By November. 1942, after more than four months of fierce fighting, Australian troops had driven the Japanese back down the Kokoda Trail to Gona where they had landed on July 21, 1942, with the intention of crossing the Owen Stanley Ranges to capture Port Moresby. By the time of this final assault the battalion was down to 16 officers and 271 other ranks out of the 625 who had started the Kokoda campaign. It was down to just eight officers and 128 other ranks, all totally exhausted, by the time the battalion was taken out of action on December 4, five days before Gona finally fell to Australian and American forces. Both the 21st and 25th Brigades suffered heavy losses.

In its short period of fighting around Gona, 21st Brigade lost over 400 battle casualties. The 39th Battalion lost 228, of whom ten officers and 154 O.R.s were killed – an indication of the close and bitter fighting that took place in and about Gona before this phase of the operations came to end.

The Kokoda campaign cost the 2/33rd Battalion 44 killed, 122 wounded and 267 evacuated with such deadly diseases as scrub typhus and malaria.

In the last few days of the bitter fiighting before the fall of Gona the battalion’s four rifle companies had been reduced to two. Although exhausted to the point they could hardly stand up, they were still fighting. The conditions under which the men continued to fight were appalling.

Bill Crooks recorded in The Footsoldiers: “In the unsheltered kunai, with its shimmering heat and still air, temperatures climbed to over 130 degrees Centigrade. For already exhausted men the conditions were almost unbearable. Nearly all were running temperatures over 100 degres, but such was the determination of the men that they did not report sick unless their temperatures read 105-106. However, the long days began to register their toll of sunstroke: men began to faint and some began to wander about in the kunai. Lieutenants Kevin Power and Richard Cox were kept busy grabbing these almost incoherent people and dumping them in the water-filled bomb holes or in their own water filled slit trenches in an effort to cool them off. All ranks were now worn out. Sick and lethargic they were unable to do more than ten minutes of any work before tiring.”

During this period Lieutenant Power never forgot one act of outstanding bravery by an almost totally exhausted Lieutenant Phil Curry, who was standing alone in full view of the enemy, firing round-after-round from a mortar into enemy positions, only stopping when the mortar overheated.

Curry’s gallantry and leadership many times over was recognised with his award of a Military Cross at Balikpapan.

Power also never forgot a verbal exchange between Captain Gordon Bennett and a pompous British major soon after the battalion, battered and worn out, was finally withdrawn from action at Gona on December 4. With no transport available, the eight officers and 128 other ranks, all that were left of the battalion, had to march five miles (8.5kms) to a holding camp near Soputa airstrip where they were to be flown back to Port Moresby. Finally arriving at Soputa, utterly exhausted, and barely able to carry their heavy packs, the men slumped to the ground and fell into their first deep sleep in three months.

Soon afterwards, the pompous British major woke Captain Bennett demanding he place some of his men on guard duty around the camp in case of a surprise Japanese attack.

Bennett was incensed. With a steely glint in his eye he told the major: “We have been guarding you lot against the Japanese for the last three months on the Kokoda Trail, so go to hell and don’t wake me up again.” Bad weather closed the airfield, forcing the men to make another gruelling walk of 10 miles (16 kms) to a new airstrip at Poppondetta. They were eventually flown to Port Moresby between December 15 and 17, to be greeted on arrival by 300 reinforcements who had arrived from Brisbane the same day the battalion had been stood down from action. Although the 300 were lucky to miss the fighting at Gona they weren’t so lucky avoiding getting a sample of jungle conditions with an exercise patrol to Imita Ridge.

The tough climb up the Golden Staircase, further heightened their admiration and respect for those who had climbed to Imita Ridge and Ioribaiwa chasing the Japanese. The transport ships M.V. Both and M.V. Duntroon returned the troops to Australia in early January, 1943, closing another momentous chapter of the battalion’s history, psychological as well as physical.

A huge cheering crowd and a brass band welcomed the men home when they arrived at Hamilton wharf on the Brisbane River on January 7, 1943, a totally deserved reception for the victorious Kokoda veterans and the replacements sent to Port Moresby to join the fight at Gona.

QX3873 Corporal C. Colvin having received multiple wounds from an exploding Japanese mortar bomb at Gona being attended to by NX28193 Sergeant Harry Moore (left), the R.A.P. Sergeant.

QX3854 Corporal F.R. Smith, 18 Platoon, D Company at Gona. Smith was noted for his courage and for his skill with a sub-machine gun. It is believed the Thompson sub-machine gun he is holding had been passed on to him as a mark of respect by his grateful Commander, Lieutenant Kevin Power, when Power was evacuated ill and exhausted at Gona. His name K. Power was engraved on the handle.

Almost all of the remnant A/D Company at Gona having a rest after being withdrawn from the forward position while an air strike was “called down” on November 24, 1942. The photograph of the vastly understrength unit dramatically illustrates the critical situation the battalion was in immediately before the fall of Gona on December 9. It started the Kokoda campaign with just over 620 men. By the time it reached Gona there were only eigt officers and 128 Other Ranks left. The remainder had been killed, wounded or struck down by disease. Even though smiling, the men at the left were near exhaustion after weeks of fighting. Soon after the photograph was taken the officer commanding, Myola Ridge Miitary Cross winner, Lieutenant Kevin Power, at the front wearing a singlet, fell seriously ill and was evacuated.

Left: NX44907 Sgt. Stan Pretty, the smaller soldier in the photograph on the left, is also in the photograph above, partly obscured at the front. The smiles all around tell a story, but only half it. The photographs were taken just 100 metres from the battlefront where the men had spent two tense days and nights within grenade distance of the Japanese and constantly under fire from Japanese snipers. They were being given a brief rest before returning

Left: A 2/33rd soldier in the forward pit of Haddy’s Post on the west bank of Gona Creek, a vital position for watching Japanese movements at Gona. The post was named after Lieutenant Haddy from E Company 2/16 Battalion, which had been sent to help the critically undermanned 2/33rd. Haddy and his men, as well as 2/33rd infantrymen, made frequent courageous patrols from the post into enemy territory killing many Japanese. By the time Gona fell on December 9 half of Haddy’s company had fallen ill with disease. Of the remainder, half, including Haddy, had been killed by Japanese trying to escape from Gona in the last hours before it fell to Australian and American troops. Haddy, gallant to the end, was found near a hut surrounded by six Japanese he had apparently killed before being shot dead

Captain Trevor Clowes, centre, with some of his 60-man patrol after their return from near Gona on November 9, 1942. Captain Clowes is holding a piece of a recaptured A.I.F. supply box. Clowes was killed 12 days later.

B.H.Q. men having a quick “cuppa” at Gona. Don Miller, Oscar Nagel, Neville Braund and Harry Johansen.

Padre Father J.D. Lynch celebrating Mass before the battle at Gona, 1942. Lieutenant P.S. “Phil” Curry, is second from the right, wearing the dark shirt. On his right is Lieutenant Frank McTaggart. Other 2/33rd men in the photograph include Lt. Morath, Jack Lynch and Bernie Lewis, who is standing next to Father Lynch. The Battalion lost 12 men killed in action and 48 wounded at Gona.

Members of the battalion in silent prayer before battle, Gona.

“Returning Warriors” on board the M.V. Both coming in to the wharf side, Hamilton, Brisbane, January 7, 1943. These three photographs appeared next day on the front page of the Brisbane Courier Mail.