Cairns sailors walk in the footsteps of heroes

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Location(s): Kokoda, Papua New Guinea

Topic(s): HMAS Cairns, Naval Heritage and History

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Each year, the Cairns branch of the Returned Services League sponsors Australian Defence Force personnel to trek the Kokoda Track. The gruelling 96km trek across the Owen Stanley Ranges, from Owers’ Corner to Kokoda, takes eight days.

Warrant Officer Marine Technician Jock Jocumsen and Leading Seaman Dental Assistant Kortney Inmon from HMAS Cairns, and Warrant Officer Class Two David Madden and Corporal Alistair George from 51 Far North Queensland Regiment were the successful volunteers.

With their departure date falling only five weeks after their selection, every available opportunity was used for preparation.

Hiking up and down steep inclines, with their backpacks loaded with as much weight as they could carry, became their new favourite thing to do. Before they knew it, the trekkers were checking in for their flight to Port Moresby and the start of what was to be a life changing experience. Anxiously thinking about what we may have forgotten, the group decided to keep it simple, with the mantra ‘if we’re wearing boots, we’re going for a walk’.

The Australian Defence Force trekkers joined a larger group to make 13 trekkers overall, which included civilians and ex-servicemen with ages ranging from an inspiring 74 to an impressive 14-year old.

After meeting their individual porters, they walked through the arch that symbolises the start of the track.

The incredible porters carried their heavier gear, along with their own - their packs weighing up to 22kg – saving many in the group from dangerous incidents in the muddy, slippery conditions.

Enduring the steep, rugged, mud-covered jungle terrain for eight days was a physical and mental challenge for all in the group.

Day three was a particularly tough day that saw them trekking up what was aptly named ‘The Wall’ – an all but vertical clay incline made more difficult by the torrential tropical rain. Physically exhausted after hiking for over 11 hours, it was on this day that the trekkers realised what the heroes of the Kokoda track went through during World War Two, untrained and fighting for what they believed in - the defence of their nation.

“Our issues were ‘first world’ compared to theirs. We didn’t have an enemy shooting at us, we didn’t have any sick or wounded to care for, we weren’t carrying weapons, ammunition, or what we needed for survival,” WO Jocumsen said.

“We had porters and we knew there would be a dry tent, hot food and a warm sleeping bag at the next stop. Day three was our defining moment, overwhelming us with nationalistic pride and a stark realisation we were indeed walking in the footsteps of heroes,” he said.

Leading Seaman Dental Assistant Kortney Inmon and Warrant Officer Marine Technician Jock Jocumsen from HMAS Cairns.

Leading Seaman Dental Assistant Kortney Inmon and Warrant Officer Marine Technician Jock Jocumsen from HMAS Cairns.

Isurava is now the site of the inspiring memorial ‘The Four Pillars’. The four granite pillars: courage, endurance, mateship, and sacrifice, are arguably the values by which every subsequent member of the Australian Defence Force will be measured. The group held a service that included a brief history of the battle - words of praise for the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, an explanation of the Four Pillars, and several readings. They laid wreaths made from local flowers, recited the Ode, had a minute’s silence and sung the national anthems – the Australian anthem sung by the trekkers, the Papua New Guinean sung by the porters. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Walking through the arch that symbolises the Kokoda end of the track was an amazing experience that meant something different to each of the trekkers. Some were exhilarated, some were proud, others were emotional, one couldn’t believe he had made it - and he wouldn’t have, without the porters carrying him for much of the final two days. 

After completing the Kokoda Track there was one final place to visit - The Bomana War Cemetery. Here 3823 flawlessly maintained marble headstones and immaculate gardens sat in perfect alignment. An overwhelming 700 of these headstones were simply engraved ‘An Australian Soldier Of The 1939-1944 War, Known Unto God’. There are no words that can accurately describe the overwhelming sense of pride that the trekkers felt when they walked through this sacred place.

“Ultimately, to experience the ‘Spirit of Kokoda’ during our naval career has been a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said WO Jocumsen 

“Even though our team endured the same trek physically, we have all taken away something different from the experience. But we all agree, we have now walked in the footsteps of heroes and will be forever grateful for their sacrifice. We will remember them. Lest we forget,” he said.