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Daniel Leahy 2001
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
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
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 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.
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.
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