The Greatest Escape of World War II Was Japanese
Hundreds of Japanese soldiers broke out of an Australian prison
In the dead of night on Aug. 5, 1944, a mob of screaming prisoners stormed the barbed-wire perimeter of the Cowra prisoner-of-war camp. For 10 days, soldiers and police hunted hundreds of armed escapees wandering the countryside.
This was the biggest POW escape of World War II. Yet many people have never heard of it. Perhaps the reason is because Cowra was an Australian camp. The prisoners who escaped were Japanese.
For more than 50 years, the most famous World War II prison breakout was “The Great Escape.” Immortalized in the classic 1963 movie, 76 Allied prisoners spent months tunneling out of Nazi Germany’s Stalag III camp in March 1944.
But the Cowra Breakout was much larger. It involved about a thousand prisoners.
The Cowra Breakout occurred in a huge, overcrowded Australian POW camp near the town of Cowra, about 200 miles southwest of Sydney. The camp housed nearly 20,000 prisoners, mostly Italians the Allies had captured in North Africa.
There also were 2,200 Japanese, living in one compound for officers and another for non-commissioned officers and enlisted men.
The Italian prisoners were never much of a problem. Many weren’t exactly unhappy about exiting a war they never had wanted to fight in the first place.
The Japanese were far more dangerous. Surrender was the deepest disgrace in the in the Imperial Japanese military, a stain on the prisoners and their families. Most Japanese soldiers fought to the death or killed themselves rather than lay down their arms.
As one Japanese survivor of Cowra wrote, it was human not to want to die. But it was also wrong to remain a captive. Thus dying during an unsuccessful escape would be a form of escape from a pitiless code of honor.
The irony was that the Australians treated them fairly and according to the Geneva Convention, which was more than can be said for the Allied prisoners dying in Japanese camps. And at least the Japanese prisoners had food, unlike their comrades starving on some isolated Pacific island.
Nonetheless, the prisoners still concocted vague plans for an escape. Rumors of this reached Australian authorities, who reinforced the camp guards and ordered the transfer of enlisted prisoners to another camp.
As per the Geneva Convention—which mandated 24 hours priors notice for transfers—prison authorities duly notified the enlisted prisoners on Aug. 4.
Now was the time to strike. With their NCOs urging them on, the enlisted men voted to attempt a breakout the next day. Those who were too ill to move would redeem their honor by committing suicide. Despite the image of Japanese ruthlessness, they agreed they would not harm any civilians.
At 2:00 on Aug. 5, the blare of a Japanese bugle and raging fires shattered the calm. Prisoners set huts ablaze. Nearly a thousand screaming Japanese prisoners, armed with baseball bats, nail-studded clubs, garrotes and table knives, rushed the wire fence in four large groups.
Suspecting trouble, the guards had been sleeping beside their rifles. They quickly manned their posts and blazed away into the mob. It wasn’t enough. Guards rounded up many of the prisoners.
But one group of around 400 Japanese broke through the northwest wire, overwhelming two guards manning a Vickers machine gun. One of the guards managed to hide the firing mechanism for the gun before he died, preventing the escapees from turning the machine gun on the defenders.
Now 330 escapees were roaming the Australian countryside. Camp guards, troops from the Royal Australian Air Force, police, a women’s army battalion and recruits from a nearby Australian army training base began a manhunt.
“Many escapees chose to take their own lives rather than be recaptured,” according to writer David Hobson. “Two threw themselves under an oncoming train, while many hanged themselves. On their recapture, some pleaded to be shot. Others surrendered peacefully. At least two prisoners were shot by local civilians and several by military personnel.”
The Australian official history puts Japanese casualties at 234 dead and 108 wounded, including 31 suicides and 12 who perished in the blazing huts. Four Australian soldiers also died. In the Great Escape from Stalag III, the Germans machine-gunned 50 of the prisoners they recaptured.
Why has the Cowra Breakout received such little recognition? The most obvious reason is that Hollywood never made a movie out of it starring Steve McQueen, nor did Elmer Bernstein ever write a beautiful and stirring musical score.
But then, Cowra was the stuff of movie tragedy, not adventure. The Allied prisoners of the Great Escape spent months ingeniously digging tunnels under the noses of their captors. Vengeful Nazis shot many of them, but a few managed to reach safety in Allied or neutral territory, which showed the plan had a possibility of success.
The Japanese plan was sheer suicide. Rushing barbed wire and machine guns was desperation, not cleverness. Australia in the 1940s was a very white country. Escapees would have stood little chance of remaining at large, let alone stealing a boat or airplane to reach friendly lines.
In the end, perhaps we’ve neglected the Cowra Breakout because people have chosen to ignore it. The victorious Americans, British and Australians naturally celebrated their own heroes who had tried to escape Nazi captivity. The defeated Japanese just wanted to forget the war.
But the Cowra Breakout remains an epic escape.