Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Gary Beck AO as Director of the Office of Australian War Graves
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Woden, ACT, on 26 March 2003 (AWM S03082)
TERRY COLHOUN: Air Vice Marshal Beck, can you give me a broad history of the Japanese Cemetery at Cowra and the involvement of your office in looking after it?
GARY BECK: Yes, Terry, a quick perusal of the old files shows that this was a War Cemetery that dates back to the post-war period and it did include Australian graves, Italian graves and Japanese graves. There was a request by the Japanese Government that we establish a cemetery here and, in fact, they wanted the land transferred to the Japanese Government. The agreement was, though, that the land would remain under a trusteeship of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which was then operated as the ANZAC Agency – that’s before we were formed. Subsequently, the Italian graves were moved to a new cemetery at Murchison and additional land was provided for the additional Japanese graves. In 1964 this land was formally handed over to the ANZAC Agency, then in 1975, Australia, while a founding member of the Commission, formed the Office of Australian War Graves within the Department of Veterans Affairs. We became responsible for this cemetery along with the Australians in the nearby war cemetery as an agent of the commission. So, we are part of the Department of Veterans Affairs but we are acting in this case as an agent of the commission, so it is in 1964 that we formally took responsibility for this land.
COLHOUN: As I understand it, in 1964 there was quite a large increase in the number of remains interred in the cemetery. Up to that point only those who had died in the breakout and subsequent to the breakout were there, but in 1964 you had Japanese interred all over Australia, didn’t you?
BECK: Yes, that’s correct and they were progressively brought in to the enlarged Cowra War Cemetery. I have some of the numbers, there were ten brought in from Goulburn, one from Hay General Cemetery, 36 from the Hay War Cemetery, 31 from the Berrima Cemetery in Northern Territory, one from Townsville, one from Toowong, 45 from Tatura – which is now the German War Cemetery we maintain on behalf of the Commission, two from Murchison – which is now where the Italian Cemetery is, 146 from the Barmera Cemetery in South Australia and a few others from Springvale and Rookwood in the Eastern suburbs in Sydney.
COLHOUN: Some of these would have been civilians, wouldn’t they?
BECK: Yes, a lot of them were civilian internees, and I guess, I have often wondered why they died in captivity, but then I discovered many of them were quite elderly.
COLHOUN: There were also, I’ve noticed some quite young ones buried there, so there’s a very big range of Japanese people in the cemetery.
BECK: I think some of the young ones actually died of disease too, even some babies.
COLHOUN: Do you believe that your office will continue to maintain this cemetery? It is quite unique.
BECK: Yes, there’s no question that we maintain it on behalf of the commission for the Japanese Government and I know that the Japanese Government do view this – it is unique. We don’t know of any other war cemetery for Japanese prisoners of war in any other country. We do maintain it to the same standard we maintain our own war graves and I think the Japanese probably view this as a symbol of mutual understanding and friendship between our nations and it has become quite a visiting place for Japanese visitors.
Transcribed by WRITEpeople, May 2003
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Printed on 01/18/2018 08:55:40 PM