There is no doubt about it: We humans are, at best, a peculiar species. It seems that we feel obliged to display brazen hostility toward each other, to the point of engaging in violence, before we can reconcile to friendship.

This was brought home to me last week during a three-day trip to the New South Wales country town of Cowra, some 300 km west of Sydney. Today, Cowra calls itself a “town of peace” — but 68 years ago it was the scene of an event of horrible disorder and brutality.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 5, 1944, 1,104 Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) broke out of the camp on the outskirts of the town. Their primary goal was not to escape. How could Japanese soldiers possibly make it to the distant coast, let alone manage to link up with their comrades in arms an ocean away?

Their goal was to die with honor rather than survive, as prisoners, in humiliation. The Cowra breakout marks the largest escape from a POW camp in Australian or British military history.

There were 28 POW camps in Australia during World War II, but those they incarcerated were by no means limited to Japanese captured in Australian-controlled territory. Germans and Italians were also detained. In fact, the Cowra camp saw about 5,000 Italians living in or transiting through it, with many of them allowed to leave the camp during the day to work on nearby farms. There were also some 1,200 internees who were chiefly nationalists sent to Australia by the colonial occupiers of what was then the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) for fear they would link up with the Japanese to free their country from Dutch rule.

Most of the Japanese inmates, who were divided roughly 80 : 20 between army and navy prisoners (there being no separate Imperial Air Force), had been sent to Cowra between August 1942 and January 1943 after being captured during fighting on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands.

During the six-month battle for the island, some 1,000 Allied and 31,000 Japanese combatants died and 1,000 Japanese were taken prisoner. Of those prisoners taken to Cowra, more than half gave false names to their captors, so as not to disgrace themselves and their families for having been captured.

One of the internees was an Imperial Navy pilot named Sgt. Hajime Toyoshima, a 22-year-old native of Kagawa Prefecture on the southern island of Shikoku. He had piloted a Zero that crash-landed during a February 1942 bombing raid on the northern Australian town of Darwin. On being captured, he falsely gave his name as Tadao Minami, which means “Loyal Man of the South.” Toyoshima, who had been the first Japanese soldier to be captured on Australian territory, sounded the bugle at 1:55 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1944, to signal the Japanese to break out of the camp.

Armed with knives, forks and baseball bats, the POWs set fire to their huts, threw blankets over the barbed-wire fences and escaped the camp’s perimeter. Although the soldiers in the six guard towers were ill prepared for such a mass breakout, 183 Japanese were shot dead. In addition, 31 committed suicide, 12 burned to death and a few died later of wounds. All in all, 231 Japanese died, 108 were wounded, and four Australians lost their lives. Toyoshima was shot in the chest by a guard, but he then pulled out a knife and slit his own throat.

The Japanese who chose to die “outside captivity” were following precepts outlined in the “Senjinkun” (“Instructions for Battle”), a military code of conduct first issued in January 1941 and carried by soldiers into battle. The Senjinkun covered all aspects of behavior in veneration of the Emperor. The relevant clause for the Cowra prisoners was the second one in Part Eight, which read: “Na o oshimu” (“Have high regard for your reputation”). What this meant in practice was, “Don’t disgrace your family or your country by being taken prisoner.”

Of 870 Cowra internees returned to Japan after the war, only about 300 of them admitted they were POWs. The others hid the fact.

Many scholars today claim that that clause actually left open the possibility of being captured so as to remain alive in order to seek revenge — that, in effect, it was only an exhortation to “fight to the end,” not a death wish.

After the war, the acclaimed author Shotaro Yasuoka wrote, “I was in the forces for a year and a half, and not once was I forced to read or talk about the ‘Senjinkun.’ “

It was only the most fanatic who took that clause literally, and on the morning of Aug. 5, 1944, it was their kind who forced their way on the others. If the tragedy of Cowra teaches us one thing, it is this: Do not let fanatics rule you.

Three of the POWs who escaped found themselves about 7 km from town at a homestead named Rosedale. Mrs. May Weir and her daughter, Margaret, were at home as the three Japanese — who had walked and hidden during a night in which the temperature had dropped below zero — showed up by her verandah. Mrs. Weir served them tea and scones while Margaret went off for help. Before being led away, the Japanese bowed to Mrs. Weir and thanked her for her hospitality.

Appearing on Australian television in 1984, Susumu Kawaguchi, one of the three, said, “When we caught sight of the farmhouse, we forgot about death. All we could think about was our hunger.” After consuming Mrs. Weir’s Devonshire tea, the three of them had promptly fallen asleep.

I went out to “Rosedale” last week. Cattle were grazing on the 190-hectare farm, with its old house set back a few hundred meters from Pine Mount Road, which even in 1944 already had a tarmac surface. The three Japanese must have been following that road before hunger overwhelmed their will to die and they turned off to pay a call at “Rosedale.”

The countryside around Cowra reminds many visitors of Tuscany, the region around Florence in Italy. It is early spring now in Australia, and vast blinding-yellow fields of flowering canola roll into vineyards for winemaking flanked by tall eucalypts. In the 1960s, the town started planning to build a Japanese Cultural Center, and now this boasts the largest Japanese garden outside Japan.

The garden, opened in 1979, is the creation of world-famous garden designer Ken Nakajima (1914-2000). It is, in a word, stunning, with streams and waterfalls and an exotic mix of more than 100 Japanese and Australian plant varieties leading up to a tall knoll of granite boulders with onion-skin weathering. I even caught sight there of a rare frill-neck lizard scooting under a cherry blossom tree in full bloom.

On the morning of Sunday, Sept. 23, a memorial service was held at the cemetery in Cowra for Japanese and Australian soldiers. Dozens of people had come from Japan. As I listened to the speeches in English and Japanese, and to the ceremonial Japanese music and the call of the bugle, I thought of those “who shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old” — and of deep enmity washed away by years of even deeper friendship, empathy and affection.

Standing under a eucalypt by the Japanese graves of the poor misled POWs who could have survived and gone home, I thought, too, of the fanatics today who would lead millions into conflict and confrontation in many parts of the world — not least over uninhabited islets in East Asian waters.

And the meaning of Cowra resounded like a clarion call with this thought: Do not let fanatics rule you!