As a member of 1 Platoon Head Quarters Company (HQ) of the 39th Militia Battalion, Ken accompanied C Company over the Kokoda Track. C Company was the second company to set off over the Kokoda Track, the first having being Sam Templeton’s famous B Company.
Ken recalls leaving Owers' Corner early morning on 17 July 1942. He was carrying a rifle, haversack, pack and webbing. ‘The going was easy to begin with’. Inside his pack he carried a ground sheet, spare shirt and trousers, jumper and half a blanket. Inside his haversack he carried an emergency ration, tobacco, pay book and eating utensils. The front two utility pouches held .303 ammunition and two No.36 grenades. Ken remembers that the first part of the journey to Uberi was mainly downhill. Arriving there at 10am Ken received drinks of cordial prepared by the men of the Transport Platoon before setting off to Ioribaiwa Ridge.
Ken Phelan 1941
Taking several hours before reaching the top of the ridge, Ken was frustrated by the amount of false peaks. “I thought I could see the top only to realise it was another one of those blasted false peals”. On this section Ken came across his first real taste of Kokoda Track mateship as other soldiers were eager to give a helping and hand and some words of encouragement, despite their own challenges.
After leaving Ioribaiwa the following morning Ken and the rest of the party set off for Nauro. The steep decent in the mug is still vivid in Ken’s memory “The going down was sometimes harder than the going up, as you soon developed laughing knees due to the steepness of the track”. The Officer commanding C Company was Captain Dean, who decided to rest the group at Menari. Ken and the rest of the men had the chance to dry their wet clothes and get some well deserved rest. Eating meals of tinned bully beef they had the opportunity to supplement their rations with vegetables from the locals. Soldiers would trade sticks of tobacco for such food items as yams, taro, sweet potato and fruit.
Setting off the next day to Efogi, Ken was amazed as the jungle opened up and he had a spectacular view of the Owen Stanley Range. Ken was surprised to find Australian gum trees. With the smell of the eucalyptus in the air it gave a fantastic boost to the men’s morale, as most of the soldiers grow up in country Victoria.
“Struggling across the mighty rapids of the Efogi River on a fallen tree trunk was quite an experience. "Watching the natives walk over bare feet and not miss did not encourage us, as most of us went over ‘inching on bums!’”.
While at Efogi, Ken found out that the Japanese had landed at Buna. He was well aware of the need to push on in order to reinforce B Company. Heading up to Kagi and then on to Eora Creek the going was tough. “We all knew that B Company would be in need of our assistance so we pushed on”. The first crossing of Eora Creek (which later became known as Templeton’s Crossing) that Ken and C Company did, took them all night. That day they had spent 12 hours on the track before reaching their destination.
In the morning the group put on their rain and sweat soaked clothes and made for Isurava where they stopped for lunch. “The going now was fairly flat and we stopped and had lunch at the Isurava Guest House". Lunch generally consisted of three men to a can of bully beef and some dog biscuits”. From Isurava they moved on to assist B Company who were fighting off the Japanese at Deniki.
Ken transferred to the 39th Battalion from the early Victorian Militia. During training at Darley in 1941 he volunteered to join the Signals Platoon. “When I heard they paid 2 shillings extra per week I thought this was the thing for me”. On the Kokoda Track Signalman had the sometimes dangerous job of going out and repairing signal wire which had often cut by the Japanese who were waiting in ambush.
After the Commanding Officer (CO) Lieutenant Colonel William Owen was killed the 39th had a temporary acting CO Major Allan Cameron who like Owen had served as a company commander in the 2/22nd Battalion in Rabaul. Ken recalls the first meeting he had with the new CO. “I was approach my Cameron who said “Private grab your rifle we are going out on a patrol” I replied I am a signalman sir!, He said “You have a rifle don’t you? Well come on we are going to go and find where the Japs are... I grabbed my rifle and off I went just Major Cameron and myself going off in to the jungle, much to my relief we didn’t find any Japs”.
Ken served in the 39th Militia Battalion prior to joining the AIF with the 2/2nd Battalion and returned to New Guinea to participate in further operation against the Japanese including the Aitape-Wewak campaign. Ken stayed on in PNG until 1946 before returning home to Victoria where he worked as an electrician. Ken has now passed on however throughout the post-war years, Ken was an active member of his local golf club, Rotary, Freemasons and the 39th Battalion Association.
Compiled by David Howell
Thanks to for the assistance of the late Mr Ken Phelan who not only participated in my interview but also encouraged me to continue keeping the history alive.
Special thanks to Carl Johnson who gave permission to quote and use pictures from his excellent book ‘Mud Over Blood, Stories of the 39thBattalion 1941-43 Kokoda-Gona’ available through History House publications.
How David met Ken
After returning from one of his adventures on the Kokoda Track, Kokoda Historical founder David Howell spoke on the phone to 39th Battalion veteran Mr Ken Phelan to finalise arrangements for a history presentation David was giving to the Victorian Branch of the Military Historical Society of Australia which Ken was assisting with. Within moments of getting off the phone David came across a Japanese flag listed on ebay. The flag was signed by 24 Australian soldiers and to David's surprise one of the signatures was that of Ken Phelan VX117704. Without hesitation David contacted the seller and purchased the flag immediately. The original owner of the flag was Ken Brown VX115999 who survived the war but passed away some years ago. The flag had been was put up for sale by his daughter who wished the flag to go to a good home.
Ken Brown VX115999
David reunited the flag with Mr Phelan after sixty four years; it was an emotional moment to say the least. In July of 1943 it was announced the 39th Battalion would be disbanded and quite a few of the men marched in to the 2/2nd Battalion. After the 2/2nd returned to Australia athey trained on the Atherton Tablelands until returning to PNG and operations in the Aitape-Wewak area where this flag is believed to of been captured.
Mr Phelan verified his signature on the flag however cannot place the exact circumstances of where the flag was taken from.
Below is a full list of the 24 signatures. If anyone has any further information please email David at firstname.lastname@example.org
1.VX.115999 Brown K.W [pte]
2. VX.93143 Dickie F.J.
3.NX.11685 McNamara R.P.[pte]
4. VX.117704 K.R. Phelan [sig]
5. VX. 105394 Carnell E J [sgt]
6.NX. 190735 Mathews K J [pte]
7. NX. 41988 Falvey B T [pte]
8. VX106075 Butterick [pte]
9. NX. 125761 Sgt McCabe F J
10. NX.7173 Shanahan J [LT]
11.QX. 60672 Dwyer P J [pte]
12. VX 93520 Doyle J [pte]
13. NX9062 Shoemark L N [L.Sgt]
14. NX168597 Geelan K E W [pte]
15.QX. 9917 O'Connor J
16.NX 79975 Lt. Jack Smites
17. NX154626 MCCAMLEY EF [pte]
18. NX. 201760 Rice K J [pte]
19. VX. 92146 Farmer R [pte]
20. VX. 149864 Mahoney J C
21. VX105404 Nutt R G [pte]
22. NX. 125330 Gallagher J P [L/cpl]
23. NX.83961 Shannon E E [pte]
24. NX. 16665 Williams M R J [pte]
David recently made contact with two former members or the 2/2nd Battalion who also signed the flag. Mr Mal Williams and Mr Jack Gallagher spoke with David over the phone, these two Diggers have shed some more light on where the flag came from.
On the 28th of Feb 1945 the 2/2nd Battalion crossed the Anumb River having relived the 2/1st Battalion. The 2/2nd Battalion Commanding Officer Colonel Cameron, ordered patrols to be sent out in order to clear the surrounding area including the Simbi Creek area of any enemy. On the 1st of March 1945 the 2/2nd occupied Sowom Village.
On the 2nd of March Lt Shanahan leading 13 platoon of C Company were ambushed on the old German Road just short of the Simbi Creek flood channel. The Japanese held their fire until the two forward scouts Pte Dwyer and Pte Doyle came within a few metres. They were both killed instantly. Lt Shanahan and Sgt McCabe went to investigate and they too were killed. Sgt Carnell took over and managed to flank the Japanese killing 2 of the enemy and wounding another before charging down and killing one more.
The flag in question is part of the Kokoda Historical Collection and is currently on display at the Shrine of Remembrance as part of a new exhibition-The war on our doorstep, Australia in New Guinea 1943-45. Admission is free.
David Howell and Ken Phelan with the Captured Japanese Flag!