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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 Located at the corner of Farm Road and Sakura Avenue, roughly 3km northeast of the town of Cowra.

Wartime History
Constructed during June 1941, to house Italian Prisoners from North Africa.

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 manned 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 early 1943 there were only 120 Japanese prisoners 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 Army prisoners were added to the camp, 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 breakout. A riot was planned.

The Australians had indications that something was being planned. On June 3, 1944, Matsumoto Takeo of Korean descent informed the Australians that many Japanese were giving the impression of being contented and cooperative, while secretly planning a mass breakout with the purpose of engaging the Australians in battle and dying honorably for their country. This intelligence was taken seriously and reported to camp authorities in early June, and by June 9 two Vickers machine guns and reinforcements added to the camp's defenses and a plan was made to move prisoners out of the Hay Camp, NSW on August 7, but the riot would happen prior to this date.

Cowra Riot / Cowra Breakout
On August 4, 1944 at roughly 5pm, fifty of the senior prisoners met in B Compound to complete plans for the breakout, and debate its merits. 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.

On August 5, 1944, Private Alfred Rolls fired two warning shots shortly before 2 am at a Japanese prisoner, who was running, in an apparent attempt to warn the Australia, but before he could take any other action, at 2am, Hajime Toyoshima signaled the start of the breakout with a bugle. Japanese prisoners from Compound B attempted to rush the perimeter fence near the Vickers machine gun, the northeast F guard tower and broadway gate.

The broadway gate was rushed by the largest group of roughly 600 prisoners armed with tools, sticks and making suicidal charges and 100 were killed attempting to reach the gate. Not foreseeing the breakout, the Vickers machine guns were initially unmanned. Using blankets and even baseball gloves to climb over the fences.

Prisoners attacked No 2 Vickers machine gun position, manned by Pte Ben Hardy and Pte Ralph Jones fired for five minutes but were overrun and clubbed to death. 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 riot, prisoners managed to break into the officers D Compound. The guards had pinned down many prisoners and were reinforced by 3am by 150 additional troops from nearby training camps. By dawn, some sporadic firing continued. The dead included prisoners who had been wounded then killed themselves. Some of the prisoners did manage to escape, and were later killed or rounded up in the countryside.

Some prisoners did not participate in the riot. 118 officers did not participate in the riot, 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 and Murchison camps, 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.
Hajime Toyoshima (wounded, suicide, grave QC 18)
Katsuro Nagatomo (grave QC 29)
Enji Kakimoto (suicide, grave QC 32)

Postwar
After the war, remaining prisoners were returned to Japan in March 1946 aboard No. 1 Daikai Maru. In 1947, the camp was dismantled. During 1950, the remains of 32 Japanese aviators buried at Berrimah War Cemetery near Darwin were transfered here for permanant 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 that helps maintain the graves.

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

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Last Updated
January 9, 2018

 

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