Why are we called the Running Rabbits Military Museum
Our Museum is dedicated to those who fought so valiantly on the Kokoda Track. A past President of the Belgrave RSL was an Officer who along with several members on our Honour Roll, fought on the Track or in other parts of New Guinea. We are proud of their heritage and we take the name, “Running Rabbits”, as they were, by throwing the words back in the teeth of the man who called them that.
The story of the Kokoda campaign is complex and covers the fighting on the Track itself, the Japanese invasion and the battles for the landing beaches at Gona, Buna and Sanananda on the North coast of New Guinea and also the earlier fighting at Milne Bay where the Japanese suffered their first land defeat. It is a story laden with emotion, frustration, pride and horror. It is a story of duty, sacrifice, criminal ignorance and a story of human courage, determination and endurance that beggars belief.
When World War 2 was declared Australia chose to pursue a 2 army policy. One army would consist of volunteers for overseas service – the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the other would consist of the Militia who had volunteered for service in Australia or Australian territories – the Australian Military Force (AMF).
The AIF had earned an enviable reputation during the campaigns in North Africa, including the defence of Tobruk and fighting in Syria and subsequently in Greece and Crete. They were tough, competent and experienced. The AMF were mainly part time, partially trained and many of them had never held a rifle. The leadership of the Militia was mostly inexperienced, the equipment was obsolete and often missing essential items. Morale was low and in many units their officers had little control over the men.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the bulk of the AIF was serving in North Africa and the only AIF Division kept in the Pacific had been lost at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. In response to the threat to Port Moresby, the Australian government dispatched the 30th Militia Brigade to New Guinea, consisting of the 39th, 49th, and 53rd Battalions. The 39th and 53rd Battalions were sent up the Track in June 1942 to delay the Japanese advance until the AIF arrived. They had no heavy machine guns, mortars or artillery and no air support.
In 1942 the Kokoda Track was approximately 165 km long running North East from Port Moresby across the Owen Stanley Ranges and it took an average of 8 days to make the crossing to the Kokoda airstrip. The altitude at its highest point was 2600 metres and has a combined rise and fall over the length of the Track of approx. 7000m. Constant rain and high temperatures made ascent extremely difficult and upon gaining a ridge, the troops saw, with dismay another ridge, similar to the one they had just scaled. With another beyond, and more further on, each clad in jungle and seemingly only a stones throw from each other. Kunai grass grew 2 to 3 meters high, it was so thick they have no idea what could lie in wait 30 metres away.
For weeks on end the men of the 39th Battalion were isolated from Port Moresby by 165 km of native Track; with no communications or air support; with only the most basic of training and missing much of their equipment; struggling all day to deal with a physically torturous environment; facing a relentless and experienced enemy; unable to sleep because of the cold and being constantly wet; suffering starvation, and having to be constantly on the alert, Kokoda was the stuff of nightmares. In addition to this every man was sick with Malaria, chronic
Dysentery, Berri Berri or Dengue Fever. When the first AIF troops arrived to relieve the 39th at Isurava, they found gaunt skeletons with vacant, staring eyes, dressed in rags. For the fit, experienced men of the AIF it would soon be no better. By the time the 21st Brigade reached Ioribaiwa on their fighting retreat, they would be in the same condition as the 39th.
625 Australians were killed in the Kokoda Track battles. During the whole Kokoda campaign between July 1942 and January 1943 about 22,000 Australians served in either combat or support roles. Of these 2,165 were killed, 3,500 wounded and 15,575 received treatment for disease. Less than 5% of the original 15,000 strong Japanese invasion force survived.
In Command of land forces was General Thomas Blamey who had a record of doubtful morals and was known for playing political favourites. During the campaign Blamey unfairly sacked several high ranking Australian officers and accused the men of the 21st Brigade, that included the 39thBattalion, who so totally frustrated the Japanese plans, of “running like rabbits”.
How could Blamey have got it so wrong! They were the Saviours of Australia!
Blamey and MacArthur were despised by the Australian and American troops alike.
Running Rabbits Military Museum
Upwey Belgrave RSL
Ph. 9754 1726