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Uprisings remembered

Australian wartime memories have not completely faded in many parts of the country, says S. MUTHIAH.


At Cowra _ the only war cemetery Japan has overseas.

ALL was calm, all was still on that moonlit night in pastoral New South Wales where even the sheep had gone to sleep. Suddenly, the night was rent with screams of `Banzai' and other war cries answered with rapid machine gun fire and staccato rifle shots. It was 1.50 a.m. on August 5, 1944, and "the largest prisoner-of-war break-out in modern military history" was under way on the outskirts of a small rural town, Cowra, about 350 km west of Sydney.

PoW Camp-12

About 1,000 Japanese prisoners from Compound B, one of the four compounds in PoW Camp-12, one of 28 Australian internment facilities during World War-II, had stormed the barbed wire barricades NOT primarily in a bid to escape but to DIE in the process. These PoWs, captured mainly in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, were living up to the Combatant's Code which in part read, "One who knows the shame is strong ... Do not take the shame of capture in life, do not leave disgraced the name of sin in death". As Masaru Morki, a survivor, was to later write, "As Japanese servicemen, we had to choose death. We couldn't keep living indefinitely with the shame of being captured ... We were branded with the Combatant's Code, the core of military discipline."

The decision to break out of the barricaded camp, overwhelm the guards, and attack a nearby infantry training camp was taken the previous evening after the Australians had, on information received about a possible uprising, decided to segregate the NCOs from the men (the officers were in another compound). A vote had been taken by the Japanese PoWs before they could be segregated and 80 per cent voted to escape in order to carry on the war or die in the attempt in the Samurai spirit. Each prisoner armed himself with a razor blade to commit suicide if caught and with cutlery, baseball bats or firewood as weapons. At the sound of a bugle, they set fire to their huts and, in the light of the fires, the first wave threw blankets over successive barbed wire rolls and, wearing winter coats and baseball gloves, lay themselves on the blankets to form "bridges" at four corners of the camp over which the others scrambled.

A similar, but smaller, break-out in New Zealand in February 1943 had led to some tightening of security at Cowra. Word from the Australians' informer in the camp a few weeks earlier had led to further upgrading of security. This included two Vickers machine-guns and a few Lewis machine guns being added to the armoury of archaic rifles toted by the overaged veterans and callow under trained youths — B-Grade soldiers all — of the 22nd Garrison that comprised the guard. It was those machine-guns that were to take a heavy toll, even though one of the Vickers was silenced by the Japanese. Nevertheless, 359 Japanese escaped into the countryside. It took 10 days to recapture 334 of them and discover that 25 more had obeyed the Bushido code. In the camp, 186 had died on the barricades and 23 had committed suicide. In all, 234 Japanese died in the uprising and 298 were wounded. Australian casualties were four dead and four wounded, the only Australian casualties from enemy action on Australian soil ever.

The war cemetery

Moved into other camps, the Japanese prisoners-of-war — there were 5,000 of them in Australia — continued to simmer, unlike the 15,000 Italian and 2,000 German PoWs. Australian wartime memories have not completely faded in many parts of the country. One of the reasons for the giant Japanese store, Daimaru, closing down in Melbourne not long after it opened was attributed to such feelings, it was speculated. But we in Cowra are not like that, said the many I met in a town that has treated the tragic events of 1944 with respect and grown the better for it.

Today, the Japanese who died during the Great Escape lie buried in a beautiful cemetery that is the only war cemetery Japan has overseas. Near it, buried in the Cowra War Cemetery, are the Australians who died in the action. Not far away is a beautiful 13-acre Japanese Garden developed between 1979 and 1986, replete with walks, streams and ponds in which the carp swim, and the Australian World Peace Bell awarded to Cowra for its contribution to international understanding. Adjoining the park is a Japanese cultural centre, with two galleries for a permanent collection and a third for exhibitions, a tea house, a working pottery, and a bonsai house. The two cemeteries, the site of the uprising and a Japanese garden and cultural centre will soon be linked by Sakura Avenue, a walk between 2,000 cherry trees. All this and Cowra's own rural history are packaged in a manner that demonstrates how successful Australia is in attracting visitors from home and abroad with its rural heritage ... .

The village of Lucknow

The Big Marino in Goulbourn — one of the "big" symbols throughout the country marking the special features of a particular area.

GETTING ready to follow such model rural heritage packaging is an even smaller place, but one recalling an even bigger uprising. Between Cowra and Sydney is the agricultural university town of Orange and near it is Lucknow, in search of whose gold came former British soldiers who had fought in the siege of Lucknow in 1857. Gold was found in 1851 in the area that became Lucknow and the next year the Wentworth Gold Field Company was formed, the first gold mining company in Australia. Its main shaft and that of the Reform Gold Mining Company (founded in 1878), marked by towering rusted machinery — steel poppet heads — typical miners' corrugated iron cottages, the mansions of the wealthy, and old stores, schoolhouses and churches are what have led to Lucknow being declared a heritage precinct. Once described as Australia's richest goldfield, the mines petered out in 1938. Today, Lucknow, so named in 1863, a shabby-looking, one-street village looks forward to regaining its prosperity by developing its Heritage Trail much in the manner of the West Wyalong and Carcoar Heritage Trails, not far from it on either side.

What West Wyalong, a town of a few thousands, offers is its "Crooked Mile", a main street that follows a bullock track that had once wound its ways around gold diggings and tree stumps, thereby proving different to most die-straight main streets in small town Australia. Here, buildings out of the 19th Century remain as heritage properties, many like its "hotels" for use as they were, others now being used as shops, tearooms etc. With little more than this heritage trail to offer visitors, West Wyalong nevertheless boasts a four-star country club, a couple of heritage pubs with rooms, several guesthouses, eight motels and two caravan-parks! And they all seemed full! Also bustline with visitors was the "historic village" of Carcoar, first surveyed in 1838. Here, its 1880s courthouse, where bushrangers like Ben Hall and Johnny Gilbert were tried, has since 1994 been the home of the Carcoar and District Historical Society. In it was shot not long ago a successful American tele-series titled "Jessica", which Australians await. Incidentally, a newspaper report has Jessica as the most popular name for a girl in Australia. The rest of Carcoar is full of "former" hotel, bank, hospital and residential premises — all proudly proclaiming their heritage, like the "former Commercial Bank" which in 1863 was victim of "the first daylight bank robbery in Australia". The biggest town in this areas, the City of Orange, founded in 1846 as `Blackman's Swamp' and named some years later after Prince William of Orange, also has its own Heritage Trail as does neighbouring East Orange. Old hotels, pubs and homes, all restored, are the sights the two trails offer, but the most intriguing offering is Orange's "First Power Pole", a wooden pole duly signaged and informing the viewer that it dates to January 1923 when Orange first received electricity supply.

Born in Ophir, on the outskirts of Orange and where gold was first struck in the region, was A.B. "Banjo" Patterson, the composer of "Waltzing Matilda", a ballad that's better known than Australia's national anthem. The 1890's song recalls a "swagman", a tramp, who jumped into a river and died, rather than be captured for stealing a sheep. Patterson is honoured in front of the Orange library with his face as a metal backdrop to a small open-air "theatre" meant for readings. Here too, given the shire's name, there appropriately thrive orchards and vineyards. And midst them are those of Sydney Agricultural University whose Chardonnay is a premium wine in the market.

The `Big Merino'

Southeast of Orange, and between Canberra and Sydney, is Goulbourn, Australia's first inland city and now the heart of wool country. Here stands tall the Big Merino, an intriguing concept to attract visitors' attention to something as uninteresting as wool, even if Goulbourn's is the finest and is exported to Italy for upmarket clothes. A giant building constructed in the shape of Merino sheep houses a museum and a historical record of the wool industry, offers woollen goods and souvenirs, and has several dining facilities as a part of the complex it is in. The "Big" concept is to draw attention to an area's speciality and was started about 30 years ago in tropical Coff's Harbour, in northern New South Wales, with the Big Banana. Now there are over a hundred "Bigs", such as the Big Apple, Big Abalone, Big Pineapple, Giant Koala and Giant Worm. They all have travellers stopping and they all make money. And doing both well is rural Australia.

Australian success is, however, also tinged with concerns. I'll conclude this series with a look at a few next week.

(To be continued)

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