CYRIL HOWE: Beyond the call of duty

Through coronial inquest testimony and newspapers  of the day, JANET HOWIE looks back at the chilling events leading up to Christmas 50 years ago when  a popular Oaklands policeman was shot and left  for dead and the town rallied to track down his killer. Sgt Howe's actions will never be forgotten by those who hear of them and will always be an inspiration and example of the heights of  courage ....

"THIS is Jim Willis speaking from Moulamein, is that you Cyril?"

"Yes, Jim".

From a simple telephone call to Oaklands police station on December 19, 1963, arose a series of events that shocked the tightknit, rural community to the core.

Constable Willis had asked his Oaklands colleague, then-Constable Cyril Howe, to look for a man named Bill Little, who had passed cheques stolen from his boss, bridge builder Reg Hunter.

Coincidentally Mr Hunter was in Constable Howe's office during the call and told police he thought Little had also stolen his shotgun.

"Right-oh Jim. It's not far, I'll go out now, and I'll ring you at Balranald tomorrow and let you know how I get on."

Constable Howe never made that call. Within hours he had been shot at close range by Little, later dying in hospital of his injuries.

Nor did Mr Hunter survive; Little shot and killed him soon after the encounter with Constable Howe.

Six days later, after a Christmas marked by a massive manhunt, it was all over.

Little died by his own hand as police approached his hiding place, but not before he killed his stepdaughter Susan Lyon, 14, who was hiding with him.

Even the barest recount of facts cannot disguise the tragedy of that December week.


On Thursday at 10am police and the Oaklands community honoured Sgt Howe, who was promoted posthumously, 50 years after his death with a street march and ceremony.

Many will be too young to remember December 1963, when 400 people searched for Little in the scorching summer heat -- 110 degrees in the old measure.

But some will recall the fear back then, with farmers arming themselves while harvesting in case the wanted man appeared.

The tragedy began when Sgt Howe was found in his police car, mortally wounded, after hours alone trying to attract help.

But as the inquest papers reveal, there was a slow but inexorable build-up to Little's actions.

At the heart of this tragedy are the actions of a police officer whose last hours personify duty and a fugitive who knew his life was disintegrating.
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"Do you know why Mum left the home?"

"Because Dad took us all for a ride."

"Did you find your mother?"

"No."

"What happened the next day?"

"Dad went to look for Mum again."


Seven children, four of them aged under five, were in Little's car when he shot Sgt Howe on the night of December 19.

Susan was among these young witnesses.
Transcripts of the police interview with the oldest boy, 9, make for heartbreaking reading.

Little and his de facto wife met at Apsley, Victoria, in 1957 and four children came with her the next year when she left her husband.

The family moved often in search of steady work and came to Oaklands in August 1963 because Little had a job with Mr Hunter.

A baby each year meant by December the couple now had nine children aged between six months and 16.

"All the children, including four which were not his, were looked after as well as possible on 15 pounds a week," an acquaintance later told the media, describing Little as a good family man.

Certainly money was scarce; Little stopped working for Mr Hunter in October and made threats towards him after a few drinks.

Little's partner said the drinks became more frequent as the year wore on and home life became more tense.

During a fight about whether to leave Oaklands, Little said he would take seven of the children, leaving behind the oldest and youngest, and did, in fact, drive off after breakfast.

"He never took any other clothes for them,  just what they were in, and as far as I knew he was going to Goodnight," his partner later told police.

That same day, December 18, she got a lift to Deniliquin with her two remaining children and never saw Little again.

When he returned and she wasn't home, he spent the rest of that day and the next looking for them. Agitated by her disappearance, angry with his boss, with young children in tow, one can start to imagine Little's state of mind.

Add to that some alcohol and the knowledge police soon would track down those stolen cheques and gun.

And there was one further element in the mix, the exact circumstances of which would never be spelt out.

It seems likely that Susan was pregnant.
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"Dad jumped out of his car and the policeman came up and grabbed hold of Dad's right arm and Dad shot the policeman with his left hand.

"Dad said, 'If they would leave me alone, they wouldn't get shot'."


At first Little seemed to co-operate with Sgt Howe when his Vauxhall Wyvern sedan was intercepted about 8.30pm.

He drove towards the police station with the  officer following behind him.

Sgt Howe wasn't to know that during this trip, Little had put the gun across his knees.

When his attempts to drive off ended in a crash and Sgt Howe approached the vehicle, Little showed no restraint.

He shot the officer at point blank range with a 12-inch gauge shotgun.

Despite serious abdominal injuries, Sgt Howe  returned to his car and
fired twice before his service pistol jammed.

He then crawled underneath the police car for shelter.

Little shot at the car's headlights and police lights before removing, with Susan's help, a gate that had attached to his own bumper bar when he crashed.

"What happened after that?"

"Dad just put the gun in the front of the car and we went home."

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"I heard Mr Little say to Susan, 'I will cut your hair tomorrow', and I heard him tell her what clothes she was to wear.

"I heard him say, 'Even though I'm leaving the kids, it won't make any difference because when yours comes it will be the same'.

"I saw the car drive down the road, out the gate and then along the road towards Berrigan.

"I did not see Mr Little or Susan again after that."


Susan's 13-year-old sister, who was left to care for five other children, gave police a detailed statement about the shooting and its aftermath.

Leaks, or just gossip, about the above exchanges, which she overheard while pretending to be asleep, may have prompted many of the "believed to be" statements in newspapers of the time.

No witnesses to Mr Hunter's killing survived the week, but about midday on December 20 police found his body on the floor of his caravan.

His Valiant sedan was missing and Little's Vauxhall lay partly submerged in a creek half a mile from the scene.

Little and Susan were now on the run.
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"From the time he was shot Sgt Howe displayed tremendous courage and strength and presence of mind.

"Considering the shocking wounds he received and the terrible agony he was in, his actions after he was shot leave no doubt in my mind that he was one of the bravest policemen ever to wear the Queen's uniform."


Coroner Frederick Bowman, delivering his findings at Urana Coroner's Court in February 1964, made sure the Oaklands community knew the merit of their police officer.

Sgt Howe was not found for more than four hours after he was shot on a side road about 30 kilometres from Oaklands.

In those days before mobiles and sophisticated police radio networks, his police car was crucial but the steering column had been damaged by Little's gunfire.

Even though Sgt Howe managed to get into the car and drive, it only went a short distance before going into the roadside drain, leaving him stuck without first gear or reverse.

Alone and seriously wounded, the policeman tooted his horn repeatedly and kept his police lights flashing.

And while sheltering under his car, he wrote Little's name several times in his blood-stained notebook.

Sgt Howe remained conscious until help came just before 1am and was able to give Little's name and address, describe what had happened and alert people to his service pistol and notebook.

Only later at Urana Hospital, about to be transferred to Wagga, did Sgt Howe express thoughts beyond his duty as a police officer.

"If anything happens to me I want to be buried in Albury or Sydney," he told a colleague.

"Break the news to June gently."

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"Juvenile crime has been non-existent in Oaklands in the last three years mainly due to the interest he took in the young people.

"On the night he was shot, he was making plans to start new swimming classes at the local pool."


Sgt Howe, 31, died from his wounds at 10.45pm on December 20, 1963, at Wagga Hospital, leaving behind his wife June and three children aged four and under.

A newspaper obituary published on the day of his Sydney funeral said the couple married in 1958 and moved to Albury when Sgt Howe joined the Albury police district.

In 1960 he transferred to Oaklands and took over as officer-in-charge of the station.

Throwing himself into his community, he played golf, cricket, tennis and football and at his death was secretary of Oaklands Golf Club.

"As a mark of respect, the 750 Oaklands townspeople will close their homes and shops for a few minutes today."

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By December 21 police were searching for a double murderer and knew a teenage girl was with him.

There followed five days of relentless searching, covering thousands of kilometres west to Ivanhoe and south to the Victorian border.

Many locals helped police by offering vital food and accommodation during a summer heatwave.

The hunt and all its twists and turns filled the pages of regional newspapers, including the Border Morning Mail, and radio station 2QN gave regular reports from the police.

Yet for all this widespread effort, the answer  lay in Little's former home, now empty, where he and Susan were found mid-morning on December 26.

The stolen Valiant was found on Christmas Day abandoned between Finley and Jerilderie and police suspected the pair were returning to Oaklands.

Their home had been searched earlier and when officers went back they saw some butter had been moved and a slice of tomato, seemingly freshly cut, was on the kitchen table.

Little's dog behaved differently too when the officers returned.

Realising Little and Susan could be nearby, police began to search the property and saw galvanised iron had been placed over the entrance of a fowl shed.

As the officers drew near, a shotgun blast rang out, quickly followed by another.

Police took cover and called for the pair to surrender, but there was no reply.

Little had taken matters into his own hands one last time.
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Sgt Howe was awarded posthumously with the Queen's Police Medal for Gallantry, which Mrs Howe and the children received at Government House in mid-1964.

An appeal to support the Howe family, launched 10 days after Sgt Howe died, raised more than 1100 pounds within two months.

Poignantly, another young victim was not forgotten; money raised by people at Oaklands and Deniliquin stopped Susan from being buried as a pauper, with the extra funds given to her mother.

More than 100 people attended Susan's funeral at Urana, held on the same day as the man who took her life was buried without a service and with only the minister by his graveside.

Today the people of Oaklands would prefer not to think about Little, but remember the brave officer who tried to stop him. And half a century later, the words of the coroner still ring true.

"Sgt Howe's actions will never be forgotten by those who hear of them and will always be an inspiration and example of the heights of courage to which a man can rise in the execution of his duty."

MORE:

- HUSBAND, FATHER, HERO: Oaklands community remembers policeman 50 years on

- Witness tells of finding wounded police officer

- EDITORIAL: Tributes to a brave man

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