70th Anniversary of the flag-raising at Kokoda

“Thank you, and the angels who carried you home”

70th Anniversary of the flag-raising at Kokoda

Kokoda, Papua New Guinea

Friday 2 November 2012

Seventy years ago tomorrow, at half past one in the afternoon, the Australian flag was raised here at Kokoda.

It was a brand new flag, nylon weave, which had been dropped that morning from a US plane flying above.

There was no band, no cheers, just weary Australian soldiers standing to attention, in the soaking rain.

One of those men was Len Griffiths. He has never been back since.

He organised the flag raising ceremony that day.

Today 70 years later he is here to help us raise that flag again.

The raising of this flag is important.

Seventy years ago it marked the end of one of the most dangerous and important moments in our short history.

For the first time we weren’t fighting to defend another country. We were fighting to defend ourselves.

The men who fought and died here were fighting to defend their homes, their families and their country.

They were fighting for us.

We are a lucky country. We didn’t have to fight for our freedom. But we did have to fight to keep it.

This was a battle on our border. An enemy at our own gate.

That’s why what happened here is so important, why this ground is so sacred, and the men who fought here are so honoured.

You don’t need to go to the movies to see heroes. They are here in front of us.

Men who were shearers, truck drivers, farm hands and barmen in Australia, became heroes in the mountains behind us.

They believed they were the only people who stood between an invincible enemy and Australia.

And they fought like it.

There are few better examples than Isurava.

That’s where Bruce Kingsbury charged alone into the enemy, with a Bren gun at his hip, mowing down dozens of Japanese soldiers and pushing the rest back into the jungle.

When he ran out of bullets he lent against a rock to reload his weapon. As he did, he was struck by a single sniper’s bullet. In an instant he was gone.

His actions earned him the first Victoria Cross on what was then Australian territory. His courage helped to halt the Japanese offensive that day and stopped the Australian headquarters from being overrun.

He was a real estate agent from Melbourne.

Bruce Kingsbury was in Bob Iskov’s unit, the 2/14th.

Bob says, “like most VC winners, he was just an ordinary bloke…heroes don’t come with a label on them”.

A few days before Kingsbury was killed, three platoons were cut off north and west of Isurava.

They struggled through the jungle for four days before they finally made it back to Alola.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner described what happened next:

A corporal of the 2/16th told me afterwards, ‘It was enough to make a man weep to see those poor skinny bastards hobble in on their bleeding feet.’ They were greeted with the news that the 39th and 2/14th were fighting for their lives. Without a word, or a thought for the food their stomachs craved, they turned and hurried off to Isurava as fast as their crippled feet could carry them.

At Isurava today there is a memorial with four black granite pillars, with four words etched into them: mateship, courage, sacrifice and endurance.

This is why.

Because of the actions of men like Kingsbury and hungry, tired, often wounded men – who refused to let their mates down.

It’s why this flag is here today. Because of men like this.

More than 600 Australians died between here and Imita Ridge.

Twice as many died between here and Buna, Gona and Sanananda.

Many others only made it out because of the people of Papua New Guinea.

Not all heroes carried a bren gun or a 303.

They carried the wounded on makeshift stretchers.

Fuzzy haired heroes who forged a very special bond between our two countries.

To them we owe a debt that can never be repaid.

Heroes may not come with labels on them, but they do have name badges on today.

Cyril Allender, Ray Baldwin, Les Cook, Len Griffiths, Bob Iskov, Kenneth Kell, Eric Sambell, Bill Stuart, Bede Tongs, Owen Baskett, Garnett Tobin, George Palmer.

Today is a day to say thank you.

The monument to what you achieved is much more than just this stone and concrete.

It’s all around us. It’s freedom. Here in Papua New Guinea and back at home.

There’s a Cyril, Ray, Les, Len, Bob, Kenneth, Eric, Bill, Bede, Owen, Garnett and George in every one of us.

We just have to believe.

Twenty years ago Paul Keating told us that “not all generations are called on to risk and sacrifice their lives for their beliefs – but all generations need to believe”.

Believe in Australia. Believe that what we have and what we hope for is worth fighting for.

We do believe.

If you want proof of that look at the young people in the streets on Anzac Day, or the thousands who struggle across this mountain range every year, to reach this place.

And they will keep coming.

Long after we are all gone they will keep coming.

Because of what happened here.

Because of what you did. They will come to honour you, to remember you and the angels who carried you home.