Critique by military historian and former army officer James Kenneth Bowen
MY RATING FOR THIS BOOK: only one star
LEFT: The book “The Kokoda Campaign 1942 - Myth and reality” is a published doctoral thesis containing appalling historical howlers;
RIGHT: Author of the book Dr Peter Williams.￼
LEFT: James Kenneth Bowen has attended a 50th anniversary commemoration of Australia's commitment to the Vietnam War (1962-1975); RIGHT: MajorJames Bowen is standing outside his tent at the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, South Vietnam, during the massive Communist Tet Offensive in 1968.
Although lacking a PhD in history, I graduated in politics, history and law from one of Australia's original six "Sandstone" universities, and served for seven years as an army officer at Army Headquarters, Canberra, and with the Australian Army in Vietnam in 1968. I studied Japanese history for one year, and have lived in Japan and studied spoken Japanese. I know something of Papua New Guinea, including Kokoda, having travelled extensively across the two mainland territories of Papua and New Guinea from 1960 to 1967 as Senior Crown Prosecutor, and finally, Assistant Secretary for Law.
Anyone who might choose to view the author of this Kokoda treatment as being in any way authoritative might care to reflect upon the fact that Peter Williams claims in this book that the Japanese did not land in Papua with the primary objective of capturing Port Moresby (at page 10) and also claims that the Japanese probably knew more about the Kokoda Track than the Australians who were defending it (at page 5). These claims are so ridiculous that I have chosen to call them historical howlers in this critique of the Williams book. I believe that these ridiculous historical howlers are sufficiently appalling to deny the author of this book any claim to authority when he purports to contradict anything we, and distinguished military historians, have believed about Kokoda for over 70 years.
My initial review of this Peter Williams book appeared in Amazon.com in 2013. The book was published with the claim that it would prove that Kokoda was ridden with myths that Peter Williams would expose “using extensive research and Japanese sources”. I parted with my $45 to buy the hardcover version of this book but found no evidence of credible research and no evidence that Williams had even bothered to read and try to understand the English translation of Kokoda chapters of the official Japanese history of the Pacific War 1941-45 called “Senshi Sosho”. For me, as a graduate military historian with a deep interest in Kokoda, this book turned out to be as valuable as something to toss at screeching cats outside my bedroom window.
Having regard to the number of appalling historical howlers* in this book, and I will mention some of the worst, it cannot in my view be fairly described as anything but a deeply flawed treatment of the Kokoda Campaign that the Japanese initiated in 1942 with the top strategic objective of capturing Port Moresby on the southern coast of Australia’s Papua territory. Having felt compelled to award Peter Williams a “fail” score for this book, I feel obliged to explain the reasons for that “fail” score.
* “Howler” is less used now to describe a ridiculous and obvious mistake in something spoken or written, but the appalling errors in this Kokoda treatment by Peter Williams justify its use.
The book purports to be a published doctoral (PhD) thesis originating from the lowly ranked Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, and it contains extraordinary historical howlers that are readily exposed by reference to the official Australian and Japanese histories of the Kokoda Campaign. I had to ask myself how anyone with the most basic knowledge of the Kokoda Campaign could have allowed this thesis to be published when it contained a claim by Peter Williams that Port Moresby was not the primary objective of the Japanese fighting their way along the Kokoda Track to Port Moresby (at page 10). This is not just an historical error. It deserves the description “howler”.
Speaking as a graduate military historian and former army officer whose special focus is the Japanese attack on Australia in 1942, including the Kokoda Campaign 1942-43, I fail to understand how the Peter Williams thesis justified award of a doctorate without correction of appalling howlers let alone approval for publication as a book. 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 knowledge of the Kokoda fighting in 1942. I should mention that I have published my trenchant criticisms of this book since its publication in 2012, and no one has approached me to challenge those criticisms. I am left feeling that anyone who paid $45 for this book (and I am one of those unfortunates) deserves an apology from everyone connected with its publication, and I include in the sources for apology the author Dr Peter Williams, and Emeritus Professor David Horner and Dr Steven Bullard (see below) who are acknowledged by Williams as playing important roles in publication (at page xiv).
LEFT: Dr Steven Bullard; RIGHT: Emeritus Professor David Horner. Both men are acknowledged by Peter Williams as playing important roles in publication of his PhD thesis as this book.
However, my astonishment that this doctoral thesis by Peter Williams achieved publication without correction of readily discernible and utterly appalling howlers is tempered by my knowledge that we live in an era when top ranking universities pass out doctorates, i.e. PhDs, for topics as ridiculous as:
“Jesus Christ (Does astrology reveal he was a homosexual?)” - PhD from University of Queensland.
“Tom and Nicole Kidman's divorce (How Australian women reacted to the Hollywood couple's break up)” - PhD from Australian National University.
See more ridiculous Australian PhD degree topics at: http://www.battleforaustralia.org/Silly_PhD_topics.html
After reading this book, and enduring the series of appalling historical howlers contained in it, I began to wonder whether the taxpayer achieved more value from the ridiculous PhD topics I have just mentioned than the money expended on this appalling published thesis. For people who know their Kokoda history, reading this treatment of the Kokoda fighting in 1942 will be akin to torture, and I was astonished to see that it had been approved for publication in 2012 as part of the official Australian Army History Series. The appalling howlers in this book will be forever a blight on that Australian Army Series. I feel sorry for any cadets at Australia's Royal Military College Duntroon who may be told that this book presents an accurate account of the Kokoda Campaign.
Peter Williams claims in this dreadful book that our belief in extraordinary heroism displayed by heavily outnumbered, poorly supplied, and heavily outgunned Australians soldiers in fierce fighting under appalling conditions that slowed and ultimately blocked the advance of a powerful Japanese army across the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby in 1942 is largely based on what he calls “Kokoda myths".
Exposure of the Peter Williams “Kokoda myths” as lacking any credible historical support is justified because Kokoda is important for every Australian even if some are unaware of its strategic importance. Port Moresby was the capital of Papua in 1942 and Papua was legally still part of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1942. The Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby by crossing the massive and rugged Owen Stanley Range by means of the Kokoda Track was the first and only invasion of Australian soil by a foreign enemy since Federation in 1901. If the Japanese had captured Port Moresby and its vital airstrips in 1942, Australia would have faced a very grave threat, and not only from Japanese bombing of much of northern Queensland. The capture of Port Moresby was intended to anchor the Japanese plan (Operation FS) to cut Australia off from any American help against Japanese attack and produce an Australian surrender.
The Imperial Japanese Navy of Emperor Hirohito bore the initial responsibility for capturing Port Moresby by amphibious landing but that plan was defeated by the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942). Following the massive Japanese naval defeat and loss of Japan’s four best aircraft carriers in the Battle of Midway (4-6 June 1942), the responsibility for capturing Port Moresby was passed by Japan’s Imperial General Headquarters to the Imperial Japanese Army. The Japanese generals settled on a plan for a Kokoda Campaign (Operation MO) that envisaged an overland attack and capture of Port Moresby by crossing the rugged Owen Stanley Range by means of the Kokoda Track. The Japanese Navy would only provide a supporting role in the Army’s Kokoda Campaign.
If aware of the gravity of the Japanese threat to Australia in 1942, many Australians would probably view the defence of strategically vital Port Moresby from capture by the Japanese in that year as a magnificent achievement on the part of heavily outnumbered, poorly supplied, and heavily outgunned Australian soldiers. The purpose of Peter Williams in producing this book appears to be to deny that Kokoda was a magnificent achievement and to smear the Australian defenders of Port Moresby as inferior fighters to the Japanese whom they defeated on the Kokoda Track. Williams produces no credible evidence in this book to support this apparent purpose.
After reading the book, I found it impossible to avoid a conclusion that Peter Williams was driven by a need to turn all that we know about Kokoda upside down for the purpose of justifying his thesis; even if, in doing so, it would unjustifiably diminish the achievement and heroism of Australian soldiers whose fighting spirit and sacrifices ground a powerful Japanese army to a halt and facing retreat on the Kokoda Track at Ioribaiwa when the Japanese were only 65 kilometres from Port Moresby.
I have formed the view that much of this book consists of absurd claims based upon inadequate and/or selective research; distortions of what really happened following the Japanese landings and on the Kokoda Track; obscure references that are very difficult to check; references that are vague, hearsay, or attributable to questionable memories of very old former Japanese soldiers of low rank; and failure to address authoritative historical sources that contradict the author. Those authoritative historical sources include the Australian and Japanese official histories of the Kokoda Campaign 1942-43.
The Australian and Japanese official histories are widely accepted by competent military historians as strongly authoritative, and are widely viewed as appropriate starting points for serious study of the Kokoda Campaign.
The official Australian history of the Kokoda Campaign was written by Australian military historian, soldier, and diplomat Dudley McCarthy MBE and published in 1959.* Dudley McCarthy’s qualifications to write the official history of the Kokoda Campaign included service in New Guinea as a patrol officer in the 1930s and as an army officer in the 1940s. He taught history before World War II. His preparation for writing this official history included walking the full length of the Kokoda Track. He also had access to official military records, unit diaries, and the memories of Australian soldiers of who had survived the bloody Kokoda fighting, including senior commanders.
* The full title reference is “(Australian) Official Histories - Second World War Volume V - South-West Pacific Area - First Year: Kokoda to Wau (1st edition, 1959) by Dudley McCarthy; but for the sake of brevity, I have reduced reference to this official Australian history of the Kokoda Campaign to “McCarthy”.
The Kokoda Campaign is included in the massive 102-volume Japanese Pacific War history which bears the title “Senshi Sosho” (trans. “War History Series”). This massive history was written by military experts in Japan’s Defence Studies Institute who had access to official military records, unit diaries, and the memories and diaries of senior Japanese commanders who actually fought on the Kokoda Track. The official Japanese history of the Kokoda Campaign contains many references to primary historical sources, including quoted text of orders from Imperial General Headquarters which was Japan’s high command in 1942, and orders of Japan’s 17th Army which had full responsibility for conducting the Port Moresby Offensive (Operation MO) which was the primary objective of the Japanese Kokoda Campaign.
Making due allowances for national pride, the authoritative status of the official Japanese history ”Senshi Sosho" is well established. Two internationally recognised distinguished historians and Japan scholars, the late Professor Henry Frei (Tsukuba Women's University, Japan) and Professor John J. Stephan (University of Hawaii), repeatedly draw on "Senshi Sosho" to support material in their published military histories.
The chapters of “Senshi Sosho” dealing with the Kokoda Campaign are readily accessible in English translation produced by the Australia-Japan Research Project, and subsequently, published in ebook and paperback formats by the Australian War Memorial in 2007 bearing the title "Japanese Army Operations in the South Pacific Area”. See downloadable version of “Senshi Sosho”Kokoda chapters at:
For the sake of brevity in this review, I will refer to that English translation of the Kokoda chapters of the official Japanese history simply as "Senshi” which means “warrior” in Japanese. All page references will be to the ebook version of the Kokoda chapters of “Senshi” and not the paperback version because the ebook version can be downloaded without charge. Using quotations of text, I will show how “Senshi” totally contradicts claims of “Kokoda myths” put forward by Peter Williams in this book.
Williams appears to have deliberately ignored the content of the official histories. I have to suspect that he chose to ignore the official Japanese Kokoda history in particular because it contradicts so many claims of “Kokoda myth” in his PhD thesis and because it would have made it difficult for him to bend historical facts to suit the apparent purpose of his doctoral thesis, namely, to suggest that our understanding of Kokoda as a magnificent achievement is ridden with “myths”.
Official Japanese history of the Kokoda Campaign exposes two major claims by Williams as appalling howlers
The unrelenting thrust of this book suggests to me that the purpose of Peter Williams is to destroy decades of well justified appreciation of Kokoda as a magnificent and inspirational achievement. To achieve this apparent purpose, Williams produces a grocery list of so-called "myths" (pages 1-10) that he claims have distorted our appreciation of what really occurred in the bloody fighting on the Kokoda Track in 1942.
Coverage of all of the extraordinary historical howlers in this book would call for a lengthy treatise, so for the purpose of this briefer review, I will mention only six (?) of the author’s most appalling howlers that can be shown to be false by reference to widely accepted historical authority, and consequently, destroy any credibility that might otherwise be claimed for the book. My formal history studies included Japanese history, and I tend to follow Japanese practice of placing the surname in front of the given name. So for me, the Western usage Tomitaro Horii become Japanese usage Horii Tomitaro.
The Japanese and Australian official histories of the Kokoda Campaign expose the following two very controversial claims by Peter Williams in this published PhD thesis as lacking any credible historical foundation.
How Williams makes the astonishing claim in this book that Port Moresby was not the primary objective of the Japanese army advancing along the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby in bloody fighting, or as he puts it : "Port Moresby was a highly desirable, but not essential, part of the (Japanese) plan." (at page 10).
Competent military historians know as an indisputable historical fact that the Japanese invaded Australia’s Papua territory in 1942 and were engaged in bloody fighting along the Kokoda Track with the avowed primary objective of capturing the strategically vital capital Port Moresby. Throughout chapters 4 and 5 of "Japanese Army operations in the South Pacific Area" (“Senshi”) there are repeated references to the capture of Port Moresby being the primary objective of the Japanese landings on the northern coast of Australia’s Papua territory on 21 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.
From pages 86 to 111 of “Senshi”, I counted eight specific references to Port Moresby being the primary objective of the Japanese invasion of Australia’s Papua territory on 21 July 1942 (Japanese code reference “Operation MO”). To determine the practicality of a Japanese army reaching and capturing Australia’s Port Moresby by crossing the massive and rugged Owen Stanley Range by means of the Kokoda Track, Japan’s Imperial General Headquarters issued Great Army Order (Dairikumei) 657 which provided:
“The commander of the 17th Army* will cooperate with the navy to invade and secure Port Moresby.” See “Senshi” at page 93.
* The commander of the 17th Army was Lieutenant General Hyakutake Harukichi.
Pursuant to that Great Army Order, the “Ri Operation Study” was approved by Imperial General Headquarters in terms that included:
“Detailed research and preparations for an overland attack on Port Moresby will be undertaken owing to difficulties encountered in the sea-route attack”. See “Senshi” at pages 94-95.
* JKB note: The “sea-route attack” is a reference to Japan’s earlier failure to capture Port Moresby as a result of the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.
On 15 July 1942, Imperial General Headquarters staff officer Lieutenant Colonel Tsuji Masanobu arrived at 17th Army headquarters from Tokyo to deliver a Great Army Order and inform 17th Army:
“…it is imperative that Port Moresby be attacked as soon as possible. Even the emperor (Hirohito) is particularly concerned about this issue. Therefore, without waiting for the results of the Ri Operation Study, Imperial (General) Headquarters* has ordered the 17th Army, by this great order, to attack Port Moresby.” See “Senshi” at page 101.
* JKB note: The correct reference to the Daihon’ei should be “Imperial General Headquarters” not “Imperial Headquarters”.
The text of a 17th Army Operational Order could not be clearer in defining the primary Japanese objective in Papua as being the capture of Port Moresby when it states: “17th Army headquarters in Davao issued orders on 18 July for the offensive against Port Moresby.”(“Senshi” at page 103).
The final nail is driven by “Senshi” into this ridiculous Peter Williams claim at page 111 where the text of a formal agreement between the commanders of the 17th Army and 8th Fleet (General Hyakutake Harukichi and Vice-Admiral Mikawa Guni’chi ) states:
“The army will use the South Seas Force* to advance along the Buna to Kokoda road* and quickly attack and secure Port Moresby and surrounding airfields.”
* At this stage the Japanese still mistakenly believe that there was a road between Buna and Kokoda.
Peter Williams cannot claim ignorance of the Kokoda chapters of “Senshi” because they were published in English translation by the Australian War Memorial in 2007 and his Kokoda thesis was published in 2012; but he makes only a single passing one line reference to the Japanese official Kokoda history “Senshi” at page 109. I could find no reference to “Senshi” in the bibliography included by Williams in this book. If it had been included, a reference to “Senshi” should appear as indicated below or similar format:
So we are surely left to wonder whether Williams couldn’t bother making the effort to read the highly regarded official Japanese history of the Kokoda Campaign, or perhaps, deliberately chose to ignore it because it utterly destroyed one of his most controversial claimed “Kokoda myths”. This ridiculous howler alone should have been enough to halt publication of the Williams book by the Australian Army if anyone connected with its publication had possessed any depth of knowledge of the Kokoda Campaign; but it appears that no one so connected had that knowledge. Long suffering Australian taxpayers are surely entitled to question how a thesis containing this extraordinary howler, and the howlers to be mentioned after this one, achieved a doctorate without being detected and corrected by anyone connected with supervising this treatment of Kokoda and recommending publication.
We should not be surprised that Williams fails to support this ridiculous historical howler with any evidence because there is no such evidence to support it. So at a very early stage of this published PhD thesis, it appears to me that the credibility of Peter Williams falls off a cliff and is irretrievable. This historical howler is so appalling that it strikes at the credibility of the book itself and renders it worthless as a treatment of the Kokoda Campaign.
"By the time the campaign was launched, the Japanese probably knew more about the Kokoda Track than did the Australians" (page 5)
This claim is equally ridiculous. Peter Williams makes no attempt to support it with relevant historical evidence because no such evidence exists. "Senshi" destroys this Williams claim by recording that the Japanese commander on the Kokoda Track Major General Horii Tomitaro had no expert advice about the Track and its very rugged nature comparable to that available to the Australian commanders from New Guinea "old hands" Captain Bert Keinzle and Captain F.P. Brewer who knew every foot of the Kokoda Track between Gona/Buna and Port Moresby. Based upon very faulty aerial reconnaissance, Japanese commander Horii believed that there was a road passable by motor vehicles between his beachheads at Gona/Buna and the Australian government Kokoda station in the northern foothills of the rugged Owen Stanley Range ("Senshi" at pages 96-97). In fact, a road passable by motor vehicles extended for only 40 kilometres south from Gona and Buna to Soputa. The hundreds of bicycles landed at the Gona/Buna beachheads for use by invading Japanese troops to cycle along the imagined road to Kokoda were dumped when the Japanese ran out of road and realised they were useless for that purpose on winding narrow jungle tracks between Soputa and Kokoda. So we find Williams guilty of producing another truly ridiculous howler in his PhD thesis.
The presence of these readily detectable schoolboy level howlers in the Peter Williams Kokoda book confirmed my view that no one connected with publication of his thesis as a book appeared to have any depth of knowledge or appreciation of the Kokoda fighting in 1942; but it was only when I was examining closely the suggested evidence put forward by Williams to support his ridiculous claim that the Australians were not heavily outnumbered during most of the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby, and his equally ridiculous conclusion from that claim that the Australians were inferior soldiers compared to the Japanese, that I began to appreciate the massive difference between dilettante ivory tower academics who claim to be military historians and competent military historians who actually understand the dynamics of war, and strategy, tactics, and actual combat in particular.
An outstanding example of this problem for many academic historians of war can be found by comparing the treatments of the famous Battle of Agincourt in 1415 by Lieutenant Colonel Alfred H. Burne and prominent academic historians such as Professor Anne Curry and Dr Juliet Barker. In his book “The Agincourt War”, Colonel Burne demonstrates how actual military experience gives him an appreciation of the dynamics of a medieval battlefield that is sadly missing in the work of the academic historians Professor Curry and Dr Barker.