bully-beef tins and their steel helmets, the 39th Battalion dug in at Isurava. Their new CO, Lt Colonel Ralph Honner, arrived from Australia on July 16, the day before his 38th birthday. To the teenage Diggers of the 39th, Ralph Honner seemed like their grandfather. But his appointment was an inspired move. Honner was one of our finest tactical commanders, having proved his brilliance in the Middle East and Crete.
While the Japanese regrouped at Kokoda, Honner set his defences at Isurava and, equally importantly, set about instilling his young troops with confidence.
“Isurava provided as good a delaying position as could be found on the main Track. To the front and to the rear, tributary creeks flowed eastwards, down into the Eora Valley, providing narrow obstacles with some view over them. The creeks, which became known simply as ‘front creek’ and ‘rear creek’, were bordered by a belt of thick scrub, but between them were cleared spaces either side of the Track. In a flat clearing on the right was Isurava village, commanding a track dropping steeply down to Asigari in the Eora Valley. Above the clearing of long grass on the left was timber thickening into the almost-impenetrable jungle beyond. Forward of front creek, to the left of the northward Track to Deniki, was an overgrown garden through which a path from the main Track ran westward toward the Naro Ridge.” (Ralph Honner)
Ralph Honner knew how to draw the best from his young charges:
“War is largely a matter of confidence. If the troops have confidence in their mates, their weapons, their leadership and sufficient confidence in their numbers – in that they’ve got a fair chance and are not hopelessly outnumbered – they’ll fight well. When that confidence goes, then something snaps and the force can be dissipated.”
Honner’s orders were simple: hold Isurava until you are relieved. He knew the AIF forces, which had been rushed back from the Middle East, were on their way to reinforce him. He just had no idea when they would arrive. The young Diggers of the 39th, like Private ‘Spud’ Whelan, knew what was expected of them:
“We got a message from Port Moresby that the 2/14th were on the way and we had to stay there and fight till death. That was horrifying. I thought, ‘Well, I won’t see my family again, I won’t see Australia again.’ But I was prepared, like the rest of us, to stay there and fight to the finish.”
The 39th responded to Honner’s leadership and, when the inevitable attacks came, they acquitted themselves magnificently. The onslaught began on August 26, first with Japanese mountain guns raining down on the Australians’ position, then with relentless human wave attacks up the steep gullies. The Australians hurled them back, with grenades, rifles and machine guns and then with bayonets in ferocious hand-to-hand fighting.
“There were countless acts of unrecognised courage as the young Diggers held on grimly. They ignored their lack of sleep, their hunger and their fear as they waited for the next assault. Some positions rebuffed as many as ten human-wave assaults in a day. The Japanese dead piled up around their perimeters like sacks of grain. But they kept on coming.” (from The Spirit of The Digger)
The 39th Battalion withstood these withering attacks for a day and a night. They were on their last legs – outnumbered ten to one, almost out of food and ammunition, and racked with malaria and dysentery – when the first troops of the 2/14th AIF Battalion reached them in the early hours of August 27. Even after the reinforcements arrived, the 39th remained with them and continued to fight against the growing number of Japanese throwing themselves at the Isurava perimeter.
Two platoons of the 2/14th, 10 and 12 platoons, held the key position during the battle – the high ground dominating the ridge. They beat off approximately 40 attacks from waves of 100 and 200 Japanese throughout the day and night. Lt Harold ‘Butch’ Bisset commanded 10 Platoon superbly but was mortally wounded by a burst of machine-gun fire when handing out ammunition. He was brought out by his men but died later that night in his brother Stan’s arms.
By August 29, the enemy’s numbers began to take their toll. There was no alternative but to withdraw. The 2/16th AIF Battalion, which had deployed on the opposite side of the Valley with the 53rd Militia Battalion, had been overrun.
The Australian positions being held at Isurava were facing the prospect of being encircled and cut off. Our troops withdrew from Isurava on the 29th with the Japanese in hot pursuit. The withdrawal took on a leapfrog style, with soldiers dug in on both sides of the Track to cover the quickly withdrawing units. Once all units had passed these covering positions, they too would pull out moving back along the Track in some cases less than a kilometre, before new holding positions would be established.