Tuesday 11 August 2020
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Australian PM - 1 month ago

Motion - Cowra Breakout 75th Anniversary

Mr Morrison: (Cook—Prime Minister and Minister for the Public Service) (14:01): On indulgence, and at the strong suggestion of the Deputy Prime Minister, I move: That this House record its remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the Cowra breakout and offer its thanks to those who gave their lives in service to Australia, remember the costs of war that are inflicted on all peoples and recognise the people of Cowra for their contribution to reconciliation and Australia s contemporary relationship with Japan, an ongoing relationship with Japan, a great friend. Cowra is, in the words of a former Japanese ambassador to Australia, the spiritual home of Australia-Japan relations. The story of Cowra is the story of unimaginable consequences, militaristic ideology, the goodness of ordinary people and the willingness of two enemies to become the best of friends. During the Second World War, Cowra was the location of prisoner-of-war and internment camps that housed thousands of Japanese and Italian prisoners of war and Indonesian civilian internees. The Cowra breakout of 5 August 1944 was neither expected nor, in its time, properly understood. By all accounts, the relations between captors and prisoners before the breakout were benign. Cowra was a world away from the war and its many fronts. The prisoners were not required to work. The camp met the requirements of the Geneva convention and it was regularly inspected by representatives of the International Red Cross. But, below the surface, there was a cauldron of angst and despair. Japanese prisoners felt deep shame about being in captivity. The words of their field service code were clear: do not in death leave to posterity a stain on your honour by having suffered in life the disgrace of being a prisoner. At Cowra, in the words of the Red Cross delegate, the Japanese soldiers experienced moral isolation. To them, they had been disowned and discarded. They were dead to all but themselves. They lived in a deep and mistaken sense of shame. This adherence to a militaristic code of duty resulted in the men deciding to break out of Cowra and end their lives. On 5 August 1944, at two in the morning, around 1,000 Japanese prisoners of war, armed with improvised weapons such as kitchen knives, baseball bats and pieces of wood, attempted to break out from the Cowra detention camp. They met brave resistance from Australian soldiers. Three Australian soldiers were killed that night: Private Benjamin Gower Hardy and Private Ralph Jones, who were posthumously awarded the George Cross, and Private Charles Henry Shepherd. Three more men were wounded. Another Australian serviceman, Lieutenant Harry Doncaster, was ambushed and killed during the recapture of the prisoners. During the breakout, 234 Japanese servicemen died—many at their own hand, some at the hands of their comrades, all in line with the perceived expectations placed upon them. A subsequent military court of inquiry found that conditions at the camp were in full accordance with the Geneva conventions and that the actions of the Australian garrison resisting attack averted an even greater loss of life. It was after war s end that something deep, wonderful, and human started to occur at Cowra. In 1946 the men of the Cowra sub-branch of the RSL noticed that the graves of the Australian soldiers who were killed during the outbreak were unkempt and overgrown. The men started to tend them. Then it was noticed that the Japanese graves nearby were also untended, so their working bees were extended. In time they started to plant trees: gums, kurrajongs, wattles, pines and oleanders. Gardening became meditative and, through pulling up the weeds, mowing the lawns, carting water and planting trees, forgiveness was found. Peace and reconciliation were found. In 1964 it became an official war cemetery. It s the only Japanese war cemetery outside of Japan anywhere in the world. Today the Australians and Japanese both lie in peace in Cowra soil. And that was just the start. A Japanese garden and cultural centre was built, student exchanges and cultural exchanges took place and, in time, the former prisoners would return as free men to Cowra and bring their families. They were welcomed in our country by Australians as friends. The Cowra peace bell is a tribute to their ongoing commitment to peace and the spirit of friendship, respect and reconciliation that now unites Australia and Japan. Seventy-five years on we pause to reflect on the price of war and the courage of all those who accept the burden of service, we pause to honour the past and ensure it is never forgotten and we give thanks that, in the years after the brutality of war, Australia and Japan have forged a deep and enduring friendship. I can think of no better reflection of that than the honour I had to join Prime Minister Abe in Darwin as we remembered the bombing of Darwin—an act of silent grace by Prime Minister Abe that I ve never seen before. On this anniversary we remember all who lost their lives, both Australian and Japanese, and commit ourselves to a world in which such conflicts are consigned to history and peace is our future.

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