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The Cowra breakout: remembering and reflecting on Australia’s biggest prison escape 75 years on



The burial of some of the Japanese prisoners of war who lost their lives in the mass outbreak from B Camp, (the Japanese section), at No. 12 Prisoner Of War compound in the early hours of August 5, 1944.
Australian War Memorial (073487)

Rebecca Hausler, The University of Queensland

Today (August 5) marks the 75th anniversary of Australia’s largest prison escape: the Cowra breakout, in New South Wales, during the second world war. In fact, it is one of the largest prison escapes in world history, but unless you are a keen war historian you may have never heard about it.

A small farming community was forever changed in 1944, when the sound of a bugle cut through the crisp night air at the Cowra Prisoner of War camp.

Shortly before 2am, hundreds of Japanese prisoners of B Camp ran towards the barbed wire fences brandishing makeshift weapons such as sharpened table knives and clubs.

The morning after the outbreak revealed the dead bodies of many Japanese POWs lying everywhere along the blanket draped wire.
Australian War Memorial (044172)
Knives recovered in and around B Camp.
Australian War Memorial (073486)

Rushing through a hail of bullets fired by the Australian guards, hundreds of prisoners escaped into the countryside. In the following days, 334 prisoners were recaptured.




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Four Australian soldiers and at least 231 Japanese prisoners were killed, while a further 108 prisoners and three guards were wounded. No civilian casualties or injuries were recorded.

As the dust settled, many would question why the prisoners would attempt such a bold and ultimately lethal escape plan. How do we as a society make sense of such bloodshed?

Burial of Australian soldiers killed during breakout of Japanese prisoners at B Camp.
Australian War Memorial (044119)

From non-fiction to fiction

While there have been a number of non-fiction works written on this event by authors such as Hugh Clarke, Charlotte Carr-Gregg, and Harry Gordon, it is works of fiction that have sought to fill in the gaps of history. They give us a way of understanding the incomprehensible.

The first author to do so was Australian poet and novelist Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie. Mackenzie was stationed at Cowra during WWII and was on duty the night of the breakout.

Dead Men Rising, by Seaforth Mackenzie.

His novel Dead Men Rising was based on his experiences. Because of this, the book was initially halted from Australian release due to the publisher’s fears of libel claims.

The book was released in the UK and USA in 1951 but Australian readers had to wait until 1969, several years after Mackenzie’s death, to read his interpretation of the event.

Dead Men Rising is largely focused on camp life through the eyes of the guards in the lead up to the break out. There is little interaction with the Japanese inmates who are represented as “un-human”, “animal-like” and “unpredictable”.

Mackenzie depicts them as utterly foreign and incomprehensible to the Australian soldiers. This narrative likely reflects attitudes at the time with anti-Japanese sentiment still high in the early post-war years.

A Japanese perspective

Several years later, Japanese author and former military doctor Teruhiko Asada, wrote Hiroku Kaura no Bōdō a title that translates as “The Secret Record of the Cowra Riot” in 1967.

Japanese Prisoners Of War marching back to their quarters after being issued with new clothing a month before the breakout.
Australian War Memorial (067200)

It was received eagerly by English speaking audiences when it was translated by former Australian soldier and interpreter Ray Cowan in 1970 under the sensationalist title The Night of a Thousand Suicides.

The Night of a Thousand Suicides, by Teruhiko Asada and translated Ray Cowan (left) and The Naked Sun, by Ted Willis (right)

Presented as a first-person narrative, the story had an intimate feel lacking in previous accounts, which led to some claiming the book was more fact than fiction, no doubt reinforced by Cowan’s inclusion of photographs from the Australian War Memorial. But this attribution is problematic given Asada was never imprisoned at Cowra.

The breakout was again revisited by authors in the 1980s. The Naked Sun, published in 1980 by British author Lord Ted Willis, uses a split narrative.

Alternating between an Australian and a Japanese perspective of the war, this novel highlights the unlikely similarities shared between the story’s two opposing protagonists, an ex-farmer from occupied New Guinea and an imprisoned Japanese Sergeant.

Childhood memories

Later that decade, British-Australian author Jim Anderson (of OZ Magazine fame) draws on his own memories of the Cowra breakout as a child in his 1989 novel Billarooby.

Billarooby, by Jim Anderson.

The coming of age novel depicts a young boy who seeks to help the “samurai” escape from the POW camp, amid a backdrop of familial trauma and the hardships of rural life.

The boy’s innocence highlights the inherent racism, bigotry and violence that permeate the town’s pleasant façade, disrupting the notion that the “enemies” are the ones behind the barbed wire fence.

In 1989 Thomas Keneally revised and republished his 1965 novel The Fear.

The 1965 edition drew upon his boyhood memories of the breakout with this work briefly depicting the camp and subsequent breakout in the latter half of the book.

But in the revised 1989 edition, which was renamed By the Line, he omits any mention of the camp entirely. The author later said this early depiction was largely inaccurate.

The Fear, By The Line and Shame and the Captives, by Thomas Keneally.

With this fresh perspective, Keneally returned again to the breakout in 2013 with Shame and the Captives which is set in the town of Gawell, a fictionalised version of Cowra.

Keneally said in his introduction that now, rather than drawing on his faulty memories of childhood, he spent considerable time researching the historical event which informs his work.

By aiming to create a “a truth in this fiction” Keneally hoped to “interpret the phenomenon of Cowra”. His reimagining included explorations of Italian and Korean POWs who were also held at Cowra, but whose stories are often overlooked.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss.
Simon & Schuster AU

The most recent work which revisits the breakout is by Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss.

Her 2016 work Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms provides an Indigenous voice to the history of Cowra, a voice that has often been silenced in accounts of Australian history.

Issues of race, discrimination and loyalty take on a new sense of urgency in this wartime setting, yet also highlight that while much has changed in the last 75 years, so much has stayed the same.

Heiss echoed this view when she asserted there “are lessons still to be learned from the history of Cowra”, lamenting the regression in Australia’s treatment of detainees in centres such as Manus Island or Don Dale.

Cowra today

From this bloody chapter of history, the township of Cowra – today, a four hour drive inland from Sydney – has moved forward to promote itself as a beacon of peace, friendship, and understanding.




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In a show of respect for the dead, the Cowra RSL Sub-branch cared for the Japanese burial ground informally until eventually the graves were relocated to what is now the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery, which opened in 1964.

In 1979 the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre opened, and is considered to be a “tangible monument to peace and reconciliation”.

The Japanese gardens in Cowra, taken in April 2018.
Flickr/Robert Montgomery, CC BY

The gardens and the cemetery were symbolically linked by an avenue of cherry blossoms in 1988, and in 1992 Cowra was awarded further recognition to its peace efforts with The Australian World Peace Bell.

Festivals such as the Sakura Matsuri festival and the Festival of International Understanding further showcase Cowra as a “unique place … of reconciliation”.The Conversation

Rebecca Hausler, PhD Candidate, Researcher, and Sessional Lecturer in Japanese Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Fears about China’s influence are a rerun of attitudes to Japan 80 years ago


Honae Cuffe, University of Newcastle

July 1 marked the 80th anniversary of Australia’s iron ore embargo against Japan. The official reason was resource conservation, but the ban was really driven by a fear of Japan – which had been buying up assets like iron ore and scrap metal – gaining a stronghold in Australia that threatened our sovereignty and security.

Despite the passing of 80 years, Australia is having the same discussions we had back in 1938, only this time about China.

China’s growing commercial influence in Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries has sparked concerns about its political ambitions. Responding to these concerns with economic sanctions is likely only to pander to US desires to curb Chinese influence, placing Australia’s economic future and regional security at risk.

The economic sanctions Japan faced in the 1930s and early 1940s contributed in large part to the outbreak of the Pacific War.

With the recent tit-for-tat US and Chinese trade restrictions, is the world heading down a similar path?

What can we do differently this time around?

Australia must recast its foreign policy with a view to the role it wishes to play in its immediate region. This needs to be a little more adventurous than the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.

The Australia of the 1930s faced a region in flux. There were territorial disputes, the waning power of Britain – Australia’s primary ally and protector – and the growing military and commercial weight of regional power Japan, whose intentions remained unclear. Sound familiar?

In early 1937, fears emerged of a world steel shortage. While iron ore restrictions were being introduced elsewhere, the Australian government maintained that it was not a lack of resources that had created a shortage but an inadequate output.

It came as quite a surprise then, in May 1938, when the Australian government announced an embargo on iron ore exports, effective July 1 1938. The government cited a (then) recent and very brief report, compiled by the Commonwealth government geological adviser, which concluded iron ore deposits were much smaller than had been estimated and perhaps would not meet domestic needs.




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The embargo included existing agreements with foreign investors, such as the Japanese lease at the Yampi Sound mines in Western Australia, where preparations for the first iron ore extraction were well under way.

The government stressed that the embargo was not due to anti-Japanese sentiment. Nevertheless, this was the conclusion the Japanese government drew as it tried and failed to secure access to the Yampi Sound project.

The size of Australia’s current iron ore exports calls into question the logic of this report and the export ban it led to.

A foreign foothold in Australian territory

Throughout the 1930s, Japan pursued a policy of southward expansion, both territorial and economic in nature. At the centre of this policy was the need for resources to cater for Japan’s rapidly growing population. This involved the “economic penetration” of Far Eastern nations, investing Japanese capital to secure essential goods.

Australia, still recovering from the Great Depression, welcomed these investments.

‘Construct new Japan as Below’. Legend reads: Industrial Centre, Immigration Spheres, Expansion Spheres for White Races, Trade Expansion Spheres, Investment Expansion Spheres.
From the Collection of the National Archives of Australia, A601, 402/17/30.

Japan’s visions for territorial expansions became clear in July 1937. Japan – as Australia had long feared – proved itself an aggressor when its army invaded China, signalling the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Australia opted for a diplomatic response to this conflict, remaining impartial and encouraging “cooperation and conciliation” as the solution.

However, Japanese economic investments were being viewed with increasing caution.

Australia’s trade commissioner in Tokyo, Eric E. Longfield Lloyd, reported that Japan’s territorial expansion into China had been aided by a seemingly innocent system of economic penetration throughout the 1920s and ’30s. He feared that allowing the Yampi Sound project to continue, operated as it was by Japanese staff, would result in a “foreign foothold” in Australian territory.


From the collections of the National Archives of Australia, A601, 402/17/30.

Longfield Lloyd pressed for the project’s cancellation “by any means whatsoever”. One proposal was was an export embargo “by declaration of insufficiency”.

Here was the origin of the 1938 iron ore embargo.

Chequebook diplomacy

Much like in 1938, today’s fears about Chinese investments hinge on the question of political influence and security implications.

These concern have led to the limiting of property investments and the banning of foreign political donations.

Further afield, China’s vast infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative, has sparked speculation that the nation is using chequebook diplomacy – and perhaps debt-book diplomacy – to secure economic leverage and gain greater influence in regional and global affairs.

This is of particular concern in Australia’s immediate sphere of influence, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Most recently, the Australian government sought to protect its diplomatic and security interests when it outbid the Chinese telecom giant Huawei for the rights to construct a network of internet cables linking the Solomon Islands to Sydney.

Time for a long-range view of Australia and its foreign policy

The economic pressure exerted on Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s – in which Australia was by no means alone, with the US and Britain leading the charge – deprived the nation of its means of survival. This hastened the campaign of aggressive regional conquest in pursuit of raw materials that eventually led to Pacific War.

To be sure, China’s current economic position makes it unlikely that trade sanctions will lead to armed conflict. But throw in territorial disputes, erratic leadership, the US-China struggle for Pacific dominance, and the future seems a lot less certain.

With all this in mind, the 1938 iron ore embargo does serve as a warning against over-reliance and a blinkered outlook that sees only potential dangers in our immediate region.

Now is the time for Australian to broaden its foreign relations, avoiding the potential downfall of over-reliance on the Chinese market and the US alliance, while building new diplomatic ties.

There is such an opportunity in Australia’s neighbourhood, “that part of the world”, as shadow defence minister Richard Marles recently argued, “in which our influence matters the greatest. What we say and do in the Pacific carries enormous weight.”

Australia must take the initiative in its immediate region to develop varied and mutually beneficial economic, diplomatic and strategic relationships.

The ConversationIn this way, Australia can strengthen its own economy, the economies nearby and its role as a regional leader and collaborator.

Honae Cuffe, PhD Candidate, History, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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