Seventy-five years ago last week, we defeated the seemingly invincible Japanese army at Milne Bay. Next week it will be 75 years since the tide turned on the Kokoda Track and the Japanese would start to retreat. I haven’t heard much said about this lately in the media or in this place, and that’s a shame. These battles were the most important we have fought. The men who fought and died there didn’t go for adventure or to defend an empire; they were repelling an army that had never been beaten and that they thought was about to invade Australia. Not many of these men are still with us. One, who is, is my mate Dick Payten. He is 96 and still going strong, and I love him very much. Two weeks ago we were at the War Memorial here in Canberra.
There were only about 20 people there. He was the only Kokoda veteran and I was the only member of parliament. There on that cold Canberra morning—it was minus four—we listened for two hours as the names of the 641 men who died on the Kokoda Track were read out. The oldest was younger than me. The youngest was only 16. I wish we were all as determined as Dick is to make sure that his mates are never forgotten. I took him back to Papua New Guinea five years ago and we visited the grave of his best mate, Arnold Darling, at Bomana War Cemetery. It is a moment I will never forget. This is what he said:
“Well, old friend, here I am — I told you I’d be back.
And as usual mate I’m bloody late, it’s 70 years down the track.
And for the last time here I stand in this familiar Kokoda land
Back with the mates I left behind, fixed forever in their time
“And of all the ghosts of all the boys that haunt this lonely place
Only one of them wears your cheery grin and your Bankstown joker’s face
But when I stand in old forgotten dreams of helpless young men’s dying screams
I feel your arm give my hand a shake—and your voice says, ‘Steady, mate’
“Well the country that you died for, mate, you would not know it now
The future that we dreamt of, mate, got all twisted up somehow
The peace that we were fighting for, the end to stupid senseless war
So it couldn’t happen to our kids—well, old mate, it did
“But thank you for the gift of years and the flame that brightly burns
For the time you bought and the lessons taught—though often wasted and unlearned
‘Lest we forget’ cry the multitudes, as if I ever, ever could
So forgive an old man’s tears—and thanks mate for the years.”