ACT News


Life comes full circle for Kokoda veteran 70 years on

When Canberra war veteran Bede Tongs enters the village of Kokoda for the eighth time this Friday, the soldier, poet, carpenter and family man will have come full circle.

He had first come there 70 years ago when, after three months of savage conflict, Australian troops seized the settlement, and its hastily improvised airstrip, back from the Japanese.

Mr Tongs is one of four Kokoda veterans who left Australia for Papua New Guinea on Sunday for the 70th anniversary of the recapture as part of a Kokoda Track Foundation group.

The foundation was established in 2003 to repay the assistance given to Australians fighting in the Owen Stanley Ranges during World War II by the ''fuzzy wuzzy angels''.

His party will meet up with six other veterans travelling under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Other Canberrans returning to Kokoda for the anniversary are Leonard Griffiths, like Mr Tongs a member of the 3rd Infantry Battalion, Australian Military Force (or Militia), and Leslie Cook, who served with the 7th Division (Signals), AIF.


Mr Tongs is travelling with his son, Garry, who is if anything even more excited than his father.

''How thrilling [will it be] to be there with my father, one of the men who defeated the Japanese on the Kokoda Track, on the 70th anniversary,'' he said. ''This will be one of the most memorable things I ever do in my life.''

The Australian flag was re-raised over Kokoda on November 2, 1942, by Merv Shea, a member of the 3rd Battalion (AMF) from Yass.

While historians and journalists still scrap over whether or not the victory stopped a Japanese invasion of Australia, none deny the largely conscript Australian force, which was thrown into combat poorly equipped, was the first to give the Japanese land forces a very bad day.

More than half of the original Japanese invasion force of 14,000 men were killed on the track and only a fraction made it home thanks to other actions.

Soldiers on both sides were fighting in a ''green hell'' which prompted the observation ''the jungle is neutral''.

Bede Tongs spends a lot of time reflecting on the role the native Papuans gave the Australians. They knew how to survive in the jungle and shared that knowledge. ''If the Japanese held the creek or the watering hole you couldn't get a drink,'' he said. ''The Papuans showed us how to get the juice out of the water vine. These were everywhere. They hung down from the trees.

''If you cut off a two foot (50cm) section and turned it upside down the liquid would pour out into your water bottle.''

Lighting a fire was also tricky. ''They taught us to take a few pieces of bamboo, shave them down into slivers and then - using our wax matches which were pretty good - building a blaze up from there.''

Fire was necessary for one of the few morale boosters along the track - a good, strong cup of tea.

''We never had milk and we never had sugar but we always had tea leaves,'' he said.

''Whenever we could we had the billy on for a cup of tea.''