Around 2 am on Monday it will be 75 years since that bugle made its most significant sound. At 2 am the bugle was in the hands of Hajime Toyoshima. A few years earlier Toyoshima had been at the controls of a Mitsubishi Zero fighter, one of the many launched from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Hiryu. As he climbed into the sky he joined up with the aerial armada bound for Darwin. This was the first in a devastating series of air raids that would ultimately see the Japanese drop more ordnance on our northern capital than they did even on Pearl Harbor. How much of that was on Toyoshima’s mind that cold Cowra night as he pressed his lips to the bugle’s mouthpiece? Did he think about Darwin harbour, convulsing and burning so terribly beneath him? Or did he think about the heat of Melville Island, where he crash-landed his damaged plane after the raid only to be captured by a Tiwi Islander, Matthias Ulungura? Ulungura took Toyoshima across the narrow straight to neighbouring Bathurst Island to hand him over to Sergeant Leslie Powell of the 23rd Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers. He was now a prisoner of war. His journey to Cowra had begun.
The journey had, at last, brought him to this point. At 2.00 am on 5 August 1944 he pressed his lips to that silver mouthpiece, and the chilly Cowra air was pierced by shouting and the sound of an English-made bugle. It was the start of the biggest mass escape of POWs of the war, and the only one to occur here in Australia. It was the start of mayhem, confusion and terror. We can scarcely contemplate the fear that even the bravest Australian soldier must have felt: suddenly face-to-face with an act of such mass desperation by men so ashamed of their captivity.
We can hardly imagine how it was for Privates Benjamin Hardy and Ralph Jones, overwhelmed as they courageously manned their machine gun posts and were killed. Their final dying act was to disarm the gun, which saved many lives even as they lost their own. We cannot fathom the final moments of Private Charles Shepherd, killed so far from any of the war’s multitude of frontlines. Figures vary, but it’s agreed that in the end 108 Japanese were wounded, and there were more than 230 dead—Toyoshima amongst them. Everyone else was eventually recaptured, an ordeal that saw one more Australian, Lieutenant Harry Doncaster, lose his life.
As we think back on the mayhem, chaos and terrible carnage of that night three-quarters of a century ago, we think about the peace since. We think about how Japan, our once terrible enemy, became our great friend and partner. I think about being present in this very chamber for the historic address by Prime Minister Abe. We think about those who fell that night. We think about how we will remember them. We think about those graves in Cowra—nurtured, as the Prime Minister said, by so many of the local community, and we pay respect to them and thank them for their ongoing work and service.
We think about the ornamental garden near the side of the old POW camp, a piece of Japan framed by the deeply Australian tranquillity of eucalypts—a fitting monument to peace which arose from the ashes of those years of conflict. May our friendship deepen in the years to come. Lest we forget.