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WWII headstones saved by memorial

Thursday, 20th April, 2017

HEROIC EFFORTS - Private Ralph Jones (left) and Private Benjamin Hardy were killed during the Cowra breakout. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

THE HEADSTONES of two World War II heroes have been bought by the Australian War Memorial at auction.

An employee from the AWM went undercover to buy the gravestones of decorated soldiers Private Benjamin Hardy and Private Ralph Jones who died during the Cowra breakout in 1944.

Both men were posthumously awarded the George Cross for "outstanding gallantry" during the infamous breakout of Japanese prisoners of war at the prison camp during World War II.

The headstones were removed from Cowra Cemetery during the 1970s and replaced with new markers by the Commonwealth Graves Commission.

Instead of being destroyed the original headstones were taken to the local tip, where they were found by the owner of the Cowra War and Rail Museum.

The gravestones were on public display at the museum for years next to photos of the soldiers, but when the museum closed recently its contents were put up for auction.

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.

Dr Nelson said the AWM doesn't often go into auctions, as this can inflate the price of military artefacts and relics.

Graves

GRAVESTONES - The headstones were previously at the Cowra War, Rail and Rural Museum. Photo: www.burnsandco.com.au

He said the headstones were bought by the Memorial to keep them from the private market and ensure they would be treated with the dignity they deserve.

"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 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 on 5 August 1944. Hardy and Jones were killed by escapees while manning their machine-gun post.

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 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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