Friday, July 10, 2009

Return of the 39th Battalion 'chocolate soldiers'

Peter Holloway (left) and Harry Barkla at McDonald's Corner
Harry Barkla makes a point of history to Aaron Hayes of Ectourism Melanesia
Harry Barkla and Peter Holloway meet Australian trekkers at Owers' CornerEnthusiastic trekkers meet 39th Battalion veterans Harry Barkla and Peter Holloway

Australian trekkers surround 39th Battalion veterans Harry Barkla and Peter Holloway at Owers' Corner
Australian trekkers line up to meet Harry Barkla and Peter Holloway at Owers' Corner last Sunday
Peter Holloway autographs a book for an Australian trekker as Harry Barkla looks on
Harry Barkla signs an autograph for an adoring Australian trekker
Harry Barkla spent his 21st birthday sitting in a foxhole on the Kokoda Trail before all hell broke loose at the Battle of Isurava in August 1942.
The 87-year-old from Bendigo, Victoria, has returned to Papua New Guinea for the second time since 2007 with another Australian World War 11 veteran Peter Holloway to mark 67 years since the battle and to remember lost mates.
Both are members of the legendary 39th Battalion – so wrongly disparaged as “chocolate soldiers” - who fought the Japanese in the now-famous Battle of Isurava in August 1942.
I was privileged to be asked by tourism operator Ecotourism Melanesia to be their tour guide last Sunday as well interview them, given my interest in WW11 history.
It was an emotional moment for both men as we visited the site of the old Schwimmer Drome at Laloki, Owers’ Corner, MacDonald’s Corner, the wreck of the mv MacDhui, the site of the Jackson Airfield (now International Airport), and Bootless Bay, among others.
One of the most-touching moments was when a group of young Australian trekkers arrived at Owers’ Corner after the grueling 96km trek from Kokoda, and when they learned that Mr Barkla and Mr Holloway were original members of the 39th Battalion, they were treated like royalty and swamped for autographs.
“We did it for you,” the two veterans humbly told the admiring trekkers.
An increasing number of Australians and Papua New Guineans are just now beginning to learn the tremendous story of courage and tenacity at Isurava, but it is hoped that more will take the time to learn about it
During the period from 27-30 August 1942, under almost constant attack, soldiers of the 39th Australian Militia Battalion and the 2/14th Battalion, Second Australian Imperial Force, with the help of the 2/16th Battalion and the 53rd Battalions, held back the advancing Japanese at Isurava.
What followed was the famous fighting withdrawal down the Kokoda Track during September 1942, which ended with the Australian dig-in on Imita Ridge on September 17, 1942.
From Imita, there was no further retreat.
On September 28, the Japanese began their withdrawal back across the Owen Stanleys along the Kokoda Track, having come within sight of the sea and the lights of Port Moresby on Ioribaiwa Ridge opposite Imita.
Ironically, the militia men of the 39th Battalion were initially disparaged by more-experienced soldiers as “chocolate soldiers” who would melt in the heat of battle, but proved this tag so wrong at Isurava.
“I celebrated my 21st birthday at Isurava on August 22, 1942,” Mr Barkla told me
“The Japs didn’t attack until August 28, which was when the 2/14th (Battalion) arrived.
“I’m very proud of the 39th Battalion for the job they did against terrific odds.
“Ask any member of the 39th Battalion and he’ll tell you he’s a very proud man.”
The other 39th Battalion veteran, Peter Holloway from Melbourne, did not fight on Kokoda, initially being involved in supplying food to troops, but did see action on the Northern Beaches of Buna, Gona and Sanananda (which he visited this week).
More Australians – about 1,400 in all – were killed in Buna, Gona and Sanananda than Kokoda, where about 500 were killed.
“I was part of that campaign,” Mr Holloway recalled.
“The significant part was when we could walk on the beach at Sanananda.
“I celebrated my 21st birthday in Port Moresby on February 19, 1942, the day the Port Moresby Hotel was bombed by the Japanese.”
Mr Holloway said Australians owed Papua New Guineans a great deal for their help during WW11.
“We had great assistance from the indigenous people,” he said.
“A lot of our people would have been dead if it hadn’t been for them.
“I think they’ve had a rough deal from the Australian government since the end of the war.”
Among the fascinating yarns Mr Barkla and Mr Holloway shared was that Mr Barkla was working on the mv Macdhui on June 17, 1942, the day before it was bombed and sunk by Japanese planes, while Mr Holloway was supposed to have been working on it on the actual day of the bombing but was sick
Five of their 39th Battalion mates were killed together with 10 crew members of the ship.
They also served at Jacksons Airfield and remember the numerous Japanese air raids.
Jackson Airfield was named after Australian ace pilot John Jackson, leader of RAAF Squadron 75, who was killed in a dogfight against Japanese planes over Port Moresby on April 28, 1942.
“The very first day he (Jackson) was here, he shot a Japanese Kawasaki aircraft,” Mr Holloway said.
“He shot down quite a number of Japanese aircraft.
“He had quite a number of Japanese aircraft painted on the side of his aircraft, for every one of them that he shot down.
“On April 25, 1942, which was Anzac Day, we were at the back of the hill and New Guinea Anglican Bishop, Philip Strong, was conducting a service when the Japanese attacked.
“We all ducked for cover but he remained and continued to conduct the service
Mr Barkla and Mr Holloway were based on the hill overlooking the airfield, at what is now the PNG Defence Force’s Air Transport Wing staff quarters.
They also spent time at Bootless Bay keeping an eye for Japanese aircraft.
Both men could reminisce on and on about their WW11 days, however, time caught up and they had to leave for Popondetta.
I asked them why they were called “chocolate soldiers”.
“They said we weren’t fulltime soldiers, that we were part-time soldiers,” Mr Holloway replied.
“They said when the heat of battle was on, we would melt, but we didn’t.
“Australia had two armies, the Australian Imperial Forces, and the Australian Military Forces.
“The ‘chocos (Chocolate Soldiers)’ were part of that.
“Every member of the 39th Battalion was a volunteer.
“Most of the 39th Battalion eventually joined the AIF.
“They never called us ‘chocolate soldiers’ after the New Guinea Campaign.
“When we fought together, side-by-side, they changed that opinion.
“The 2/14th will tell you that if it hadn’t been for the 39th Battalion, they would have been annihilated.”


  1. Anonymous1:39 PM

    What an honour to read about these soldiers and what they did for their country. Especially as the daughter of one of these veterans I appreciate the Papuans for their help.

  2. Anonymous1:47 PM

    This is an accurate account of our visit to Papua New Guinea retracing the steps we took in 1942/43. Eco Tourism Melanesia proved to be a wonderful company with which to deal and we have recommended them to many people since. The records of the interviews are almost verbatim with what we said. Peter Holloway - 39th Bn Veteran