Friday, 29 August 2014

One Moment in History

 On this day 72 years ago, on the precipitous northern ramparts of the Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea, a 23 year old real estate agent from Melbourne sauntered into Australian history with a spitting Bren gun slung from his hip. He never looked back, never asked for help. He selflessly gave his life so others might live. His name was Bruce Steel Kingsbury and he is an Australian hero.

 Not too many people would have heard of or remember the name of Bruce Kingsbury VC and that is a tragedy. A suburb in Melbourne and a street name here or there are the only fleeting reminders to the general population that he ever walked the earth. But on one day, at one moment when his country and his friends needed him he stood tall and made a difference. And his mates never forgot it.

 I was only a nipper when I first read of Bruce Kingsbury VC. I was a boy who liked toy soldiers and revelled in the heroic image of warfare as it appeared in television movies. Then I read "Blood and Iron, the Battle for Kokoda" and a more sobering reality of armed conflict presented itself to me. Yet I could still see the honour and admire the gallantry of men who took up arms to defend the greater good.

 "Blood and Iron" was a hard book to read. Academically written it was a dry tome that may have seen a less invested person put it aside and give it to charity. But I persevered and the names of men who were born in my country and gave their all to defend it filled my head and a definition of bravery coagulated in my brain, a definition which still today causes me to hold my breath at the very thought of it.

 Bruce Kingsbury was a typical Australian of the time. He had worked in his father's real estate agency in Melbourne and had done a bit of farm work in the country before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force, being posted to the 2/14 infantry battalion. From all accounts he acquitted himself well during the campaign in Syria where the AIF vanquished French Foreign Legion forces loyal to the Vichy government.

 The 2/14 battalion arrived in New Guinea as part of the 21st Brigade, full of the confidence that only a successful fighting unit can carry, certain that they would push the Japanese Imperial army out of the mountains and show the ragged militiamen of Australia's home army who had struggled and persevered for months against the juggernaut of the rising sun just how it should be done.

 Of course the reality was far different. After relieving the young conscripts of the 39th battalion, Brigadier Arnold Potts, commander of the 21st Brigade, hamstrung by orders which required him to leave one of his hardened battalions in Port Morseby, outnumbered five to one and forced to stretch his forces thin, found himself and his men in a life and death struggle in the leafy village of Isurava, deep in the jungle, far from their base and battling with a fractured supply line. The men of the brigade found themselves in trouble and in danger of being encircled and annihilated by an enemy who gave no quarter.

 Bruce Kingsbury's platoon had been decimated and the Australian headquarters were in danger of being outflanked and overrun when he volunteered to join a desperate counter-attack by a disparate group of diggers as the AIF battalions grimly held their ground against increasingly long odds. Taking a Bren gun from a wounded comrade he waded into the attacking enemy as gunfire burst around him and vegetation was chopped away by Japanese bullets bursting among among his comrades. It's hard to say from this distance just what the much vaunted warriors of the Japanese army thought of a single Australian cutting his way through them, bringing down men left and right, fire and death screeching from his Bren gun as he advanced but history shows that those who weren't killed scattered and retreated. All but one.

 As Bruce Kingsbury finally stopped shooting and a sweet silence swept over the battlefield he perhaps gained some satisfaction in knowing he had single handedly turned back the Japanese and saved the battalion headquarters enabling it to retreat in good order. We will never know as a single shot rang from the jungle striking Bruce Kingsbury in the chest killing him instantly.

 The bravery of Bruce Kingsbury and his little victory in this small action probably saved his battalion that day. His bravery was but one small piece in the mosaic of the battle of Isurava, a place where a lot of Australian blood was spilt and the best and the bravest this country could produce came to the fore.

 Australians would struggle to avoid defeat on the Kokoda Trail for some weeks yet but Bruce Kingsbury's actions were rewarded with a Victoria Cross and reading of his valour several decades later made a young man in Canberra want to shadow his footsteps and walk the trail himself, every step a tribute to Kingsbury and his magnificent comrades who gave their all in those dank, dark jungles of New Guinea.

 I completed the trek in 1998.

 Our country has changed a lot since the dark days of 1942 when the enemy stood at the gates. We are no longer the homogeneous society we were during the second world war. Queen and country no longer seems to matter much. No one can agree on anything and fractious forces exist inside our own country wishing us ill. It's sad.

 But it is worth remembering that this nation produced men like Bruce Kingsbury and his comrades and probably still could if needed. Let us hope it never comes to that again. Lest we forget.


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