By MALUM NALU
The world-famous Kokoda Trail (or is it Track?) has been much in the news lately after landowners shut it down. Papua New Guinea’s biggest tourism attraction is open again in time for ANZAC Day on April 25.
Recently, while discussing the closure of the trail with well-known trekking company operator, Charlie Lynn, the issue of Kokoda Track v Kokoda Trail came up. Lynn, an Australian army major who first walked Kokoda in 1991, is a traditionalist who calls it “trail”.
I also have a strong interest in the history of this World War II icon, having worked in the tourism industry, walked the trail and having helped to establish a trekking company.
I prefer “trail”.
“Ownership of the naming rights for the Kokoda Trail is a keenly contested point of debate in Australia,” Lynn says.
“Do they belong to the nation which retains sovereign ownership of the land between Owers Corner and Kokoda, i.e. Papua New Guinea?
“Or to the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the 10 Australian battalions who were awarded the official battle honour ‘Kokoda Trail’?
“Or to the custodians of political correctness amongst the Australian commentariat who dislike the name ‘trail’ because of its American connotation?”
Over the past decade, as a matter of background, almost 40,000 Australians have trekked across the Kokoda Trail. Most trekkers are motivated by the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign and this has led to a range of books and television stories on the subject. It has also led to some extensive debate about the official name of the trail.
“Contemporary debate over the name evolved after former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating kissed the ground at Kokoda on the 50th anniversary of the campaign in April 1992,” Lynn says.
“This was accompanied by much ‘talkback’ noise about ‘trail’ being an American term and ‘track’ being the language of the Australian bush – ignoring the fact that our bush is criss-crossed with fire-trails.
“This suited Keating’s agenda for an Australian republic at the time.
“The debate suited those in the Australian commentariat who harboured a strong anti-American bias over their engagement in Iraq around the time of the 60th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign.
“As most of the commentariat had never served in the regular armed forces they could be excused for not appreciating the esprit de corps associated with a battle honour.
“This, however, does not excuse them for ambushing a name that doesn’t reflect their political bias.
“‘Kokoda Track’ has since emerged as the politically correct term in Australia in spite of the fact that the battle honour ‘Kokoda Trail’ was awarded to the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the 10 Australian battalions who fought in the Kokoda campaign.
“It is also in defiance of the Papua New Guinea Government who gazetted the name ‘Kokoda Trail’ in 1972.”
Immediately after the war against Japan, the Australian Government established a Battles Nomenclature Committee to define the battles of the Pacific.
According to research conducted by Peter Provis at the Australian War Memorial, the committee conferred with official historians including Dudley McCarthy.
He reported: “The final report, completed and published in 1958, listed the ‘Kokoda Trail’ as the name of the battle, which included the actions at Isurava, Ioribaiwa, Eora Creek-Templeton’s Crossing 11 and Oivi-Gorari as well as the following engagements: Kokoda-Deniki, Eora Creek-Templeton’s Crossing 1 and Efogi-Menari.”
Lynn says the battle honour ‘Kokoda Trail’ has been emblazoned on the colours of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the 10 Australian battalions who fought in the Kokoda campaign for the past 57 years.
“Battle honours or colours symbolise the spirit of a regiment for they carry the names of battles that commemorate the gallant deeds performed from the time it was raised,” he explains.
“This association of colours with heroic deeds means they are regarded with veneration.
“In a sense, they are the epitome of the history of the regiment.
“The full history of a regiment is contained in written records, but these are not portable in a convenient form.
“On the other hand the colours, emblazoned with distinction for long and honourable service, are something in the nature of a silken history, the sight of which creates a feeling of pride in soldiers and ex-soldiers.
“This is a significance that commentators and bureaucrats who have never worn the uniform will never fully comprehend.”
The Australian War Memorial, the official custodian of Australia’s military history, has honoured the battle honour of the 10 Australian battalions by naming the Second World War Galleries ‘Kokoda Trail’.
According to the Memorial’s website, the ‘Kokoda Trail Campaign’ was fought over “a path that linked Owers Corner, approximately 40 km north-east of Port Moresby, and the small village of Wairopi, on the northern side of the Owen Stanley mountain range. From Wairopi, a crossing point on the Kumusi River, the Trail was connected to the settlements of Buna, Gona and Sanananda on the north coast. Its name was derived from the village of Kokoda that stood on the southern side of the main range and was the site of the only airfield between Port Moresby and the north coast.”
For trekkers, the Kokoda Trail lies between Owers Corner and Kokoda.
In response to the debate over the official name of the Kokoda Trail, Australian War Memorial historian, Garth Pratten surveyed the Memorial’s collection of published histories of all the major units involved in the Owen Stanley and Beachhead campaigns in 1997.
Pratten found that of the 28 published histories, 19 used ‘Kokoda Trail and nine used ‘Kokoda Track’ – a majority of 2:1 in favour of ‘Trail’.
Pratten noted that “these histories were usually written, edited, or published by men who had participated in the campaign.”
“It is ironic that 75 years, on we now have city-based academics, commentators and bureaucrats who have never worn the uniform, deem themselves to be more of an authority on the issue than those who saw active service in the Kokoda campaign,” Lynn says.
The Returned Services League of Australia (RSL), the largest ex-service representative body in Australia, accepted ‘Kokoda Trail’ as the official title after the battle honour was awarded in 1958. A motion by the NSW branch of the league to have the Kokoda Trail renamed ‘Kokoda Track’ was defeated at the RSL National Congress held in Dubbo on Sept 14-15, 2010.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, in a letter to Lynn dated Feb 23, 2011, said on this subject: “There has been a considerable debate about whether the difficult path that crossed the Owen Stanley Range should be called the ‘Kokoda Trail’ or the ‘Kokoda Track’.
“Both ‘Trail’ and ‘Track’ have been in common use since the war.
“‘Trail’ is probably of American origin but has been used in many Australian history books and was adopted by the Australian Army as an official ‘battle honour.
“Track’ is from the language of the Australian bush.
“It is commonly used by veterans, and is used in the volumes of Australia’s official history.
“Both terms are correct, but ‘Trail’appears to be used more widely.”
What a difference a simple word transition can make.
By MALUM NALU