History, japanese, Japanese Culture, literature, memory, Novels, Transculture, Translanguage, trauma

Exploring Australia’s infamous ‘Cowra Breakout’ through fiction

Burial AWM 073487
Cowra, NSW. August 1944. The burial of Japanese Prisoners of War who lost their lives in the mass outbreak from B camp – Australian War Memorial 073487

Submission by Rebecca Hausler PhD (Cand.).

Hausler, Rebecca. “The Cowra Breakout: Remembering and Reflecting on Australia’s Biggest Prison Escape 75 Years On”. The Conversation. 5 Aug. 2019.

In this piece for the academic news analysis website The Conversation, Rebecca writes about the way that the infamous “Cowra Breakout” has been remembered and reflected upon in the 75 years since the event. Writing on the anniversary of the breakout, Rebecca’s piece coincides with events held in the town of Cowra, with these commemoration events running from August 2nd-5th.

Sydney, NSW. March 1946. One of the Japanese POWs injured in the breakout at Cowra in 1944, lying in the ambulance before being carried on board the Japanese Destroyer Yoizuki which is to take him to Japan – Australian War Memorial 126291.

At approximately 1:50am, under a full moon, a bugle sounded which gave the signal for hundreds of prisoners to charge the barbed wire fences of Cowra’s B Camp. Armed with crude and improvised weaponry such as sharpened table knives and clubs, the prisoners ran into a hail of fire. Although there were some soldiers who were shooting with rifles, others were armed with Bren light machine guns. The majority of the bullets fired came from the large Vickers machine gun of which there was two stationed at the camp. These were brought in o

During the breakout, and in the days, weeks and months following, it was recorded that at least 231 Japanese prisoners perished. Also killed were four Australian servicemen; Privates Ben Hardy, Ralph Jones, and Charles Shepherd on the night of the riot. In the round-up of escapees the next day another Australian serviceman, Lieutenant Harry Doncaster, was ambushed by several escapees and killed. Another Australian, Sergent Thomas Roy Hancock who was a member of the 26th Battalion of the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) was also killed on the 7th of August when another member of ‘C’ Company of the 26th Battalion accidentally discharged his rifle while assembling for patrol. It was recorded that a further 108 prisoners and three guards were wounded. Miraculously, no civilian casualties or injuries were recorded.


Cowra, NSW. February 1944. A view from the South-East of the 12th Australian Prisoner of War Camp – Australian War Memorial 064285. 



This piece explores some of the fictional works that have been produced which were inspired by the events that took place at Cowra. These texts form part of Rebecca Hausler’s Ph.D. thesis which explores the fictional representation of Japanese incarceration in Australia during the Second World War. Her thesis includes texts which depict both Prisoners of War (POWs) and civilian internees held in Australia during the 1940s.

According to Rebecca “While there have been a number of non-fiction works written on this event by authors such as Hugh Clarke, Charlotte Carr-Gregg, and Harry Gordon, it is works of fiction that have sought to fill in the gaps of history. They give us a way of understanding the incomprehensible”.  Thus, these fictional narratives give us a more holistic view of the complexities of our past, and our present; by filling in the gaps of traditional narratives. These voices echo the silences of history that cannot be filled by historians alone. They speak to contemporary issues, they revisit the facts of the past with fresh or alternative perspectives, and they remind us of the tragedies of war, ensuring we never forget what happened on Australian soil all those years ago. 


Japanese; Australia; Literature; History; Trauma; Memory; Cowra; POW; Fiction; Novels; War;

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