During World War II, a prisoner of war (POW) camp near the town of Cowra in New South Wales, Australia was the site of one of the largest prison escapes of the war, on 5 August 1944. At least 545 Japanese POWs were involved in the breakout.
Cowra, a farming district about 200 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 Geneva Conventions, relations between the Japanese POWs and the guards were poor, due largely to significant cultural differences: Japanese culture at the time regarded capture and detention as shameful and expected soldiers to die rather than accept capture.
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.
The bugler, Hajime Toyoshima, had been Australia’s first Japanese prisoner of the war. Soon afterwards, most of the buildings in the Japanese compound were set on fire.
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 conceal the gun’s bolt prior to his death. 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 breakout and subsequent rounding 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 prior to 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.
Hardy and Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross as a result of their actions.
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.