The Cowra Breakout

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At 1:45 am, on 5 August 1944, a bugle call heralded the beginning of the largest known prisoner of war escape. The bugler, Hajime Toyoshima, the first Japanese soldier ever to be captured in Australia, was signalling his fellow inmates at Cowra Prisoner of War camp in Western New South Wales to begin their escape.

Over the course of more than two and a half years of the Second World War, few Japanese had surrendered. Those who had fallen into Australian hands were imprisoned at a complex of prisoner of war camps outside Cowra.

The camps were established in 1941, and housed prisoners of various nationalities and ethnicities including German, Italian, Korean, Formosan, Javanese and, in August 1944, more than 1,000 Japanese.

For the Japanese in particular, it was considered dishonourable to be captured in battle, and being a prisoner of war was a source of enormous shame.

After a Korean informant warned that the Japanese prisoners were planning a mass escape from Cowra, Australian authorities decided to separate the officers and non-commissioned officers from the 700 other ranks. On Friday afternoon, 4 August 1944, as required by the Geneva Convention, they notified the Japanese prisoners of the impending separation.

The bugle used by Toyoshima Hajime

The bugle used by Toyoshima Hajime to signal the start of the breakout (AWM REL/04058)

The next day, before the officers and non-commissioned officers could be moved, almost 1,000 Japanese POWs stormed the camp fences and lit huts on fire whilst yelling the Japanese war-cry 'Banzai' (which can be translated as 'long live the Emperor'). The prisoners were armed with sharpened cutlery and improvised clubs, and protected against the barbed wire fences by baseball mitts and blankets.

Australian guards of the 22nd Garrison Battalion opened fire with machine guns but were quickly overwhelmed by waves of prisoners. Two guards, Privates Ralph Jones and Benjamin Hardy, were operating a truck-mounted Vickers machine-gun when they were overrun by the escaping prisoners. They managed to disable the gun, preventing the Japanese from turning it against other guards, before they were killed. Both were posthumously awarded the George Cross. 

As prisoners poured over the wire and through the main gate, many were shot but over 300 managed to escape.

During the next nine days, men of the Royal Australian Air Force, police, Australian Military Force trainees and members of the Australian Women’s Battalion stationed at Cowra, assisted in rounding up the escapees.

Black and photo photo of a barbed-wire fences, all running parrallel, with clothing hanging. At the foot of the first row of wire, amongst the long grass are some bodies.

The morning after the outbreak (AWM 044172)

Many of the prisoners committed suicide in the surrounding hills or back at the camp, the bugler, Hajime Toyoshima was amongst them.

After nine days all of the surviving escapees were recovered with some having made it as far as Eugowra, a distance of over 50 kilometres. More than 100 of the prisoners were wounded and approximately 230 of them died. Three Australians were killed on 5 August and a fourth was killed rounding up the escapees.

At the end of the war, the camp was dismantled and the last prisoners of war were repatriated to their respective homelands.

Colour photo of a japanese-style garden, with trees with white blossoms, sa stone wall, stone-paved path amongst white pebbles and some japanese-style stone bird houses. Plaque on wall reads "Japanese War Cemetery"

The Japanese War Cemetery at Cowra. Photo by Cowra Tourism Corporation

Today, Cowra has become a place of pilgrimage and friendship for Japanese and Australians, as the site of the only Japanese War Cemetery in Australia. A Japanese garden and avenue of cherry blossom trees are tributes to the depth of cross-cultural goodwill between Australia and Japan that has bloomed from such tragic origins.