A fog lingered between the eastern green hills and the western sheep-filled slopes that lead down to the Lachlan Valley, lined with eucalyptus trees.
The elevated eastern horizon filtered the last of the late afternoon sun through a lone row of trees spaced at odd intervals along a planate ridge. Vineyards with angled furrows, their vines tinged with yellow sunlight, created criss-cross patterns down the west side all the way down to the shimmering Lachlan River that runs through the town of Cowra in New South Wales, Australia.
I drove up from the base of the valley on a dusty road in a borrowed Nissan Navara, past rows of clusters of white and rose-tinted grapes weighing heavily on their vines on this 40-degree day. As I crested the hill, I turned right at a “For sale” sign and into the Vineyards Motel.
The motel sign, itself overcome by unbridled foliage, second-guessed me: “Yes, vacancy,” it promised in painted-on stenciled letters. It further assured me of a pool, meals, tennis, barbecue facilities and a “direct dial phone.” I had clearly arrived in the wrong century.
The tires crunched over the gravel as I continued down the lane, populated on either side by purple-headed, barely petaled agapanthuses preparing to enter their winter sabbatical. At the other end, a woman stood waving her paperback book at me. I stopped in front of her and rolled down the window.
“I reserved a room online,” I said. She waved me over to the car park.
On the wall of the reception there were a few green and white TripAdvisor accolades, but none since 2011. The place was run-down, possibly haunted. There were no tennis courts, no meals, no barbecues, and the pool looked deeply unappealing.
As the perky caretaker showed me my room, which was bright and clean, she spoke from a polished memorized script about the hotel air conditioner, check-out times and where to find more cream for coffee. The up-and-down tones of her voice tugged her speech along, and occasionally she threw in a joke that you were not meant to laugh at.
As we stood in the open doorway, she sensed my attention had been diverted by a bleating noise carried in on the wind, and quickly offered me a mental footnote — “Sheep. In the back paddock” — before continuing with her instructions on the use of the air conditioner.
Advancing to a piece of typed paper attached to the wall, she continued: “If you have time, I recommend you take this two-hour tour of Cowra. You can drive to all the sites. We have the only Japanese war cemetery outside of Japan. Don’t miss the World Peace Bell, a replica of the one outside the United Nations.” She qualified this, adding “It’s the only peace bell in the world located outside a major city.”
She finished by recommending “the award-winning Japanese gardens.” She then looked at me and made serious eye contact for the first time, and added, “The Japanese man who built it loved it here so much that when he died, he had his ashes scattered at this garden, something that is very, very rare for a Japanese person.” I raised an eyebrow in reply.
In a mere 30 rushed seconds, this elucidative woman had planned out the following day for me.
The next day, on a morning run through the vineyards, I photographed the sheep in the back pasture and heard the laboring groans of a group of cattle some short distance away. Out of sight, they must have been inside the barn that stood in the distance beyond the vineyard.
When I returned, I asked the caretaker, who had resumed her position on the porch reading, “Is that a dairy farm?”
“No, an abattoir,” she answered, and went back to perusing her book.
With a heavy heart, I climbed into the black Navara and headed back down the dusty road, crossed the Lachlan River and followed the road north out of town. As it turned out, it was not the motel that was haunted, it was the entire town. Cowra is the scene of an unfortunate historical event in which hundreds of people died: a Japanese uprising during World War II referred to by the locals simply as “the breakout.”
I maneuvered the four-wheel drive in the direction of what used to be called the old No. 12 prisoner of war camp. Although only the relics remain, at one time there were 28 such internment camps scattered around Australia. The 7-hectare (about 17-acre) Cowra camp was built and paid for by Britain in 1941 to house German and Italian prisoners of war. In 1943, 1,200 Indonesians — political prisoners and those in the merchant navy — were sent over as well, as it was feared that these disgruntled nationalists might join the Japanese after their invasion of what was then the Dutch East Indies.
Japanese POWs and their Korean and Chinese collaborators, as well as and civilian nationals from non-Allied countries such as Italy, Albania and a handful of others were also interned in the Cowra camp. In total, there were around 4,000 people held here, according to a contemplative recording from a speaker mounted on a reconstructed guard tower that doled out a soliloquy to a lonely landscape full of memories but devoid of life.
The Asians in the Cowra camp, however, presented a particular security risk, as disputes arose between the different national groups and even sometimes among countrymen, such as fights between opposing Chinese factions. In addition, overcrowding at the camp was becoming a problem, so they started separating groups of prisoners and transporting them to other facilities.
In the early hours of Aug. 5, 1944, more than 600 Japanese POWs attempted an escape, knowing full well that most, if not all, would be killed by camp guards before they could reach freedom. In fact, that was the plan: to be killed rather than endure the shame of imprisonment, in accordance with the Imperial Japanese Army code. In all, 231 Japanese were killed, 108 wounded and 334 escaped. Four Australian men were killed in the breakout and authorities spent nine days rounding up the remaining escapees.
The wounded Japanese were hospitalized while the dead were buried in a special war cemetery dedicated to them, each person’s name on a plaque with their dates of birth and death.
Even though the people couldn’t understand the mind-set of the Japanese, they could recognize universal human sorrow and suffering. After this horrific event, the townspeople found it imperative to make good again and strived to make Cowra a symbol of international peace. By turning this unfortunate human slaughter and mass suicide into a movement towards peace and understanding, Cowra’s breakout history is now a major tourist draw for this town of barely 10,000 people.
In 1960, Japan moved all of its war dead buried across Australia and reinterred them in the Japanese War Cemetery at Cowra. Three years later ownership of the cemetery was ceded to Japan. To further amicable relations between the two countries, in 1971 the Cowra Tourism Development body decided to install an Edo-style Japanese garden, designed by Ken Nakajima, that is now part of the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Center, which hosts festivals, tea ceremonies and Japanese craft workshops.
Cowra is a valuable stop for anyone interested in peace education.
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