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World War 2 History: The War's Biggest POW Escape

Updated on August 06, 2012
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

WW2: No. 12 Prisoner of War Camp, Cowra, Australia. 1 July, 1944. Japanese prisoners of war practice baseball on the sportsground near their quarters, several weeks before the Cowra breakout.
WW2: No. 12 Prisoner of War Camp, Cowra, Australia. 1 July, 1944. Japanese prisoners of war practice baseball on the sportsground near their quarters, several weeks before the Cowra breakout. | Source

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.

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Breakout Imminent

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.

World War Two (WWII) Vickers machine-gun.
World War Two (WWII) Vickers machine-gun. | Source

Breakout

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.

Recapture

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.

Panoramic view from the Symbolic Mountain Lookout at the Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia, 22 September, 2006.
Panoramic view from the Symbolic Mountain Lookout at the Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia, 22 September, 2006. | Source

Respect

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.

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©Copyright 2012 by David J. Hunt


Dramatization

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    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      UnnamedHarald, this is a very interesting hub. I don't think I had ever really considered Australia having a POW camp but as they had ships sunk just off their own shoreline, I suppose they must have shot down or captured sailors and airmen. The breakout must have been a shock to the poor guards. The cemetery is very beautiful.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, Jools. Australia had several camps (I don't know how many off the top of my head). There were a lot of merchant marine prisoners, too, I believe. Escaping from Australia would have been difficult, given the vast distances for Germans and Italians to get home. I'm not sure what the deal was with Indonesians being held at the request of the Dutch East Indies.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      What an amazing tale this is, and well told too. The Austrailians showed a lot of humanity it seems to me, considering the savagery of the war that still raged. It is unfortunate that abiding by the Geneva Convention rules was seen as weakness. I am glad that the Japanese escapees were ordered not to attack civilians.

      Another really interesting Hub!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, xstatic. It is quite a story. Thanks for the compliment. I notice you're in Eugene, Oregon and I'm curious if you've ever heard of Dr. Labowski who died there in 2006. He was one of the Polish doctors who saved thousands from the labor and death camps in Poland during the war.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      No, unfortunately I did not ever hear about him locally. I have been here close to forty years too.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Sorry, xstatic, that's Dr "Lazowski", not "Labowski". In any case, I'm not surprised-- he was extremely low key.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England

      So "The Great Escape" wasn't the biggest POW escape after all. The biggest Allied POW escape?

      Excellent work Harald the Unnamed, a few more of these articles and you can start printing. :)

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • goosegreen profile image

      goosegreen 4 years ago

      Harald. The footage you have shown is from the 1980s Kennedy Miller mini series "The Cowra Breakout" In the mini series the ringleaders of the escape were captured in New Guinea. This doesn't necessarily mean its true but it stands to reason. Given the Japanese reluctance to surrender I would guess that Australia would have received the bulk of Japanese prisoners taken in nearby campaigns such as New Guinea, Guadalcanal and Bougainville. It is well documented that the Japanese used Korean Labourers during the Kokoda campaign and throughout the pacific. Some of the "Jungle" scenes from "The Cowra Breakout" were filmed in Warriewood near where I live at a place locals call "Back Beach". I have been to Cowra. The site of the camp is now just concrete slabs on a field. There is a small museum dedicated to the breakout and the Japanese cemetry is very well tended and beautiful. Exactly what you expect of a Japanese Garden.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Steve. I believe La Grande Évasion in 1943 was the largest Allied escape, where 132 actually broke out. In the Great Escape, 250 tried to escape but "only" 76 actually got out. Thanks for commenting!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Goosegreen-- what a great comment. I didn't know where the Japanese prisoners were originally captured so I thank you for this information. I'll have to look into that miniseries.

    • RichardPac profile image

      RichardPac 4 years ago from Sunny Florida!

      Wow, I had no idea! Here in the US, as children we are taught very little about the WWII Japanese interment camps. This is a part of our history that toe books tend to skip over. The conditions were nowhere near as bad as Nazi camps, but still being forcefully removed from your home with or without your family can be rough. I understand this was a POW camp, but neither is good I suppose. Thank you for sharing this little piece of history. It's amazing that the guard had the forethought to hide the bolt!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, RichardPac. Re the guard: it's especially poignant that one of his last conscious thoughts before being mobbed and killed was to disable the machine-gun so the prisoners couldn't turn it on his fellow guards. Thank you for commenting.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      Very fascinating story. Especially fascinating is this sort of psychological aspect about the attitude of the two sides towards each other. Interesting too, the observation of the Geneva Convention and the ultimate outcome of reconciliation and respect.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi NateB11. I agree completely about the different attitudes and prejudices. Funny also is how, when one's own soldiers sacrifice themselves they are heroes, but when your enemies sacrifice themselves they are somehow inhuman. But I guess, in war, the enemy has to be dehumanized so it's "easier" pschologically to kill them. War is a nasty business.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and awesome. Had no idea POW camps were also in Australia. Fascinating read. Passing this on.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Good to hear from you, Gypsy. Many thanks for sharing.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

      Didn't know a thing about this, very interesting (as usual!). Voted up and shared.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Judi Bee. Thanks for commenting and sharing. I suppose like most people, I also thought that the biggest escape was the "Great Escape" of movie fame. Interesting what we don't know-- but it keeps history even more interesting.

    • Keith Sutherland7 profile image

      Keith Sutherland Author 4 years ago from Brixham, Devon

      I am supposed to be working on my next manuscript but am being prevented from doing so because of your intriguing Hubs. You have got yourself a follower with the material that you are coming up with.

      Congratulations and thank you for the education.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Sorry about that, Keith! But I'm glad you're enjoying them. Thanks for the encouragement.

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