First Person: Brian Freeman

Brian Freeman says it will take years to identify the soldiers’ remains found in Papua New Guinea

Thousands of Australians walk the Kokoda Trail in the jungle of Papua New Guinea every year – it’s a pilgrimage to honour those men who fell fighting the advancing Japanese. The trail is as important a part of Australian history as Gallipoli. It’s extremely demanding and you need to be really fit to do it. Everybody knew there had been a significant battle somewhere on the trail but its exact location was totally unknown.

I’m 49 and have walked the trail dozens of times over the years, befriending villagers along the route. I was in the Australian Army special forces for 20 years and now I run a battlefield tour company. One day in 2009, people in the tiny community of Alola told me there was a battle site that no outsiders knew about, a couple of hours’ trek from the village. I doubted it existed. Luckily though they were used to me and trusted me enough to guide me there.

When we finally emerged from the jungle and into a clearing, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. There were weapons, helmets, bayonets and human remains scattered across an area about the size of two football pitches. It was like walking on to a film set – quite overwhelming. I was excited that I’d been taken to such an important historical site but emotionally disturbed by seeing the remains of so many dead soldiers, from both sides. Their uniforms had rotted away over time but the leather boots, belts and gun holsters remained intact. Villagers who knew about the battlefield had been too superstitious to touch many of the artefacts, so I believe I was the first white person to view this terrible scene since 1942.

What I was looking at was the site of the Battle of Eora Creek. It started on October 22 1942 and lasted seven bloody days. Australian soldiers, or “Diggers”, from the 16th Brigade had hacked their way through the jungle along the Kokoda Trail. The advancing Japanese Imperial Army was intent on using the region to launch a strike on mainland Australia.

Kokoda runs for 60 miles across the Owen Stanley Range. The Diggers found the terrain hot and humid – sweltering in the daytime but freezing at night – and malaria was rife. When they stumbled upon a Japanese field hospital that had been transformed into a defensive stronghold, all hell broke loose. The Japanese held the high ground and the Diggers were cut down in their tracks by machine gun fire.

I could distinguish Australian soldiers from their Japanese counterparts because of the position of bodies on the battlefield, as well as the weaponry. At least 70 Diggers died and hundreds were wounded. The Australians forced the Japanese to retreat and later buried scores of Imperial soldiers in a mass grave at the site, although many more were left where they fell.

Over the past three years I have returned to the site several times and started to document the finds from the battle. There have been archaeological digs, and work is under way to identify the remains. We don’t want to create any false expectations for the relatives, but I would like to see the bodies repatriated to Australia. The Japanese are undecided whether to bring their dead home, or build a memorial at Eora Creek.

I feel privileged to have been trusted by the villagers at Alola, because the site of the battle mystified so many people for so long. There are a lot of Australians who would like to visit the battlefield, but I think it will be at least another four years before all the remains have been identified. I’ve written a book about my experiences: The Lost Battlefield of Kokoda is only available in Australia at present but writing it was a cathartic experience in the circumstances. I think it’s incredible that such an important battlefield was forgotten but equally amazing how it was found again.

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