One Heritage: Walking the Kokoda Trail

Green grass field with three white stone memorials against a jungle backdrop

By Nadine Eckert

Walking 59.6 miles in the humid jungle of Papua New Guinea’s highlands was the challenge of a lifetime for Northrop Grumman’s Ben Luke, an Australia-based field service representative.

Over nine days in August, Ben joined the Royal Australian Air Force’s Squadron 35, following in the footsteps of World War II heroes on the legendary Kokoda Trail.

The Kokoda campaign, which contributed to an Allied victory, was fought on land along the Kokoda Trail as well as by sea and in the air. Squadron 35 supported the Kokoda campaign by delivering critical supplies across Papua New Guinea using many aircraft including Northrop Deltas, legacy company aircraft.

“The experience of walking the same trail as our brave service members was something I won’t forget in my lifetime. I was proud to commemorate their courage and sacrifice and to honor those who lost their lives,” Ben said. “It really brought home for me just how much bravery and stamina was needed in such challenging circumstances.

Man in black t-shirt using hiking sticks to climb a steep trail in a tropical jungle.

Walking to Remember and Give Back

At Kokoda, and throughout the Pacific, aircraft with defense capabilities were critical for delivering supplies to soldiers on the ground as well as protecting ships and defending and gaining territory. Wrecks of Grumman Hellcats off the coast can still be located today.

On land, the inaccessibility of the steep, mountainous terrain combined with high annual rainfall turned the Kokoda Trail to mud, creating a breeding ground for tropical diseases and challenging fighting conditions.

Today, completing this strenuous hike is a way to honor the Allied troops who fought in the Kokoda campaign. To protect the trail for generations to come, only 10,000 people annually are permitted to undertake the commemorative trek. Walkers must pay trail fees — which support local Papuan communities — and adhere to strict rules while walking the trail, such as taking all of their trash with them, using environmentally-friendly products and sticking to designated pathways.

During the trek, Ben and the squadron members befriended their local Papua New Guinea guides and visited the guides’ village, Menari. The guides and their communities benefit from trail walkers, and Ben shared that one of the most moving parts of the trip was seeing the village children receive new sports and educational supplies funded by the trail fees.

“To see families so happy to see their loved ones and to be welcomed so hospitably was something I will never forget. The impact our gifts had on the children was also great to be a part of,” he said.

Ben shared that he was reminded daily of the extraordinary feats of courage, endurance, camaraderie and sacrifice demonstrated by the troops at Kokoda.

“Nothing prepares you for the sheer height of the mountains and the humid conditions. It certainly was a mental challenge as much as it was physical,” he said. “Some days it was just putting one foot in front of the other.”

“Nothing prepares you for the sheer height of the mountains and the humid conditions. It certainly was a mental challenge as much as it was physical. Some days it was just putting one foot in front of the other.”
Ben Luke
Northrop Grumman Feild Service Representative
Black and white image of military cemetery with rows of white gravestones.

Stronger Partnerships

In his day-to-day role, Ben closely liaises with the Australian Defence customer, and he shared that the partnership has been further strengthened by his time on the trek.

“I had good working relationships with squadron members before the trek, but these have strengthened immeasurably over the nine days. I know this will translate to us partnering more effectively together back at the Amberley Royal Australian Air Force Base to solve problems and achieve common goals,” Ben said.

Ben shared the Kokoda experience has left a lasting impression, not only of what people can achieve when they work together under challenging circumstances, but how teamwork is always the key to success.

“Without the sacrifice and teamwork of thousands of our service members, we would not be living the lives we do today. The trek brought home how important the work we do is in protecting our future and the importance of us all working as one team,” he said.


Photos courtesy of Jack Atkins and Ben Luke

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