SYDNEY — An Australian trekker has uncovered the site of a World War II battle in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, with the bodies of at least three Japanese soldiers still lying where they fell in 1942.
Former army captain Brian Freeman, an expert on the arduous Kokoda Trail, said Monday that local villagers led him to the Eora Creek site where he found the remains of the soldiers, along with their weapons and equipment.
"I never anticipated that we would find war dead," Freeman said.
"As soon as we realised that Japanese and, potentially, Australian soldiers were buried at the site, we discussed with the villagers the need for those men to be identified and returned home," he said in a statement.
Freeman said the battleground was known to nearby villagers but they had avoided the site, believing that it was haunted by the spirits of the dead.
The Australian Defence Force said Monday it was investigating Freeman’s report.
Freeman believes the site, about one kilometre (half a mile) from the village of Eora Creek, was the site of the last major engagement of a battle that proved a significant milestone in Australia’s campaign against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.
The Australian War Memorial attributes 99 deaths to the fighting there.
As the Japanese forces withdrew, they took positions on a ridge overlooking the Eora Creek crossing, giving them a strong defensive line against Australian offensives during six days of fighting in October 1942.
Freeman, who has trekked the Kokoda Trail more than 35 times and holds the record for the fastest one way crossing at 24 hours and 59 minutes, discovered the lost battleground in April but had met with Australian and Japanese officials to inform them of the find before making it public.
He said he hoped the site would reveal the resting places of Australian and Japanese killed in action on Kokoda, so they could be identified and returned to their families for appropriate burial.
Retired Australian General Peter Cosgrove, who travelled to the site with Freeman on May 29, described the find as "a hugely significant discovery".
"I have seen the site first-hand and was struck by the enormity of what lay around me — intact since 1942," he said.
"It is as if time has stood still. We found ammunition running out in a line from the rifle that was dropped as the Japanese advanced to the rear.
"However, it was the discovery of a Japanese soldier sitting up against a tree, only centimetres from the surface still in his helmet, with his boots nearby that began to tell the human story."
Cosgrove said they had found large rectangular rifle pits while metal detectors had picked up rifles, ammunition and helmets of Australian and Japanese soldiers.
Some 600 Australian soldiers died in battle near the extremely rugged Kokoda Trail, which was seen by the allies as a crucial point at which to halt the Japanese military’s southern advance through the Pacific towards Australia.