Cowra POW Camp, 1 July 1944. Japanese POWs practicing baseball near their quarters, several weeks before the Cowra breakout. This photograph was taken with the intention of using it in propaganda leaflets, to be dropped on Japanese-held areas in the Asia-Pacific region.
|Date||5 August 1944|
|Location||Near Cowra, New South Wales, Australia|
|Outcome||~545 Japanese POWs escape|
The Cowra breakout occurred on 5 August 1944, when at least 1104 Japanese prisoners of war attempted to escape from a Prisoner of War camp near Cowra, in New South Wales, Australia. It was the largest prison escape of World War II, as well as one of the bloodiest. During the ensuing manhunt, four Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers were killed. The remaining escapees were captured and sent back to prison.
Cowra, a farming district, 314 km due west of Sydney, was the town nearest to No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound, a major POW camp, where 4,000 Axis military personnel and civilians were detained. The prisoners at Cowra also included 2,000 Italians, Koreans who had served in the Japanese military, and Indonesian civilians detained at the request of the Dutch East Indies government.
By August 1944, there were 2,223 Japanese POWs in Australia, including 544 merchant seamen. There were also 14,720 Italian prisoners, who had been captured mostly in the North African Campaign, and 1,585 Germans, mostly naval or merchant seamen.
Although the POWs were treated in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention, relations between the Japanese POWs and the guards were poor, due largely to significant cultural differences.
A riot by Japanese POWs at Featherston prisoner of war camp in New Zealand, in February 1943, led to security being tightened at Cowra. Eventually several Vickers and Lewis machine guns were installed to augment the rifles carried by the members of the Australian Militia's 22nd Garrison Battalion, which was composed mostly of old or disabled veterans or young men considered physically unfit for frontline service.
In the first week of August 1944, a tip-off from an informer at Cowra led authorities to plan a move of all Japanese POWs at Cowra, except officers and NCOs, to another camp at Hay, New South Wales, some 400 km to the west. The Japanese were notified of the move on 4 August.
In the words of historian Gavin Long, the following night:
- At about 2 a.m. a Japanese ran to the camp gates and shouted what seemed to be a warning to the sentries. Then a Japanese bugle sounded. A sentry fired a warning shot. More sentries fired as three mobs of prisoners, shouting "Banzai", began breaking through the wire, one mob on the northern side, one on the western and one on the southern. They flung themselves across the wire with the help of blankets. They were armed with knives, baseball bats, clubs studded with nails and hooks, wire stilettos and garotting cords.
Within minutes of the start of the breakout attempt Privates Benjamin Gower Hardy and Ralph Jones (GC) manned the No. 2 Vickers machine-gun and were firing into the first wave of escapees, but they were soon overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers and killed. However, Private Jones managed to remove and hide the gun's bolt before he died. This rendered the gun useless, thereby preventing the prisoners from turning it against the guards.
The actions of the Japanese POWs in storming machine gun posts, armed only with improvised weapons, showed what Australian Prime Minister John Curtin later described as a "suicidal disregard of life". Nevertheless, 359 POWs escaped. Some prisoners, rather than escaping, attempted or committed suicide, or were killed by their countrymen. Some of those who did escape committed suicide, or were killed, to avoid recapture. All those still alive were recaptured within 10 days of the breakout.
During the escape and subsequent round-up of POWs, four Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers died and 108 prisoners were wounded. The leaders of the breakout commanded their escapees not to attack Australian civilians, and none were killed or injured.
The findings of an official inquiry into the events were read to the Australian House of Representatives by Curtin on 8 September 1944. Among its findings were:
- Conditions at the camp were in accordance with the Geneva Conventions;
- No complaints regarding treatment had been made by or on behalf of the Japanese before the incident, which appeared to have been the result of a premeditated and concerted plan;
- The actions of the Australian garrison in resisting the attack averted a greater loss of life, and firing ceased as soon as they regained control;
- Many of the dead had committed suicide or been killed by other prisoners, and many of the Japanese wounded had suffered self-inflicted wounds.
No. 12 Camp continued to operate until the last Japanese and Italian prisoners were repatriated in 1947.
Cowra maintains a significant Japanese war cemetery, and a Japanese garden was later built, on Bellevue Hill, to commemorate these events. The garden was designed by Ken Nakajima in the style of the Edo period.
Depictions in film and literature
- Dead Men Rising, (1975), Angus & Robertson, ISBN 0-207-12654-2): a novel by Seaforth Mackenzie, who was stationed at Cowra during the breakout.
- Die like the Carp, (1978), Corgi Books, ISBN 0-7269-3243-4) by Harry Gordon.
- The Cowra Breakout (1984): a critically acclaimed 4½-hour television miniseries, written by Margaret Kelly and Chris Noonan, and directed by Noonan and Phillip Noyce.
- On That Day, Our Lives Are Lighter Than The Toilet Paper: The Great Cowra Breakout (English translation) あの日、僕らの命はトイレットペーパーよりも軽かった -カウラ捕虜収容所からの大脱走 (2008): a 2-hour TV-movie produced by Nippon Television as a 55th anniversary special. 
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (April 2009)|
- S Thompson. Objects through Time: COWRA bugle, c1930s. Migration Heritage Centre New South Wales. 2006
- Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland. pp. 175–179. ISBN 978-1-74110-492-9.
- "Dead men rising / [by] Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 11 August 2010.
- "Die like the carp : the story of the greatest prison escape ever / Harry Gordon". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 11 August 2010.
- "The Cowra Breakout - Curator’s notes + clips & credits". National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). Retrieved 24 November 2011.
- "The Cowra Breakout (TV mini-series 1984)". IMDb. Retrieved 24 November 2011.
- "Ano Hi Bokura no Inochi wa Toiretto Pepa yori mo Karukatta".
- "The Cowra Breakout" David Hobson in World War II 1939-45 (Published by) the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee (Qld) Incorporated. (1998)
- "Official Cowra Japanese Garden Home Page"
- "The prison breakout at Cowra, August 1944" Gavin Long, in Australia in the War of 1939-1945 (Published by) the Australian War Memorial. (1963)
- Wal McKenzie, "Memories of the Cowra Breakout" (no date)
- "Uprisings remembered" S. Muthiah, in The Hindu (Indian national newspaper). (13 February 2005)
- "Fact Sheet 198: Cowra outbreak, 1944" National Archives of Australia. (2000)
- Japan Times, "Ghosts of Cowra breakout haunt Japan to this day"