HomeUSAThe ghosts of Cowra appearOUS News

The ghosts of Cowra appearOUS News

Soldier Tom Hancock donned a clean uniform, kissed his wife Hattie goodbye, and prepared to spend a winter’s night on patrol.

He was among a group of soldiers tasked with spying on bridges and railroad tracks around Cowra in NSW’s midwest in search of hundreds of Japanese soldiers who had fled a camp on 5 August 1944.

More than 230 prisoners and four Australians were killed as the prisoners’ deep disappointment turned deadly.

In the days after the bloody escape, the farmland was rumored, with some civilians even arming themselves and scavenging the meadows for fugitives.

As Sergeant Hancock and his comrades were approaching their volunteer headquarters in the village of Blayney on 7 August, a rifle unexpectedly fired and struck his right hip.

“Holy ghost,” cried Corporal Norm Gardiner as the gun’s safety latch failed.

Sergeant Hancock was taken to the hospital, apparently recovering. But his wound soon became septic and he died.

Author and historian Mat McLachlan tells the life and death story of Tom Hancock in his new book The Cowra Breakout, which explores one of the nation’s greatest wartime escapes.

Mr McLachlan says history has long recorded four Australian deaths, but Sergeant Hancock’s fifth death has long been unrecognized.

“This is an injustice that needs to be corrected,” he tells the AAP.

This week, Mr McLachlan’s only 2nd Edition on Australian soil.

“The goal of most prison escapes is freedom. But that had nothing to do with freedom, it was a war,” McLachlan says.

“The Japanese were trying to erase the embarrassment of capture.

Stuck between their comrades killed on the battlefield and glorious death for the empire, they called themselves ghosts.

The Australians knew as early as June that the inmates were planning an escape and decided to split the group by moving some to another camp in Hay.

Prisoners were notified two days before the transfer and used that time to plan their escape by voting a circle or cross on the toilet paper sheets.

At 2 a.m. on August 5, fighter pilot Hajime Toyoshima, who was captured as his plane was shot down over Darwin, heard the trumpet sound and the prisoners rushed towards the fence with makeshift weapons in their hands.

Hundreds of prisoners were killed by gunfire, while others set fire to their huts and fled.

Privates Benjamin Hardy, Ralph Jones, and Charles Shepherd were fatally attacked at the camp, with Lieutenant Harry Doncaster killed later that day when he was ambushed by prisoners.

It took nine days to collect the more than 300 fugitives.

Mr McLachlan said Sergeant Hancock’s story was one of many details lost in a far-reaching military cover-up, which he described as a “complex ballet” of war diplomacy.

Few details were released in the days that followed, followed by a rushed investigation designed to put the blame entirely on the prisoners.

Mr McLachlan said escape should never have happened, as the Australians had long known of the prisoners’ plans.

“There was a lot of misconception about how angry the Japanese were.”

For over seven decades, Cowra has been home to a meticulously manicured Japanese garden known for its lush spring cherry blossoms.

His community maintains strong ties to Japan through its sister city program and has preserved the camp as a historic site.

A world peace bell, a replica of the one standing outside the United Nations building in New York, sits in the center of the city.

Mr McLachlan says the blast is an important part of Australia’s wartime history that few people know about.

“These men were prisoners battling their emotional demons and guards grappling with their own demons.

“A very human story with a gap in our history.”


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