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Cowra–Japan conversations
William James Crews AO as National President of the Returned Services League, 2003–
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, on 31 August 2004 (AWM S03337)
TERRY COLHOUN: As the national president of the Returned and Services League (RSL), you laid wreaths on the graves of Australian and Japanese Second World War servicemen in company with the Ambassador of Japan and ex-prisoners of war of both countries. I wonder, what were your thoughts at that time?
WILLIAM CREWS: Whenever I lay a wreath, I always reflect on the sadness that war causes, and particularly the loss of young lives, people who had so much more to give. Each serviceman for whom one lays a wreath was doing their duty for their country at the time. We must always reflect on the fact that they probably didn’t have much choice in the circumstance in which they found themselves. And I reflect, also, more recently on the remark made when I visited Japan, that in death there are really no enemies, so we pay our respects to the dead of all forces during war, reflecting on the fact that these young people were not there of their own accord – they were there because their nation, their government, sent them to be there, and sadly they lost their lives in the course of that duty.
COLHOUN: The RSL is Australia’s largest war veterans organization, as we know, and it’s maintained a pretty conservative attitude with reconciliation with Japan since that war ended. What made it possible for you as the national president to lay wreaths in a Japanese War Cemetery in Australia?
CREWS: I am pleased to be able to say that a long path of reconciliation is well progressed. It was slow initially because the memories of experiences in the immediate post war period were very strong and they dominated the League at that time. Japan had been an adversary like no other in terms of the degree of brutality experienced by our servicemen. I would suggest at the time too, that feelings towards the Japanese were aggravated by the prevailing White Australia Policy within the country at large. This has all been, I am pleased to say, broken down as each generation experiences a different relationship with other countries, and the Japanese in particular. We have expanded our cultural links – we have a very strong economic relationship. We work together in the international arena, politically and internationally, and we have got very strong educational exchanges. So the new generations of Australians and Japanese, while they are aware of what happened in the past, are not going to let that get in the way of looking forward to their futures. We have also seen in Japan a larger public degree of recognition and acknowledgement of what happened during the Second World War, and an acceptance that that should not have happened. This has helped enormously in the healing process and even some former Australian servicemen of the Second World War, and particularly, prisoners of war, have resolved their differences and are now forming friendships with their former Japanese adversaries. Importantly now, we are anxious to move forward. I reflect on the exhibition I was privileged to open in Cowra, “Breaking Out and Moving On”. It is a very apt expression for what we are trying to do now with our relationship with Japan.
COLHOUN: And no doubt you would continue to recognise the need for compassion for bereaved families, and so on, who still suffer.
CREWS: Certainly. We cannot forget that there are people who will take their memories to their graves. We must respect their concern and their experiences, show sympathy for the conditions they have experienced and conditions many of them still experience, but keep that now in perspective in terms of the relationship of the younger generations. So, yes, we do not forget. We endeavour to forgive and we make sure that our young people, with that understanding, resolve to go forward, looking to work together rather than apart.
COLHOUN: Now, of course the occasion for which you were recently in Cowra was the 60th anniversary of the prisoner-of-war breakout, which we have looked at in rather a special way, but as a former senior Australian soldier with an excellent service record, you would agree, I think, that it is the responsibility of every captured serviceman to try to escape from his capturers?
CREWS: I don’t recall it being taught to me as a rule of war. However, we are much more valuable to our nation involved in the conflict than as prisoners, so for that reason all prisoners, certainly Australian prisoners, would see it as their duty to escape if that is at all humanly possible. We must look, however, at the particular circumstances of the Japanese prisoners at Cowra. For them, imprisonment was humility – I beg your pardon – it was humiliating. It was a circumstance where they had lost their honour, and to regain their honour, they wanted to escape, if only to die in the process. That’s not an attitude we would necessarily take in the same circumstances because we have different cultural backgrounds. But, we would all want to escape for different reasons.
COLHOUN: There were mass escapes during the Second World War from German prisoner-of-war camps and they have been romanticised somewhat. They have been made into films and a lot of people consider them as pretty heroic efforts, and yet we don’t really look at the Cowra breakout in the same way. What’s different about it?
CREWS: I would expect it’s because the breakouts from the German prisoner-of-war camps were by Allies: the breakout from Cowra was by our adversary. The difference is which side of the imprisonment you were on. To the Japanese, I would suspect, the Cowra breakout would be seen as equally heroic and we would have been expected to understand the feelings of the Germans when the prisoners broke out of the German prisoner-of-war camps. So I think it depends on whether you are a prisoner, or a guard.
COLHOUN: As we know, the members of the Cowra Sub-branch of the RSL, men who had recently returned from fighting Japanese military personnel in the Pacific, decided to tend the graves of Japanese men who died in the breakout. How does the RSL judge them for doing that?
CREWS: I would like to think that the RSL has always judged such people favourably. I know that, that perhaps was not the case in the immediate post-war period when there was so much antipathy towards the Japanese. But Australian servicemen have had, perhaps almost uniquely in the world, an attitude and reputation for treating the dead of their adversary with respect. It happened at Gallipoli, it certainly happened throughout most of the Second World War, and it continued to happen it Vietnam. We respect those who have died in the service of their country, even if we were fighting against them, because we understand the circumstances that they were in. The Royal Australian Navy accorded a naval funeral to the Japanese midget submariners who invaded Sydney Harbour during the Second World War. That was an extraordinary recognition by an adversary. I know that the Japanese still reflect back on that full naval funeral as a very symbolic gesture by Australia at the time, under very difficult circumstances. So, I would think that the RSL, reflecting the culture of the Australian services over the decades, would look very positively at the work done by the Cowra Sub-branch of the League in tending those graves immediately following the Second World War, and if it didn’t get recognition at the time, I believe history would record that recognition as a courageous move on their part and an appropriate one.

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Transcribed by WRITEpeople, November 2004

The transcripts of interviews published on this website have been lightly edited, principally on stylistic grounds. You may download, display, print and reproduce this material in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or use within your organisation. Tapes of the original interviews are held in the collection of the Australian War Memorial.

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