HONORARY secretary of the Nowra-Greenwell Point RSL Sub-branch Rick Meehan has ticked another item off his bucket list – the Kokoda Track.
Joined by Shoalhaven residents Peter Kerr of Berry and David Biddle of Vincentia, who is the coxswain at HMAS Creswell, they were part of a 11- strong Australian contingent that tackled the arduous 96km journey in nine days.
“It was an amazing experience,” Mr Meehan said.
“Our first and last days were light but apart from that we averaged around 12 kilometres a day.
“And no matter how much training you do, it can never prepare you for the terrain in Papua New Guinea.
“The slopes are extremely steep – most of the time you watch your feet so you don’t trip on the many roots and vines that grow across the track.
“And if you look up at the hills constantly you would never finish it – some just seem to go on forever.
“And it is so humid – it’s hot but you are often out of the real heat, under the canopy of the jungle. You lose so much fluid through sweat.”
He said while physically tough, it was also a mental challenge.
“I trained for it and there were some in our group who were in a lot worse physical condition than me but they completed it – it is often mind over matter,” he said.
“I talked to three people prior to going, one who had to be medevaced out with an injury to their knee and two others who found it too tough and pulled out after a couple of days.”
Mr Meehan said finally walking the track gave him a whole new appreciation of what the Australian Diggers endured during World War II.
“The terrain was incredible – terribly rugged and we had porters so they carried all the gear, yet the Aussie soldiers carried most of their equipment themselves. They were there in all seasons, during the wet times. They had little quality food compared to us – we ate three hot meals a day and had plenty of water and medical backup with all the latest drugs. They virtually had nothing.
“We had the best of everything and we still struggled at times on the track. We didn’t have to fight an overwhelming invading force and dodge bullets.
“Any war is horrific and terrifying but this must have been terrible. The jungle in some parts is so thick you can’t see more than two feet in front of you. The Diggers would never have known where the enemy was.
“They were incredible men and it made all of us on the trek appreciate what they did and how many of them paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
While it was tough going, Mr Meehan was taken with the scenery.
“We were often walking through the clouds or above the clouds, we were so high. It was incredible, not that any of the Aussie Diggers probably took it in at the time,” he said.
Mr Meehan’s group came across Australian and Japanese foxholes and trenches, visited numerous villages along the track and even trekked for an additional six hours off the track to the crash sites of a US P40 Kittyhawk and a B25 aircraft.
Mr Meehan said standing on some of the most significant locations the Australians fought to defend such as Brigade Hill, Myola 1 and 2, where the biscuit bombers used to drop supplies, Templeton’s Crossing, Isurava, where Private Bruce Kingsbury earned the Victoria Cross, Surgeons Rock and, of course, the Bomana War Cemetery were moving experiences.
“The Isurava battle site was only rediscovered in 2000. In 2002 four large plinths with the words Courage, Endurance, Sacrifice and Mateship, which so epitomise the Aussie Diggers, were erected,” he said.
“There is also a small museum established alongside, which displays what is claimed to be the Bren Gun Private Kingsbury used in the Isurava battle.
“The Bomana War Cemetery was moving to see how many 18- and 19-year-old men were killed – they never got to live up to their potential,” he said.
Angels by name and nature
RICK Meehan has a personal insight into why the Papuan porters were affectionately known by Australian troops as Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.
He paid tribute to the locals who acted as their guides and porters.
“They were just wonderful,” he said.
“I can see why the Aussie soldiers took to them. They are just so caring, just like mothers fussing over their children.
“They did everything for us. We had 11 of us on the trek and 19 locals in support.
“We weren’t allowed to go anywhere without at least one of them.
“My porter Peter was incredible, just 147cm, weighing 50kg, yet he carried my 22kg pack as well as all his own gear and did it all barefoot.
“I can see why they were referred to as angels.”
Mission to honour the fallen
RICK Meehan has spent a number of years travelling to significant battlefield locations.
Most have been part of Australian history and Mr Meehan usually visits the associated war cemeteries.
Over the years he has visited Normandy, Vietnam, and more recently he has returned from the world’s most secretive and isolated country, North Korea.
Mr Meehan spent 12 days touring the country including the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
There has also been a trip to Arlington Cemetery in the US and next January he will undertake another trip to El Alamein in Egypt.
“El Alamein will be special. One of the members of the Nowra Greenwell Point RSL Sub-branch, Norm Pettit, was there. He has told me so many stories about what it was like fighting in the desert.
“I want to go there for him and get some photos and of course visit the war cemetery,’ Mr Meehan said.
“It is nice to be able to go to these places and pay homage to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”