Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cousens, Charles Hughes (1903–1964)

by Ivan Chapman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Charles Hughes Cousens (1903-1964), army officer and radio broadcaster, was born on 26 August 1903 at Poona, India, son of Lieutenant (later Colonel) Robert Baxter Cousens, artillery officer, and his wife Esther, née Cummins. Educated in England at Wellington College, Berkshire, and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Charles was commissioned on 31 January 1924 and posted to the 2nd Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, in India. The battalion served on the North-West Frontier. Tall and bespectacled, Cousens was good at languages (he taught himself Urdu), navigation, boxing, cricket and polo. Unable to afford the expensive lifestyle of the Foresters, he resigned his commission on 29 June 1927 and worked his way to Sydney.

With jobs hard to find, he took employment as a wharf labourer and picked up a few pounds as a boxer in preliminary bouts at a suburban stadium. He then moved into newspaper advertising. On 20 May 1929 at St John's Anglican Church, Darlinghurst, he married an advertising representative Dorothy May Allan; they were to have a daughter before being divorced. Cousens found his true niche by reading some of his own copy over radio station 2GB. The quality of his voice and his pleasing personality soon made him a popular announcer. His best-known programme was 'Radio Newspaper of the Air' which encouraged even very young children to take an interest in selected news events. While uncommitted to any political viewpoint, he delivered a number of anti-communist broadcasts. He married a divorcee Winifred Grace James, née Dettmann, on 23 December 1938 at the registrar-general's office, Sydney; they were to have a son.

Appointed captain in the Australian Imperial Force on 1 July 1940, Cousens was posted to the 2nd/19th Battalion. He had command of a rifle company in Malaya when Japan entered the war in December 1941. Badly burnt when demolishing a village, he rejoined his battalion for the fighting on Singapore Island. His commanding officer and the troops commended his leadership in action, and he was promoted temporary major on 13 February 1942.

Soon after the capitulation on 15 February, A.I.F. headquarters in Malaya inadvertently revealed to the Japanese that Cousens had been a radio announcer. He refused to broadcast on their behalf while in Changi prison. Taken alone from a prison-camp in Burma, he was shipped at the end of July to Japan. There, under threat and fear of torture and death (as he would always claim), he wrote propaganda scripts, 'coached' English-speaking Japanese announcers and made short-wave broadcasts over Radio Tokyo. He maintained that the broadcasts were of minimal use to the Japanese, and that he had frequently sabotaged them by subtle ridicule and by inserting information useful to the Allies. Cousens also worked on a propaganda programme, 'Zero Hour', and chose as its main presenter an American woman of Japanese parentage—Iva Toguri (later d'Aquino), the misnamed 'Tokyo Rose'—who tried to help him undermine the broadcasts.

Following the Japanese surrender, Cousens was interrogated and brought home to Sydney under arrest. Because no Commonwealth legislation covered treasonable acts committed abroad, he was charged in New South Wales under the English statute, 25 Edw.III (1351). The gravest crime of all, treason was a capital offence. A magistrate's inquiry began in Sydney on 20 August 1946. Although Cousens had his critics, support for him firmed with the news that the Crown was depending heavily on the evidence of two Japanese who had worked with him. He was committed for trial, but the State's attorney-general C. E. Martin dropped the charge on 6 November.

Commonwealth legal and military authorities then considered court-martialling Cousens, only to reject the plan lest it 'would have the appearance of persecution and would thus be politically inexpedient'. They decided, nonetheless, to strip Cousens of his commission. Their action, carried out on 22 January 1947, was widely regarded as vindictive. Three months later the men of the 2nd/19th Battalion elected Cousens to lead them on the Anzac Day march through Sydney. He was welcomed back to 2GB, and in 1957-59 worked as a television newscaster with ATN-7. In 1949 at San Francisco, United States of America, he had been a defence witness for Iva d'Aquino who, despite his assistance, was gaoled for treason.

The Cousens case was never properly resolved. Official historians of Australia in the war of 1939-1945 avoided the question of the degree of physical and mental endurance that could have been expected from prisoners of war. The army had shirked the issue in the first place by not ordering an immediate military court of inquiry or a court martial. Many years later Sir Garfield Barwick (who had been a member of the prosecution team at the magistrate's inquiry) thought that a jury trial would have been fairer and would probably have resulted in acquittal. Cousens died of cardiac disease on 9 May 1964 at his Greenwich home and was cremated with Christian Science forms; his wife and the children of both his marriages survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • 2/19 Battalion A.I.F. Assn, The Grim Glory of the 2/19 Battalion A.I.F. (Syd, 1975)
  • I. Chapman, Tokyo Calling: The Charles Cousens Case (Syd, 1990) and for bibliography, including Japanese publications
  • Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 10 Dec 1945
  • war diaries, 2nd/19th Battalion and 8th Division, AIF, 1941-42 (Australian War Memorial)
  • Brigadier A. Varley war diary (Australian War Memorial)
  • Lt Col R. Oakes, manuscript on 1941-42 Malayan campaign, 1947, and manuscript autobiography, 1984 (Australian War Memorial)
  • Lt Cdr G. H. Henshaw wartime diary (National Archives of Australia)
  • Commonwealth and New South Wales Attorney-General files, 1942-47 (National Archives of Australia and State Records New South Wales)
  • correspondence and oral history interviews with Australian, Japanese and American participants (held by author).

Citation details

Ivan Chapman, 'Cousens, Charles Hughes (1903–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cousens-charles-hughes-9842/text17409, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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