Orbost’s Chloe Healey and Mallacoota’s Demi Preston are currently in the Papua New Guinean jungle, trekking the Kokoda Trail, an experience that will no doubt remain with them forever.
The pair left this week as part of a contingent of six East Gippsland year 11 students named as recipients of the Grassby Scholarships.
The scholarships are made available by the fundraising of a local volunteer committee that has strong East Gippsland business and community group support.
To apply, year 11 students had to write an essay outlining what the Kokoda campaign means to Australia, what it means to them and also to touch on the Gippsland connection.
They were then shortlisted for interviews and presented in front of a panel that contained three ex-servicemen and women, one each from the army, navy and air force.
Sixty-eight Gippslanders served in the 39th Battalion and many more in the 2/14, which were both raised from Victoria and were at the forefront of the campaign.
The scholarships are named after Arthur Grassby, 93, of Bairnsdale, who is a surviving member of the 39th.
Chloe and Demi met Arthur prior to their departure. Arthur was in B Company of the 39th, meaning he was in the first 120 Australians to face the first wave of Japanese (2000 strong) at Kokoda.
He survived that confrontation (many did not) to be later wounded at the battle of Isurava and have his body racked with malaria. He was just 16 at the time.
Scholarship committee chairman, Tim Bull, said the story of Kokoda is largely unknown in the region, as is the strong Gippsland connection.
“Most of our community could tell you about Gallipoli, where we were basically fighting for the English in Turkey and lost, but few have a knowledge of Kokoda, where we were fighting to defend Australia and won,” he said.
“Few also know many of the men came from this region.”
Mr Bull thanked all who supported the scholarships to give the children the opportunity to have a life-changing experience.
“The recipients not only trek across the trail, but also visit Bomana War Cemetery in Papua New Guinea, which is the final resting place for a number of East Gippslanders,” Mr Bull said.
“The scholarships are more than just sending the group over for the experience of lifetime, it is also about hopefully educating a generation, through the essay application process, about a significant part of both our country, and Gippsland’s history.
“Both Chloe and Demi, in receiving the scholarships, will act as Kokoda Ambassadors on their return and visit community groups and organisations to tell of their experience.”
Following are excerpts from the successful applicant’s essays:
The Kokoda Trail. Young soldiers trekking through rough terrain, up ridges, down ridges, through rivers.
“You spend four hours rising 2,000 feet painfully step by step with your heart pounding in your throat”. (Johnston 1942).
Getting gnawed by native rats at night, bursts of machine gun screaming through your ears and artillery whining down, the longer it whines the closer it gets and all you can do is pray it won’t explode near you.
The conditions our soldiers endured was unimaginable, but it means much to Australia so we are able to live the lives we do today.
The 39th was used to defend the Kokoda Airfield and were therefore forced to confront the Japanese.
Arthur Grassby remembers how much of a disadvantage the Australians had against the Japanese, resulting in them having to constantly retreat (in planned delaying tactics).
Arthur was eventually sent to hospital in Port Moresby with malaria, where it as found he was also wounded and only 16 years of age.
So many Australian soldiers were only teenagers when they went to fight. Mr Grassby’s experiences make the connection to Kokoda much closer to home than they would have otherwise seemed.
Their bravery and determination continues to have a great impact.
PICTURED: Chloe Healey and Demi Preston are currently trekking the Kokoda Trail with four other East Gippsland students.