Tag Archives: POWs

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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North Korean POWs seeking last chance to return home after decades in exile



File 20170628 25839 1mj9l93
At the United Nations’ prisoner-of-war camp at Pusan, North Korean and Chinese prisoners are assembled in one of the camp compounds.
Wkimedia/Larry Gahn/US State Department, CC BY-ND

Hea-Jin Park, Victoria University of Wellington

More than six decades after the Korean War, a small group of North Korean prisoners of war who made a new life in South America may get a chance to return home as part of a documentary film.

Last weekend marked the anniversary of the last major war in the Korean peninsula. The 1950–1953 Korean War or, in the words of Tessa Morris-Suzuki, the great “hot war” within the Cold War, started when North Korean troops crossed the arbitrarily established 38th parallel and forced their way south. The United Nations Command (UNC), composed of forces from 16 nations, including Australia and New Zealand, joined the South Korean military effort to halt the North Korean advance.

As the war unfolded, both sides soon faced the complicated task of handling prisoners of war (POWs), whose numbers were rapidly expanding. The UNC established several POW camps around South Korea, with the largest on Geoje-do (or Geoje) Island. It is said the camp was a little city within the island where around 170,000 North Korean and Chinese POWs waited, uneasy and fearful.

Negotiating POWs fate

The POWs’ repatriation was indeed a point of fierce debate in the negotiations of the armistice that started a year after the outbreak of the war. Accordingly, the UNC position was to allow North Korean POWs to decide between staying in the south or returning to the north, while North Korea insisted on the return of all POWs.

The Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC), with India as umpire, chairman and executive agent, supervised the repatriation of POWs from both sides. Statistics shows that under the operations Little Switch and Big Switch eventually around 83,000 POWs were repatriated to the north, while around 22,000 preferred to remain in the south.

There were, however, 88 POWs — 76 North Korean and 12 Chinese — who declined either option and went to India instead, and then later to Argentina and Brazil.

Decades later, Korean filmmaker Cho Kyeong-duk is trying to preserve their memories in a documentary that reverses their trip, taking them from South America back home to North Korea.

Stripped of their weapons, North Korean prisoners line up in Seoul on Oct. 10, 1950.
Frank Noel/flickr, CC BY-ND

New start a world away

In 2007, I met one of the surviving North Korean POWs who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Kim Kwan-ok was born and raised in Pyongyang. He was 21 years old when the South Korean Army captured him in North Chungcheong province and transferred him to the UN POW camp on Geoje-do. Upon the ceasefire in 1953, Kim decided he could not return to the north, as he feared for his life, yet he could not stay in the south either, because it was not his homeland.

Finding himself without a family, relatives or friends, he decided to leave Korea and restart life elsewhere. Kim remembered sobbing endlessly as the Astoria, the ship that took him and other POWs to India, slowly departed Incheon harbour on 9 February 1954. At that point, he thought his connection to his motherland was truly over.

While in Madras (now Chennai), Kim learnt poultry farming, took a course in photography and practised some sports. Although “free”, he remembered that there was not much to do for the POWs in India. Yet the issue that troubled them more than boredom was their uncertain future.

As the wait became longer, the POWs grew anxious and one day they all marched to remind the authorities of their existence — only to be confronted by guards.

Eventually, a few POWs decided to settle in India. Others returned to North Korea and three went to South Korea. According to Kim, however, most wished to emigrate to the United States. When the option became unlikely, many chose Mexico instead, hoping to remigrate to the US at a later date.

Unfortunately, Mexico declined their request, but Brazil and Argentina agreed to accept Korean POWs. Almost two years after their arrival in India, 55 North Korean POWs embarked to Brazil to start life anew, and in the next year or so 12 followed suit to Argentina.

When the then stateless Kim arrived in Argentina, all he possessed was his youth. With the help of a local Catholic organisation, he found shelter and a job, slowly making his way through a new life.

Consequences of war

When the first South Korean immigrants arrived in Argentina almost a decade later, Kim was at the port to welcome them and helped them get settled. He even served as the first president of the Korean Association in Argentina.

A few other North Korean POWs, especially those in Brazil, took a similar initiative, even when South Korean newcomers tagged them as “the prisoners” or “the communists”. Yet many POWs preferred to quietly blend in to local society and slowly disappear from the eyes and memories of all. They wanted to get away from the trauma of the war and the atrocities witnessed at Geoje-do POW camp. The POWs sought to live free of ideologies and prejudices.

The ConversationWhether or not the POW participants of this project complete their return home, it is a reminder that the human consequences of any war are carried in the hearts and memories of the people who fought, wherever they end up living.

Hea-Jin Park, Postdoctoral Fellow in Asian Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

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


Today in History: 24 March 1944


The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III

On this day in 1944, during World War II, 76 POWs began their break out from Stalag Luft III. The POW camp was located in Lower Silesia, Germany. 73 of the escapees were recaptured and 50 were executed, including 5 Australians.

The break out was made into a film in 1963, called, ‘The Great Escape.’

For more, visit:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalag_Luft_III
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Escape_(film)


Today in History – 23 May 1945


Germany – World War II: Heinrich Himmler Committed Suicide

Heinrich Himmler, a leading Nazi and mass murderer in World War II, committed suicide on this day in 1945. This before he was brought to justice for his crimes.

Himmler was born on the 7th October 1900. He became a leading member of the Nazi Party and was a major player in the leadership that brought about the Holocaust (the mass murder of millions of Jews, Roma, Poles, Communists and POWs).

 


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