ALBURY-Wodonga's last living link with a group of young men who engaged the Japanese on the infamous Kokoda Track is gone.
That comes with the death of 98-year-old Jack Withers.
Mr Withers was a member of the 39th Australian Militia Battalion, comprised of reservists mostly aged from 18 to 21. He and his fellow soldiers were drawn, in October of 1941, from volunteers in Victoria and southern NSW.
The battalion landed in Port Moresby the following January, then six months later the battle for Kokoda began.
It was to inflict a heavy toll. In September of 1942, the 39th was relieved when its strength of about 1500 men had been cut, through battle casualties and illness, to 185.
Just over 60 years later, Mr Withers recalled how lucky he was to survive the Kokoda Track.
"I had a bullet through my hat," he told former Border Mail journalist Howard Jones.
The Australians eventually defeated the much larger Japanese force on land for the first time during World War II.
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Mr Withers went on to live, as it turned out, for many years with his family in Kokoda Street, North Albury.
The long-odds of his survival were brought home in a story some years ago by Jones.
"Boys, this is your last night on earth," was the dire message given to Mr Withers' fellow Albury 39th member Frank Gould and others in the battalion.
Jones told of how among the 39th survivors were Mr Withers, Mr Gould, medical officer Allan Hogan and Wally Moras, all from Albury, and Tumbarumba's Kevin Esler.
"Mr Gould and Mr Withers were part of the 39th's B company when the Japanese drove it into the jungle at the start of the campaign," Jones wrote.
"As well as the steepness of the track the young soldiers had to contend with rainforests dripping with moss and leeches as well as mosquito-infested swamps."
Mr Gould, who was hit in the arm by a sniper's bullet, told Jones about the terrible initial walk north across the mountains, then the shock of finding the Japanese had landed and secured Buna on July 21 and 22.
Mr Gould died in 2011 and Mr Moras in 2012.
The 39th battalion's banner will be brought from Melbourne for Mr Withers' funeral, to be held at Lester and Sons Funerals, Wantigong Street, North Albury, on Friday at 10.30am.
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