Ridiculous claims by Peter Williams cannot diminish Kokoda heroism

James Bowen

2 April 2016
Format: Kindle Edition

For people who know their Kokoda history, reading this appalling treatment of the Kokoda fighting in 1942 by Peter Williams will be akin to torture and I was astonished to see that it had been approved for publication in 2012 by then Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, as part of the official Australian Army History Series. The general's endorsement appears on the back cover. Peter Williams claims in this book that our belief in extraordinary heroism displayed by heavily outnumbered Australians soldiers in fierce fighting under appalling conditions that blocked the advance of a powerful Japanese army towards Port Moresby in 1942 across the Kokoda Track  is largely based on what he calls "myths". There are so many egregious errors of historical fact in the book that I have difficulty believing that anyone connected with its publication had any depth of understanding of the Kokoda fighting. A more detailed review of this book will appear on the website of the Battle for Australia Historical Society.

If the Japanese had captured Port Moresby and its vital airstrips, Australia would have faced a very grave threat, and not only from Japanese bombing of much of northern Queensland. Many Australians would probably view the defence of Port Moresby from capture by the Japanese in 1942 as a magnificent achievement on the part of Australian soldiers. The official Australian and Japanese histories of the Kokoda Campaign support that view even if this Australian Army publication does not. Those official histories were written by military experts who had access to official military records, unit diaries, and the memories and diaries of senior commanders who actually fought on the Kokoda Track. The official histories contain many references to primary historical sources, including quoted text of orders from the Japanese high command in 1942 and the 17th Army which had full responsibility for conducting the Port Moresby Offensive. 

The book purports to be a published PhD thesis originating from the lowly ranked Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory. After reading the book, I found it impossible to avoid a conclusion that Peter Williams was driven by a need to turn all that we know about Kokoda upside down for the purpose of justifying his thesis; even if, in doing so, it would unjustifiably diminish the achievement and heroism of Australian soldiers whose fighting spirit and sacrifices ground a powerful Japanese army to a halt and retreat on the Kokoda Track when the Japanese were only 65 kilometres from Port Moresby.

I have formed the view that much of this book consists of absurd claims based upon inadequate and/or selective research, distortions of what really happened following the Japanese landings and on the Kokoda Track, obscure references that are very difficult to check, and failure to address authoritative historical sources that contradict the author. Williams simply ignores the content of the official histories. The 102 volume official Japanese history of the Pacific War 1941-45 is called "Senshi Sosho" and its authoritative status is well established. Two internationally recognized distinguished historians and Japan scholars, the late Professor Henry Frei (Tsukuba Women's University, Japan) and Professor John J. Stephan (University of Hawaii), repeatedly draw on "Senshi Sosho" to support material in their published military histories. Perhaps Williams felt obliged to ignore the official Japanese history because it contradicted so many features of his PhD thesis, including his "myth" claims. 

The compilation of "Senshi Sosho" began in 1955 within Japan's Defense Studies Institute. The chapters dealing with the Kokoda Campaign are contained in "Japanese Army Operations in the South Pacific Area" (translated and published by the Australian War Memorial in 2007). For the sake of brevity, I will refer to the Kokoda chapters simply as "Senshi Sosho". I will show how the official Japanese history contradicts the most controversial claims by Peter Williams. 

Although lacking a PhD in history, I graduated in politics, history and law from one of Australia's "Sandstone" universities, and served for seven years as an army officer at Army Headquarters, Canberra, and in Vietnam in 1968. I studied Japanese history for one year, and have lived in Japan and studied spoken Japanese. I know something of Papua New Guinea, including Kokoda, having travelled extensively across the two mainland territories from 1960 to 1967 as Senior Crown Prosecutor and finally, Assistant Secretary for Law.

Williams produces a grocery list of so-called "myths" (pages 1-10) that he claims have distorted our appreciation of what really occurred in the fighting leading to and on the Kokoda Track in 1942. Six of these claims of "myth" serve to undermine our belief that the defence of Port Moresby in 1942 by Australian soldiers was a magnificent and inspirational achievement, but each of these claims can be shown to be false by reference to widely accepted historical authority. 

The Japanese and Australian official histories of the Kokoda Campaign expose the following claims by Peter Williams as being ridiculous and lacking any solid historical foundation.

(1) Port Moresby was not the primary objective of the Japanese army fighting its way along the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby, or as Williams puts it : "Port Moresby was a highly desirable, but not essential, part of the (Japanese) plan." (at page 10).

We know as an historical fact that the Japanese were engaged in fierce fighting with the Australians along the Kokoda Track with the avowed intention of capturing Port Moresby. Throughout chapters 4 and 5 of "Japanese Army operations in the South Pacific Area" (2007, AWM) there are repeated references to Port Moresby being the primary objective of the Japanese landings in Papua in July 1942, and these references are sourced in quoted text from primary sources to the highest levels of Japan's Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo and Japan's 17th Army in Rabaul. We should not be surprised that Williams fails to support this ridiculous claim with any historical evidence because there is no such evidence to support it. So at a very early stage of his book, it appears to me that the credibility of Peter Williams falls off a cliff and is irretrievable. 

(2) "By the time the campaign was launched, the Japanese probably knew more about the Kokoda Track than did the Australians" (page 5).

This claim is equally ridiculous. Williams makes no attempt to support it with relevant historical evidence, and "Senshi Sosho" destroys it by recording that Major General Tomitaro Horii had no expert advice comparable to that available to the Australian commanders from New Guinea "old hands" Captains Bert Keinzle and F.P. Brewer who knew every inch of the terrain between Gona/Buna and Port Moresby. Based upon faulty aerial reconnaissance, the Japanese commander believed there was a road passable by motor vehicles between his beachheads and Kokoda ("Senshi Sosho" (AWM) at pages 96-97). The hundreds of bicycles landed at Buna/Gona for use by Japanese troops to cycle to Kokoda were dumped when the Japanese realised they were useless for that purpose.
(3) "In truth, during the Japanese advance, the Australians were rarely outnumbered by their enemy" (at page 1). Williams suggests that the "myth" of superior Japanese numbers during the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby has been used to disguise the truth that the Japanese troops were "qualitatively superior to the Australians" in the Kokoda fighting (at page 2). To support these offensive and wholly untrue claims, Williams makes particular reference to the first defence and fall of Kokoda on 29 July 1942 and the Battle of Isurava (26-30 August 1942) to diminish the heroism of Australian soldiers by suggesting that numbers were roughly equal on both sides in these actions.
Both claims by Williams are utter nonsense. I will take Kokoda first and show by reference to the Japanese official history that the claim of rough equality of numbers is untrue. Williams claims that the lightly armed small Australian force (about 130 men including PIB native soldiers and native police) defending the Kokoda plateau in a famous action on the night of 28/29 July 1942 was facing only one Japanese rifle company (the Ogawa Company - comprising about 130 men) instead of the full 1/144th Tsukamoto Battalion with its artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns (numbering between 500-700 men). The Japanese attack began at about 2.00 am on 29 July when the Japanese began to lay down heavy machine-gun and mortar fire on the Kokoda plateau. By 3.30 am the Japanese had swarmed over all three open sides of the Kokoda plateau and were overwhelming the Australian defenders.
Williams claims that the main force of the 1/144th Tsukamoto Battalion was not present at Kokoda on 29 July or the earlier action at Oivi on 26 July because it was back at the beachheads during these actions (at pages 49 and 53). How does Williams support this astonishing claim? Without any relevant evidence to support this claim, he writes of the fall of Kokoda on 29 July 1942:
 "….Tsukamoto, with the main body of the 1/144th (Battalion), was still on the coast a hundred kilometres away and did not pass through Oivi until 6 August." 

One probably needs to be an armchair academic to even imagine that 130 Japanese could manage the steep climb under Australian fire and then swarm over all three open sides of the Kokoda plateau to quickly overwhelm the prepared Australian defences. The translated chapters of the official Japanese history "Senshi Sosho" prove this claim by Williams is nonsense and lacks any historical foundation:
"..The (Ogawa) unit then advanced to the high ground at Oivi approximately 16 kilometres to the east of Kokoda, where they were joined by the main strength of the advance party on 26 July (1942)". See: "Senshi Sosho" at pages 106-107 (AWM). 

When "Senshi Sosho" refers to the "main strength" of the advance party joining the Ogawa Company on 26 July 1942 at Oivi, it means that the rest of the 1/144th Tsukamoto Battalion, i.e. three rifle companies and an HQ company joined the Ogawa Company at Oivi on 26 July.  It follows irresistibly from the Japanese account that about 130 Australians were facing a full Japanese battalion (between 500-700 men) in the first defence of Kokoda and not merely the Ogawa Company.

If that was not clear enough to refute the claim of near equality of numbers at Kokoda from Williams, "Senshi Sosho" declares at pages 135-136:

"As mentioned previously, the 1st Battalion of the 144th Infantry Regiment (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Tsukamoto Hatsuo) was attached to the Yokoyama Advance Party, and occupied Kokoda on the morning of 29 July (1942). The battalion was ordered to secure the line of the Owen Stanley Range in preparation for a continued advance."

Kokoda fell to the Japanese on the morning of  29 July 1942. So the official Japanese history is declaring unequivocally that Tsukamoto's full battalion took part in the first defence and fall of Kokoda on 29 July. This ridiculous claim by Williams of near equality of numbers in the first defence of Kokoda on 29 July 1942 diminishes the heroism of the Australian defenders who were fighting a much larger and more powerful Japanese force.
In the Japanese official history "Senshi Sosho", the Japanese themselves pay tribute to the Australians as tough fighters. In the splendid documentary "Kokoda - The Bloody Track" (1992), Japanese survivors of the Kokoda Campaign paid high tributes to the fighting abilities of the Australians on the Kokoda Track.

The Battle of Isurava took place on a high northernmost ridge of the Owen Stanley Range between 26-30 August 1942 and wrecked any hope that the Japanese entertained of capturing Port Moresby's vital airfields by 4 September 1942. The account of the Battle of Isurava by Peter Williams makes utter nonsense of a gallant defence by heavily outnumbered Australians facing an elite Japanese army equipped with much greater firepower, and I will demonstrate why the following claims about Isurava by Peter Williams are nonsense.
4."..there were no more Japanese engaged (at Isurava) than there were Australians so the battle, although a fascinating one, was not a wonderful defensive stand against overwhelming numbers as it has been depicted" (at page 82).

The official Australian history of the Kokoda Campaign and "Senshi Sosho" both make it very clear to anyone who has a reasonable command of the English language that there were two separate battles taking place on the northernmost ridge of the Owen Stanleys between 26 and 30 August 1942. The wide dispersal of the four Australian battalions make nonsense of the claim by Williams that there was equality of Japanese and Australian numbers at Isurava. 

During five days of fighting at and near Isurava, Major General Horii could call on five veteran infantry assault battalions with supporting heavy weapon units ("Senshi Sosho" at pages 132-140). Four of these veteran battalions were fresh. The Japanese force was called the Nankai Shitai and combined the 144th and 41st Infantry Regiments. Horii could support his invasion of Australian soil with powerful weapons that the Australian battalions did not have, namely, light artillery and heavy machine-guns. 

The Australians could only muster four battalions to oppose the Japanese advance. The militia 39th Battalion was dug in at Isurava, but after a month of fighting the Japanese they were heavily depleted in numbers, starving, and exhausted. The 39th Battalion barely held the swarms of Japanese attacking their lines on the morning of 26 August. They were to be relieved by the AIF 2/14th Battalion when it began to arrive at Isurava during the afternoon of 26 August, but the situation for the Australians at Isurava was so desperate that the exhausted militia troops were obliged to remain as a reserve. So we have at Isurava village one fit Australian AIF 2/14th Battalion and one exhausted and depleted reserve militia 39th Battalion facing three elite Japanese battalions and one reserve Japanese battalion between Isurava and Buna/Gona ("Senshi Sosho" at pages 132-140). The Australians were lightly armed. The Japanese were equipped with artillery and heavy machine-guns. The evidence is clear that the Australians at Isurava village were heavily outnumbered and lacked the firepower available to the Japanese, but perhaps Peter Williams finds it inconvenient for his purposes to acknowledge this. 

The other two Australian battalions were two hours hard march away at Alola and deployed down the rugged and densely forested Alola-Missima-Kaile track. One of those battalions at Alola, the militia 53rd Battalion, comprised raw recruits who should never have been sent into battle against crack Japanese assault troops because they had no combat training. They faced early annihilation by the Japanese and were quickly withdrawn by the Australian commander from his order of battle. This left two fit Australian AIF battalions and one totally exhausted militia 39th Battalion to face five veteran Japanese battalions. So much for Williams' ridiculous claim of equality of numbers at Isurava. 

Peter Williams makes another absurd claim in his Isurava chapter:

5. "Far from being Australia's….Thermopylae, Isurava was a defeat with very few redeeming features" (at page 62).

Williams appears reluctant to acknowledge that if the depleted militia 39th Battalion had not stood fast at Isurava despite starvation and battle exhaustion, and held the Japanese until fresh AIF troops from the 2/14th Battalion arrived to relieve them late on 26 August, there is a very real possibility that the five veteran heavily armed Japanese assault battalions could have acquired the momentum necessary to push the two poorly supplied and lightly armed Australian AIF battalions strung out on the Kokoda Track back across the Owen Stanleys to the Sogeri plateau by 2 or 3 September 1942. The Sogeri plateau overlooks Port Moresby and would have provided an easy one day's march (35 kilometres) for Japanese soldiers to reach the vital Port Moresby Ward and Jackson airstrips. The crucial role played by the 39th Battalion in blocking the Japanese advance until reinforced by the AIF 2/14th Battalion is mentioned by Maroubra Force commander Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner in the DVD "Kokoda - The Bloody Track" because the Australian AIF 2/14th and 2/16 Battalions were only receiving limited air dropped supplies while strung out along the Kokoda Track. If the Nankai Shitai had reached and taken control of the Port Moresby airstrips, the whole course of the war for Australia would have changed for the worse in 1942. 

The Battle of Isurava also played an important role in destroying the Nankai Shitai as a powerful fighting force. Williams does not acknowledge that the Japanese Nankai Shitai soldiers left their beachheads at Gona/Buna with only 12 days supply of food in their packs. The 19th Army commander at Rabaul expected the Nankai Shitai to reach Port Moresby before 4 September 1942 using that food supply in their packs and to supplement it, if necessary, by stealing food from native gardens on the Kokoda Track. It was normal practice for the Imperial Japanese Army to expect its troops to live off the land as they advanced, but the Kokoda Track villagers had removed all food from the Japanese line of advance. 

The main force of the Nankai Shitai (four battalions) moved off from the coast to Kokoda between 19-21 August 1942. Twelve days after leaving the beachheads at Gona/Buna, the Japanese had only occupied Isurava on the northernmost ridge of the Owen Stanleys by 30 August. Their food supply was running low but they were able to find some abandoned Australian food at Isurava. They were hoping to find more Australian food supplies abandoned by the retreating Australians along the Kokoda Track and to raid native food gardens but they failed to find these essential food resources. Very little food was reaching the Japanese troops in air drops. By the time the Japanese reached Ioribaiwa, they were exhausted and starving and their supply lines were in chaos. They could not go further without food and troop reinforcements. These were denied and the Nankai Shitai was forced to face defeat and retreat to the beachheads.

When the survivors of the Nankai Shitai ended their retreat at Buna, the Nankai Shitai had been destroyed as a fighting force by fighting, starvation, and exhaustion. Major Koiwai, commander of the 2/41st Koiwai Battalion, records in his memoirs that the Nankai Shitai troops were so exhausted in November and in such pitiful condition that he ordered them to abandon their weapons ("Senshi Sosho" at page 173). Many of the survivors of the Nankai Shitai were observed to be naked or in rags and in near skeletal condition from starvation when they reached Buna.* None of the original Nankai Shitai was fit to fight in the bloody fighting for the Japanese beachheads, and the Battle of Isurava had contributed significantly to wiping out two veteran Japanese regiments that might otherwise have contributed to the defence of the Japanese beachheads. * "The Path of Infinite Sorrow -The Japanese on the Kokoda Track" by Collie & Marutani (2009).

Not content with writing this nonsense about the significance of Isurava, Peter Williams also wrote: 

6. "…the delay imposed (by Isurava) was of small importance for….Seventeenth Army had already decided to postpone the Nankai Shitai's attack on Port Moresby." (at page 62)

This is more offensive nonsense from Williams. The Battle of Isurava ended on 30 August 1942, and the Japanese 17th Army did not decide to halt the drive by Major General Horii across the Owen Stanleys until 14 September.

The final decision to halt the drive towards Port Moresby and retreat to the beachheads was not taken until 14 September 1942 when the Japanese had reached Ioribaiwai ("Senshi Sosho" at page 158). By this stage, the Nankai Shitai was heavily depleted from fighting the Australians and the Japanese troops were starving, exhausted, and carrying many sick and wounded. The Nankai Shitai at Ioribaiwa had no hope of reaching Port Moresby without substantial reinforcement and supply of food. This would be denied. Isurava had contributed significantly to the hopeless Japanese situation at Ioribaiwa. "Senshi Sosho" points out that the decision to halt the Port Moresby offensive on 14 September 1942 coincided with the total defeat of the Kawaguchi Detachment on Guadalcanal (op.cit.). Perhaps if Peter Williams had taken the trouble to study "Senshi Sosho" carefully, he would not have written so much nonsense about Kokoda.


I mentioned above my view that much of this book by Peter Williams consists of absurd claims based upon inadequate and/or selective research, distortions of what really happened following the Japanese landings and on the Kokoda Track, obscure references that are very difficult to check, and failure to address authoritative historical sources that contradict him. After exhaustive examination of the Australian and Japanese official histories, and vain attempts to find historical evidence supporting any of the bizarre claims made by Peter Williams in his Kokoda book, I have found no reason to change this view. I am also left with a question.  How did this thesis by Peter Williams reach publication without anyone questioning its serious and very controversial inaccuracies? As Australia approaches the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign, the Chief of Army might well ponder how the Australian Army became saddled with a book that falsely diminishes the achievement and heroism that we associate with Kokoda.