By Rebecca Hausler
Approximately 200 kilometres from Australia’s capital Canberra lies a small town called Cowra. Fed by the Lachlan River, the fields surrounding the town are dotted with sheep, cows, and crops such as leafy greens, onion, and beetroot. Many tourists from across the nation and the globe visit Cowra each year – but not for the wineries, the cheesery, or the quaint 1900s Victorian architecture along the main street. Cowra’s appeal lies in its complex history dating back to World War II, when the town was forever changed one night in 1944.
During World War II, many towns across southern Australia housed Axis prisoners of war who had been captured across the world. Cowra housed Italian and Japanese prisoners of war (POWs). Although it should be noted other cultural or national minorities mistakenly identified as Japanese – such as men from occupied Korea – were also held in Cowra. As Japan’s foothold in the Pacific region weakened under the strain of tropical illness, disrupted supply lines, and difficult terrain, the number of captured Japanese soldiers housed at the camp in Cowra ballooned to approximately 1,104 in 1944.
In the early hours of the morning on 5 August 1944, with the full moon hanging high in the sky, a bugle sounded, signaling the commencement of one of the largest prison breaks in Commonwealth history. While numbers remain unclear due to conflicting reports, hundreds of Japanese prisoners of war in Compound B ran towards the barbed wire. Armed with crudely fashioned weapons, such as sharpened butter knives and ad-hoc clubs and bats, the men started to climb the ‘thick barbed-wire entanglements about eight feet [2.4 meters] high’. The Australian guards on duty began firing the two Vickers machine guns stationed at the camp, while off-duty guards rallied, aiming their rifles at the escaping Japanese prisoners. An errant bullet cut the camp’s lighting, but a fire engulfing the prisoner’s huts – evidently set alight in the riot – bathed the scene in red.
Even after months of investigation and a formal court of enquiry, the figures regarding how many were involved remain disputed. The Japanese casualties, initially reported to be 231 dead, was later officially revised up to 234 – although even this number is seldom cited definitively, with some documents suggesting more than 250 prisoners died. It is reported that 108 prisoners were injured. No civilian casualties or injuries were recorded, however four Australian soldiers were killed as a direct result of the incident.
The prisoners of war who escaped were tracked down in the surrounding Australian bush in the months, days and weeks afterwards – some 334 in total. Some were captured alive, however many were returned to the camp dead – either by their own hands or were killed during their capture.
This event is commonly known as the Cowra Breakout in Australia, and it continues to attract attention from people wanting to learn more about this wartime event. Several literary works have tried to explain and understand the event from a variety of viewpoints. This is where the locus of my research is focused.
My undergraduate majors were in English Literature and Asian Studies. When I started my PhD thesis, I wanted to explore my interest in Anglo-Japanese literature within a specifically Australian context. In the mid 2010s, there were several novels published that featured Australian-Japan wartime relations as well as the Cowra Breakout. And so, I started on a project that took my transcultural research on a completely different trajectory.
Early fictional works such as Australian author Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie’s Dead Men Rising (1952) and Japanese author Teruhiko Asada’s [in translation] The Night of a Thousand Suicides (1970) troubled the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, given the personal histories of the authors as enlisted soldiers. Mackenzie was a sergeant overseeing the Italian quadrant of Cowra, and was on duty the night of the incident. Asada was a military doctor who, following Japan’s declaration of defeat, lived as a surrendered prisoner of war in Rabaul (New Guinea) under Australian command. These novels have been used as sources for non-fiction works about the incident. Their continued use in this way is problematic, driving a particular narrative of what occurred and perpetuating a certain interpretation of history.
As I note in my article for The Conversation, Mackenzie depicted the Japanese prisoners as ‘utterly foreign and incomprehensible to the Australian soldiers. This narrative likely reflects attitudes at the time, with anti-Japanese sentiment still high in the early post-war years’. Furthermore, ‘Dead Men Rising is largely focused on camp life through the eyes of the guards in the lead up to the breakout’. In contrast, Asada’s novel was written in a first-person narrative style. The novel’s translation into English by Ray Cowan provided English readers the first opportunity to read about the events from a Japanese perspective. Although Asada was in the Japanese military, he was never held at Cowra. Some claimed the book was more fact than fiction, no doubt reinforced by Cowan’s inclusion of photographs from the Australian War Memorial.
Booker Prize-winning novelist Thomas Keneally has written two novels inspired by the Cowra Breakout: The Fear (1965) and almost 50 years later Shame and the Captives (2013). The Fear was Keneally’s second novel, and a purely fictitious interpretation of the Japanese breakout, heavily influenced by the Cold War and his recollections of the breakout from when he was a child. Conversely, Shame and the Captives was informed by Keneally’s extensive research into the incident, with the influence of Mackenzie’s and Asada’s novels palpable throughout the text.
In 2016, Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss’ novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms broke new ground in several ways. Firstly, the novel is set at Erambie Mission, an Aboriginal mission located just outside of Cowra, which allows Heiss to imagine the breakout and the war in general through an Aboriginal lens. Unlike other novels that situate the breakout towards the end of the narrative, making it the climax of the plot, Heiss’ novel instead opens with the breakout.
Heiss also illustrates the overlaps between the detainment of Japanese enemy soldiers and the restrictions placed on Aboriginal Peoples of Australia during the era of the White Australia Policy. As she noted in her interview with the University of Canberra, which named the novel its 2020 UC book of the year, ‘there [are] still a lot of Australians that don’t know about the Cowra Breakout, let alone Erambie Mission or life for Aboriginal People[s] under the [Aborigines Protection] Act’. Seeing the incident at Cowra through a racialised framework allows readers to understand the political and social structures that impacted legislation and governance of non-white peoples during this time.
Despite the almost 80 years that have passed, the Cowra Breakout remains a topic of fascination for readers. This return to the events at Cowra in literature suggests that the history of this place, much like the history of Australia as a whole, remains unsettled. Perhaps there is more to be understood about what happened at Cowra and why. Where artefacts and records may be lost, stories are what remains. These works of fiction probe our assumptions about what we actually ‘know’ about the Cowra Breakout and the motives behind it.
 Long, Gavin, Australia in the War of 1939-1945: Series One Army; Volume VII: The Final Campaigns. (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1963), 623.
 Cowra Council. ‘Cowra Prisoner of War Campsite,’ POW Camp, accessed February 9, 2023. [Note: This document contains multiple, contradictory figures pertaining to the number of Japanese casualties.]
Rebecca Hausler recently completed her PhD at the University of Queensland’s School of Languages and Cultures. Her thesis analysed literary representations of the Cowra Breakout. Rebecca’s broader research interests include Japan’s transcultural connections with Anglophone nations through popular culture, literature, and film. In 2019, she contributed to Japan in Australia: Culture, Context and Connection (Routledge, 2019) with her essay, ‘The irrepressible magic of Monkey’, exploring the 1978 Japanese drama Saiyūki (Monkey). Her work has also been published in the interdisciplinary women’s journal Hecate, and she has written several articles for the academic news website The Conversation, and was an invited speaker at Australian National University’s Japan Institute Seminar Series. (Photo supplied by author)