Cowra POW Camp.

After the cemetery we decided it was enough sadness for one day and headed back to camp. Our first stop the next day was the Garrison Walk. (The military camp trained some 80,000 personnel.) We reach a cross road with a large tree. The information board told us we were at the start of Peppercorn Parade and the tree has seen it all.

We could go right and head into town or go left and head to where the POW camp was. We turned left and walked past the Peppercorn trees.

Prisoners would dive past the Garrison on their way to the POW camp. They would arrive at Cowra by rail then travel by truck down Evans Street to the camp. There isn’t much left of the camp now.  At one stage the area housed bookmakers’ shop, a workshop for vehicles repairs and a large vegetable garden. There was also a wood yard where the Italian POWs would bring the wood to be cut into firewood.

The Italians were happy to work, (the story goes on one occasion an Italian POW while on a work party fell asleep and missed being picked up. He walked thought the town and surprised the guards by banging on the gate to be let into camp. Needless to say the guards has some explaining to do.)   Most of the buildings in the POW camp and garrison were constructed by the Italians. The buildings were pre-fabricated and were openly criticised by the Italians as they though they weren’t real building anything but putting together a toy set. There is one building in the Garrison area, still standing, slowly crumbling with time that the Italians built from scratch. Building materials were hard to come by in Cowra so the Italians used anything they could put their hand on to.

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We arrived at the top of the camp where a guard tower has been built.  It offers a recorded message telling the story about the largest breakout in the modern military history.

The first POWs to arrive in Australia were Italians, they arrive at Cowra in October 1941 and to start with they were housed in tents. By December 1942 the camp held 1,644 Italians and 490 Javanese merchant sailors. The first Japanese POW (who was shot down in the Darwin air raid) arrived at Cowra at the start of 1943.

The Italians were friendly and many of them were skilled craftsmen. A great relationship between the guards and POWs developed. Romantic liaisons occurred between local women and the Italians prisoners. They often would throw sweets to the children and small bouquets of flowers to women as they passed in trucks. (Many of the men wanted to stay in Australia and escapes increased when the war ended and they were told they would be sent back to their home country.) Many of the Italians went to work on farms around NSW to assist the war effort especially with food production. Some stayed outside in tents cutting wood, which was the major fuel at the time and retuning to the camp on the weekend. It was common for the guards to help the prisoners to chase rabbits. The Italians would make them into a great stew, which was shared by all.

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This was a great contrast to the Japanese prisoners who were found to be very belligerent.

The Breakout changed the camp forever. In August overcrowding due to the number of new Japanese prisoners was becoming a problem. On the 4th of August 1944 it was decided to move all Japanese from below the rank of Lance corporal to a different camp. The Japanese officers were told the same day. The Japanese were not happy; they didn’t understand why they couldn’t all go as a group. The decision, which was a universally voted, was made to attack the perimeter fence and escape. For the Japanese being a prisoner was considered to be dishonourable, not only to themselves but for their family as well. Most gave a false name. To escape would be a way to regain some honour, to die while attempting to escape was almost an obligation, many believing in the Bushido code. The attack was started at 1.50am on the 5th. The Japanese made weapons out of anything they could. Chair legs and kitchen utensils were the most common. Huts were set on fire by overturning heaters and the breakout started. There was to be 4 escape points. At one such point two waves attacked the perimeter directly at the machine gun. Private Jones and Private Hardy manned the gun, both men were killed in the attack. Private Hardy managed to disable the gun making it useless to the Japanese; in doing so he saved the lives of many. Australian and Japanese alike.  Another group attacked the eastern perimeter and two groups exited into the main camp thoroughfare (Broadway.) Only one POW successfully escaped from the Broadway however he was shot and killed shortly afterwards.

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Not all of the Japanese tried to escape and some were found in other areas of the camp. Of the 1104 Japanese POWs, 378 made it though the wire of the outer perimeter. A massive manhunt started and over the next nine days, 334 of the prisoners were recaptured. Some were found up to 24 ks (15 miles) away. The rest were accounted for, though some committed suicide.

Only 4 Australians were killed. Hardy and Jones as well as Private Charlie Shepherd who was stabbed to death. When the alarm had been given he had rushed to his post at the Bren Gun at the northern end of Broadway.   The crew members McGuiness and Mills were shot by friendly fire. Shepherd carried Mills who was badly wounded as well as the gun to the guardroom. Shepherd was seen sitting on the step and moments later he was found laying on his back, dead, the gun close by.  Rumours of Shepherd’s death by friendly fire persisted for over 60 years. The autopsy report and the memoirs of guards and POWs confirmed that Shepherd died at the hands of an escaped POW. (Sadly he was never recognised, as being “killed in action” and his wife received no pension. Without any income she was forced to give up her 3 children to foster care.) Lieutenant Harry Doncaster was killed in the roundup after the breakout. Youthful trainee soldiers had accompanied him as they looked for the prisoner. On seeing the enemy the inexperienced boy (only armed with bayonets) fled leaving him to face the enemy alone. The Japanese prisoners attacked him on all sides. By this time they were armed with knives and a bayonet (dropped by one of the trainee.) along with clubs and baseball bats. Doncaster had only his fists to defend himself with.

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Private Hardy
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Private Jones
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Private Shepherd
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Lieutenant doncaster

No civilians were hurt. The Japanese leader had commanded their comrades not to attack the people of the town.

Private Benjamin Hardy and Private Ralph Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross several years later for their action in defending their position.

The camp officially closed at the end of February 1947 when all the POWs had been sent back to their homes. The camp and surroundings were sold to the New South Wales Department of Agriculture and a private owner. While many of the Japanese men have never spoken about their time in Australia as a POW other have made the trip back to Cowra to honour their fallen countrymen. Many of the men have extended the hand of friendship to the people of Cowra a friendship that is still growing strong today.

We decided to walk around area that was the camp. I had read the facts and figures but still the area seemed massive. The ground sloped down and away from the guard tower. I did wonder if that was on purpose or not. The grass has grown over the ground in most parts and apart from the walking track everything seem to have been forgotten. No that’s not right, the information boards scatted along the way let us know we will remember them.

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