‘Disgust, dismay’ as official Kokoda commemoration goes MIA

The prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Saturday visited Kokoda and laid a wreath at the Bomana war cemetery outside Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, and there will be a ceremony held in Canberra in November.

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Kokoda is considered Australia’s most significant battle of the war in the Pacific, in which the Japanese were for the first time defeated on land.

Veteran George Palmer points to his figure in one of the most famous Kokoda campaign photographs by Damien Parer: of Australian soldiers trudging through the mud.

“I’m the second one, there, now of the six of us there are two still alive, myself and Arnold Forrester, who lives in Townsville,” he said.

The 95-year-old veteran of the 39th Battalion is now fighting another battle, to preserve the memory of Kokoda, and is upset the official Australian commemoration will not be held in PNG.

“It’s wrong, just wrong. You must never forget the sacrifices my mates made,” he said.

Kokoda was fought between July and November 1942 on what was then Australian soil, the territory of Papua.

Historian Patrick Lindsay, the chair of the Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF), said he has been asking the government since last year about when the PNG commemoration would be held.

“I’m dismayed and disgusted,” he said.

“It’s the second time we’ve done this to these diggers, they didn’t get the credit they deserved at the time and after the war.”

Kokoda tour operators say they have also been awaiting confirmation since last year and feel they will now have to take up the commemorative task.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull arrives via an Australian Army helicopter to the Isurava Memorial to lay a wreath at the Kokoda Track, April 8, 2017. (AAP)FAIRFAX POOL

“Yeah, it is disappointing,” said Frank Taylor, who has been running tours to PNG for three decades and is head of the Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KOTA).

“If the historical linkages are failing a little, as perhaps you could argue is being demonstrated with no offshore (Kokoda commemoration in PNG), it looks like a lot of that will pass on to the operators.”

More than 600 Australians died in the Kokoda campaign and there were thousands more casualties in brutal jungle warfare and on the beachheads, including an untold number of Papua New Guineans.

More than 10,000 Japanese and hundreds of US soldiers were also killed.

The 75th anniversary is expected to be the last time the few surviving veterans will see a major commemoration.

“Seventy-five years ago Australia was unprepared to defend itself,” the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Saturday at the Bomana War Cemetery wreath-laying ceremony.

“All of our best soldiers, best trained soldiers were abroad. Militia men, reservists, were sent here to the Kokoda track.

“These men with very little training, rose to the occasion and kept Australia free, in the most horrific conditions.”

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The Governor General is expected in PNG for the only other Australian commemoration – on Anzac Day.

“It’s at least it’s an honour, and the PM should do that, but the real people who should be involved in the commemoration are the surviving veterans and the families of the diggers who laid down their lives there,” said Mr Lindsay

The Department of Veterans Affairs told SBS, “the Australian Government will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the New Guinea Campaign in World War Two with a national commemoration in Canberra on 2 November 2017, including a Last Post service at the Australian War Memorial”.

“For the health and safety of the veterans, the Australian Government made the decision to not continue veterans’ missions after the 70th anniversary.

“Commemorations in Papua New Guinea are a matter for the Papuan (sic) Government, or in some cases services are organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs Post.”

One hundred years on from the World War I Gallipoli campaign, it is still officially commemorated in Turkey by the Australian government, long after the last veteran has passed

“If we could do that, and we did for the 75th of Gallipoli, why aren’t we doing it for Kokoda?” said Mr Lindsay.

PNG will mark Kododa on November 3, for the so-called “fuzzy wuzzy angels” who served alongside the veterans like George Palmer.