SYDNEY – Six decades after the war between Japan and Australia resulted in the biggest and bloodiest prisoner-of-war escape in World War II, the Australian town of Cowra, site of the breakout, has become a place where the two nations can meet in understanding.
Just before 2 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1944, a bugle blast sounded a signal to nearly 900 Japanese POWs to break out of their camp, 250 km west of Sydney.
In the nine days that followed, 234 Japanese and five Australians died, some at the hand of their enemy, but most by their own hand. The remaining Japanese escapees were recaptured.
The incident shocked Australia — not because of the danger posed by the escapees — but because of their determination to either escape or die.
Many of the Japanese POWs thought the laid-back Australians were weak and lacked fighting spirit, while to the Australians, the resolve of the Japanese seemed fanatical.
But that resolve was something the Cowra citizens were determined to understand.
This year’s 60th anniversary is being marked by nine days of events between July 31 and Aug. 8 in the town of 9,000. The anniversary celebrations were officially begun by Kenzo Oshima, Japan’s ambassador to Australia.
“Cowra is the place where reconciliation between Australia and Japan began after World War II, because of the breakout.” said Lawrence Ryan, chairman of the Cowra Breakout Anniversary Committee. “Not only was it the largest military prison breakout in the world’s history, but it was also the only place where a land battle occurred on Australian soil during the Second World War.”
In the 60 years since the camp breakout, Cowra has risen to prominence as an important link to Japan.
In 1964, a war cemetery was established in Cowra at the request of the Japanese government. Today it contains the remains of all Japanese POWs and civilian internees who died in Australian camps during World War II.
The bodies of Cowra’s POWs were originally placed in mass graves, but the locals’ care of the sites so impressed Japanese visitors that it prompted the Japanese embassy to approach the Cowra town council to organize a more official resting place.
A war cemetery was agreed upon and the remains of all Japanese POWs who died in Australia, as well as Japanese nationals who died during air raids on Darwin in 1942 and Japanese civilians who died in internment camps during World War II, were transferred to the graveyard.
The cemetery, which contains 522 graves, was funded by the Japanese government and the land, now an official war cemetery, was donated to the Japanese government.
In the adjacent general cemetery are graves of the four Australians killed in the breakout.
The Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre is another main tourist attraction.
In 1971, Cowra builder Don Kibbler had an idea to create a Japanese garden to honor the war dead and symbolize the historical ties between Japan and Australia. It was set up between 1978 and 1979 with the aid of the Japanese government.
Kibbler, 68, is now chairman of the Japanese Garden Maintenance Foundation.
“I think back to when I was a child watching prisoners playing baseball in the POW camp,” he said. “Sixty years has passed since then and the story that has come about is a better one than before. We’ve come together with the garden, the cemetery and the World Peace Bell.”
Capital cities usually reserve the right to erect World Peace Bells, but because of Cowra’s commitment to the World Peace Bell objectives it was granted permission to have its own in 1992.
Now the Cowra Breakout Anniversary Committee is creating a Peace Pathway where visitors can buy individual paving stones and have their names or messages engraved on them.
“The idea is that people have something visible that links a desire to promote peace and international understanding to something you can actually see and walk along,” explained committee chief Ryan. “The pathway, through the messages engraved, will contain significant milestones in the reconciliation between Japan and Australia.”