Headstones of two war heroes acquired by War Memorial

ACQUISTION: Australian War Memorial senior curator Melissa Cadden and director Brendan Nelson with the headstones at the War Memorial in Canberra.

ACQUISTION: Australian War Memorial senior curator Melissa Cadden and director Brendan Nelson with the headstones at the War Memorial in Canberra.

The Australian War Memorial has purchase two headstones to ensure the dignity of two Australian war heroes is maintained.

As first reported in the Post, the original grave markers for Private Benjamin Hardy and Private Ralph Jones, were posthumously awarded the George Cross for their actions during the infamous breakout of Japanese prisoners of war at the Cowra prison camp during the Second World War.

The George Cross citations for both men noted their “outstanding gallantry and devotion to duty” in resisting the mass breakout of Japanese prisoners of war at Cowra in August, 1944. Hardy and Jones were killed by escapees while manning their machine-gun post.

The camp contained nearly 1100 Japanese prisoners and at about 2am on August 5, 1944, the prisoners armed themselves with knives, bats and other makeshift weapons and stormed over the barbed-wire perimeter of the enclosure. 

After hearing shots signalling an escape, Private Jones and Private Hardy rushed to the Vickers machine-gun that was about to be overrun by the escapees. 

They fired into the attacking masses until they realised they were going to be overcome. In a final, courageous act, facing death, they disabled the gun. 

Second only to the Victoria Cross, the George Cross was awarded for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”.

The Memorial acquired the headstones from the Cowra War and Rail Museum via Burns and Co Auctioneers on 1 April this year.

Australian War Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson said it was disappointing someone would seek to profit by selling the headstones of two men who died in the service of their country.

“The headstone of any human being, let alone highly decorated Australian soldiers, should be handled in the most dignified way. Why on earth they would end up at an auction is something I find irritating at best and disappointing,” Dr Nelson said.

“We paid $325 for the two, which is $325 more than anybody should have paid because common decency would suggest a man’s headstone, particularly a George Cross recipient’s, should not be sold.”

The headstones were removed from Cowra Cemetery during the 1970s in order to be replaced with new markers displaying the insignia of the George Cross.

Instead of being destroyed, the original headstones were deposited at the local tip, where they were found by the owner of the Cowra War and Rail Museum. Put up for auction on April 1 this year.

The headstones were purchased by the Australian War Memorial to keep them from the private market and ensure they would be treated with the dignity they deserve.

The markers are a poignant reminder of the loss of life that occurred on both sides during the Cowra breakout. They are scheduled for conservation work, after which a decision will be made about their display at the Memorial.

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