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    Cowra POW Camp New South Wales Australia
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Daniel Leahy 2001


Google 2013
Location
Lat 33° 48' 42"S Long 148° 42' 14"E Cowra POW Camp was located at an elevation of 1,187' / 361m at the corner of Farm Road and Sakura Avenue, roughly three kilometers northeast of Cowra in New South Wales (NSW) in Australia.

Wartime History
During June 1941, Cowra POW Camp was built to detain Italian Prisoners Of War (POWs) captured in North Africa. After the start of the Pacific War, it was also used to detain Japanese Prisoners Of War (POWs) captured in New Guinea and aviators shot down over Australia.
The camp was circular in shape and consisted of 4 x 17 acre camps (1 x Japanese, 2 x Italian and 1 x Japanese Officer camps) with a capacity of 1,000 prisoners per camp. The entire camp was administered and guarded by the 22nd Australian Garrison, commanded by Lt. Col Montague Brown.

Italian Compounds A & C
Italian prisoners captured in North Africa were interred here. By December 1942, there were roughly 1,600 Italians being held at the camp in two compounds: "A" and "C". They willingly participated in work parties.

In addition, 700 Indonesian merchant seamen and later 500 Indonesian civilians (including women and children) were also detained at the camp as Dutch political prisoners. Later, the single men were transferred to Queensland and the women and families released in April 1944.

Japanese Compounds B & D
The first Japanese arrived at Cowra during January 1943, special compound was established solely for Japanese prisoners, with two compounds: "D compound" for officers and conscripted laborers captured from Korea and Formosa. In the middle of 1944, another "B Compound" was established for enlisted men, that at its height had 1,100 prisoners.

During 1943 there were only 120 Japanese prisoners detained at Cowra including captured aviators: 1) Hajime Toyoshima "Tadao Minami" 2) Katsuro Nagatomo "Katsuro Sho" 3) Yoshimitsu Maeda "Hideo Oki" 4) Tsutomou Ito "Tetsuo Yamakawa" 5) Masami Koyamada "Torimi Sakamoto" 6) Enji Kakimoto. These aviators became the leaders of the camp, but as more Japanese Army prisoners were added to the camp population, their leadership was tested.

By early 1944, there were 1,100 Japanese prisoners at the camp, larger than the capacity of the camp or guards. The aviators made alliances with the other Navy prisoners and the extremist Army prisoners. As time passed, they decided on a ban on all labor and planned a riot and breakout with the goal of engaging the Australian guards in a suicidal battle to die honorably. Meanwhile, they gave their captors the impression of being contented and cooperative.

The Australians had indications that something was being planned. On June 3, 1944, one of the prisoners of Korean descent named Matsumoto Takeo informed the Australians that many Japanese were secretly planning a riot and mass breakout. This intelligence was taken seriously and reported to the camp authorities and by June 9, 1944 two Vickers machine guns and reinforcements were added to the camp defenses and a plan was made to move some prisoners to Hay Camp in New South Wales on August 7, 1944 but the riot happen before this relocation.

On August 4, 1944 at 5:00pm, fifty of the senior prisoners met in B Compound to complete planning for the riot and breakout and debate the merits of the plan. They decided to take a vote of all the prisoners and go with the choice of the majority of the prisoners who voted yes or no with a circle or cross on toilet paper. Survivors estimate 80% voted in favor, but might have been intimidated into voting yes. The prisoners celebrated and said their farewells into the night.

Cowra Riot (Cowra Breakout)
On August 5, 1944 shortly before 2:00am Private Alfred Rolls fired two warning shots shortly at a Japanese prisoner, who was running towards him, apparently in an apparent attempt to warn the guards. Before he could take any other action, at 2:00am prisoner Hajime Toyoshima signaled the start of the breakout with a bugle and hundreds of Japanese prisoners attempted to rush the perimeter fence near the Vickers machine gun, the northeast F guard tower and Broadway gate.

A group of roughly 600 prisoners armed with tools and sticks rushed the Broadway gate making a suicidal charge. Roughly 100 were killed by gunfire before they reached the gate. The Japanese used blankets and baseball gloves to climb over the barbed wire fences. Caught by surprise, the Vickers machine guns were initially manned by guards.

Meanwhile, other prisoners attacked No. 2 Vickers machine gun position, manned by Pte Benjamin G. Hardy and Pte Ralph Jones that fired for five minutes before being overrun and beaten to death with clubs. Later, both earned the George Cross for "quelling Japanese uprising". Another guard, Private Charles Shepherd was stabbed to death. Harry Doncaster was killed attempting to round up prisoners and was beaten to death. Four other Australians were wounded during the action.

During the riot, some prisoners managed to break into the officers D Compound. The guards had pinned down many prisoners and were reinforced by 3:00am by 150 additional soldiers from nearby training camps. By dawn, some sporadic firing continued. The dead found in and around the camp included prisoners who had been wounded ten killed themselves. Some of the prisoners did manage to escape outside the perimeter and were later rounded up or shot resisting in the surrounding area.

Some prisoners did not participate in the riot including 118 officers while 31 others committed suicide. The Cowra Breakout was the largest prison break attempt in history. All but two buildings were burnt down and used to house the survivors. Weeks later, they were moved to Hay Camp and Murchison Camp, but did not make any other trouble.

In total, 231 Japanese POWs died in the attempted breakout and were buried at the camp, Three others died of wounds later. Twenty prisoners could not be identified due to their wounds. Photographs and fingerprints were taken of all the dead.

Afterwards, the court of inquiry found that the Australian soldiers ceased fire as soon as they had reestablished control of the camp, and that many of the Japanese dead had either killed themselves or been killed by fellow prisoners, while many of the wounded had self-inflicted injuries.

Recovery of Remains
The Japanese dead were buried at Cowra Japanese War Cemetery. The Australian dead were buried at Cowra War Cemetery.

Postwar
After the official surrender of Japan, the remaining prisoners were transported aboard No. 1 Daikai Maru back to Japan. In 1947, the camp was dismantled. During 1950, the remains of 32 Japanese aviators buried at Berrimah War Cemetery near Darwin were transfered to the Japanese War Cemetery for permanent burial.

During the 1960s, some veterans of the camp formed the "Japan Cowra Society". In 1964, the Japanese War Cemetery opened, managed by the Australian War Graves Commission, and the Cowra RSL helps maintain it.

Today
All that is left today of the POW Camp are a number of concrete slabs and piles of rubble in the middle of sheep and cattle paddocks. Information panels have been set up around the site, and a replica guard tower has been erected. An Italian war memorial can also be found at the camp site.

References
Blankets on the Wire by Steven Bullard translated by Keiko Tamura [PDF]
Break-out! by Hugh Clarke
Die Like The Carp Harry Gordon
Japanese Sleep Here by Takeo Yamashita
Private Benjamin G. Hardy
Private Ralph Jones
CWGC - Charles Shepherd
CWGC - Harry Doncaster

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Last Updated
November 27, 2020

 

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