The Crazy Story of the Biggest POW Camp Breakout of WWII
On this channel we have covered several of the daring POW breakouts of the Second World War, from the ingenious British plot to build an airplane to escape Colditz Castle to the epic saga of Lieutenant Franz von Werra, the only Axis prisoner to escape from North America back to Germany. But one country whose POWs are rarely discussed is Japan. The bushido samurai code by which the Imperial Japanese Forces fought held surrender to be a shameful act, and so most servicemen fought to the death or committed suicide rather than be captured. This attitude also led the Japanese to treat Allied prisoners with a level of brutality which has become notorious. The relatively few Japanese who did surrender were mainly held in camps in Australia and New Zealand, and while breakouts were rare, those which did occur were particularly violent and suicidal, reflecting the completely different attitude of the Japanese towards captivity. The bloodiest of these took place in the early morning hours of August 5, 1944 from the Cowra camp in Australia. It was the single biggest POW breakout of the entire War.
The town of Cowra lies 360 kilometres west of Sydney in the Australian state of New South Wales. Built 3 kilometres north of the town in 1941, the roughly circular Cowra POW Camp held around 4,000 prisoners and was divided into four compounds, labeled A-D. Compounds A and C held Italian enlisted men and NCOs, Compound B Japanese enlisted men and NCOs, and Compound D Japanese officers as well as Koreans and Taiwanese. These compounds were divided by a pair of wide intersecting avenues known as Broadways which provided the guards with clear lines of sight and fire in the case of a riot or breakout. The camp was guarded by the 22nd Garrison Battalion of the Australian Army, divided into four companies of around 1,000 men, each of which was responsible for guarding a different compound. Reflecting the materiel and manpower shortages which characterized the war, the men of the 22nd were all either too young, old, or disabled for regular military service and were equipped with obsolete weapons and equipment. These were conditions which were to have near-disastrous consequences.
For the Japanese prisoners in the camp, life in the camp was a sort of existential limbo. As prisoner Masatohi Kigawa later recalled:
“We had been taught that a war prisoner would be killed, but we were given no knowledge about what the life of a prisoner was like. Therefore we thought that a man, once a prisoners, had only a hopeless future before him even after the war. We thought that most ex-prisoners returning to Japan after the war would be taken out to some deserted place like an uninhabited island and shot dead by the Japanese Army. In fact according to the war history of Japan of the past, no Japanese had ever been taken prisoner before. We felt that a prisoner could not hope to return to society even if he survived.”
Believing that once a man was captured he ceased to be a soldier, upon arrival in the camp the prisoners shed their uniforms and made their own clothing from blankets and linens. Many also adopted false names for fear that their families would learn of their capture, as breakout ringleader Sergeant-Major Akira Kanazawa explained:
“I would never have told them my right name. The shame of being captured was too great. It would have brought dishonour to my family. We were checked when we larked later that American and Australian prisoners actually asked to have their names sent home, so that their families would know they were alive. We could never have inflicted that on our families. We received no mail as prisoners, and wanted none. We were dead men.”
Thus, while Allied, German, and Italian prisoners escaped in order to rejoin the fight and return to their families, for the Japanese, breakouts were a means of attaining the glorious death they had been denied in battle and purging themselves of the shame of surrender.
The main ringleader of the August 1944 breakout was Petty Officer Hajime Toyoshima, who on February 19, 1942 had become Australia’s first prisoner-of-war when his Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter was shot down during an air raid on Darwin. Like many of his fellow prisoners Toyoshima saw no hope of returning to Japan whatever the outcome of the war, and when captured had adopted the false name of Tadao Minami. And while the camp’s Italian prisoners were content to wait out the war in comfort, tensions between the guards and the Japanese remained high, and Toyoshima and his fellow prisoners quickly set about causing trouble. In 1943, many of the prisoners refused to work on May 27, Japanese Navy Day. When confronted about this, Toyoshima warned a camp guard that if he wanted the men to work, he had “better bring a machine gun.” The arrival of Japanese Army prisoners in February 1943 brought further tensions between the prisoners themselves. By this time Toyoshima and his fellow naval airmen had become an elite within the camp, having learned some English and accumulated a small amount of money and possessions labouring in nearby towns. Resentment between the Army and Navy prisoners lead to an election being held in July 1943 to choose new camp leadership. Army Sergeant-Major Akira Kanazawa was elected camp leader, with Army Sergeant Masao Kojima as his deputy and Toyoshima as third-in-command, though as Toyoshima was the only one of the three who spoke English he remained in nominal command of the camp. Together, the new triumvirate began contemplating a possible breakout from the camp.
The first signs that something was amiss came in the summer of 1944 when the normally combative Japanese prisoners suddenly became agreeable and docile. The guards’ suspicions were confirmed when on June 3 a Korean prisoner being transferred from B to D Compound reported overhearing the Japanese planning an uprising. These warnings were taken seriously by the Commander of B Compound, Major Robert Ramsay, as just such an uprising at the Featherston camp in New Zealand in February 1942 had resulted in 48 Japanese dead and 63 wounded and 1 guard dead and 6 wounded.
Not wanting a repeat of the Featherston incident, Ramsay ordered security tightened. Though his request for more men was denied, he was sent two Vickers heavy machine guns, which were installed on trailers with searchlights outside B Compound. However, these were left unmanned at night. The men of B Company were also ordered to sleep with their rifles by their side, and a sentry was posted every night in the Broadway between the four compounds. A flare signal was also arranged to warn the nearby Infantry Training Centre, whose armoury Ramsay suspected would be the escaping prisoners’ primary target. Yet despite these precautions, the guards were less than confident about their chances in the event of a breakout, as Major E.V. Timms, Commander of C Compound lamented:
“We’ve got to face the fact, the garrison is numerically inferior. If there is a break, and they do get out, the people of Cowra could be in real danger. It’s only a mile and a half away.”
This was compounded by the fact that B Compound’s population had swelled to 1,104 – twice its intended capacity – and that while regular inspections for contraband were performed, no attempt was made to confiscate chisels, baseball bats and other tools used for work and recreation which could easily be turned into weapons. Consequently, it was decided to move 700 enlisted men and NCOs to another camp in the nearby town of Hay to deny them the leadership of their officers. On Thursday, August 3, 1944, 50 new guards arrived at the camp, and Kanazawa, Kojima, and Toyoshima were summoned to Major Ramsay’s office and told that their men were being transferred the following Monday. Though the Australians deliberately withheld the fact that they were being split up by rank, the Japanese officers quickly deduced what was happening and that night called an emergency meeting. While the camp leadership had been contemplating a mass breakout for months, no concrete plans had yet been drawn up. But with time running out and under pressure from more fanatical junior officers, Kanazawa, Kojima, and Toyoshima hastily put together a plan of action. The prisoners were divided into three groups, each of which was given a different objective: one would capture the Vickers machine guns and turn them on B Company headquarters, one would break out into Broadway and open the camp gates, and the third would head into open country before linking up with the others to attack the Infantry Training Centre. A call also went out for the prisoners to stack firewood under their huts and to collect as many blankets and baseball bats as possible to help in climbing the barbed wire.
The breakout was scheduled for 2AM on the morning of Sunday, August 5. That evening, the camp leadership went from hut-to-hut giving motivational speeches to their men. Many of these speeches evoked the spirit of the carp, a fish considered especially courageous in Japanese folklore:
“The whole thing, you must know, is more about dying than fighting. That is why it is so important for you to think tonight about the carp, its spirit, its bravery, the way it battles against onrushing currents, the way it can even swim up waterfalls, You know well that the carp is the symbol of a fine Japanese boy; that the true Japanese has to be able to fight and finally die like the carp. This whole thing could go wrong. The Australians may annihilate us all tonight. You have to be dignified at the last moment, like the carp.”
Meanwhile, prisoners who were too ill to fight or chose not to participate in the breakout quietly committed suicide via hanging or traditional seppuku, plunging knives into their abdomens.
The signal for the breakout to begin was to be a single bugle blast blown by Toyoshima, but at 1:45 AM one prisoner lost his nerve and ran screaming towards the Compound gates to warn the garrison. He had already climbed the inner gate when he was stopped by a warning shot fired by Private Alfred Rolls, the Broadway sentry that night. Immediately Lieutenant Thomas Aisbett and two more soldiers ran over to investigate.
Then, all hell broke loose.
As soon as Aisbett arrived on the scene, a mob of Japanese soldiers yelling “banzai!” charged the fence armed with bats, chisels, knives, clubs, and garrottes. Aisbett ordered the sentries to run for their lives, and the four managed to make it to the gates and lock them behind them just as the mob reached the traitor and stabbed him to death. As Aisbett later recalled:
“By this warning the prisoner saved many lives and, in my opinion, the whole garrison. We had no chance to rescue him because the inner gate was still locked, and time to release him had run out. As I was officer in charge I shepherded the sentries and escort back to the gates, went through, last, and as I turned and looked back I saw Corporal McCormick fire at and shoot a Japanese POW brandishing some kind of weapon just behind us, right on the threshold of the gates.”
Meanwhile, a second group of prisoners began scaling the fences just across from the No.2 Vickers machine gun. But they were beaten to the gun by Privates Ben Hardy and Ralph Jones, who immediately began firing into the mob, cutting down prisoners by the dozen. At one point a stray bullet cut the power cable to the searchlight, plunging the position into darkness. But by then the prisoners’ huts were already ablaze, and Hardy and Jones could see their targets clearly against the flames. However, as the bodies piled up it became easier for the other prisoners to scale the fence, and when it became clear they would be overrun, Hardy told Jones to run for it and removed the bolt from the machine gun, rendering it inoperative. The two Privates were soon overtaken and stabbed and bludgeoned to death. They would later be awarded posthumous George Crosses for their gallantry.
At the same time, troops manning the No.1 Vickers gun managed to prevent the mob from overrunning B Company Headquarters, though one guard, Private Charles Shepherd, was stabbed in the heart by a prisoner. Those who had escaped into the Broadway also found themselves trapped, with many crawling into the storm drains on either side of the avenue to escape the hail of fire from the guards. A third group escaped over the fence near C Compound, and it is through here that most of the prisoners escaped into the open. By this time the camp had become a scene of utter chaos, as prisoner Marekuni Takahara recalled:
“I felt I could hear Toyoshima’s bugle again, telling me the enemy would all be killed. There were so many people running in front of me. At the beginning of the charge there was plenty of glare from the floodlights, then darkness, then the lights from the flare signal, red and yellow stripes across the sky, illuminating everything. The bullets from the tower were slanting down strongly, like heavy rain. In the middle many people fell down in a hail of bullets. It was hard for me to go forward because there were so many bodies. Sometimes I walked across dead bodies, sometimes I pushed the, slide. At last I reached the officers’ gate, but here again there were many bodies. I huddled down prone.”
Yet despite the suicidal ferocity of the attack, the guards soon managed to encircle and beat back the escaping prisoners, and by 3AM the situation in the camp had been effectively contained. Dawn rose on a scene of absolute carnage. Of the 1,104 prisoners in B Compound, 20 had committed suicide before the attack, 378 had escaped into open country, and 206 had been gunned down inside the camp, their bodies lying in heaps against the perimeter fences. The body of Hajime Toyoshima was later found in a storm drain, his throat slit. Sergeant Kojima had also been killed in the attack, meaning that of the camp leadership only Sergeant-Major Kanazawa survived. Killing continued sporadically until 9AM, with prisoners popping up from the piles of bodies yelling “Go on! Kill me!” – to which the guards gladly obliged.
Later that morning patrols from the Infantry Training Centre were sent out to round up the prisoners who had escaped into the countryside. While most of those still at large opted to surrender, some were determined to die an honourable death or cause as much mayhem as possible before being recaptured. Two prisoners were killed by a farmer and his son hunting rabbits, while two lay their heads on a railway line and were beheaded. Another stole a rifle from a soldier, but when it turned out to be unloaded he stabbed himself. In the end, 25 Japanese prisoners died outside the camp, bringing total casualties to 231 dead, 108 wounded. Meanwhile, 5 Australians had been killed and 4 wounded. In addition to Privates Hardy, Jones, and Shepherd killed on the night of the breakout, Lieutenant Harry Doncaster, a patrolling infantryman, was ambushed and stabbed to death by a band of escapees; while another, Private Thomas Hancock, was accidentally shot by a fellow soldier and later died of sepsis.
While the Australian government wished to cover up the breakout for fear of reprisals against Australian and Allied POWs, in September 1944 Prime Minister John Curtain was forced to announce the bare facts of the incident. Curiously, the Japanese government chose to ignore the news, for announcing the breakout would have meant admitting there were Japanese servicemen in captivity – something that was supposed to be impossible.
As the last survivor of the camp leadership, Sergeant-Major Kanazawa was tried in January 1945 for murder and inciting the breakout. He was convicted of the ancillary charge of “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline,” and sentenced to 15 months hard labour. However, he served his time in solitary confinement at Cowra before being repatriated to Japan in March 1946.
For many of the Cowra prisoners, the imagined shame and rejection which had lead them to rise up never materialized. As Masaru Moriki later recalled: “I came home on 8 April, 1946, the only one from my village to return. The others had all died, and there was some discomfort, some suspicion towards me, My family believed I had been killed on 11 November 1942, and I had a plaque in my ancestors’ tomb. But when I told them I had been a prisoner, someone said. ‘Don’t worry. You fought like a soldier. You should not worry about being in a prison cap. All Japan is a prison camp now.’”
Today, little remains of the Cowra POW camp except for a Japanese war cemetery, built on land gifted to Japan by the Australian government in 1963. As a further sign of friendship between the former enemy nations, in 1978 a formal Japanese garden designed by landscape architect Ken Nakajima was built nearby. It remains the largest Japanese garden in the Southern Hemisphere.
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Dear, Ian, Escape and Evasion: POW Breakouts in World War II, Rigel Publications, 1997
Ota, Yasuhiro, Shooting and Friendship Over Japanese Prisoners of War, Massey University, NZ, 2013, https://mro.massey.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10179/4778/02_whole.pdf
Cowra Breakout, Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/cowra
Gregory, Denis, From the Archives,1944: True Story Behind the Cowra Breakout, Sydney Morning Herald, August 5, 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/from-the-archives-true-story-behind-the-cowra-breakout-20190730-p52c8s.html
Cowra Breakout, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Cowra-breakout
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