The ‘forgotten’ battle of Gorari: One man’s fight to recognise 133 fallen diggers


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November 07, 2018 06:43:23

The World War II battle for Gorari in Papua New Guinea was one of the bloodiest of the Kokoda campaign, but due to the location of the site it lay unrecognised for 76 years.

That was until John Tannock, an avocado farmer near Ravensbourne on Queensland’s Darling Downs, made it his mission to honour the 133 Australian men who died or where injured on the battle field with a monument.

“I have to confess to feeling very emotional when the plaque was unveiled — I had a lump in my throat as a lot of work went into it,” Mr Tannock said.

He said he first heard of the battle for Gorari from his father, who was wounded there in November 1942 after a piece of shrapnel pierced his helmet and cut his head open.

Mr Tannock visited the site after trekking the Kokoda track with his daughter in 2016.

“What struck me … was all those other battle sites have monuments, plaques, but at Gorari there was absolutely nothing,” he said.

“I thought these young blokes they are not getting any recognition — they have largely been forgotten.”

Mission for a monument

On his return to Australia Mr Tannock started a two-year battle with bureaucracy in two countries to get a monument erected in the town.

He also took on the mammoth task of finding and reconnecting the families of the fallen.

Mr Tannock searched the telephone directory for people with the same last name as a fallen digger, who still lived in the same town that solider was registered.

To date, he has made hundreds of cold calls.

“Probably for every 20 or 30 calls I make I might jag someone,” he said.

“The other night I spent about two hours on the phone ringing trying to track down half a dozen, but nobody had heard about them.”

Mr Tannock said despite the difficulties he would keep trying as every time he found a family member they revealed their distress at the thought their brother, uncle, or father had been forgotten.

“That is the sort of thing that makes it worthwhile,” Mr Tannock said.

So far Mr Tannock has reached about a dozen families, including the Simmons brothers, who died minutes apart.

He said his first phone call with Jenny Rose, the niece of the brothers, was one of his most emotional.

“It was weird — we will probably have a laugh about it one day, two people who had never met having this emotional phone call where we couldn’t talk,” Mr Tannock said.

Ms Rose put Mr Tannock onto her 92-year-old mother, Marie Murray, the sister of the brothers.

Ms Murray said she still remembered the day the telegrams arrived.

“It is just something that you just can’t forget,” Ms Murray said.

“They were fantastic brothers … we called them the middle boys — they were loyal, very loyal.

“They had a friend who was with them when they lined up apparently, and he wanted to get between them, but they fought him, and they wouldn’t let him get between them, so their [service] numbers are running.”

Ms Murray was determined to make it to Gorari until her health prevented her, so her daughter agreed to go in her place.

Ms Rose placed a jar of dirt collected from Forbes in New South Wales at the grave of the two brothers — the brothers had hoped to return to the family farm after the war.

Mr Tannock met another relative of a soldier in Gorari on a separate trip last year.

Darryl Sommerville’s father was also injured in the battle with a bullet wound to his leg.

“There always should have been a monument there, because it was one of the most important battles, if not the most important battle in the Kokoda campaign,” Mr Sommerville said.

“[Dad] probably wouldn’t have wanted it, but I think deep down, for all the people that were killed there, he would be happy for it to be in place.”

History of the battle

The battle of Gorari was largely unrecognised because it was not on the Kokoda track, which runs through the jungle from Kokoda, south towards Port Moresby.

The battle happened later in the campaign between November 4 to 11, 1942 as the Japanese were retreating to the northern coastline.

The casualties were high as it was the first time the Australians managed to engage the Japanese out of the jungle in an open space, with 133 Australians either dying there, or shortly after from their injuries. Another 225 soldiers were wounded.

“It wasn’t just the casualty rate, it was the type of fighting that was very confused,” Mr Tannock said.

“The Japanese were trying to break through their lines, so they often found Japanese soldiers or groups of Japanese soldiers in their lines, which often resulted in fairly gruesome hand-to-hand fighting.”

It is thought more than 600 Japanese soldiers were killed during the week-long flight.

Unveiling the monument

The monument in the village of Gorari was unveiled on November 1, 2018, with a small ceremony of 20 descendants.

A traditional welcome dance was performed by Gorari locals, an oath was read, the PNG and Australian anthems were sung, and the names of the fallen read out.

For Mr Tannock, the culmination of two years’ work was an emotional day.

“I am very proud of what I achieved — I couldn’t have done it on my own — I had a lot of people supporting me,” Mr Tannock said.

“I think Dad would feel proud too — my father lost a lot of good mates at Gorari, blokes he talked about over the years and I think he would be very pleased that something was done to remember them.”

The battalions that fought in Gorari were the 2/1st, 2nd, 2/3rd, 2/25th, 2/31st and 2/33rd.

“If their fathers were in those battalions in New Guinea in November 1942, unless they were in hospital or incapacitated, they would have been in Gorari,” Mr Tannock said.

Records can be found on the Australian War Memorial website.

Topics:

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