History of Oceania

The largest prisoner escape of World War II occurred in an Australian concentration camp

If we were to ask what the largest prisoner escape of World War II was, surely we would all automatically think of the two from Stalag Luft III.

The one that was made into a movie in The Great Escape and the one known as The Wooden Horse. However, seventy-six men participated in the first, of whom only three managed to escape, while in the other -chronologically earlier- another three were involved in the event.

Nothing compared to the mass escape from Cowra concentration camp. :over a thousand Japanese captives.

Cowra is a small town in New South Wales, near the east coast ofAustralia . A semi-arid but temperate climate that began to be colonized in the first half of the 19th century and whose inhabitants led a very quiet existence until the world became a global battlefield.

It was then that a prison camp was built there, the No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound , where Japanese soldiers were interned captured in combat. Initially 4,000 military and civilian inmates were held there, as it also included collaborating Indonesians from the East Indies at the request of the Dutch government.

However, in the summer of 1944 the number multiplied brutally, with 2,223 Japanese (of which 544 were merchant sailors), 14,720 Italians captured in the North African campaign and 1,585 Germans (mostly from the Kriegsmarine and the merchant marine).

That is, the field was, de facto , the largest town in the surrounding area (Cowra today does not reach 10,000 residents) and when so many different mentalities came together, incidents abounded between guards and prisoners, especially Japanese for being the most ideologically and culturally peculiar.

And that the set was distributed by four sectors that structured in a more or less symmetrical way the circular plan of the field. In February 1943 the news of a riot of prisoners of this nationality in the Featherson Camp of New Zealand, in which 48 people died between inmates and guards, led the Cowra management to tighten the disciplinary regime and extreme security measures , installing machine guns and ordering personnel to always be armed.

Keep in mind that the guards, the soldiers of the 22nd Garrison Battalion of the Australian Militia, were basically veterans considered unfit to fight in the front line due to their age or physical condition.

At the beginning of the month of August 1944, after a report on the state of the place that advised to relieve it of prisoners and separate the Japanese soldiers from their officers Due to their ascendancy over the former, it was effectively decided to transfer them to another camp in New South Wales but located 400 kilometers to the east, that is, inland.

It was an area considered much safer, given its remoteness from the coast and the desert characteristics of that part of Australia, which in theory would deter any attempt to escape or rebel. The Japanese were informed on August 4. The next night the dramatic events that gave Cowra its own section in history were unleashed.

At around 1:45 in the morning, according to later testimonies, an inmate ran towards the entrance of the camp screaming, followed by a bugle blast that did not belong to the Australians. It was clearly a sign but it was not clear why, and even less so at that time.

The response was immediate:the Japanese, divided into three groups, pounced racing over the barbed wire with their trademark exclamations of Banzai! They wore blankets to protect themselves from the spikes and had white and blunt weapons , among knives, clubs, stakes with nails, baseball bats and gloves and other similar home-made instruments. While some scrambled to break the wires, others left the burning barracks behind.

One of the sentinels fired a first warning shot but when that human tide charged the Australians opened fire about her.

One of the two Vickers machine guns that guarded the perimeter contained the first wave but the thing had been so fast, massive and unexpected that the prisoners managed to reach it and kill the soldiers who operated it , although one of these had time to remove the bolt and throw it far into the darkness so that the enemy could not use the weapon.

Meanwhile, the other aussies soldiers they turned out to be insufficient to contain the evasion. To get an idea of ​​what that pandemonium was, 1,104 Japanese took part in the action , 231 dying and 108 being injured; in addition, there were 4 Australian deaths.

In total 359 prisoners escaped; the others were either arrested by bullets, 31 committed suicide by hanging themselves or throwing themselves in front of a train when their escape failed or later, when they were about to be arrested; a dozen perished in the flames and two were shot by civilian militiamen at their own request (also some who, perhaps because they did not want to join the insurrection, appeared with signs of having been killed).

Among the deceased was Sergeant Hajime Toyoshima , who achieved some fame for being the first Japanese soldier captured in Australia during World War II, being forced to make an emergency landing with his Zero during a raid about Darwin (the idea of ​​the kamikazes was still far away ).

Apparently, it was Toyoshima who blew the bugle that night, dying in the ensuing chaos. The comrades who managed to get out were not free for long and they were all arrested again over the next ten days; In his honor, it should be noted that, following the orders of his superiors, they did not attack any civilians.

Naturally, that incident gave rise to an official investigation whose conclusions were made public the following month in the national parliament. According to these, the treatment given to the prisoners was appropriate to the Geneva Convention and none had ever expressed complaints about it, so it was deduced that the riot was due to a coldly drawn up plan .

Likewise, the behavior of the guards was approved, they used the appropriate force and, according to medical analysis, many of the deaths among the Japanese were due to suicide (attempts, in the case of the wounded) or to the action of their own companions. Finally, the two soldiers in charge of the machine gun were awarded posthumously.

The No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound remained active until 1947, when the repatriation was carried out of the last Japanese and Italian prisoners. Today there is not much left, beyond some barbed wire, the watchtower and the classic memorials.

However, the memory of him remains close, in the village, thanks to the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Center , a bucolic Japanese garden designed by an architect of that nationality specialized in the subject, Ken Nakajima , author of other similar sites around the world such as the botanical gardens of Montreal and Moscow. The objective when creating it in 1979 was to bring both countries closer and leave behind the enmity that the war brought.

There are 5 hectares of trees, hedges, trails, lakes and waterfalls with some typical elements of the Rising Sun culture, such as an Edo hut, a bell, a tea house and a greenhouse with bonsai, which also celebrates a matsuri (traditional festival) every spring.

His visit continues with that of a cemetery , designed by the Japanese Shigeru Yura, where not only those who died in the revolt but all the Japanese fallen in Australia are buried.

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