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after the Cowra Breakout

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

During the breakout over 330 Japanese POW escaped beyond the outside perimeter of the camp. Unaware of their position, disorientated by the sudden, often bloody release and confused by lack of organisation and leadership, they were confronted with the stark reality that they had no where to go and were ill equipped for survival in 'enemy territory'.

Many chose to die rather than risk re-capture. Suicide also offered the opportunity to honour their bushido code of death before surrender. Two prisoners died after

they had laid their heads on the railway tracks outside Cowra, in the? face of an oncoming train. However another POW, from Kobe, told of how he had decided to lay on the track but the train did not come! Others hung themselves from the limbs ot trees while some used rudimentary knives to take their own lives. On their recapture some pleaded to be shot. At least two were shot by local civilians and several by military personnel. The vast majority, however were determined to survive the breakout and within 48 hours most had given themselves up. They had surrendered peacefully, at times on mass. Despite this, it took another seven days before all the POW had been recovered, with one escapee reaching as far as Eugowra, over 50 kilometres from the camp.

For security reasons the Government threw a blanket of secrecy over the events of the breakout and the details of the round up operation. The media was kept largely "in the dark" and although local residents on surrounding farms were briefed by military officials, many were kept quite ignorant of the real facts. Some were told days before the final prisoner was re-captured that all was well, despite there being hostile enemy still on the loose.

The round up had been a mammoth task. Armed RAAF planes flew the skies around Cowra while numerous small groups of unarmed trainee soldiers from the Cowra AIF Camp, which lay several kilometres south east of the POW Camp, were sent out to comb the area and recapture the escopees. Members of the Australian Women's Battalion stationed at Cowra also assisted with the roundup operations while medical and nursing staff at the local hospital had their hands full dealing with those who were injured or killed.

Lt Harry Doncaster was the only Australian killed in the round up when he was attacked and murdered by the Japanese eleven kilometres north of Cowra. To add to this, a resident from the nearby town of Blayney later died of septicaemia resulting from an accidental wound when a rifle discharged in a vehicle during the round up.

The Japanese leaders of the breakout had ordered that no civilians were to be harmed and they were true to their word. There were also several accounts of genuine acts of kindness which were uncharacteristic of the war and of Australion war time attitudes towards the Japanese. One such story involved a local woman, Mrs May Weir, who refused to hand over two Japanese escapees to military guards until she had fed them tea and scones. She maintained that regardless of their enemy status, the men had been without food and drink for days and as fellow human beings the least they deserved was basic sustenance. Forty years later the Japanese returned to Cowra to visit the Weir's farm to thank the family which had been so kind to them.

Compiled by David Hobson

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