Back in April I went camping in Central New South Wales. On the way back we paid what we assumed would be a quick visit to Cowra POW Camp, and ended up staying longer than we anticipated.
The camp was built during WWII and housed about 4000 prisoners in four compounds. Many were Italians, there were some Koreans who had served in the Japanese military, a group of Indonesian civilians, but there were also just over 1,000 Japanese prisoners.
In August 1944 word was leaked of a plan to move all of the Japanese prisoner who were not officers or NCOs to another camp at nearby Hay. The prisoners were informed on 4th August. On the night of the 5th August, just over 1,000 attempted a massed breakout.
Armed with improvised weapons, they stormed the guard posts en masse. Four Australian soldiers were killed, along with numerous POWs. Just over 350 actually escaped the camp, disappearing into the surrounding countryside. A number committed suicide either during the breakout, or after it. There are stories of prisoners attempting to hitch-hike, and cases of local civilians giving them food and shelter. The prisoners themselves had been ordered not to harm the local civilian population. Within 10 days all of the surviving escapees had been recaptured.
The final toll was 4 Australian soldiers killed, along with 231 prisoners dead and 108 wounded. Many died by suicide or at the hands of their fellows.
The camp itself continued to operate until the end of the war.
Virtually none of the original camp structure survives, but the area it covered has footpaths and numerous interpretative boards which explain life in the camp, and the lead-up to the breakout as well as the events of the breakout itself. These photos show some of the surviving structures and foundations. Sadly I don't have much in the way of notes as to what most of these pictures are of.
This is a reconstruction.
The layout of the camp.
The Italian prisoners had numerous craftsmen in their ranks. They built two fountains in their compound, parts of which still survive. They also worked in the local community; indeed they seem to have been lightly supervised, with an expectation that they would work outside the camp during the day and return at night. Some even used this freedom of movement to carry on romantic relationships with the locals.
Near the camp is a Japanese war cemetery; initially this held the dead from the breakout, but in 1960 it was expanded to house the remains of all Japanese war dead in Australia. In addition Cowra has a magnificent Japanese garden, built in part by the Japanese government in gratitude for the town's respectful treatment of both the prisoners and the war-dead. It exists as a symbol of peace and friendship between the people of Japan and the people of Cowra.