A Matter of Honour – The Cowra Breakout 75th Anniversary from Graham Apthorpe – Author of The Man Inside
In the early winter’s morning of August 5, 1944 in the small town of Cowra in rural New South Wales Australia, 1,104 Japanese prisoners of war rioted and attacked the perimeter of their compound at No. 12 Prisoner of War and Internment Group. That incident would thenceforth be known as the Cowra Breakout.
At that time 1,104 Japanese were interned in B Compound at Cowra. Sullen and difficult they had co-operated with the Australian authorities as soon as they had started arriving in 1943. At a basic level the peace was kept. Mindful of 22,000 Australians held by the Japanese, Australia not only upheld the requirements of the Geneva Convention, it exceeded them. Sporting and musical equipment, fish from New Zealand, American sunglasses and safety razors were all supplied. In a perverse way this treatment only heightened their shame at being captives.
“Never let yourself be a prisoners” was the Japanese Military Code. Not having died in battle, most of these Japanese had been captured in a poor state; starving, wretched with tropical diseases and skin conditions, they were captured rather than having surrendered. But this was no consolation to a lost honour, and now a military death was no longer possible. But at Cowra, on the excuse of the transfer of over half their number to another camp, the plot was hatched. It was to be a riot; to cause as much carnage as possible and then to die.
That is what happened but once the huts had been set on fire and the perimeter breached, they had nowhere to go, and while some took their lives outside the camp, most realised their hopeless position and were recaptured … a doubling of their shameful captivity. Where had they gained their inspiration to rise up in this way? It was one very Junior officer 2nd Lieutenant Maseo Naka. Unlike the others who had accepted their captivity albeit with sullen contempt; Naka demonstrated his defiance by escaping. Although recaptured, he continued his insubordination. He had proved to those docile Japanese that there was a way to regain lost honour.