Cowra is a pleasant but unremarkable town of about 10,000 in New South Wales about 200 miles southwest of Sydney. It has one claim to fame. During World War II it was the site of a major prisoner of war camp for Italians and Japanese POWS. There were actually 4 camps. Each consisted of 17 acres and could hold up to 1,000 detainees. Camps A & C housed Italians and B & D were for Japanese. Many Japanese officers were held in D. Italians, the first Cowra prisoners, had been captured in North Africa.
At 2 am on the night of August 5, 1944, more than 900 of the Japanese detainees in Camp B attacked their guards. Armed with mess knives, baseball bats and improvised weapons, they set fire to their huts, destroying 18 of 20. Carrying extra clothing, they rushed the fences and headed for the gates at both ends of the camp in an escape attempt. Some succeeded but were recaptured over the next 9 days.
231 Japanese died. Some burned to death in the huts, others were killed by comrades or committed suicide while trying to commandeer a Vickers Machine Gun, and some died later from wounds. Accounts vary, but at least 3 Australians were wounded and 4 died; 3 of the dead were guards killed during the initial breakout attempt.
During World War II Australia interned 7,000 residents, and an additional 8,000 people were sent there by allies. The peak year was 1942 when 12,000 were interned. There were camps in each of Australia’s 6 states. Comparatively, there were up to 127,000 Japanese interned in 10 camps in 7 states west of the Mississippi–Arkansas, California, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona–in the United States.
All of the Japanese who died in the Cowra camp were buried in the Cowra War Cemetery. However, in 1964 a Japanese War Cemetery was funded by the Japanese Government in Cowra and the remains of other Japanese who died in Australia were brought here and buried.
A modest monument remains where the camps once stood. Cowra is about 100 miles west of the Blue Mountains, a popular destination for both Australians and visitors to Australia. It’s 57 miles from Cowra to the thriving town of Orange in Australia’s up and coming wine region.