If you are cruising through western NSW in early August take time out to visit Cowra, the site of the largest Prisoner of War breakout in modern military history. Award-winning writer Steve Cooper did just that when touring from Sydney to Melbourne in a Jayco Conquest recently.
The town of Cowra in the central west of NSW (pop 10,000) will run five days of commemorative events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout. The commemorations begin on Friday, August 1 and finish on Tuesday, August 5.
Tributes include a wreath-laying at the Cowra War Cemetery, a peace ceremony at the Cowra World Peace Bell followed by a sunset torchlight/lantern procession to the POW campsite.
A special guest of honour, Teruo Murakami, is coming from Japan. Murakami is 94 years old and is one of the few surviving Japanese POWs who were involved in the infamous breakout in the early hours of August 5, 1944.
Unlike many of the other POWs, the Japanese prisoners felt shame, believing that by being captured they had brought dishonour to themselves, their families and country.
The story had a Wild West beginning, and a blood-curdling end with a bugle signalling a Bushido charge leading to a massacre for the Japanese POWs who charged the barbed wire fencing. Some wore baseball mittens to protect their hands on the wire; others ran to the wire and tossed their great coats over it. Many prisoners were armed with knives, baseball bats, and clubs studded with nails and hooks.
On that fateful morning, 1100 Japanese prisoners of war made a suicidal bid to escape. By daylight, 231 Japanese POWs were dead and 107 wounded. Twenty Japanese POWs committed suicide, and about 334 escaped into the countryside. Three Australian soldiers were killed and three injured.
From the tragedy of the Cowra Breakout came a long lasting friendship between the people of Cowra and Japan. The best-known feature in Cowra is the 5Ha Japanese Garden and Culture Centre. Opened in October 1979, the garden was dedicated as a sanctuary for the spirits of Australian and Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific War of 1942-45, and is a symbol of reconciliation between Australia and Japan.
The beautiful 5ha Japanese Garden, POW camp and War Cemetery are connected by Sakura (Cherry Tree) Avenue. There is little left of the camp: a guard tower and monument. The war cemetery is a showpiece, and contains the remains of Cowra POW camp dead, along with another 275 Japanese, some soldiers and some civilian internees, who died in Australia during the war years.
Recently Cowra was honoured with a gift of a bronze Peace Bell, one of only seven worldwide – a tribute to the spirit of friendship and peace between the Japanese and Cowra communities.