Friday, August 04, 2006
The Cowra Breakout, August 5, 1944
Today in 1944, 545 Japanese prisoners of war attempted an escape from the Number 12 Prisoner of War Compound near Cowra in New South Wales, Australia. Although not known for sure, it is believed that this is the largest prison escape in modern history.
By the middle of 1944, there were nearly 20,000 Axis POWs in Australia; 4,000 of them were held at the Number 12 Compound. The prisoners were of several different nationalities: Japanese, Koreans who had served in the Japanese military and Italians who had been captured in North Africa. Like every Allied nation which held POWs, Australia followed the Geneva Convention with regard to the treatment of prisoners. This did not mean there we not problems, most of them caused by the huge cultural divide which existed between the Australian camp guards and the Japanese prisoners.
The Australians were constantly on the lookout for a large Japanese breakout. It was not an irrational fear, for one year earlier Japanese POWs in New Zealand had staged a riot and attempted a break-out at a camp near Featherston. Because of this incident, the Number 12 Compound was fortified with several machine gun positions in addition to the rifles carried by the 22nd Garrison Battalion, the unit responsible for camp security.
In late July of 1944, an informer among the POWs told the Australians that a mass escape plan was about to be executed. To stunt this attempt, camp officials announced on August 4th that all the Japanese enlisted men were to be moved to another camp, leaving their officers and non-commissioned officers behind. The men were given one day to prepare themselves for the move. That proved to be one evening too long, for the plan was further along than anyone except the planners imagined.
Several hours before sunrise on August 5th, nearly 600 Japanese prisoners attempted to go over and through the camp's barbed wire fences. They attacked three sides of the camp at once, armed with blankets to help in their climb over the fence and homemade weapons of all types. A few minutes later, most of the buildings in the Japanese part of the camp were set on fire, presumably as a diversion.
Two Australian privates, Benjamin Hardy and Ralph Jones, fought through the throng of escapees and attempted to man a nearby machine gun. They fired at the Japanese in an attempt to stop them, but the crowd soon engulfed and killed the men. Of the 545 Japanese who attempted to escape, 359 of them were successful. Some of the prisoners had not tried to escape at all, but had remained behind to set fires and then commit suicide.
It took 10 days to round up the last of the escapees. The officers in charge of the escape attempt had ordered their men to do no harm to any civilians they ran across; to a man, they all followed this order. When it became obvious they had no hope of permanent escape, some killed themselves rather face a return to the camp while others fought until they were killed by Australian soldiers. All told, 234 Japanese died in the escape attempt and the week and a half that followed; 108 were injured. Four Australian soldiers died.
Number 12 Camp remained in service until the last POWs were returned home in 1947. Privates Hardy and Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross for their heroism during the escape attempt. Today a large Japanese cemetery can be found in Cowra and a Japanese garden commemorating the breakout has been built nearby.