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Age shall not weary them

By Warwick Marsh - posted Friday, 23 April 2010


In Australia we celebrate Anzac Day on Sunday 25th April. Anzac Day gets its name from the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps, who fought in Gallipoli, Turkey in April 1915.

The campaign was a defeat, but that doesn't mean that Australia does not celebrate her heroes. Anzac Day Dawn Services and celebrations will take place all over Australia this Sunday, to commemorate all those who paid the ultimate price in defending their country and for those who returned to tell the story.

For many Australians, it is a deeply spiritual day. Even the heavily secularised Wikipedia admits that Anzac Day is "one of the most spiritual and solemn days" of the Australian calendar.

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Rudyard Kipling wrote:

Nations have passed away and left no traces
And history gives the naked cause of it
One single simple reason in all cases
They fell because their peoples were not fit.

Fitness is more a state of the heart than it is to do with stamina, although in many ways they are related. Men of courage are not only required in war. Men need to be courageous in peace time as well. Perhaps that is why Anzac Day is so deeply embedded in our national psyche. Whilst Anzac Day is a celebration of courage of men gone by, it also carries the hope that those men still exist today.

You see, we all need heroes. Let me tell you the story of some of those heroes from the battlefield on the Kokoda Track. Charlie Lynn, talking about Kokoda said, "If Gallipoli is regarded as the baptism of our nation . . . the Kokoda was our confirmation".

The unstoppable force of the Japanese Imperial Army had just swept through South East Asia, crushing all before it. The 10,000 strong Japanese Army that landed in Papua New Guinea in 1942 was well equipped, well trained and battle hardened.

The famous Kokoda battle that halted Japan's advance was fought by 77 men from the 39th Battalion who were referred to as "chocos" by the other more experienced Aussie forces. (These men were poorly trained, young conscripts that were not highly regarded at all). These were the men who would "melt in the sun", but there was no melting to be had as the blood ran freely in the furious days of battle which at times became hand-to-hand combat.

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Such was the bravery of these men that the Japanese believed they had been fighting over 1,200 regular Australian soldiers. It is amazing what a touch of courage can do and it certainly wasn't the "dutch" kind because there was no alcohol to be had in the steamy, torturous jungles of Papua New Guinea.

A particular story from a later action in the rearguard battle on the Kokoda Track stands out and encourages us today. The London Gazette citation reads as follows:

In New Guinea, the Battalion to which Private Kingsbury belonged had been holding a position in the Isurava area for two days against continuous and fierce enemy attacks. On 29 August, 1942, the enemy attacked in such force that they succeeded in breaking through the Battalion's right flank, creating serious threats both to the rest of the Battalion and to its Headquarters. To avoid the situation becoming more desperate it was essential to regain immediately lost ground on the right flank.

Private Kingsbury, who was one of the few survivors of a Platoon which had been overrun and severely cut about by the enemy, immediately volunteered to join a different platoon which had been ordered to counterattack. He rushed forward firing the Bren gun from his hip through terrific machine-gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy. Continuing to sweep enemy positions with his fire and inflicting an extremely high number of casualties on them, Private Kingsbury was then seen to fall to the ground shot dead by the bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood. Private Kingsbury displayed a complete disregard for his own safety. His initiative and superb courage made possible the recapture of a position, which undoubtedly saved Battalion Headquarters, as well as causing heavy casualties amongst the enemy. His coolness, determination and devotion to duty in the face of great odds were an inspiration to his comrades.

Bruce Kingsbury VC rests at Bomana War cemetery. "The price of safety is eternal vigilance", is still so true today.

For this reason we must tell the heroic story of Bruce Kingsbury VC's courage and sacrifice under fire, to our children, in the hope that such sacrifice will never have to happen again.

Sacrifice is not a very popular word in our hedonistic, self-serving society. In fact it is almost the antithesis of where our culture is headed. The song, "What About Me" could well be our society's national anthem. But the men who fought the Japanese on the Kokoda Track had a different song to sing. It was a song of sacrifice, often written with their own blood. The story of Bruce Kingsbury VC is a prime example. Yet there were many other equally inspiring stories of sacrifice that came out of the Kokoda Campaign.

The story told by Les Cook, a veteran of the track, about John Metson is not quite as dramatic as that of Bruce Kingsbury but John Metson's story is no less sacrificial and by the nature of the premeditation involved could well be more so. Les Cook fought in the Kokoda campaign and so tells Metson's story better than I ever could.

Most of us perceive that there is an Australian character. We believe that it embodies the good in a people and are quietly proud of it. If we are to retain our character, however, we must not neglect to uphold the memory and extol the virtues of those whose exemplary deeds and indomitable courage are its very foundation.

Such a man was Corporal John Arthur Metson of the 2/14th Australian Infantry Battalion. Enlisting in the second A.I.F. in May 1940, he was an original member of the Battalion and had served in North Africa and Syria before coming home from the Middle East early in 1942. The Battalion was sent to New Guinea in August 1942 to stem the Japanese overland advance on Port Moresby.

The Japanese broke through the Australian defence line near the village of Isurava in the Owen Stanley Range south of Kokoda and after four days of fighting, John Metson with his ankle smashed by a bullet, was one of many cut off in the jungle with the intention of rejoining the Battalion. By chance the group fell in with a much larger party, under the command of Captain S.H. Buckler, which also had been cut off and had the same objective. This party already included several wounded, some of whom, like John Metson, were unable to walk.

Stretchers were made to carry the wounded. These were constructed from bush poles and vines and were heavy cumbersome things, each requiring eight men, already loaded down with their own equipment and weapons, to carry it. To spare his comrades the burden of carrying him, John Metson said that he would crawl, asking only that his hands and knees be bandaged to protect them.

On the northern face of the Range the main track from Port Moresby ran down the western side of the Eora Creek valley through the villages of Alola, Isurava, and Deniki to Kokoda. The party set off from Isurava in the darkness hoping to rejoin the Battalion, but the Japanese had already cut off that route and were firmly entrenched across the main track at Alola. Forced to turn away from the main track, the Australian party crossed Eora Creek to the eastern side of the valley where they tried for almost two weeks to find an alternative route to rejoin the Battalion or to get help, but without success. The party then turned back along the eastern side of the valley until they reached the village of Sangai in the lower foothills on the northern face of the Range.

By now, the men had been on the move for three weeks since the night they left Isurava. All this time, enduring the agony of his smashed ankle and with his entire body aching from prolonged crawling, John Metson dragged himself along on his hands and knees among the other wounded at the centre of the column, his cheerful fortitude an inspiration to them all. Desperately short of food and getting weaker each day it had become apparent that carrying the stretchers was slowing down the party's movements to the point that, if they continued as they were, nobody would survive.

The huts at Sangai offered protection for the wounded from the constant rain; moreover, some food could be obtained from the village garden there. It was decided to leave the stretcher cases, and with them John Metson, at Sangai, while Captain Buckler and main party pushed on with all possible speed to get help. A stretcher-bearer, Corporal Tom Fletcher, volunteered to stay at Sangai to care for the wounded.

Captain Buckler took over 2 weeks to get back to his own lines and it was a month after this that a ground patrol got back to the Sangai village only to find Corporal Tom Fletcher, John Metson and the other wounded men were dead. Unarmed and too weak to defend themselves they had been murdered.

Captain Buckler had been deeply moved by John Metson's courage and unselfishness which had had such an inspirational effect on the entire party, and was determined to see that his conduct was officially recognised. As soon as he was able, and before the sad outcome was known, Captain Buckler had submitted his recommendation that resulted in an award of the British Empire Medal (Military Division) to John Metson. While those with him at the time certainly would have seen the award fully deserved, it is probable that the man himself would have been surprised . . .

It is over 60 years since the Second World War ended. The ranks of those of us who took part in it are thinning, and we will soon be gone. During our lifetime we have told the stories and we have written of the deeds of the giants among men who walked ahead of us and showed the way in the dark days of war; we have tried to keep faith with them and with our people.

Les Cook is right. These men were giants in that they willingly gave themselves for their country. Sacrifice was a word they knew well. True heroes in every sense of the word. Martin Luther King Jnr said, "A nation or civilisation that continues to produce soft minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the instalment plan".

I often wonder, that if we were confronted by war, could Australia do it all again. Have we become so soft minded that our spiritual death has been well and truly paid up, or could we again become the noble men we need to be? Only time will tell. I will allow Les Cook to finish his story:

You have a duty to future generations to preserve the legend of John Metson, and people like him. People who, in times of extreme adversity did not lose heart, but pressed on gallantly and cheerfully towards the goal against all odds, placing the welfare of others above their own, and giving us a national tradition of which all should feel proud. If this nation continues to uphold their nobleness of spirit, and if each individual endeavours to live up to their example, our people shall be fit.

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About the Author

Warwick Marsh is the founder of the Dads4Kids Fatherhood Foundation with his wife Alison. They have five children and two grandchildren and have been married for 34 years.

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