World War 2 History: The War's Biggest POW Escape
POWs in Cowra, Australia
In August 1944, World War II's largest POW escape occurred near the town of Cowra in Australia. The uprising involved more than a thousand Japanese prisoners of war and resulted in 359 of them escaping into the countryside. When it was all over, 231 Japanese soldiers were dead and 108 were wounded. Four Australian soldiers died and seven were wounded.
The Japanese looked upon the Allies as soft barbarians without honor and the Allied nations viewed the Japanese soldiers as murderous savages without regard for life. Relatively few Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner, choosing to fight to the death or commit suicide rather than, in their view, submit to the disgrace of being captives of inferior races.
By August of 1944, the No. 12 POW Camp near Cowra in the middle of New South Wales, Australia held four groups of prisoners in four separate compounds. There were Italians, Koreans who had served in the Japanese military, Indonesians who were being held at the request of the Dutch East Indies government and 1,104 Japanese soldiers.
The Australians strictly observed the Geneva Convention regarding POWs. The Japanese were well-fed and lived in relatively comfortable quarters. They viewed the good rations, quarters and sporting activities as proof that the Australians were trying to placate them because the Aussies were secretly afraid of them. The Japanese leaders in the camp started planning a breakout.
The Australians got wind of this and prepared to separate the enlisted men from their commanders. As per Geneva rules, any movement of prisoners had to be communicated with them at least 24 hours in advance. The Aussies informed the Japanese camp leader on August 4 that on August 7 all Japanese privates would be moved to another camp. The camp guards were put on full alert.
At 2:00 AM on the morning of August 5, a bugle sounded and hundreds of Japanese prisoners surged out of their barracks in three directions shouting “Banzai!” and began breaking through and climbing over the barbed wire fences. They were armed with baseball bats, knives, clubs studded with nails and other home-made weapons. Some had baseball gloves and blankets to protect them from the barbed wire. At the same time, fires were started in the barracks and some Japanese committed suicide or were killed by their own comrades, presumably as punishment for not participating in the breakout.
As the prisoners climbed the wire or broke through it the camp guards started shooting. Privates Ben Hardy and Ralph Jones manned a Vickers machine-gun and tried to stop the mob breaking through. Vastly outnumbered, they continued holding them off until they were completely overpowered by sheer numbers. Both were killed, but before he died, Jones pulled the gun's bolt and hid it. When the Japanese tried to turn the machine-gun on other camp guards, they discovered it was useless. Regardless, 359 POWs managed to escape into the countryside before order was restored.
For their action, Private Hardy and Private Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross. Then Australian Prime Minister John Curtin later remarked that the Japanese soldiers' frontal attack against the machine-guns, armed only with improvised weapons, demonstrated a “suicidal disregard of life". How he regarded Australian soldiers' frontal attacks against German machine-guns in World War I is not recorded.
Breakout Hologram and POW Theatre
In Cowra, there is also the Breakout Hologram and POW Theatre, which tells the story of the Cowra Breakout. An extraordinary hologram has been created whereby a six-inch high young woman strolls from exhibit to exhibit, telling the story. She moves around the objects, stepping around books, leaning on shell casings. Visitors are amazed, saying there is no way to tell it is a hologram, the effect is so perfect.
For the next few days, Australian troops and police scoured the area for the escaped POWs. Some surrendered peacefully, others fought back and were killed or wounded and some committed suicide rather than be recaptured. When it was all over, 10 days later, all the escapees had been either recaptured or were dead. During the breakout and after, a total of 231 POWs died, including suicides and those who were killed by their own men. Four Australians died, one of them while trying to recapture a group of POWs. No civilian casualties occurred. The Japanese leaders of the breakout had commanded that no civilians were to be attacked.
The Japanese dead were buried in a specially created cemetery in Cowra and was tended to by volunteers from the town. Later, after the war, the citizens of Cowra, in reaction to the Cowra Breakout tragedy, reached out to Japan and a friendship developed. The Japanese Cemetery was ceded to Japan in 1963. In 1971, Cowra, with the support of the Japanese government, started developing the Cowra Japanese Garden, a 12 acre strolling garden designed to show all of the landscapes of Japan. The Japanese expressed their thanks for the respectful treatment of their war dead.
©Copyright 2012 by David J. Hunt