In the mud of Kokoda

Steve Kendall | Bendigo Weekly | 20-Apr-2012

MEMORIES: John Dawes joined the army aged 16. LEFT: John is pictured in the back row, fifth from right. Main photo: BILL CONROY. More photos at


Things were different in 1941.

Australia had been at war for two years, there was a real threat of invasion from the Japanese and everyone was joining up and going overseas.
The promise of excitement was too much for many, and teenagers eager to answer the call made some creative changes to their birthdates.
Alexander John Dawes was one such boy. John, as he calls himself, fronted up to the recruiting office, and at all of 16 proclaimed himself to be 21.
It raised an eyebrow of the recruiting officer, but when he went back to be sworn in later he tried 19.
That worked, but he had to get his parents’ consent as he was under 21.
“I signed my dad’s with a fountain pen and my mum’s with a different one,” John said.
“I knew what the signatures looked like. I was pretty cunning I suppose.
“My dad went crook at me and said he’d get me out, but he never did.”
As it turns out, John’s father had pulled the same stunt during World War I, so perhaps it showed a family trait.
John was enlisted on November 22, 1941 and following training went ashore in New Guinea as part of reinforcements for 39 Battalion on March 25, 1942.
Private AJ Dawes VX66059 came of age fast.
“One day against the Japs and I grew up,” he said.
“I just cannot describe what it’s like to someone who was not there. No words of mine can describe it to you.
“But I had joined up to shoot some of the enemy. Trouble was it was a two-way rifle range.”
The story of the Kokoda Track is one of desperation and blood.
The Japanese had landed at Gona and were pushing for Port Moresby, and the Australians were trying their hardest to push them back.
The terrain was steep and muddy. In places rising 2000 metres above sea level. Humidty and illness took their toll
The going was tough.
John, with startling clarity, related stories of close combat with the enemy.
“You’d shoot a Jap before you’d shoot a dog. There was no mercy given,” he said.
“They were good fighters, and they would keep on attacking.
“A couple of times it was close, they would have had me if they kept coming a bit longer.”
John had to learn fast.
“The Japs were very good at hiding in the jungle, and they’d try to trick you,” he said.
“They would use a twig to rustle a branch, to make you shoot, and they’d pinpoint where you were and shoot.
“I would shoot at movement, rather than actually seeing a Jap.”
In among this horror, friendships were born like nothing the men had known.
“It was stronger than brotherly love,” John said.
“They were your mates, your life depended on them at times. The mates you fight with.”
Inevitably friends were killed.
“My friend Hedley was killed by a bullet in the head. At least it was quick.
“But my friend Edgar was different.
“I passed him on a stretcher and he didn’t look good. When I caught up with him later, I could see he wasn’t going to make it. He was whimpering. He was really suffering.”
John paused, but with dry eyes said he still thinks of Edgar.
“It seems like a long time ago,” John said.
“But you get over it.”
That said, John is back in 1942. As clear as a bell.
“Neither side took prisoners, they shot them,” he said.
“We couldn’t waste the men to take them back and guard them. People say the Japs didn’t surrender or retreat, but at times they did both.
“One day we had a wounded Jap soldier. An officer arrived, took out his revolver and shot him. That’s just how it was.”
John knew he was in a tough position.
“There were many times when I thought I wouldn’t last long. Certainly not to this age.
“I remember thinking I wish I could be at home, I would not care if I had nothing, no clothes or anything, just to be away from it.
“It was just pure luck I got through it, hell. Pure luck.
John who will be 87 in June, spends his days at Sunrise Supported Living, in Condon Street where he will take centre stage at the pre-Anzac ceremony held today.
No doubt he will reflect on his time in New Guinea.
“We were damned glad to get home,” he said.
“I’ve been asked if it brings back memories talking about the war.
“But the memories are always there.”


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