An Australian trekker made it to the international news after he recovered an important artifact from World War II that no one had ever seen before. He had been hiking the in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. What he most definitely did not expect was to find something this historically valuable that had been hidden in the deep forest of Papua New Guinea. The scene remained untouched despite being there for more than 70 years. How was he able to find the place and what exactly did he discover?
If you are an Australian, you must be familiar with the Kokoda Trail. This trail is located in the deep jungles of Papua New Guinea. This single-file path goes through the Owen Stanley mountain range. The said trail is, overall, about 60 miles (98 km) in terms of length. The trail serves as some sort of pilgrimage track in honor of the men who died fighting the Japanese forces back in the Second World War.
Honoring Their Ancestors
Every year, thousands of Australians trek through this difficult but alluring jungle path. This pilgrimage is largely done in remembrance of the fathers and grandfathers of many families the soldiers left behind during the war. Brian Freeman was a bit of a regular on this trek and he was familiar with its twists and turns. “I used to stand at the site where we thought the battle was fought and brief the trekkers about it – but things didn’t add up. It was too small, it wasn’t in a good defensive position. I mentioned this to a villager one day and he pointed up the hill and said: ‘That’s our village secret up there,’” he narrated. He never thought that things would finally come together soon enough.
For years, many Australians have trekked through this same path. It had been a significant part of their history and culture. However, the trek has never been an easy path. Only people who are physically fit can endure the trek. People knew how important it is to commemorate their dearly beloved so some people train especially for this undertaking. But they never expected that this special path would lead them to what had been a blank spot in history. Things only changed when Brian Freeman discovered one important part in the trail.
Brian Freeman’s Experiences
Even at the age of 49, Brian Freeman continues to hike on the regular. Through the years, he has even made friends with some of the locals in the area. The former Special Forces soldier had been in the Australian Army for 20 years! He even broke several records for running through the treks and for his travel company. He knows the trail more than anyone else outside of the locals. However, he never knew that the people of Alola had been hiding a huge secret from him and everyone else.
Brian recalled the time when the villagers of Alola told him one of the most important secrets of their village in 2009. They shared the secret battle site that was located a few hours away from their community. However, Brian was unsure whether to trust what they told him. He even said, “I doubted it existed. Luckily though they were used to me and trusted me enough to guide me there.” It took years of trust and friendship before they decided to entrust the secret to him.
Overall, it took him a few hours after he embarked on his journey to look for the secret battle site in the deep forest of Papua New Guinea. As soon as he arrived at the exact spot, he had trouble believing his eyes. The scene in front of him was like a shot from a movie! He entered the clearing through a cloud of mist.
As he and his companions entered the clearing, he was awestruck at what he was looking at. He once told Anne Barrowclough, a writer from The Times, “It was like walking into a living museum.”
From Generation To Generation
Since 1942, the villagers kept mum about this special war secret. They passed this knowledge on from one generation to the next. This secret battle place served as the battlefield where one of the most monumental fights between the Japanese and Australian soldiers happened. It had been one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theater. No one outside the village had ever seen this place until Freeman was lucky enough to have located the lost battlefield of the Eora Creek.
What’s so amazing about this battlefield is that it looked exactly the same as it did in the past. If you’re not impressed, you should know that it had been discovered after 68 years. The particular match between the forces had been aptly referred to as the Lost Battle. It was located one kilometer west and 450 meters north of the village of the Eora Creek right inside the mountain ranges of Owen Stanley.
Most Significant WW2 Discovery Of The Century
The site has been coined the “most significant WWII discovery in the 21st century”! Freeman even once stated in an interview, “Significantly, the discovery of the Lost Battlefield will enable Australian and Japanese Veterans’ services to begin the process of identification and repatriation of dozens of lost soldiers.”
How Did He Do It?
Most people are probably curious about how Freeman got there. It took him years and years researching battle maps and diaries to finally discover this special site. With the help of his close friendship with the locals of Alola, he was able to finally find the battlefield that had been missing.
Number of Casualties
The bloody fight between the Australian and Japanese forces started on October 11, 1942. The battle went on for four days and four nights! On that very day, there were 79 Australian soldiers and 69 Japanese soldiers who had been killed in the rough jungle patch. The site had been lost for years and its discovery was truly a significant event.
As If Time Stood Still
When Freeman found the path for the first time, he said, “On our inaugural trek, we were hoping to find the remnants of a make-shift Japanese hospital and, potentially, relics of guns and ammunition. I never anticipated that we would find war dead.” He also added, “It was as if time has stood still. We found ammunition running out in a line from the rifle that was dropped as the Japanese advanced to the rear.”
Excitement Was Growing
Freeman compared the scene to as if he was in a movie set. He exclaimed, “I was excited that I’d been taken to such an important historical site but emotionally disturbed by seeing the remains of so many dead soldiers, from both sides.” Aside from the site of the battle, Freeman also saw some of the remains of the Japanese soldiers who died on that day. One of these men still had his helmet on and he had been propped up on a tree where he died about 70 years ago. His boots were even found near his remains. Aside from his clothes, he saw a large amount of ammunition used by Japanese and Australians soldiers. In the large expanse of the clearing, he had also seen other remnants of the past: bones, water bottles, and much more.
In an interview with The Times, Freeman said, “I thought we might just a find a couple of old weapons, but there were guns, mines, helmets, water bottles. It was incredibly emotional knowing that you were looking at items that had been dropped as those Japanese and Australian soldiers lost their lives. And the dead lay just where they had fallen or were laid by their comrades…It was as if the battle had just happened.”
The Discovery Allowed Them To Really See What Happened
An Australian general named Peter Cosgrave was also given the chance to visit the site. He stated, “Our metal detectors picked up rifles, ammunition, and helmets of Australian and Japanese soldiers, all illustrating that this location was a significant Japanese defensive position.” He also added, “You can see the positions held on both sides. You can see where they treated their wounded. You can see the Australians advance.”
Throughout the years, the army uniforms decomposed, but several garments such as the leather boots, belts, and gun holsters were still very much intact. Though villagers knew about this place for a long time now, their superstitious beliefs kept them from exploring or touching anything in the site. They feared that the ghost of these fallen heroes would come back to haunt them. Freeman believed that he had actually been the first white person to have stumbled upon it since 1942.
Battle of Eora Creek
Brian found the lost battle site where the Battle of Eora Creek had happened. Way back in 1942, the battle is believed to have started on the 11th day of October and ended on the 28th. The Australian soldiers called the Diggers hailed from the 16th Brigade. They must have trekked through the jungle on the Kokoda Trail. The Japanese forces had already advanced and planned to use this part of the region to attack the mainland region of Australia.
The famous Kokoda Trail is about 60 miles long and the trek was not an easy one. The Diggers discovered that the place was hot and humid in the daylight but also cold and freezing during the nighttime. Apart from that, malaria had been rampant in the area. As soon as they stumbled upon the Japanese field hospital, the Diggers immediately went into defensive position. From there, the battle broke out. Unfortunately for the Australian men, the Japanese soldiers held the high ground. They were also armed with machine guns.
The plateau just above the Eora Creek had been used as a medical center by the Japanese soldiers. The Battle of Eora Creek happened during the first half of the Pacific War and the clash took place on that very spot. The Japanese had been planning on their tactical retreat or, in technical jargon, to “advance to the rear.” Thus, both forces engaged in battle on that very day in October 1942, with the Japanese losing soldiers with quite a large number of casualties. The battle ended and the Japanese forces had been prevented from taking Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, and reaching striking distance of the land down under. What remained of the Japanese forces had no choice but to run away.
Considering how the bodies were positioned on the field, Freeman was able to distinguish which of the bodies had been Japanese and Australian troops. Apart from that, he also used the weapons they had to tell them apart. There had been 70 Australian soldiers who died on that field and hundreds more had been wounded in the encounter and yet the Diggers were able to drive the Japanese away from their territory. They must have buried some of the Imperial soldiers later on and the site became a mass grave for all the people who died from the battle. Despite these efforts, however, there were still some soldiers that had been left un-buried above the ground.
The site had been a unique place, that much is for sure. It had been known as a battlefield where both soldiers and weapons had lain in the same place where the battle had taken place. The battlefield had been safely hidden under the canopy of jungle trees the entire time. Impressively, the site had been untouched for about 70 years. Only the people of Alolo had been aware of the secret of their grounds. These people had never attempted to seek out this place, afraid that the spirits would come after them. The place had been their village secret and they had avoided it to respect the spirits that had died there.
Speculation Of A Medical Facility
Freeman even speculated that there was a Japanese medical facility in the area, though there were no evidence or such claims from the local people. However, Freeman would later receive some good news.
What Was This Evidence?
With the use of battle diaries and maps, the team was able to find several kidney-shapes medical dishes on the site. This discovered medical tools that confirmed Freeman’s speculation of a Japanese medical facility.
Hoping For A Hospital
Freeman then explained, “The very first thing I saw was a Japanese soldier who still had his helmet on. We went on to find the bones of another three Japanese soldiers. I had never expected to find war dead. It’s one thing going into a place like that and finding weapons or artifacts – it’s quite another finding soldiers who died as they fought. I was a soldier for 20 years and I was shocked at the sight…On our inaugural trek, we were hoping to find the remnants of a make-shift Japanese hospital and, potentially, relics of guns and ammunition.”
Honoring The Fallen
What he had come across was something unexpected. Freeman confessed, “I never anticipated that we would find war dead.” after seeing the remains of the dead soldiers, he shifted his priorities. He then added, “As soon as we realized that Japanese and, potentially, Australian soldiers were buried at the site, we discussed with the villagers the need for those men to be identified and returned home.”
His extensive research had led him to the conclusion that the Japanese forces had a medical facility located somewhere in that section of the jungle. Based on his readings of the battle maps and old diaries, his suspicions of a Japanese medical facility nearby were indeed true. Sadly, Freeman and his team were not able to locate the exact area of the Japanese medical facility until that moment.
His theory was confirmed when they came across some very interesting pieces of evidence. Because of this, he was able to officially conclude that there had been a Japanese hospital there back in September 1942.
But more importantly, Freeman remarked, “However, it was the discovery of a Japanese soldier sitting up against a tree, only centimeters from the surface still in his helmet, with his boots nearby that began to tell the human story.”
More Bodies Were Found
Freeman found the remains of a Japanese soldier sitting by the tree with his helmet on but that was not all. Other people found three more Japanese soldiers in the battleground!
Number Of Casualties Is Uncertain
The total number of people involved in the battle, including the casualties, are still being debated. Freeman and his team mentioned that there are 79 Australian soldiers who had been killed and around 145 soldiers who had been wounded in battle. However, despite the claim of Freeman and his team, the Australian War Memorial website claimed that there were 99 troops killed and 192 people wounded.
Another thing that they also found at the site were four rectangular pits. They call these pits the rifle pits. The presence of these rifle pits has proven the presence of the Japanese troops in the area.
Reviewing The Damage
Peter Cosgrave, the Australian general, also mentioned, “Our metal detectors picked up rifles, ammunition and helmets of Australian and Japanese soldiers, all illustrating that this location was a significant Japanese defensive position.”
Priority Was Set
Freeman then began to ponder…this turning out to be the most important thing related to his discovery. Apart from the battlefield and the hospital and the other details of the war, he also found the estimated number of casualties on the site. Freeman claimed, “Our priority is to identify and repatriate the fallen soldiers and to honor their memory by ensuring all other elements remain intact and untouched.”
Working With The Best Estimates They Have
During the entire time the battle had been raging, Freeman estimated that there were 69 Japanese soldiers who died alongside with the 79 Australian soldiers. Freeman stated, “The bodies of five Australians and dozens of Japanese soldiers were never found and are currently listed as missing presumed killed in action.”
Proper Burials At Last
He also added, “Our hope is that we have found those fallen soldiers, that they can be identified and returned to their families for appropriate burial.”
With more pieces of evidence at hand, Freeman was able to set a clear goal. He aims to return the bodies to their families with the hopes of giving these bodies burials after all of those years. The loved ones of the soldiers must have been worried the entire time.
Seeing It All
As Cosgrave mentioned, everything on the site revealed what really happened during the Battle of Eora Creek. He added, “You can see the positions held on both sides. You can see where they treated their wounded. You can see the Australian advance and ultimately, you can see the casualties.”
With this huge discovery, they reached out to the experts and professionals on what they should do next. Apart from identifying the bodies, they also set the goal to restore the battlefield and the Japanese hospital to a condition similar to what it must have been like 68 years ago.
Restoring The Site To The Best Condition Possible
The next question now would be how they should go about doing this. Freeman added, “From here, we will continue to work with Alola village and the respective governments to preserve the site in its current pristine condition.”
While he was on an interview with another trekker, Freeman explained what he felt like at the time: “This is a battlefield which is not a memorial but a battle site where you can walk in and experience it. It’s a very eerie place.”
Preserving The Site
A spokesperson for the Australian Defense Force then confirmed that the bodies of the Australian soldiers were to be buried in Port Moresby. The said capital has the closest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, after all. Aside from that, Freeman also mentioned that they are also working with both Australian and Japanese government to send some of their deceased soldiers while preserving the battle site in what they call its “current pristine condition.”
It wasn’t surprising to know that Freeman had written a book about this unique discovery and the history it carries. He then came out with the book The Lost Battlefield of Kokoda. In it, he shared his experience in the Kokoda trail and the things that he discovered along the way.
Even though years had passed since he discovered the place, Freeman continues to come to the site. He even documented everything that he had found.
No False Expectations
We also mentioned that there have been archaeological digs to identify the bodies. He explained, “We don’t want to create any false expectations for the relatives, but I would like to see the bodies repatriated to Australia. The Japanese are undecided whether to bring their dead home or build a memorial at Eora Creek.”
Incredible Piece Of History
Freeman also spoke at length about his amazing experience. He said, “I feel privileged to have been trusted by the villagers at Alola, because the site of the battle mystified so many people for so long. There are a lot of Australians who would like to visit the battlefield, but I think it will be at least another four years before all the remains have been identified. I’ve written a book about my experiences: The Lost Battlefield of Kokoda is only available in Australia at present but writing it was a cathartic experience in the circumstances. I think it’s incredible that such an important battlefield was forgotten but equally amazing how it was found again.”
Support From All The Locals?
However, not all of the locals were very happy with Freeman’s discovery. Some of the locals helped Freeman identify the site, remember? Many individuals were very happy to be able to help him make this discovery. Many of them also believed that the place was haunted. With Freeman’s endeavor, they were able to put things to rest.
Opposition Of Locals Formed Just This Year
Freeman and his team also experienced some opposition later on. In particular, people from the group of landowners expressed disapproval. They even created a blockade which effectively closed off several areas on the Kokoda Track and protested against the team managing the historical site.
Kokoda Track Landowners Task Force
As a matter of fact, the opposition even called their group the Kokoda Track Landowners Task Force. They have been active on the media, actively stating their opinions against the historical site management.
These opposition members have openly stated that they are tired of being “economically suppressed, oppressed and exploited” for over a decade.
Where Are The Benefits They Were Promised?
The Landowners Task Force committee also complained that they did not receive the promised education and health benefits. Apart from that, the management also failed to pay the promised amount of $2 million that is due to them. They have never received any form of compensation from either the PNG and Australian governments. Moreover, they stated that there was “a lack of consultation and accountability in relation to funding provided to the authorities by the Australian Government.”
Managing The Funding
The Landowners Task Force targeted the PNG and the Australian government, pleading with them to do a better job at managing and tracking the Kokoda Initiative. They encouraged both bodies to be more involved and to strictly monitor the funding and how it has since been used.
In one of the press releases of the committee, they stated, “Since the establishment of the Kokoda Initiative Program, there have been general public Kokoda Track Community forum workshops from the CEPA (PNG Conservation and Environment Protection Authority).” The committee continued to explain, “There is no detailed reporting in terms of funding expenditure which provides some area of concern in terms of their expenditures that require detailed explanation for general public comprehension at present.”
Where Is The Money?
Their complaints also stemmed from the fact that landowners were owed over $1.5 million dollars by PNG’s government. The said amount is part of the funding for them and for the site from the Australian government.
Kokoda Task Force Committee
The landowners released a petition with the 19 landowners from the village as signatories. James Enage, the chairman of the “Kokoda Task Force Committee” also included some recommendations such as managing, restructuring, and investigating the finances. Enage also stated, “I’ve been warning of something like this for years. It’s compromising the integrity of our most important World War II icon.” He continued, “We are very confident with the approach that through the review [the demands] will be considered.”
The Blockade Ended
Enage was indeed right. The blockade lasted for more than three days and it was making the desired effect. The committee threatened to delay the official start of the season for trekking last March. The PNG government was forced to adhere to their requests in order to reopen the path for the public.
It was Provincial Governor Robert Agarobe who convinced the landowners to end their protest. He told them, “Let’s open the track, we got trekkers, trekking companies out there who want to finalize and book their trekkers to come for this trekking season.”
What About The Site’s Reputation & Tourism?
Apart from the provincial governor, Papua New Guinea’s Tourism Promotion Chief Executive Jerry Agus also played a part in it. He believed that the closure would cause more damage to the reputation of both the local tourism and the historical site. In his interview, he said, “The word closure of Kokoda Track definitely has negative implications on the tourism industry in this country because you don’t only have Kokoda Track in the entire world, there are other alternative tracks that people can go to.” The Kokoda Tour Operators Association President Sue Fitcher also said that with the blockade cut short, it would help them improve the tourism in their state. However, she mentioned, “If we are going to entice more Australians to trek Kokoda, we need to have confidence that the track will remain open, that it’s business as usual, so this kind of disruption does have the potential to be damaging, [however] I don’t think it has been so on this occasion, to any extent.”
All Is Well That Ends Well
Everything ended well for everyone involved. Despite the issues surrounding the discovery and the site, many people had been happy to learn about the discovery of the battlefield in Eora Creek. Finally, many families of war veterans can now get the closure that they had been looking for.