Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A most excellent gift from a friend.

39th Battalion Australian Militia, September 1942

One of the real treats that came my way after I began blogging was making acquaintances and forming friendships with interesting people who bring a whole patina of ideas and skills to the intersection of ideas that blossom in the 2.0 garden.

One of these friendsips reaches out across the Pacific to Australia, where Shawn Belifuss, author of Cross Border Journal writes about global supply chain issues as well as international relations as they pretain to Asia. Shawn, from West Rapids, Michigan has worked in East Asia for the past several years and is currently in Australia, setting up a transportation management system. Shawn finds the time to write his blog about issues ranging from his speciality to travel and geo-politics. Recently, Shawn returned to the U.S. for a visit and we were able to meet for a beer during a stopover in LAX. We chatted it up for a while and as Shawn got ready to catch his flight, he pulled a book from his backpack. It turned out to be a most excellent account of one of the most epic battles in World War II, Kokoda by Peter Fitzsimons.

The story describes the battle by drawing on the ample material that has been written about the campaign to stop the Japanese advance across the Owen Stanley Mountains and the retreat by the Japanese to Buna and Gona where the same Austratlian troops who battled against overwhelming odds as they battled the advancing Japanese troops for every inch of the Kokoda Trail, were thrown back into the battle to dislodge the Japanese from fortified positions on the northern coast.

The story follows the men of the 39th Battalion a militia unit whose ranks were filled with boys in their teens and old men too old for the regular army. The unit was sent up the Kokoda Trail to try and hold the airstrip at Kokoda, one of the few flat tracts in the jungles of New Guinea. No one knew that they were facing six times their number in crack Japanese assault troops.

Fitzsimons skillfully weaves his story around the men, and three correspondents who travel to see for themselves if the rantings by Generals MacArthur and Blamey that Australians could not fight were true. Their reporting and in particular the film shot by Damien Parer which went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary in 1943. The account of Parer continuing to film as he struggled with bacillary dysentery and stumbled along with his camera and a jury rigged colostomy bag filming scenes that when shown weeks later in Sydney would rally the people of Australia in a massive show of pride in the grit that their boys had shown in stopping oncoming Japanese.

Fitzsimons, spares not ink in revealing the shortcomings of both MacArthur and Blamey and their leadership from the rear. He also examines accounts from the Japanese side that were collected from the handful of survivors who decades later still feel the sting of the loss of their comrades.

I found  this such a page turner that I would rank it amoung the best of this kind of genre of history books along with Rick Atkinson's Army at Dawn and Day of Battle; in the way Fitzsimons puts a human face on this horrific battle.

For those who want to learn more about this battle and the trail that winds from Port Moresby on the southern shore for 96 k through rainforests and rugged mountains, to Buna on the Solomon Sea. The links below offer more background to this amazing story of bravery and duty.

Kokoda Walk

This book, when released in 2005, became the Number 1 National Best Seller in Australia. It deserves a good read if you can lay your hands on one of the rare copies linked at Amazon.com. I am forever grateful to Shawn for introducing me the men like the Bisset brothers,  Smokey Howson, Ralph Honnor, the native people who carried the wounded, and countless others, who will remain forever in the dense undergrowth of New Guinea rainforests. I will not soon forget the deeds of these men and boys who to a man, stood their ground so long ago.

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