Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2006


39th Battalion

7:13 pm

Photo of Julian McGauranJulian McGauran (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to bring to the attention of the Senate an event held on 8 August this year that took place at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance. It was a ceremony to reinstate the 39th Battalion to active service in our armed forces for the first time since that battalion was disbanded in 1943. I am proud to say that for some time now I have been a honorary member of the 39th Battalion and regrettably, due to parliamentary sittings, I was unable to attend this fine and proud ceremony, which was attended by the Governor-General.

The 39th Battalion’s story is one of the greatest stories told in Australian history. It is the Kokoda Track story of 1942. Yes, those of the 39th Battalion—and many are still alive today—are the men of the Kokoda Track. They faced odds of six to one when, on 21 July 1942, the Japanese forces landed by surprise at Buna on the north coast of Papua and, marching west, advanced rapidly across the Owen Stanley Range toward Port Moresby. The Japanese were battle hardened, well equipped and specifically trained for jungle warfare and, to that date in the war, they were the undefeated conquerors of all South-East Asia and China.

Those famous ‘mud over blood’ colours have now risen again, though in a very different and modern form to the old 39th Battalion. Nevertheless, the colours, the motto ‘factis non verbis’—deeds not words—and the legend are to be passed on to a new and proud generation of 39th fighting men and women. The name 39th Battalion has existed since 1916 when volunteers for the 1st AIF formed the unit in Ballarat, Victoria. As a member of the 3rd Division, the 39th served with distinction in all the major battles in France. Its colours, emblazoned with battle honours, were laid up in the Ballarat Anglican cathedral. They have since been brought to Melbourne and now hold their place of honour in the crypt of the shrine.

The reason the 39th was disbanded in the first place was bewildering. The President of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion Association, and 39th veteran, Alan ‘Kanga’ Moore, said:

The reason could not have been associated in our performance in action which had been widely applauded. Our conclusion was that we were so reduced in numbers that it was too big a job to reform and re-equip us.

It has aggrieved us for 63 years that our name, the 39th Battalion, which had existed since 1916 was struck from the Order of Battle of the Australian Army.

Gladly this is now rectified.

The Kokoda story is, without doubt, comparable to the Gallipoli story in every way—except that at Kokoda we won. The 39th fought like they did because they believed they were the last line of defence of Australia—and they were. The reason 8 August was chosen for the ceremony at the shrine was because that is the date on which A Company of the 39th recaptured Kokoda in 1942. It has since become known as Kokoda Day, and although that is not official in our national calendar I believe it ought to be. There is an ongoing campaign by the RSL and so many others to establish this day in our national calendar.

I would like to borrow from the address by the Governor-General which was published in The Good Guts, the official magazine of the 39th Battalion, to epitomise the spirit of the 39th that made the story we know today. He said:

... Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner ... taking up his new command on 16 August 1942 ... found his soldiers already exhausted from fierce fighting in the most inhospitable of conditions, many suffering tropical diseases, and facing a numerically superior, confident and ruthless enemy.

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Ralph Honner later wrote: “When, on the 27th, the complete relief of the 39th was ordered for the following day, I had sent back, under Lieutenant Johnson the weakest of the battalion’s sick to have them one stage ahead of the long march to Moresby—they were too feeble for the fast moving fighting expected at the front.” Two days later, Johnson, learning of the plight of the ... 39th ... led his soldiers back—the fittest of the unfit returning into battle.

To capture the essence of this bravery, the Governor-General went on to quote from the book We Were There:

“The battalion was in trouble, so twenty-seven out of the thirty went back. The three who didn’t were minus a foot, had a bullet in the throat, and a forearm blown off. We never did it for God, King and Country—forget that. We did it because the 39th expected it of us.”

The Governor-General went on to say:

Such conduct in the face of unimaginable odds, of men prepared to give every ounce they had, physically and mentally, when nothing more could reasonably be expected of them, epitomises the incomparable spirit of the 39th.

Time is marching on for these old soldiers. I received notice that Gordon ‘Rocket’ Bailey passed away last Friday, and I offer my sincere condolences and prayers to his widow and family in this time of their sorrow. However, the 39th now lives on. And I say to all the young soldiers joining the force: no battalion could give a greater example of doing your duty for your mate and for your country than the 39th.