Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Cyril Treasure OAM as President of the Cowra RSL Sub-branch, 1957–1958
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 18 March 2003 (AWM S03073)
TERRY COLHOUN: Mr Treasure, first of all may I thank you very much on behalf of the War Memorial for participating in this recording. As I understand it, you had some of the first contacts with Japanese people after the war, how was it that you became involved with the Japanese at the beginning?
CYRIL TREASURE: Well, from the beginning after the war the Returned Soldiers League, which was a pretty powerful body in those days, they met once a month, they decided among other things to look after the graves of the Australian soldiers buried in the Cowra Cemetery. So, they went out on working bees on Sundays and in tending those graves and noticing the Japanese graves adjacent to it they decided to look after them too, you see, as part of the working bee. Although there was great resentment towards Japanese by individuals there were many people in the RSL like myself who didn’t have that deep hatred, because I had seen things in New Guinea which made me understand that not all of your enemies were bad guys. For instance, on one occasion three raggedy prisoners were brought into my section and they could hardly walk and the Corporal who brought them in sat them under a tree and gave them a glass of water instead of doing other naughty things to them. At interrogation one of them, an 18 year old boy, they all had to be interrogated, explained that the had never heard of Australia, didn’t know there were white people different to the colour of their skin, and had never seen a rifle, let alone fired one. Back home, one morning someone came around with a clipboard and asked him his name and told him to report to so-and-so at 9 am the next morning. Four months later he was captured in New Guinea. That actually gave you a bit of thought about some of the people you were shooting. Consequently, my attitude to all Japanese, and so was Mr Telfer’s and various other people, not the same as a lot of other people that hadn’t seen such things as that.
COLHOUN: An interesting comment was made to me, I think by Keith Telfer, that the criticism tended to come from those who had never actually been in action.
TREASURE: Because they didn’t understand, you see, you heard terrible stories of atrocities, what they did to nurses, we’ve seen our people tied to a tree where they would use them for bayonet practice. That’s what individuals did. You know what happened in the German Army, you would probably know a lot of the things that happened there, but some of the prisoners of war too from Cowra that were prisoners of war of Germany were sent out to farms, different farms, and they became so friendly with the people that they corresponded with them after the war. What I’m saying is that all of your enemies were not bad guys. On the other hand, some of my mates were on the burial party for the people that had been – the Jews that had been gassed, burying them. You can imagine the different life they had, and so you had that in the war. Consequently, the RSL people here didn’t do it with any great glee or anything like that but they thought that they would look after the Japanese in the cemetery the same as they did their own. As I did say before you recorded, at that time this cemetery was controlled by the Wyangala Council. It’s on the boundary of the Town Council. In those days councils, although they were responsible for the cemeteries, didn’t actually do any work on them at all. They left it to various religious groups to look after their own section. Consequently, the RSL cleaning up at the cemetery spread beyond that and into the normal cemetery, so much so that the Town Council then contributed towards maintaining the cemetery. The RSL also planted all those beautiful trees out there and with no water in the cemetery there, they had to cart out the water in drums on trucks and what have you. They grew the trees and looked after them. Then in Mr Telfer’s time the Ambassador arrived here and he was quite amazed at such attention being paid to your enemies. That was Mr Suzuki and he then invited Mr Telfer and his wife to come to the Embassy in Canberra, which they did, and they became quite friendly. He invited them to go to Japan too, as he did me, but that never happened. Then I took over from Telfer as President and Suzuki then, I don’t know how or why, he visited Cowra twice in my term as RSL President, so I got to know him probably better than anybody else, because, and my wife too, we had lunch with them and that sort of thing. He was amazed at the attention given to our former enemies, so much so that it was he that recommended to his Government that all of the other nationals buried anywhere else in Australia be brought to the cemetery – so the war – the Japanese section now belongs to the Japanese, as you know. So, that’s how it came about and I continued to have some association with it because after that time when I gave up the RSL business I became President of the town, of the Shire Council, which was eventually amalgamated with the Town Council and I was then in control of that. So, the council then put water on to it and the council then continued the work of the Returned Soldiers League in looking after not only that but the whole of the cemetery and a very attractive cemetery out there as you probably know.
COLHOUN: It is a very attractive cemetery, how do you feel from what you saw when you were just clearing grass from these sort of big graves to what it is now, it’s a big leap, isn’t it?
TREASURE: Yes. But the relationship then grew and grew between the two because various Japanese people visited here for all sorts of things and they were entertained by the town dignitaries as well as the RSL, but the RSL of course are the ones responsible for it, obviously, and right from the start. I always put Keith Telfer as the number one Cowra man and Mr Suzuki as the number one Japanese who brought it about. All the others continued to work along the same line.
COLHOUN: When you became the Mayor of Cowra what sort of relationship did you have with the Japanese, because, as you say, other things were developing in that time.
TREASURE: I had better relations than most with them, because I didn’t bow and scrape. I treated them just as people and as a matter of fact the Japanese actually appreciate that. But, lots of other people that don’t understand will act differently. So, the Japanese will put up with anything to keep on the right side of you. So, that later people treated them somewhat differently. Then we have the Japanese Garden complex, which I was involved in the early part of that, the situation of it. In the early days they were contemplating building a garden down on our River Park, but the RSL were violently against that, having it there, but the Japanese wanted it in a natural environment, Australian environment, so the cemetery – the Japanese Garden was actually eventually situated in the ideal spot from their point of view and also from ours in that it was in a typical Australian landscape, white box trees and all that sort of thing. So, I suppose you might say that everything sort of shifted into place.
COLHOUN: What was the RSL’s objection to the first site? You said that they…
TREASURE: Because the Australian War Memorial is on the River Park and they didn’t want that. Of course, there are still some members of the RSL that were violently opposed. Not everybody was prepared to go along cleaning graves and things, but I’m just saying the bulk of them were.
COLHOUN: The RSL at a national level made a big leap recently when Peter Phillips, the National President, visited Japan and then the National Executive of the RSL visited Japan. Did you have any feeling about that when you heard this was happening?
TREASURE: No, not really.
COLHOUN: Because the RSL has sort of held a fairly strong view officially against some aspects of the Japanese…
TREASURE: Of course, they have. You can’t blame them for it, can you? But the RSL itself has changed in many ways. Back in my days when you got out of the Army, and you must have been the same as me, you got your discharge and you went like anything. You didn’t worry about getting compensation because you had broken your finger or something wrong with you, did you?
COLHOUN: Not really, the first thing you thought about was getting a civilian job, wasn’t it?
TREASURE: Righto, but nowadays with the Vietnam and the other sort of thing now the only things that happen at RSL meetings is looking for some additional compensation which they think their members should be getting. For instance, they were given free cigarettes and they are proposing to sue the Government for that. Consequently, whereas the RSL in my day were only concerned with looking after the widows and dependents of people that were not here any more, the RSL today has got a somewhat different attitude to what we had.
COLHOUN: As we have remarked, since the RSL began this relationship it has mushroomed in so many different ways and, in fact, it has almost taken over life in Cowra. Cowra is now the home of the breakout. That’s what people think of first about Cowra and next year, as we both know, there is the 60th anniversary celebrations coming up. Has it been too much, do you think? Has Cowra lost from this?
TREASURE: No, Cowra has benefited, but Cowra has benefited from the – you can’t blame them for that – by benefiting from the projection of this relationship. It has benefited Cowra dramatically not only in world-wide, peace-wise, but in business-wide and everything else. Look at the tourism you get here. You cannot blame them. I like to quote CJ Dennis, when he is talking about Ginger Mick, he says “Some time some writer bloke will do the trick wiv Ginger Mick. ‘e’ll be a Romeo when ‘e’s been dead for five ‘undred years or so.” So, the Cowra breakout camp 500 years ahead will be a very romantic place. At the time of the breakout it was most unromantic. The breakout was a messy bloody thing and people were unnecessarily killed. The Japanese themselves, as you obviously know this, the officer type, you died for your country, you couldn’t in captivity, but the ordinary people and the kid I mentioned to you who didn’t know anything about Australia, you couldn’t expect him to want to die for his country. He didn’t know anything about that sort of thing. Consequently, these people that broke out and the 230-odd killed, a lot of them were very innocent people. They didn’t know north from south. They were only doing what their officers told them to do – climb over the fence and clear out. So, you’ve got to look at that complex. The bulk of those killed were probably comparatively innocent people, weren’t they? But then the leaders were fighting for their ideals, and what have you, in their country, and they were doing what they thought was right. So, getting killed was the correct thing to do. So, when you talk about the romance of the breakout, in 500 years it is certainly very romantic but at the time it wasn’t romantic at all.
COLHOUN: Is there any other aspect of the Cowra–Japan relationship that you are involved in that you would like to talk about while we are recording, or have you said your piece?
TREASURE: I think I have more or less said my piece. Of course, we have got the World Peace Bell in Cowra here, you know that.
TREASURE: Because we have the festival here every year with different nations and I believe that all – I don’t believe in wars at all. I believe that anything should be able to be solved if people try hard enough with negotiations, because when you go killing people you kill thousands of innocent people trying to get the bad guy, don’t you? The relationship I think is good. I think our relationship, it will never be perfect with other nations of the world that live and think differently to what we do but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t live in the same world with other people even if they have different beliefs and different ways of doing things.
COLHOUN: Thank you very much, Mr Treasure. I am most grateful to you for giving time to us.
TREASURE: That’s okay.
Transcribed by WRITEpeople, May 2003
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Printed on 01/18/2018 08:49:42 PM