On August 14, 1942, 777 men of the South Australian 2/27th Battalion AIF, battle-hardened from fighting in Syria and the Middle East, disembarked from a troop ship in Port Moresby, New Guinea. They were young and fit. They had seen war and knew how to handle it.
But they had not yet seen the Kokoda Track, had not faced waves of suicidal Japanese soldiers, had not been lost in the steaming jungles of New Guinea’s Owen Stanley Ranges… which the Commander in Chief of World War II’s Second Australian Imperial Force, General Sir Thomas Blamey, would later assert was a cowardly retreat.
Through defeat, desperation, humiliation, heroism, victory and vindication, the esprite de corps of the South Australian 2/27th Battalion endured.
The Lost Battalion is their story.
* * *
A mate drops in
Ned saw the man as he walked through the farm’s front gate about 500 metres from the homestead at Peppertree Farm, his growing silhouette striding toward the house in the fading afternoon light.
He was carrying a battered brown suitcase wrapped in canvas, bound around with bagging twine. It was a big suitcase, but the man wasn’t lugging it. He was upright and square-shouldered, which seemed an odd thing to Ned. The suitcase was either almost empty, or the man was quite strong.
He wasn’t dressed like one of the kitchenware salesmen that occasionally dropped into the farm, despondently working their way back south from Whyalla to Adelaide.
The Beatles song, Let It Be, faintly echoed down the hall from the kitchen, where Mum was humming along to the tune as she peeled potatoes. Ned was about to call out to tell her there was a bloke coming down the track toward the house, but stopped as the front fly-screen door creaked open and he heard his father’s boots step onto the tiled verandah and up behind him.
Ned was eating an apple sitting at the top of the concrete steps which led down to the front garden and it’s rusty, wire-mesh gate. His Dad looked out over the garden, which beyond Mum’s defiant red roses was forever dying of thirst and said exactly what Ned knew he would say, what he always said.
“Who’s that?” said Cliff Coal.
Ned’s dog Blue, an eight-month-old, chocolate brown and white female border collie that he’d bought as a pup from Paskeville at last year’s Yorke Peninsula Field Days, twitched its ears at the question, her striking blue eyes locked on the approaching man. Bluey was really the farm sheep dog, but when she wasn’t being run off her feet and yelled at by his father, she was Ned’s shadow.
Ned was no fool. He was pretty cluey for a 12-year-old, but he wasn’t a jolly clairvoyant.
“Dunno,” he said, smiling to himself as he took another bite of the apple.
By the time the man was 30 metres from the garden gate, his father’s facial expression had changed from one of mild interest to dawning recognition.
He initially laughed and smiled broadly but that expression quickly faded to a look that Ned had never seen before on his cheerful father’s face. The smile had retracted to a hint of happiness, the kind of reflective smile that graced his mother’s face when she pointed out old pictures in the family photo album. And the laughter-lines around his father’s eyes, so much a feature of his work-weathered face, had softened with sadness.
“It’s Jack,” he said simply. Then again, more quietly to confirm it to himself: “It’s Jack”.
Hiking sticks embedded in the ground on the Kokoda Track at Brigade Hill, one displaying a poppy, left to honour the soldiers of the South Australian 2/27th Battalion who gave their lives in battle in New Guinea during World War II.
Picture by Vincent Ross