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Wal McKenzie’s memories of the Cowra Breakout

McKenzie, Wal, Memories of the Cowra Breakout, Coonamble

Until I retired 10 years ago I had lived on a sheep, cattle and wheat farm all my life except for a period of education and three years in the army - one year spent in various relocation camps about Sydney and Goulburn and finally ending up at Cowra P.O.W. camp for two years.

When I was nineteen years old I stabbed my knee with shears when dressing a fly blown sheep. Penicillin had not been discovered and blood poisoning nearly took my life. I survived with a stiff leg which made me unfit for military service. Eventually I was accepted in the Commonwealth Military Forces for service in Australia.

At Cowra, I worked in A Company's Quarter Masters (Q.M.) store with Sergeant Steve Ford and Corporal Ted Hadrell. They were both World War I diggers' both had sons in service and were there to help win the war so they could get home to their families. My main job was to take a horse drawn wagonette with a driver through Cowra to the military camp on the other side of town where we'd collect the daily rations for the Italian prisoners in A camp.

The main body of men was divided into two shifts of guardsmen. Changing of the guard would take place at 8 a.m. each day, each man assigned to a post in two hourly shifts (two hours on, four hours off). Most of the guards were World War I men with a few physically disabled younger men. For example I had a stiff leg and Seaforth MacKenzie (a friend, who later wrote 'Dead Men Rising') was blind in one eye. A few draft dodgers and crims were sent there but undesirables were soon moved on. Generally they were a lot of good blokes - there to do a job and like all soldiers they did their share of whinging. The P.O.Ws in A Compound were a friendly, happy crowd of Italians who gave little or no trouble so the atmosphere was very relaxed.

There was a game of poker going on in the guard room from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m. I helped to keep in order a tennis court which was shared by A & B Company. I had many pleasant games there. A cricket competition was organised between the four companies and headquarters with a team being selected from the camp to play outside teams. The camp could raise a strong football team on occasions.

Concerts and dances were held in the Y.M.C.A. hall. Many of the personnel were farmers or farm labourers and were in demand for a days work on r est days for haymaking, bag sewing or working al Edgell's factory. Good friendships were made with local people.

I would often spend my weekly rest day at the sale yard and got to know all the agents. When it was dry at Cowra and a lush season at Coonamble, as it was a couple of times, I bought sheep and sent them home. And so for me life in camp was pretty good.

August 4th, 1944 had been pay day and I, and most off duty personnel, went to the canteen for a beer or two and to try our luck at two-up. l do not remember with whom I walked back to A Camp, but I do remember talking to the guard on duty and him telling us that there was a lot of activity in B compound. It was a cold frosty night and I was glad to go to bed.

Two shots woke our hut. 'What was that?' Then someone opened the door, shouting excitedly. 'All out, the Japs are rioting - take rifles with fixed bayonets to the guard's room.' I pulled on clothes over pyjamas, grabbed rifle with fixed bayonet and headed for the Q.M. store. I guess it would only have been a couple of minutes since I heard the two shots. Now machine guns in all six towers were firing and guardsmen were shooting at any escaping Japanese they could see After the earlier silence of the camp, the noise of the screaming Japanese and gunfire was unbelievable.

I saw two P.O.Ws race up the Broadway road, straight up and over the gates - about 8 feet high with barb on top. One landed on his feet, running and weaving from side to side towards five or six of our men who fired several shots each, before he fell a few yards in front of them. He had a knife in his hand. No doubt I was pleased to see him fall but I remember the feeling of admiration I had for such a brave, fit young man. The other one fell near the gates. I am not sure whether he was shot or had broken his leg when he hit the ground. I felt that these young men were let down by their fellows by not following as they could have outnumbered and overpowered the guardsmen. We had such a high opinion of the fanatically dedicated Japanese soldiers that I was surprised that they didn't do so.

The shouting of the ;prisoners soon died clown but there was still a lot of noise -probably more from the exploding fibro and crackling cypress fire than from all the shooting. The prisoners had emptied the straw from their mattresses over the floor of most of their huts and set them alight and they were burning furiously. I am not sure when the lights went out - a stray bullet cut the power line but it was very bright moonlight and the glow from the fires lit the whole area.

Over all the other noise I could hear Jackie Currie's excited yelling up in tile tower where he was manning the bren gun. A First World War man, he had been a barrow man in Sydney, now he was giving voice to his years of frustration.

Jackie was one of the personalities of the camp - both loved and hated. He and his mate Billy would go off on the booze for two or three days at a time. Their fellow guardsmen would have to do extra duties for them. They would be put in the little lockup and that meant an extra guard would be put on to look after them, but as they sobered up Jack would have everyone laughing and bringing him cigarettes and doing things for him. Bill would sit huddled up, the most remorseful sight I have ever seen. Jackie must have been sober enough to go on duty this night - some said he was drunk, but I don't thing so. He was hyped up and excited and his time in the tower that night probably would have been the most memorable hour of his life.

I first reported to Quarter Master Ford. Corporal Seaforth McKenzie and I were assigned to take a couple of boxes of bullets over to our off duty guardsmen who were behind and in B Company huts. From there they had a clear view of the main body of escapees as they came over the barb wire fences and ran up the hill.

Private Jim Snodgrass, an old Sixth Light Horseman, was there with other first war men and they too were hyped up with excitement and tension. After all the days and nights of watching and waiting, they were in action. Jim pointed out a couple he had shot. We could see a lot of bodies in the barbed wire, where they had stormed the fence. Others lay scattered up the hill where the main body of prisoners had gone around the back of the home of the manager of the soil conservation station.

As we watched a tall man limped up from the compound, stopped and spoke to several wounded and then apparently oblivious to the bullets that were being fired at him, he limped on up the hill. This man was Sergeant Major Kanazawa.

We returned to A Company and looking down Broadway there were bodies Iying all down both sides of the road. Just inside the main gates there was a weatherboard sentry box. Several Japanese had been seen going into it. As our officers were expecting the escapees to attack from behind and those still inside the compound to come over the gate it was decided to clean the Japanese out of the sentry box. It was raked by machine gun and then Sergeant Foley ( I think it was) had a couple of chaps with machine guns cover the gates while he and three old guardsmen went in and did what had to be done - three or four shots were fired. There was not a move out of all those bodies beside the road that Jackie Currie claimed he had shot.

Mack and I witnessed all this as we came back to report to Major Meagher. As we passed the young Japanese who had jumped the gate, he said, 'Water, please.' I asked the Major should I give him a drink. He said, 'No the bastard would probably cut your throat when you bend down to give it to him.'

He then sent Mack and me up to the back of our huts to watch for attack from behind. We could see a small group of escapees stringing across a paddock about 60 yards from where we were. Mack sent me back to report to the Major and ask should we shoot at them. It was then that he told me that they thought about 600-700 had escaped and they were expecting them to attack from behind. We were to act as scouts - not to shoot except for two warning shots if attacked in force, and then run to join the rest of the company. If necessary, we would make a last ditch stand in the old dam nearby. 'The main thing,' said Major Meagher, 'is not to let them get your guns.'

With this not very reassuring news I returned to Mack. It was very lonely there knowing all those fit highly trained young men were not very far away.

I have often thought about that hour or two we had up there. We discussed fear. Were we afraid ? I suppose we were but there was nothing we could do about it. I think I could liken it to having a major operation - it was a situation that had to be faced. I agreed with Mac when he said, 'The thing one dreads most is showing cowardice in front of your comrades'. The thing I remember most was a feeling of inadequacy. I wished 1 had been given more rifle drill. I had shot kangaroos, foxes etc but to be standing with a loaded rifle and fixed bayonet that I had never used, waiting for a horde of Japanese soldiers with knives and clubs, was very different.

Although Mack was almost blind, he had done his field drill and as he was in everything else, he was a meticulous soldier. We decided that if an attack was made we would fire a shot each, Mack would take

both guns and run, whilst as I had no chance of running away, I would try and hide in the hut until things quietened down. Fortunately our strategy or our courage was never put to the test. My experience that night makes me realise what a pity it is that all our young men are not given three months rifle drill and let us hope they never need it.

An hour after the first alarm the camp was comparatively quiet again. There was sporadic shooting but word had come from D & C Company that our bullets were endangering their men.

Jackie Curry had been relieved of his duty, Major Meagher's orders. The fires had died down. Truckloads of new recruits with experienced N.C.Os and officers were arriving from the training camp a couple of miles away.

I cannot recall much more about that night until daylight when shooting started again. The Japanese soldiers, who had lain motionless all night feigning death, were stirring. Our Commanding Officer ordered no more shooting and in five minutes many of the bodies in Broadway were walking around.

Prisoners had been rounded up and were coming back in lorries or were marched back under escort. All that next day dead and wounded were brought in plus groups of prisoners who had surrendered quietly. Several, no doubt the ones Mac and I had seen, were found in the wood yard. They had attached a wire to a branch of a tree and with the aid of their belts and blocks of wood had managed to hang themselves one at a time.

Hospital and medical facilities were stretched to cater for the wounded prisoners. Our wounded were cared for in Cowra Hospital.

Dead prisoners were gathered and stacked in a heap at the northern end of B Company garrison huts. The bodies were placed one on top of the other, six or seven deep, in a stack about twenty yards long. It was a very gruesome sight indeed.

As visitors often came up to the camp on Sundays this heap was covered by a tarpaulin. I saw three boys looking and eventually sneaking up and lifting a corner of the tarp. They took one look and went for their lives. There may be some sixty year old men in Cowra who remember this incident.

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Wal McKenzie.


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