Sunday, 3 February 2013

Kokoda Day 2012 - 70th Anniversary

On the 8th of August 2012, it was 70 years since Kokoda was retaken by A Coy of the 39th Battalion - my great grandfather Jim Cowey's company.   On that day, Jim himself fired the flare to signal to Battalion HQ (located in Deniki) that Kokoda was once again held by the Australians.  But the signal was not seen.  Soon after, heavy fighting with the better prepared and equipped Japanese Imperial Army took place and the Kokoda legend was born.  During that battle, the 39th battalion faced a formidable foe who at the time were considered the best jungle fighters in the world.  The Australians were pushed to their limits without adequate ammunition or supplies or training in jungle warfare to support their defence of Kokoda and the strategic airstrip.  After almost 2 days of fighting and using almost all ammunition at their disposal, Captain Symington (in command of A Coy) decided there was no other option available to him but to order his men to withdraw back to Deniki.  


It is in the withdrawal that my great grandfather made a decision that would change the immediate fate of 8 or 9 young men in his company.  Jim Cowey stayed behind at Kokoda after the main body of A Coy had left.  He knew there were young blokes left behind who did not get the message to withdraw.  Like a mother hen protecting her young, 52-year-old-Jim gathered these boys up and remained "as cool as a cucumber" throughout his stressful and highly dangerous undertaking.  At this time, "grenades were still exploding in weapon pits and the Japanese were thrusting their bayonets under huts" in search of cut-off Australians.  In this hostile environment, Jim Cowey calmly organised his gathered crew into single file and together they simply walked out of Kokoda in the dark under Jim's leadership - over the bridge, across the airstrip and into the relative safety of the jungle.  Jim kept watch over his young comrades while they slept that night and the next day they went in search of the main body of A Coy.  They stumbled upon a Japanese machine gun crew along the way and Jim disposed of them, continuing his display of calm confidence.  But the heat was then on, so Jim's group again went bush.  After a time, they came upon the village of Naro and there they found the main body of A Coy.  There was quiet celebration in Naro that day, as Jim's group had been written off by their comrades, thought to have been surely lost in the fierce, close fighting at Kokoda.  Jim's story was to continue in Papua....


For many, many years, the 39th Battalion veterans, their family members and descendants (and the general public) have been making an annual pilgrimage to The Shrine in Melbourne for Kokoda Day.  For the official 70th Anniversary commemorations, a special Kokoda Day was planned with the Governor General Quentin Bryce in attendance to deliver an address.  Interestingly, we share a birthday, and also she was born the December in the year the Kokoda battles actually took place.  

For this special Kokoda Day, I brought my 2 young children with me to The Shrine so that they could be present as direct descendants of a 39th Battalion veteran.  I took Aidan (then 5) out of school for the day but still dressed him in his uniform, I guess as a mark of respect for the occasion.  My daughter Aoife had just turned 3 the weekend before and together we travelled down to Melbourne in the family car.

On the way we talked about Jim Cowey, and I explained to my kids that there was "2 big wars" that their great great grandfather fought in and that this special day was all about the second time he fought.  (Coincidentally, the 8th of August 2012 was also the 94th anniversary of the "Black Day" of Germany's WW1 campaign, where the Allies, including Jim's then 46th Battalion with whom he held rank of Lieutenant, ferociously attacked the German defences along the Western Front.  That was 24 years before Kokoda).  My kids listened when I said we were going to meet people who knew him, people he taught and that we'd also meet families of people who fought with him.  I tried to articulate to them the solemness of the day and that there would be a lot of quiet times that we would have to be still and listening for.  I guess it was a big ask for them to remain still and quiet for the whole ceremony, but I wanted them to be there, to be a part of it.  It was important.  Unfortunately, it didn't exactly work out the way I had hoped (dreamed? :) ).  The kids were a little fidgety after the car-ride and were wanting to giggle with each other during the ceremony in the Crypt.  I was quite on edge trying to keep them both in line and respectful, wary of the solemn atmosphere and the veterans themselves, who on this day were revisiting their war service and without doubt would not appreciate a "display" from young children when they were trying to commemorate their fallen comrades.  In the end, I guess I sacrificed my own enjoyment of the day by choosing to keep the kids quiet instead of concentrating completely on the speeches made.  But I was glad that I was there as a great granddaughter of James Picken Cowey, MC.  I was glad that my children were there too, and even more importantly, that they got to meet the veterans and families of those Jim Cowey served with, some who he even saved during the campaign that formed part of the Battle for Australia, 70 years ago.

We were welcomed very briefly to the ceremony by the current President of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion Association, Norm Stockdale.  The Governor General Quentin Bryce then spoke and the veterans really seemed to appreciate her address and in all were quite impressed with her representation and attention to them on the day.  Rev Peter Holloway led the gathered crowd in prayers and Alan "Kanga" Moore recited the Ode. Overwhelmingly however, the most moving part of the ceremony for me was when 39th battalion veteran George Cops came to the microphone.  Mr Cops is a lovely man and I've been lucky to meet him and his wife and family, and they truly are "good people", always friendly, welcoming and ready for a chat.  My children by this stage had settled down and so a poignant silence enveloped us that made Mr Cops' delivery even more special.  His voice filled The Crypt as he read out the names of the fallen, his very own friends and comrades.  Many names resonated from A Coy's story....Johnny Stormont, Vern Scattergood, Bill Drummond, Tony Ruwolt and Jim's friend George Mowat.  But the sheer number of names, of mostly young men cut down in their prime so that we may enjoy our freedoms, was striking to me.  As are the statistics: after the Owen Stanley Campaign only 185 able-bodied men were left out of 500 soldiers who started up the track.  After being reinforced with a further 600 men, the 39th continued to fight at the beachhead battles of Gona, Buna and Sanananda and at the end of the bitter fighting against the Japanese, only 7 officers and 25 other ranks remained fit for active duty!  On the Kokoda Track and the beachheads, the 39th Battalion, and more importantly Australia, lost 135 men in Papua.  Hearing their names read aloud really drove home that point.  It truly was an emotional moment.

Afterwards, we enjoyed meeting up with the 39th Battalion veterans and their families, and those who also make up the greater "39th Battalion family".  I am proud and honoured to call them my friends now too.  

Lorraine Cochrane, daughter of 39th battalion veteran J.D. McKay MM DSM with Aoife and Aidan Lynch, the great great Grandchildren of Jim Cowey MC!  JD always maintained that Jim Cowey saved his life at Kokoda - JD was in the group of young men that Jim led out.
39th battalion veteran John Akhurst with my children. John was a friend of Jim Cowey and they met up again after the Kokoda campaign at the Sellheim Camp in QLD - Jim was going home and John was on his way back to Papua to fight in the beachhead battles. John says that Jim gave him the "head's up" about what to expect from the Japanese, which he said he was lucky to have.

39th battalion veteran Rev Peter Holloway with Aidan and Aoife after the Kokoda Day ceremony. Peter officiated at Jim Cowey's funeral in 1968.

My Kokoda Day Album 

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