Ed recalls the night Japanese POWs broke out

WITNESS TO HISTORY: Brian Kenny with Ed Homburg, who was stationed at Cowra during the mass breakout of Japanese POWs in August 1944.

WITNESS TO HISTORY: Brian Kenny with Ed Homburg, who was stationed at Cowra during the mass breakout of Japanese POWs in August 1944.

WHEN Brian Kenny mentioned to his friend, Ed Homburg, that he wouldn’t mind going to the 70th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout, he certainly wasn’t prepared for the answer.

Ed replied, “Yes, I’d like to go too, I was one of the guards on duty the night it happened.”

The two travelled to Cowra recently to participate in the anniversary of the largest prisoner of war breakout in modern military history. 

“It was very moving,” Mr Homburg said. 

Of special significance was the fact that one of the former Japanese POWs, 93-year-old Mr Murakami, was able to attend. 

“I did get a chance to speak briefly to him, although the language barrier proved difficult,” he said. 

Mr Homburg was only 17 at the time of the breakout, having lied about his age to get into the army and fight for the country. 

“We had been sent to Cowra for basic training and I was on duty that night,” he said. 

Mr Homburg had only been in the army for two months and remembered there were always a lot of rumours there would be a breakout.

“It was like the old Cry Wolf story, someone would say, ‘They’re going to break out tonight’ but it would never happen.”

At 1.50am on August 5, 1944, over 1000 Japanese prisoners launched the mass escape. 

A Japanese POW ran to the gates and started shouting, followed by a Japanese bugle. A sentry fired a warning shot and then more sentries fired as three large mobs of prisoners, 1104 in total, shouted “Banzai” and began breaking through the barricade.

They used the camp blankets to protect themselves against the barbwire.

Soon afterwards, most of the buildings in the Japanese compound were set on fire. 

Mr Homburg remembers that night as one of confusion.

“There was lots of gunfire, smoke and flares. We were sent out to the village of Mandurah to patrol and make sure that civilians were safe.

“They put troops in all the small towns and villages. 

“We were there for a few days. In the following days it seemed like every farmer had a Japanese hiding out in his hay stack or shed, most of the times it was a false alarm,” he said.

Some 231 Japanese POWs died, either through self-inflicted wounds or being shot, and four Australian soldiers were killed. 

During the nine-day period, 334 Japanese escapees were recaptured with everyone being accounted for. 

The bodies of the Japanese were interned in mass graves and in 1964 were relocated to a newly created Japanese war cemetery at Cowra, along with all other Japanese who died in Australia during World War II. 

“They say that when the Japanese come out to visit Australia they go to the Gold Coast, Sydney, Ayers Rock and Cowra,” Mr Homburg said.


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