Stories of Remembrance

Army, Second World War (1939-45)Ken Phelan,The Kokoda Track

After reuniting Ken with the flag after 67 years, I knew that I had made a friend and the two of us gave many talks to various community groups from that day on.
David Howell

I first met Ken Phelan in 2009, having moved from Sydney to Melbourne, I returned from my own military service in the Solomon Islands. Asked to give a talk on Kokoda to the Victorian Branch of the Military Historical Society of Australia, I decided to enlist the help of a veteran of the 39th Infantry Battalion who fought along the Kokoda Track during World War Two.

The veteran was Mr Ken Phelan, Ken had served in1 Platoon Head Quarters Company (HQ) of the 39th Militia Battalion. No sooner had I been put in touch with Ken, I purchased a captured Japanese Flag with the signatures of 24 Australians. To my surprise, Ken was among the men to have signed the flag. After reuniting Ken with the flag after 67 years, I knew that I had made a friend and the two of us gave many talks to various community groups from that day on.

Ken recalls leaving Owers’ Corner early morning on 17th July 1942. He was carrying a rifle, haversack, pack and webbing. ‘The going was easy to begin with’. Inside his pack he carried a ground sheet, spare shirt and trousers, jumper and half a blanket. Inside his haversack he carried an emergency ration, tobacco, pay book and eating utensils. The front two utility pouches held .303 ammunition and two No.36 grenades. Ken remembers that the first part of the journey to Uberi was mainly downhill.

Arriving there at 10am Ken received drinks of cordial prepared by the men of the Transport Platoon before setting off to Ioribaiwa Ridge. Taking several hours before reaching the top of the ridge, Ken was frustrated by the amount of false peaks. “I thought I could see the top only to realise it was another one of those blasted false peals”. On this section Ken came across his first real taste of Kokoda Track mateship as other soldiers were eager to give a helping and hand and some words of encouragement, despite their own challenges.

The steep decent along the Track was as vivid in Ken’s memory as it was the day he march it. “The going down was sometimes harder than the going up, as you soon developed laughing knees due to the steepness of the track”. The Officer commanding C Company was Captain Dean, who decided to rest the group at Menari. Ken and the rest of the men had the chance to dry their wet clothes and get some well deserved rest. Eating meals of tinned bully beef they had the opportunity to supplement their rations with vegetables from the locals. Soldiers would trade sticks of tobacco for such food items as yams, taro, sweet potato and fruit. Ken was surprised to find Australian gum trees in New Guinea. However he recalled the smell of the eucalyptus in the air which gave a fantastic boost to the men’s morale, as most of the soldiers grew up in country Victoria.

“Struggling across the mighty rapids of the Efogi River on a fallen tree trunk was quite an experience. Watching the natives walk over bare feet and not miss, did not encourage us, as most of us went over ‘inching on bums!’”. While walking over the Track, Ken learnt that the Japanese had landed at Buna. He was well aware of the need to push on in order to reinforce B Company. Heading up to Kagi and then on to Eora Creek the going was tough. “We all knew that B Company would be in need of our assistance so we pushed on”. The first crossing of Eora Creek (which later became known as Templeton’s Crossing) that Ken and C Company did, took them all night. That day they had spent 12 hours on the track before reaching their destination.

Ken served in the 39th Militia Battalion prior to joining the AIF with the 2/2nd Battalion and returned to New Guinea to participate in further operation against the Japanese including the Aitape-Wewak campaign. Ken stayed on in PNG until 1946 before returning home to Victoria where he worked as an electrician. Ken named his son, Ian, after his brother who lost his life serving in the RAAF when he was shot down over Berlin in 1943. Before Ken passed away in 2011, I made a promise that I would visit the grave of his brother in Berlin. In 2012 I made the pilgrimage to see the final resting place of 410255 F/Sgt Ian Rupert Phelan of 460 Squadron who was shot down and killed over Berlin on 2 December 1943. Lest We forget!

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