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before the Cowra Breakout

Apthorpe, G. (ed) The Cowra Breakout and other POW Camp stories

The mood inside B compound, housing Japanese prisoners below the rank of Commissioned Officer, contrasted with that inside the compounds (A and C) inhabited by captured Italian servicemen. With just a few exceptions, the Italians accepted their captivity without bitterness.

They worked with enthusiasm and often without supervision on farms near the prison camp, they enjoyed the food, made their own wine, played music and sang. When their work parties returned home late and found themselves locked out of the heavy gates that sealed the prison camp from the outside world, they would hammer and shout to be allowed inside. The Japanese, who could not be trusted to work outside the camp, even under guard, just smouldered with hatred of their Australian guards.

They had been brought up to believe that any form of surrender to the enemy was intolerable... that it brought shame not only to the individuals concerned, but to all of their families. They had absorbed an uncompromising doctrine: that rather than submit to capture, a soldier should either use his last round of ammunition on himself, or make a suicidal attack on the enemy. In fact most of the Japanese at Cowra had been in no position to resist capture: they had been either wounded, or seriously ill, or had been hauled out of the ocean after their troopships had been sunk.

The earliest Japanese prisoners were airmen whose planes had been shot down. For a time they shared their captivity with Japanese civilian internees–mainly businessmen and pearl divers–at another camp outside Hay. They entered the new camp at Cowra in December 1942. The airmen, led by the Zero pilot Tadao Minami, were in a different "class" from the other POW. There was conflict between the Army and Navy groups. Although the soldiers heavily outnumbered the others, real power rested with the unpopular naval airmen.

The tension between these two groups continued and arguments broke out. Finally an election was forced for leadership of the prisoners. Pilot Minami was replaced as leader and Sergeant Major Akira Kanazawa took over. Sergeant Major Masao Kojima became his deputy, and Minami was given a number three status, mainly because of his capacity to speak reasonable English.

As the Japanese army continued to suffer defeats in the islands above Australia, prisoners poured into Cowra–to the extent that B Compound became hopelessly overcrowded. By the beginning of August 1944 it held 1104 prisoners, and they were increasingly difficult to manage.

Over many months the POW built up an armoury of primitive weapons: wooden stakes stolen from a firewood pile, kitchen knives, chisels, garden forks, carpenters' saws, bread-cutting blades, axe handles and baseball bats. The authorities carried out daily inspections, but omitted to make a search of the huts in which they were stored.

In late February 1943 an incident occurred inside a Japanese prison compound at Featherston, New Zealand, which offered a kind of blueprint of what was to happen at Cowra. An informer, a prisoner, had disclosed in December 1942 that a working party was plotting to overpower guards and seize arms at the camp; another informer, also a prisoner, later advised of a plot to set fire to a compound and overpower guards when they entered to control the blaze.

After a series of provocative actions by 240 prisoners, the camp commandant threatened in February to separate the non-commissioned officers from the private soldiers. This action proved to be a trigger for violence. A riot took place two days later, in which Japanese–who had talked earlier of their desire to commit suicide–rushed headlong at an officer and 40 armed guards, throwing large stones. As the prisoners reached the officer, the guards opened fire; firing lasted between 30 and 60 seconds, and resulted in the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners and the wounding of 63 others.

One New Zealand guard was killed, and six injured.

The suicide assault at New Zeoland's Featherston camp convinced some of the more aware Australians at Cowra that a similar occurrence would inevitably happen there. But, even after reports of the affair had been circulated, there was no tightening of security.

It was not until 3 June, 1944, after the Korean informer Takeo Matsumoto advised that the Japanese were planning a mass escape, and a subsequent attack on the nearby Infantry Training Centre, that serious precautions were taken at Cowra. The commanding officer, Lt Col Montague Brown, conferred with senior officers in Sydney and requested two Vickers machine guns, extra Lewis machine guns and more rifles. All were dispatched. It was arranged that Verey lights would be fired in the event of a escape bid. Conferences were held between the commandants of the four compounds in the prison camp, and emergency mass-escape orders drawn up.

The commanding officer of the nearby Infantry Training Centre in turn, drew up plans for the defence of his unit.

On the advice of Intelligence Officers, it was decided, that the Japanese private soldiers should be separated from the Non Commissioned Officers–who were generally assumed to be the major trouble-makers. At 2pm on Friday, 4 August the commandant of B Compound, Major Robert Ramsay, advised the senior Japanese Officers; Kanazawa, Kojima and Minami of the plan for splitting them up (although some doubt exists about whether he told them that the division would be based on rank). The Japanese, whose torment had increased steadily to an almost intolerable degree, had been plotting some sort of violent, suicidal gesture for a long time. The decision to separate them provided the trigger, just as it had at Featherston.

Twelve hours after they were told of it, the prisoners began the Breakout which would cost 231 Japanese and four Australian lives.

Information supplied by courtesy of Harry Gordon CMG, AM, Author of Die Like The Carp! And voyage from shame, both of which tell the story of the Cowra breakout and its aftermath and are available from the Cowra visitors centre and the japanese gardens, and cultural centre and book stores.

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