Official Opening of the Kokoda Gallery & World War II Exhibition, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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3 November 2023

Good evening.

I would like to acknowledge the Honourable James Marape MP, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.

The Honourable Isi Henry Leonard MP, the Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

On a grassy knoll, in the heart of the Owen Stanley Range, just outside the village of Isurava, lies a rock.

This rock, just one of many scattered through the dense mountain passes of the range, is known as Kingsbury’s Rock.

It was by this rock, on August 29, 1942, that Alan Avery laid his fallen mate, Bruce Kingsbury down to rest.

The two childhood friends, who had served together in the Middle East and again along the Kokoda Track, had been caught in the brutal battle of Isurava.

A stinging defeat for the Australians, it was nevertheless the site of a heroic action that earned Bruce a posthumous Victoria Cross.

It was one of many battles that occurred during the Kokoda campaign.

In May of 1942 the Japanese had been thwarted in their attempt to launch an amphibious attack on Port Moresby when they were defeated in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Instead, the Japanese moved send troops against Moresby over the Owen Stanley Range via the Kokoda Track.

To combat this advance, four platoons of the Australian 39th Battalion, along with Papuan forces embarked upon a campaign to take Kokoda and defeat the Japanese.

It is difficult to imagine the conditions our soldiers faced on the track.

The Owen Stanley Range is a series of immense ridges and razorbacks, following each other like a succession of teeth on a saw.

The only way the troops could get up some of those ridges was either on their hands and knees, or by cutting steps with axes and machetes.

It was into this terrain that our soldiers were sent to fight.

On August 27, near the village of Isurava, Bruce Kingsbury and the men of the Australian 2/14th Battalion’s 9 Platoon met the Japanese.

The Japanese had superior numbers and over the coming days repeatedly attacked their position.

On August 29 they finally broke through the Australian right flank and threatened to overrun their headquarters.

For the Australians, there was no question, they had to retreat, but if anyone was to survive, they also had to hold off the advance.

On his own initiative, Kingsbury rushed forward with a Bren gun shouting "follow me".

He charged the enemy, shooting from the hip.

He broke the Japanese line of advance, inflicting many casualties as he went.

Caught off guard by this blistering assault, the Japanese were forced to retreat.

But as Bruce’s comrades caught up to him, a sniper’s bullet rang forth from the undergrowth and struck him down.

Alan Avery carried Bruce back to the aid post, and set him to rest beside a large boulder, but he had already passed.

For this conspicuous act of courage, Private Bruce Kingsbury was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Private Kingsbury is one of 600 Australians who died during the Kokoda campaign. Over 1,600 were wounded.

Australians speak of Kokoda with reverence and pride.

This is where we defended our nation from its most dire threat. This is where our nation came of age.

As former Prime Minister Paul Keating once said of Kokoda:

There can be no deeper spiritual basis to the creation of Australia than the blood that was spilt here in the defence of [our nation’s] liberty. This is the place where the depth of the soul of the Australian nation was confirmed.

But we were not alone.

Our friends and comrades that called the mountains home were by our side.

Australian diggers were supported by nearly 50,000 local people, affectionately known as Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.

They carried supplies, evacuated the sick and wounded, and helped build bases, airfields and other infrastructure.

Many also fought in uniform as soldiers or police working with the army.

In serving side by side, under such terrible conditions, our nations forged a bond that has never been forgotten and will never be forgotten.

The terrain of the Kokoda Track was a series of steep and treacherous inclines and razorbacks.

There were deep valleys, dense jungle, and a debilitating climate.

Drenching rain persisted.

It turned the ground into a quagmire, prevented clothes from drying and made rest all but impossible.

Diseases like malaria, scrub typhus and dysentery were rampant.

In this harsh environment Australian’s simply would not have prevailed were it not for the support of their Papuan allies.

For decades, Australian veterans of Kokoda would fondly remember the kindness they were shown.

As Medical Officer of the 2/16th Battalion, Dr Henry ‘Blue’ Steward, recalled:

They never forgot their patient, carrying them as gently as they could, avoiding the jolts and jars. They felt proud of their responsibility to the wounded and rarely faltered. When they laid their charges down for the night, they took turns to sleep and watch, giving each wounded man whatever food, drink or comfort there might be.

It has been said that if the Australians were cold, the Papuans would give them the shirt off their back.

There can be no greater expression of mateship.

Despite their own desperate privations, they offered up what little they had, and indeed many Papuans would lose their life during the campaign.

In return, the Australians took them into their own hearts.

And that is why this new Kokoda Gallery and World War II Exhibition is so important.

It will bear testament to the love of mate for mate, and the bonds that were forged between our two nations.

It will tell all who visit about the experiences of the Papuan and New Guinean people and the Australians who fought here during the Second World War, and how they ultimately prevailed.

In Australia, today is known as ‘Kokoda Day’, and observed here as ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels Day’.

It was on this day, 81 years ago, that the Australian flag was raised over the village of Kokoda.

It was a victory won at a heavy price and in appalling conditions.

The heroics of those who served from Australia and Papua deserve to be told and remembered.

The Australian Government is proud to have jointly funded this project with the Papua New Guinean Government as a gift to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

It’s opening was delayed by the COVID pandemic, but today I am proud to see this work complete.

I sincerely thank the Papua New Guinean Government for working with us to preserve the memory of those who served on the Kokoda Track.

I hope that in the years ahead, many Australians and Papuans—especially school children—will visit this exhibition and gain a greater understanding of what veterans of the Kokoda campaign endured and achieved in securing victory over the Japanese.

I know that this Kokoda Gallery and World War II Exhibition will help ensure that the flame of remembrance continues to burn brightly.

And I know that in telling these stories it will renew the bonds of friendship between our two nations for generations to come.

Thank you.


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