The 39th Australian Infantry Battalion formed in 1941 as a volunteer Militia unit. Recruited from Melbourne, they existed for only 20 months of the Second World War, but became a vital part of the fight for the Kokoda Trail.
After serving in garrison roles and working parties, in June 1942 the 39th moved to the north coast of New Guinea. Their orders were to hold back the Japanese advance until reinforcements could arrive. The first battle took place at Awala on 23 July, resulting in the Australians falling back. What followed was a series of hard-fought retreats over six weeks. The 39th had limited supplies and suffered badly from disease, but they did the job asked of them - they stalled the Japanese long enough for reinforcements to arrive. It left the battalion exhausted and undermanned.
Once the Kokoda Trail was back in Australian hands, the 39th was once again sent north, this time to help in the fighting around Buna-Gona. December 1942 saw them clash with well-defended Japanese positions, but despite heavy losses, they once again succeeded.
Their 20 months of service saw 136 men killed, and 266 wounded in action, with many more suffering from disease and illness. By January 1943, battle casualties and medical evacuations had reduced their fighting numbers to just 32 men.
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Reviewed 13 October 2021