• YouTube Square

RUSI Victoria / (03)9282 5918/ secretary@rusivic.org.au/ © 2019 RUSI Victoria

Shadows on the Track

Australia’s Medical War in Papua 1942 - 1943


Jan McLeod

Big Sky Publishing   2019

Hardback   396pp   RRP $34.99



Reviewer: Robert Dixon, June 2019


This book considers a wide range of issues that impacted on the health of Australian soldiers before, during, and after the Papuan Campaign, with a focus on the field ambulance units, although other AAMC units and activities are not neglected. The focus on the front-line medical personnel – the men of the field ambulance units – means that we are given a valuable and unique perspective on the conditions faced by the fighting men as well as information about the work of the Medical Corps. For both reasons the book is a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in the campaigns in Papua. 

In addition to chapters covering events on the Kokoda Trail, Milne Bay, Goodenough island, Soputa, Buna and Sanananda there is also a chapter on the organisation and activities of the AAMC in the Middle East in 1941 and a chapter on the hospitals in Port Moresby. Amongst other topics covered the author discusses: Blamey’s instructions that soldiers who might be fit for duty after medical treatment were not to be evacuated from Papua to Australia; the carriage of arms by medical personnel, the in late 1942 for surgeons to be sent to forward areas (this was especially beneficial during the fighting around the north coast of Papua) decision and; the shortage of medical stores and especially quinine. During the Papua campaign almost 30,000 soldiers suffered from illness and tropical diseases, and an estimated 6000 were killed or wounded during the six-month campaign. These statistics have traditionally been represented as unavoidable consequences of fighting a war in a place such as Papua. This book disputes that narrative. The author argues that medical challenges presented in Papua – the evacuation of battle casualties and the sick as well as the prevention of malaria – were not insurmountable. 

The book includes eighteen very well-drawn and helpful maps, sixty-four B&W photographs and a number of appendices giving information about the AAMC units involved together with detailed information on the number of casualties treated and the reason they required medical treatment. The book also has fifty pages of endnotes, a very useful bibliography and a comprehensive index.

The work is well written and is very comprehensive. The reader is also well served by the publisher’s decision to print the work in 12pt font. The author is a historian at the University of Newcastle. The book is based on her PhD thesis which critically examined the medical care of Australian soldiers during the Papuan Campaign.



The RUSI – Vic library thanks the publisher for the opportunity to review this work.