Cowra Breakout, 1 July 1944To History
The Cowra breakout is one of the defining stories of post-war Australia in the 1940s. With several Prisoner of War camps set up across the country, the New South Wales dairy town of Cowra housed just over 1000 Japanese POWs inside Camp B of its No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound.
In the early hours of the morning on July 1st 1944, the Japanese prisoners stormed the fence which ran the perimeter of the complex. With rudimentary handmade weapons such as sharpened butter knives in hand, 400 prisoners managed to escape the compound. Pandemonium ensued as the remaining Japanese prisoners set fire to all of the buildings. All the prison guards could do was open fire on the escapees as they fled into the land beyond.
Prime Minister John Curtin would note at the time that the escape "showed a suicidal disregard of life" and with a cultural emphasis on death over surrender once captured. It would seem that the point of escape was to avoid imprisonment through exacting a quicker death. In the weeks that followed, many prisoners were found dead in the surrounding countryside having committed suicide through hanging or self inflicted wounds. It was thought they would rather die than face the humilation of returning home as former prisoners of war. The breakout would claim the lives of 234 Japanese POWs and injuring over 100 others.