Kokoda Book

One star rating 1.0 out of 5 stars

Review title: "Brendan Nelson's Australian War Memorial demeans Kokoda heroism and sacrifices without justification"

By James Bowen reviewed on Amazon - 2 November 2017

fine lineHorner et al

LEFT: Emeritus Professor David Horner; CENTRE: Dr Karl James; and RIGHT: Dr Peter Williams.These historians contributed the chapters to "Kokoda beyond the Legend" that are criticised in this published review. All three have had adequate notice of the criticism of their Kokoda papers and none have responded to that criticism. In the absence of reasonable excuse for that silence, this permits application of the legal principle that silence in response to an accusation permits an inference of acceptance of the truth of that accusation. 

For 75 years, Australians have believed on sound historical grounds that the defence of Port Moresby against Japanese invaders on the Kokoda Track in 1942 was an heroic achievement in which heavily outnumbered and outgunned Australian soldiers fought, bled, sacrificed, and died to defend a part of Australia known as the Territory of Papua in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific War. Now the director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson purports to tell us in this book “Kokoda beyond the Legend” that we have been misled, and that Australia’s gallant Kokoda defenders fought and fell on foreign soil defending a foreign country against Japanese invaders instead of part of Australia which was in 1942 the sovereign Australian Territory of Papua. Nelson does not stop with this appalling historical falsehood. His “Kokoda beyond the legend” also tells us in a chapter by Peter Williams that the Australians were not outnumbered during the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track towards their Port Moresby objective. Williams suggests that the Australian were initially forced to retreat because they were inferior fighters compared to the Japanese invaders of the Australia’s Territory of Papua in 1942. These claims are appalling because they are untrue and can readily be shown to be untrue.

References to “Senshi Sosho” in this review are to those chapters of the official Japanese history of the Pacific War that deal with the Kokoda Campaign in 1942. “Senshi Sosho” is accepted as authoritative by Western Japan scholars, and the Kokoda chapters have been translated into English and are available to the public from the Australian War Memorial (references to the Memorial are hereinafter reduced to AWM for the sake of brevity).

This book was published in early 2017 by the AWM, and its apparent purpose was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign in 1942, but an examination of the book’s origin suggests that it was intended to diminish the magnificent achievement represented by the effective defence of Australia’s Papua against Japanese invaders in 1942. The title "Kokoda: beyond the legend" is the initial dismissive insult directed at Kokoda by Brendan Nelson’s AWM. The title confuses widely accepted historical fact with "legend". The term "legend" is inappropriate with reference to our established military history, whether it refers to the Anzacs at Gallipoli or the Kokoda Campaign. The Oxford dictionary defines "legend" as including "myth" and "popular but unfounded belief". So we tend to speak of outlaw Robin Hood as being the stuff of legend. Widely accepted historical fact is not legend. This is the first indication of a serious failure of historical scholarship in this book.

I have read the published work of all American contributors to this book, and their contributions will be valuable for students. It is the contributions by a handful of Australian historians that suggest a serious failure of historical scholarship at the AWM. I have awarded an effective “F” rating to three Australian contributors to this book, and fairness requires that my reasons for those “F” awards be adequately explained.

The book contains papers delivered at the Memorial’s conference titled "Kokoda beyond the legend" held in 2012 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Kokoda.

As if driven to reignite public controversy of the kind that damaged the reputation for historical scholarship of the AWM during the Peter Stanley era (2002-2005), papers by Professor David Horner and Dr Karl James falsely denied that the Japanese invasion of Papua in 1942 was invasion of part of the Commonwealth of Australia. Those denials were not only untrue; they denied Australia’s Kokoda heroes, including Bruce Kingsbury VC and John French VC, the honour of fighting, bleeding, sacrificing, and dying to defend soil that was a part of Australia in 1942. I feel that it is mean-spirited for anyone to deny without justification the importance of Kokoda for Australians when, for the first time in Australia's history as a nation, Australian soldiers were fighting and dying on Australian soil in Papua to resist a Japanese invasion of what was a part of Australia in 1942.

The Williams conference paper insulted the heavily outnumbered and outgunned Australian soldiers who fought, bled, sacrificed, and died on the Kokoda Track to block the drive of a powerful Japanese army towards Australia’s Port Moresby by falsely suggesting the Australians were inferior to the Japanese as fighting men.

The untrue denials by Horner and James that Japan invaded a part of Australia in 1942 and the smearing of the gallant defenders of Port Moresby on the Kokoda Track as lesser fighters than the Japanese ignited a massive public controversy that achieved full page reporting in News Corp dailies on 22 October 2012. I responded to the controversy, by providing several detailed advices to the AWM in 2013 explaining with supporting authority that the controversial claims made in the three papers were untrue. My advice was ignored, and the three unedited papers were included in the book “Kokoda beyond the legend”, and consequently, taint the book irretrievably as containing untrue history.

Peter Stanley

English-born Dr Peter Stanley achieved personal notoriety as principal historian and plunged the Australian War Memorial into massive public controversy from 2002 to 2005 with his outrageous and baseless public attacks on Australia's wartime Prime Minister John Curtin, the people of Australia, and Australia's military history. Following public crticism from Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, Stanley resigned from the Australian War Memorial. In a published work, Stanley accused me of playing a part in his resignation, but failed to support that accusation with any evidence and declined in writing my offer to debate with him in Canberra his very controversial published views about the country that took him and his family in as migrants.

The AWM has form when it comes to publishing untrue and insulting versions of Australia’s military history. From 2002 to 2005, the AWM history section led by English-born Dr Peter Stanley plunged the Memorial into massive public controversies with outrageous, and always baseless, attacks on Australia’s wartime Prime Minister John Curtin, the people of Australia, Australia’s military and its achievements, including the Anzacs at Gallipoli. Among a mass of untrue claims, Peter Stanley claimed that Prime Minister Curtin had lied to Australians for political advantage by exaggerating the gravity of the Japanese threat to Australia in 1942; that the belief of Australians that their country was seriously threatened by Japan in 1942 was “rather pathetic”; that the Japanese did not invade any part of Australia in 1942; and Stanley questioned whether “…Australian Militia and AIF who met and defeated the Japanese in Papua were the men who saved Australia”. As if determined to scale new heights of offensiveness towards the Australia that welcomed him and his family as migrants, Stanley dismissed the heavy Japanese bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942 in which hundreds were killed as “small beer”. These baseless quotes can be read in full on the website of the Battle for Australia Historical Society. It required the public intervention of Prime Minister Howard and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley in late 2005 to halt the attacks by the AWM on Australia and Australia’s military achievements.

As a graduate historian, former Australian Army officer, Pacific War specialist, and convener of the Battle for Australia Historical Society, I had publicly contradicted the baseless attacks from the AWM on the character of wartime Prime Minister John Curtin, the people of Australia, and Australia’s military history from 2002. In 2008, then Minister for Veterans Affairs Allan Griffin telephoned me and urged me to establish a good working relationship with the AWM. In accordance with that undertaking to the Minister, I initiated contact with the AWM through historian Karl James in 2008. When told that this contact was undertaken on the recommendation of Minister Griffin, James agreed that contact would usually take the form of Battle for Australia Historical Society newsletters. As it turned out, the working relationship was one-sided. I have maintained contact with the AWM by newsletter from 2008, but there was no cooperative response from the AWM. I was not even informed by Karl James that the conference “Kokoda beyond the legend” would be held at the AWM in 2012.

Appreciation of the status of Papua in 1942 as being part of the Commonwealth of Australia appears to have escaped awareness by historians at the AWM.

Why Karl James had to receive a "Fail" grade for his inadequate knowledge of Kokoda history

The lead author of a paper, and editor of "Kokoda beyond the legend", AWM historian Dr Karl James probably thought his paper would lay the foundation for one of the main thrusts of this book’s demeaning treatment of Kokoda when he wrote:

"As historian Peter Stanley has definitively argued….it is clear from Japanese wartime records that the Japanese did not seriously plan or intend to invade Australia…Rather, the Japanese wanted Port Moresby".

This is an absurd claim by someone who does not appear to have a solid understanding of Australian history despite possessing a doctorate in some area of academic interest. Port Moresby was the capital of Papua in 1942, and Papua was a part of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1942. It does not require a law degree to appreciate this - just intelligence, and this appears to be sadly lacking in Australian War Memorial historians. So when the Japanese invaded Papua in July 1942 for the purpose of capturing Port Moresby, they were planning to capture part of Australia.

Karl James purports to support his absurd claim with a vague reference to a so-called “definitive” argument made in a book written by former AWM historian Peter Stanley with the title "Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia 1942”. James provides no page reference to support his claim, and this is hardly surprising because Stanley makes no reference in his book to the legal status of Papua in 1942 under international law.

Why David Horner had to receive a "Fail" grade for his inadequate knowledge of Kokoda history

Professor David Horner states in his paper that any claim that Kokoda saved Australia from invasion is "patently wrong". I find it patently bizarre for David Horner to claim that the Australians who were fighting, bleeding, and dying on sovereign Australian soil, namely, the Kokoda Track, were not fighting to save a part of Australia from invasion because the legal status of Papua in 1942 has never been a secret cleverly concealed from him. It does not require a depth of understanding of international law to appreciate that Papua was part of the Commonwealth of Australia when Japanese invaders landed on the shores of Papua in 1942.

In 1902, Great Britain transferred ownership of British New Guinea to Australia. That transfer of ownership to the Commonwealth of Australia was confirmed by the Papua Act 1905 (C’wealth) and British New Guinea was renamed Papua. From that date, every Papuan became a citizen of Australia and could hold an Australian passport. The Territory of Papua remained part of the Commonwealth of Australia until it was granted independence by Australia in 1975. It should not require a law degree to appreciate that the Japanese army landings in Papua on 21 July 1942 were an invasion of a part of the Commonwealth of Australia, and to appreciate that the whole of the Kokoda Campaign was fought on sovereign Australian soil. I would expect an intelligent high school history student to understand this, but apparently that level of intelligence is missing at the AWM which since 2002 has been pursuing the ridiculous view, first espoused by AWM senior historian Peter Stanley, that the Japanese did not invade or intend to invade any part of Australia in 1942.

In an attempt to quash the unsustainable claim by Peter Stanley that the Japanese did not invade any part of Australia in 1942, I published an article on 1 September 2010 in “The Australian” newspaper which expressly stated that Papua was part of the Commonwealth of Australia when it was invaded by the Japanese in 1942. I wrote not only as a graduate Australian lawyer and historian, but as a former assistant secretary for law in Papua in 1966. On the following day, a copy of this article was sent by newsletter to all members of the Battle for Australia Historical Society, including newsletter recipients Professor David Horner and Dr Karl James. Neither historian acknowledged receipt of the article or challenged my legal opinion. So we have to wonder what motivated Horner and James to include in their Kokoda papers untrue denials that the Japanese invaded a part of Australia when they landed in Papua in 1942. If these historians had undertaken very basic research they might have appreciated that the Japanese high command decided in March 1942 to invade a part of Australia called Papua but not the Australian MAINLAND, and we would have been saved a great deal of ridiculous argument about Japanese strategy towards Australia in 1942.

Why Peter Williams had to receive a "Fail" grade for his inadequate knowledge of Kokoda history

This book makes the utterly false suggestion that the Australians were poor fighters and not really outnumbered during the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby.

The paper by Peter Williams “Against overwhelming odds? Opposing strengths on the Kokoda Trail (Track)” draws on his very controversial book “The Kokoda Campaign 1942 - Myth and Reality” * to claim that the Australians “..were rarely outnumbered by their (Japanese) enemy..” in the fierce fighting that took place between the Japanese landings at Gona/Buna and the halting of the Japanese drive towards Port Moresby at Ioribaiwa on the blood-drenched Kokoda Track. Having produced this opinion without furnishing any authoritative evidence to support it, Williams then offers the astonishing and insulting suggestion that the initial Australian defeats and fighting withdrawal allow a view “…that the Japanese were qualitatively superior to the Australians". * I reviewed this book elsewhere on Amazon websites and drew attention to a number of astonishing historical howlers in the book.

Williams draws these controversial suggestions from his aforementioned Kokoda book which purports to be his published PhD thesis from the Charles Darwin University of the Northern Territory which has a very low world academic ranking. In this book, he offers another offensive suggestion that the "myth" of superior Japanese numbers during the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby might have been used to disguise the truth that the Japanese troops were better soldiers than the Australians (at page 2).

Having undertaken to denigrate the fighting qualities of the Australian defenders of Port Moresby in 1942 in “Kokoda beyond the Legend”, Peter Williams has effectively put his own credibility on the line, and we are entitled to look at the book from which his AWM Kokoda paper was drawn to assess his credibility as an historian. Among a number of amazing historical howlers in his Kokoda book, and perhaps the most damning to the credibility of Williams, is his claim that 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 the translated Japanese official history “Senshi Sosho” 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. That massive failure of credibility exhibited in his book must attach to his paper in "Kokoda beyond the legend" that was drawn from that book.

The claim by Peter Williams that the Australians were not heavily outnumbered during the Japanese drive towards Port Moresby lacks any sound historical foundation, and it is flatly contradicted by the Kokoda Campaign chapters of Japan’s authoritative official history “Senshi Sosho”. Chapters 4 and 5 state very clearly that the Japanese deployed six veteran infantry assault battalions with supporting artillery and other specialist units to capture Port Moresby by overland attack. This Japanese army was equipped with light artillery, mortars, and heavy machine guns. Australia could only deploy five lightly armed battalions to block the Japanese drive to capture Port Moresby, and one of those battalions was a raw militia battalion with no combat training. After initial heavy losses, this untrained militia battalion was quickly withdrawn from contact with the Japanese and returned to Port Moresby. So effectively, it was six Japanese battalions against four Australian battalions from the beachhead landings at Gona/ Buna and Ioribaiwa on the Kokoda Track where the Japanese were halted and driven back. In addition to superior numbers, the Japanese had the enormous advantage of heavy weapons that the Australians did not have. These historical facts demolish the insulting suggestions from Peter Williams that the Australians were not heavily outnumbered and were inferior fighters compared with the Japanese. I could find no evidence in the Williams paper, or the book from which his paper is drawn, that he had read the Japanese official history of the Kokoda Campaign. It follows accordingly that his comments about the fighting qualities of the Australians compared to the Japanese in the Kokoda fighting are worthless, insulting, and utterly ridiculous.

How Peter Williams get the first defence and fall of Kokoda on 29 July 1942 totally wrong

Kokoda plateau views

LEFT: Aerial view of the Kokoda plateau in 1942; RIGHT: the sharp drop from the top of the Kokoda plateau to the valley floor is about 21 metres (70 feet). The author stood on the edge of the plateau with the Kokoda assistant district officer in 1961. The failure of academic historian Peter Williams to understand the dynamics of battle are demonstrated by an examination of the steep Kokoda plateau. The Australians numbered about 110 and were dug in all around the top edge of the Kokoda plateau. Williams suggests, without any support from historical facts, that only 130 Japanese quickly overran the Australian positions on top of the plateau. The official Japanese history of the Kokoda Campaign "Senshi Sosho" makes it very clear that the Australians were overwhelmed by a full Japanese battalion (between 500-700 men) armed with artillery, mortars, and heavy machine guns.

To support his untrue claim that the Australians were not outnumbered by the Japanese during their drive towards Port Moresby, and his suggestion drawn from that untrue claim that the Australians must have been inferior fighters compared with the Japanese, Williams makes particular reference to the first defence and fall of Kokoda on 29 July 1942 to diminish the heroism of Australian soldiers by suggesting that numbers were roughly equal on both sides in this famous military action. If Williams had bothered to read and try to understand the official Japanese references to that battle in “Senshi Sosho”, especially at pages 106-107 and pages 135-136, he should have realised that about 110-120 Australians were facing the full Tsukamoto Battalion (between 500-700 men) when Kokoda fell on 29 July 1942. The Australians were not only heavily outnumbered, they were lightly armed. The Japanese had artillery, mortars, and heavy machine-guns.

Detailed analysis that would prove the Williams claims about relative troop numbers to be untrue would take too long in discussion of a book containing papers contributed by many authors, but that proof can be found in my detailed critique of the Williams Kokoda book on Amazon websites under the heading "Ridiculous claims by Peter Williams cannot diminish Kokoda heroism”. Using authoritative historical sources that Peter Williams appears to have elected to ignore in writing his thesis and publishing the book based on it, including the Australian and Japanese official histories of the Kokoda Campaign, I wrote:

"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."

No historian has questioned my challenge to the accuracy of much that is contained in the Williams book, and I find it appalling that offensive material from a book shown to contain astonishing historical howlers has been enshrined by editor Karl James in a book published during the 75th anniversary year of Kokoda.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of serious failure of historical scholarship at the AWM under director Brendan Nelson is the failure of any of the Australian contributors to this Kokoda book to mention the gravity of the situation facing Australia after Winston Churchill persuaded President Roosevelt at the Arcadia Conference* to relegate the defence of Australia, Australia’s New Guinea territories, The Philippines, and Singapore to secondary priority after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Despite the relevant material being readily available in translated Kokoda chapters 2 and 3 of Japan’s official history “Senshi Sosho”, not one Australian historian contributor mentions Japan’s Operation FS strategy that was intended to persuade Australia to surrender to Japan in 1942 by a combination of severing Australia’s lines of communication with the United States, intensified blockade, bombing, and psychological warfare. Not one Australian historian contributor to this third-rate treatment of Kokoda appeared to be aware of how strategically important to Japan was the capture of Port Moresby in 1942 because it would be the anchor for the hostile FS Operation that would spread island by island across the Pacific to Fiji and Samoa. * Held in Washington in late December 1941.

I advised the AWM in 2013 that very controversial claims in the papers delivered at the conference “Kokoda beyond the legend” by Horner, James, and Williams were readily shown to be untrue by reference to basic international law and the Japanese history of the Kokoda Campaign “Senshi Sosho”. I drew the Memorial’s attention to page references in “Senshi Sosho” that refuted the untrue and insulting claims made by Peter Williams about Australian soldiers in the Kokoda fighting. My advice was again not challenged by the AWM, and despite being presented with clear and authoritative evidence that these insulting claims published at the AWM’s 2012 Kokoda conference were untrue, director Nelson has allowed these untrue and insulting claims mentioned above to be published in the book “Kokoda beyond the legend” with no attempt to edit the conference papers.

Proven false history demeans the great Kokoda achievement in 1942 and the gallant Australians who fought, bled, sacrificed and died to defend soil that was part of Australia in 1942. It appears to me that an ongoing and serious failure of historical scholarship at the AWM is the least damaging inference to be drawn from these circumstances.