THESE days the word Kokoda is, like Gallipoli, synonymous with the Anzac legend but for almost 50 years the 39th Battalion, the very first Australian battalion to face the Japanese guns in New Guinea, was largely forgotten.
Why? Because of the original 600 men sent as part of the first resistance to the Japanese onslaught, only 34 returned fit for duty and the battalion was swiftly disbanded.
Forster’s Joe Dawson, who recently turned 90, was one of them. At just 19 he was one of the brave soldiers who, as noted journalist and author of Kokoda Peter Fitzsimons described in the foreword to Joe’s memoirs, “answered the call and formed themselves into such a fighting unit that they were able to take on the finest soldiers the world had seen to that point, and bloody well beat them.”
The 39th Battalion was a militia unit formed hastily in Melbourne in 1942 with the Japanese almost on our doorstep and the majority of Australia’s fighting forces (the Rats of Tobruk) en route from North Africa. They were the first to face the seemingly invincible Japanese forces in New Guinea and yet, with so few men returning, it was disbanded in 1943 and lay dormant for almost half a century.
In 2006 the former Deployed Forces Support Unit based in Randwick was renamed the 39th (Personnel Support) Battalion and its Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Robert Simpson was on hand recently to induct Joe as a Life Member of the 39th Battalion Association.
“We do now prepare soldiers far more than Joe and his mates were back then,” Lieutenant Colonel Simpson said.
“We prepare 3000 soldiers a year for deployment overseas, and we also have the strong obligation to carry with pride the name of the 39th Battalion.”
Joe, who has also given 48 years service as an office bearer for various Legacy groups, was humbled by the honour and reflected:
“It’s a wonderful thought. I’m just an old guy who did his duty. Most of my unit was gone when we came back, I was one of the lucky ones, and I still am.”