Kokoda Diggers 'should come home'

Path of loss ... Australian troops on the Kokoda Track.
Path of loss ... Australian troops on the Kokoda Track.

Their bones have lain in shallow graves in dense jungle for 70 years. Some have been slowly exposed by decades of wind and rain.

The scene of a strategic Australian advance on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea during World War II was only discovered three years ago and has been named ''the lost battlefield''.

Now it is time to give the Australian Diggers who fell at Eora Creek fighting the Japanese a decent burial, says the former special forces soldier who made the find.

Brian Freeman, who runs battlefield tours along the Kokoda Track and helps with the mental and physical recovery of servicemen injured in Afghanistan, was the first to be taken to the remote site, having gained the trust of the villagers of nearby Alola.

He says there are more than 150 Diggers unaccounted for on the Kokoda Track, with many unlikely to ever be found. Some would be in unmarked graves and others washed down creeks or blown apart by artillery fire. But, of the 20 bodies believed to be at Eora Creek, Freeman believes there is a good chance of identifying at least six.

Mr Freeman said: ''As an ex-soldier for 20 years, if I fought on a foreign battlefield and I had lost my life, I would want to be found. You wouldn't want to be left there on your own in the middle of the New Guinea jungle where you were buried or where you were shot and killed - 70 years and no one has looked for you.''

Some are full skeletal remains with their boots still on and Mr Freeman believes he even knows the names of some of the Diggers but has not contacted any relatives.

He has taken to the site engineers who were injured in Afghanistan while looking for improvised explosive devices, as part of their recovery process, and says their skills with metal detectors would be invaluable.

Mr Freeman said the first body he found turned out to be a Japanese soldier who was wearing Australian boots and had an Australian watch and coins.

Mr Freeman, whose book The Lost Battlefield of Kokoda has just been published, added: ''I found him not using any grave descriptions or any grid references in the middle of the jungle of New Guinea, an hour and a half off the Kokoda trail - in impenetrable jungle using a metal detector that I bought from Cash Converters in Brisbane for $120.

''The engineers are now out of the army and they are highly trained and they say they can find a bullet at about 18 inches [below the surface] and our soldiers are all in shallow graves.

''We have the maps that narrow the search area down to 10 square yards in some cases and those guys want to go in with me and that's why I think they are all recoverable.''

The procedure would be for any bodies found to be handled by the Army's Unrecovered War Casualties staff.

They would likely be buried in unmarked graves while lengthy DNA testing was conducted. If a positive identification was then made, a renaming ceremony could take place with the Digger awarded full military honours.

Funding for the recovery may come from Queensland real estate consumer advocate Neil Jenman who, like businessman Kerry Stokes, has bought Victoria Cross service medals when they have come up for auction to save them for the nation.

He says he may sell the VC awarded to Private Robert Beatham, estimated to be worth about $700,000, to help finance the work.

Private Beatham received the highest award for valour in World War I after he bombed and fought the crews of four German machine gun posts, killing 10 of them and capturing 10 others.

Although wounded, he again dashed forward and bombed a machine gun, being riddled with bullets and killed in doing so.

Mr Jenman said: ''If Brian needed the money I might consider selling the VC, not to a dealer, but to someone like Kerry Stokes who would possibly buy it then donate it to the Australian War Memorial.

''It is hard to think about these Diggers without it bringing tears to your eyes - the Americans don't leave their soldiers like this.

''They say to their marines, 'We will never leave you behind'.''

Nobody was available to comment from the Department of Defence.

This story Kokoda Diggers 'should come home' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.