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Cowra–Japan conversations
MURAKAMI Teruo, TAKAHARA Marekuni and YAMADA Masayoshi as former prisoners of war, Cowra, 1942–1945
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Australian War Memorial, Canberra, on 7 August 2004 (AWM S03331)
TERRY COLHOUN: Gentlemen, thank you for coming to talk with us today. It is a privilege for us to meet you and we thank you in advance for sharing your experiences with us. This recording is for the official records of the Australian War Memorial. It is a very important part of our collection of the history of the Pacific War. I will ask questions and each of you may wish to answer, but if you do not just leave it to the others to say their piece and wait for the next question.

I would like to go back to the Second World War, to the Pacific War. I would like to ask you first what were you thinking when enemy forces came and captured you? Who would like to answer first?

YAMADA MASAYOSHI: After ten days of drifting in the sea I reached Goodenough Island and there met three Australian soldiers who were not wearing any shirts. They had automatic guns. I was not the only one who reached the islands. I wanted to get some water because at sea we didn’t have any fresh water. We had one officer in our group so this officer asked for water. He was told that there was no water and to go over there. When we went to the place indicated we realised that this island was filled with the enemy. We then came back to the original site and then another three Australian soldiers came out with their weapons.

From this beach we could see some other islands in the distance. We wanted to move from this island to another island but we needed to have water. One of the Australian soldiers came along and said that he had some water. I think that was what he was indicating. There were 21 of us on the boat and most of us were quite weak. I was the one with the most strength so I went on to the beach. We could see a plane in the jungle and, because it was hidden, we thought the only Australians on the island were the crew of this plane. Well, so I followed the three Australians along the beach.

The sun was very hot under foot. Since we thought the only Australians on the island were the crew of the plane, we thought their numbers would be limited. On the other hand, there were about 20 of us, even though quite a lot of us were very weak. Everyone thought we could overpower the Australian soldiers so, after following them for some distance, the officer said “go ahead and attack”. I tried to attack the Australian soldiers in front of us but, since we were on the sea for quite a long time, we just didn’t have enough physical strength. Other Australian soldiers who were hiding in the jungle observed that we were weak and started to come out. There were about 15 of them and they were all armed. The Australian soldiers who came out started to shoot. I thought that if I let go of the Australian soldier in front of me to whom I was clinging, I would be shot dead, so I tried to hang on to the soldier because they wouldn’t shoot him. But then I think I was hit on the back of the head by something hard. I lost consciousness and didn’t know what was going on for a while. In a half-conscious state I realised that I was being pulled to a certain spot on the beach. All the Japanese soldiers were gathered there, and I was being carried. Eight of our soldiers died during this attack.

We thought we were about to be killed and wanted first to face Japan, that is north from that position. However, we were then put on a small boat which had arrived. At that stage we thought we would be shot and thrown into the sea. But the boat went around the headland and we saw two trucks and we were put on the back of those two trucks. We reached a hospital and there we were given water and a doctor came and had a look at us, and also we were given cigarettes and food. What I wanted then was water. I remember I had three cups of water and also a cup of coffee. Finally, I realised that I was still alive, and that my life would continue, but I still wondered what would happen next.
COLHOUN: Did you know that when you were captured the enemy soldiers were Australian?
YAMADA: Well, all the information I got was from an officer in our group who could speak some English. When we reached the island I told you there were three soldiers with no shirts. They told us to sit in a certain place, and the officer responded to them. So the officer went and sat down on the beach, on the sand, and then according to the officer those three said they were there to do some fishing and that they were from Australia. That’s what the soldier told the officer, and that’s how we knew they were Australians.
COLHOUN: I will come back to Mr YAMADA. I would like now to move to Mr MURAKAMI and ask the same question. When you were captured, what did you think was going to happen to you?
MURAKAMI TERUO: When I was captured I was suffering from malaria, dysentery and malnutrition so I was virtually half in coma and didn’t know much about it. When I looked back to a few days before my capture, all those who had physical strength were killed in the fighting, were shot dead. But those who were weak were picked up because we were so weak and couldn’t resist or fight against the enemy.
COLHOUN: Where were you when you were captured?
MURAKAMI: I was captured by Americans and I think the location was west of Tuluvu in New Britain, though I’m not really sure where exactly I was.
COLHOUN: What happened to you, what did they do with you?
MURAKAMI: They looked after me very well, and I was really surprised.
COLHOUN: When did the Americans give you to the Australians?
MURAKAMI: I don’t really know how the hand over was done but I was sent to Port Moresby and then flew on to Brisbane. That was all I knew.
COLHOUN: Were you surprised to find you were fighting against Australian soldiers?
MURAKAMI: No, I wasn’t surprised.
COLHOUN: We’ll come back. Now I think we will ask you, Mr TAKAHARA, to tell us about the time you were captured and how you felt about being captured.
TAKAHARA MAREKUNI: Well, after drifting in the sea for five days and wandering on the island for ten days, we were rescued by the local people – natives – and we thought: “Oh, finally we are saved”. But just as we thought we were saved, we were handed to the Australians. I realised that we had become prisoners of war. I thought I was in the most shameful state as a citizen of Japan and I wanted to look for opportunity to kill myself.
COLHOUN: When you found that you were a prisoner of the Australians, how did you feel?
TAKAHARA: Well, I was involved in a reconnaissance flight before the Darwin bombing so I knew we were fighting against Australia. I felt that eventually Japan would attack Australia so naturally I knew who they were when we were caught by the Australians.
COLHOUN: What happened to you when you were captured, what did the soldiers do with you?
TAKAHARA: I was really impressed with their kindness. I was taken from Bathurst Island to Darwin by a Douglas aeroplane. At that stage Darwin was bombed by Zeros, but Australian soldiers urged us to move into the shelter, and at the hospital as well. People were very kind and looked after us very well. They didn’t at all treat us like the enemy.
COLHOUN: If you felt some shame at being captured, did you hope when the Zeros came over that maybe they would destroy you?
TAKAHARA: Yes, yes I felt that way. I thought it would be better to be shot by Japanese Zeros than by anybody else.
COLHOUN: Let us move to a second stage of the discussion. I would like to talk now about Cowra. You all spent some time at Cowra. Going first again to Mr YAMADA. When you first saw the camp at Cowra, what did you think?
YAMADA: I spent quite a long time in Brisbane, namely from March 1943 to February 1944. The treatment I received in Brisbane was very good and I didn’t really feel like I was a prisoner of war. Nobody said at that time in Brisbane that I was a prisoner of war. But going back to an earlier stage when I was captured, my hands were tied and I thought they would take us into the bush about 3 o’clock in the morning and shoot us. But that didn’t happen and I realised that my life was saved. I was sent from Port Moresby to Brisbane by hospital boat and then to Townsville. Each of us were interrogated and then we were put into separate cells, or separate sections so we could not mix with the non-interrogated soldiers. When the number of interrogated soldiers reached about 20, they were moved somewhere else, but I was left behind each time. I asked why wasn’t I moved and was told that I should look after those who had been interrogated. But during that time everybody was extremely kind to me. For example, in Brisbane in December of that year, at Christmas, the captain brought out beer and barbeque chicken for me to share and said: “It’s Christmas, we should celebrate.” The notion I had of a prisoner of war was completely turned upside down. Something which I had expected didn’t happen at all.
COLHOUN: What part of the camp were you living in, Mr YAMADA?
YAMADA: I belonged to Group 8 and our huts were the closest to the playing ground where people played baseball. I think mine was second hut from the top of the hill.
COLHOUN: What sort of things did you do to fill in your time?
YAMADA: I played baseball. I learned baseball there and I played.
COLHOUN: All day and all night?
YAMADA: (Laughter) Well at night the only thing we could do was to sleep, but during the day when we were not playing baseball we were making gloves for baseball. We were given two pairs of leather boots and we took the leather apart. We made the leather softer and made baseball gloves. I think we spent a lot of time making playing gear for baseball.
COLHOUN: Was the food good or bad?
YAMADA: Well, the cooking was done by other prisoners in the Japanese camp. The type of food was very good and some of it was very new which I had never seen before. It was good.
COLHOUN: Mr YAMADA, could you please tell me what part you played in the breakout?
YAMADA: I don’t think my role was anything special. I was just one of the others, but Mr KAKIMOTO, whose family has travelled to Australia with us this time, was a group leader. He told me that he was a Zero pilot, or something like that. We just followed his orders.
COLHOUN: Mr YAMADA, were you using your proper name?
YAMADA: Yes, I was using my own name.
COLHOUN: When the breakout happened, were you one of the people who escaped?
YAMADA: I went to Broadway.
COLHOUN: Yes, I know Broadway, yes. But did you manage to get outside the camp?
YAMADA: I couldn’t get out of the camp. As you know, Broadway was quite wide and there was lots of shooting going on. I was with those who climbed over the fence. The only thing we could do, however, was lie in the ditch. We just couldn’t move at all. I had a baseball bat with me, as did my friend, but it was not to attack anyone. We talked before the breakout that if one of us was shot and very close to death, the other would hit him over the head and let him die as quickly as possible. We talked about this among ourselves and agreed that was what we would do for each other. But I didn’t really expect to be alive after I had climbed over the fence. I thought I would be shot while I was climbing over it.
COLHOUN: Did you want to be shot?
YAMADA: Yeh, well I thought I would be dead for sure. When the vote was taken I said yes to the breakout, so at that stage I thought my life would be finished very soon. I thought this would be the final act before my life ended. That’s what I thought.
COLHOUN: When the breakout was finished, and in a sense you were recaptured, were you treated with dignity?
YAMADA: Well, when we were recaptured, we were told that we had done a very serious thing. As a punishment we were given just water and bread, and that’s what happened for two or three days. Gradually, we were given jam, and then butter. But we were punished in that way.
COLHOUN: Do you think perhaps, that Australian soldiers were too soft, that they should have been more firm with the prisoners?
YAMADA: I thought they were very generous. Many huts were burned down but luckily, our hut was still there. But as we had engaged in a very serious and grave act we didn’t know what would happen to us.
COLHOUN: I will come back to Mr YAMADA. I would like to talk now with Mr MURAKAMI again. Mr MURAKAMI, I would like to ask you similar questions. I would like to know what did you think of the Cowra camp when you arrived there?
MURAKAMI: I think I arrived in the camp in around May 1944 and there were lots of people. I was really surprised to realise that so many people had been captured by the Allies.
COLHOUN: Were you ashamed that you were there as a prisoner?
MURAKAMI: Yes, yes I did feel ashamed.
COLHOUN: Where were you living in the camp?
MURAKAMI: I was in Group 5.
COLHOUN: Did you play any part in planning the breakout?
MURAKAMI: No, I didn’t have any special role in the planning. I was just one of many and I just followed the rest.
COLHOUN: Did you agree with the breakout, do you think it should have taken place? When you were discussing and planning it, were you for it or against it?
MURAKAMI: I voted yes, but to be honest, I didn’t think it was a good idea. I wanted to vote no.
COLHOUN: Could you tell me why you wanted to vote no?
MURAKAMI: Well, I didn’t want to break out. But when we realised that the total vote was counted and the decision was made to carry out the break out I joined with the mind that I would not see the end of it, that I would soon die in the breakout. That’s how I felt.
COLHOUN: When the signal was given to breakout, what did you do?
MURAKAMI: I just followed the rest.
COLHOUN: Did you get over the fence?
MURAKAMI: Yes, I went towards Broadway, and then I laid on the ground in the side ditch until day broke.
COLHOUN: Were you hurt in the breakout?
COLHOUN: When you were recaptured, do you think the Australian soldiers treated you with dignity?
MURAKAMI: Yes, I was treated really well. I thought they would kill us when we were recaptured but I was really surprised to be treated so well.
COLHOUN: Do you think Australian soldiers were too soft?
MURAKAMI: Yes, I feel that way.
COLHOUN: Thank you, I will come back to Mr MURAKAMI. Now I would like to talk again with Mr TAKAHARA and I would like to know from you what did you think of the Cowra camp when you saw it for the first time, when you walked through the gate?
TAKAHARA: Well, I was one of the early ones to be captured and after Darwin we went across Australia to Sydney via Melbourne, and then were sent to Hay where there were lots of civilians. Japanese civilians were interned and there were only five us from the plane who were military people. I had already made up my false name in Darwin and I didn’t tell the Australians that I was military personnel. I said I was steward of a fishing boat. I spent six months in Hay so I feel that I am one of the founders of the Cowra camp.
COLHOUN: Did the other Japanese prisoners know who you really were, or did they think you were someone from a ship?
TAKAHARA: Well, I’m not sure because some might have thought I was in the military but, in the camp, people just didn’t talk about the past. Many of us had false names and we just didn’t talk about the past, so some people might have suspected that I was military personnel, but we just didn’t talk about what we were before we were captured.
COLHOUN: Would you tell me what sort of things did you did in the camp in the long days and long nights?
TAKAHARA: I was a baseball player in high school. Before I went to Cowra, while I was in Hay, I taught baseball to the civilian internees in the camp. By the time I left Cowra I knew how to make equipment and other things. In Hay, I learned some English from the civilians in the camp, so I was an interpreter in Cowra. In Cowra we used to make baseball equipment from various materials, like canvas and old clothes, so I had fairly busy time. I always say I am a graduate from Cowra University.
COLHOUN: Did you ever think that you would like to go and see the town of Cowra, to go out and talk to the young ladies of Cowra?
TAKAHARA: No, I didn’t know where the town was, in which direction from the camp the town was, so I never thought of going to town.
COLHOUN: Half of the camp was occupied by Italians. What did the Japanese in the camp think about the Italians?
TAKAHARA: I felt that the Italians were relaxed and laid back people. The Australians used to tell us, during the war, that Germans were born with a gun in their hand, Italians were born with a dream in their hands, but we don’t know what the Japanese were born with in their hands. That’s what Australians used to say during the war.
COLHOUN: Maybe it was a bowl of rice.
TAKAHARA: (Laughs)
COLHOUN: I will come back to Mr TAKAHARA. Mr MURAKAMI, you were following what Mr TAKAHARA said about the Italians. When you saw them going out every day working in the farms, did you think maybe you would like to go and work with them?
MURAKAMI: No, I didn’t feel that way. The only thing I thought was that the Italians were so joyful and so laid back.
COLHOUN: Thank you. Mr TAKAHARA, what part did you play in planning the breakout?
TAKAHARA: For the breakout itself I didn’t have any particular role, but two months before the breakout I was working as an interpreter in the officers camp. I went with three others to the commander of the officers camp at the time and told him that I could remain as the interpreter as long as necessary, but I wanted the other three to be changed after three months. I wanted them to be sent back to their original camp after three months but that didn’t happen. As I was the leader, I decided to go on strike. Because of this, I was sent to a cell for four weeks, and the other three were sent to a cell for one week. After that I was sent back to my original camp. I didn’t have any particular role in the planning stage.
COLHOUN: What happened to you at the time of the breakout?
TAKAHARA: I was told the signal for the breakout would come at 2 am, and I belonged to the first group. I was asked to reach the officers camp across Broadway as soon as the breakout started, so that’s what I tried to do.
COLHOUN: Were you successful in escaping?
TAKAHARA: Yes, I escaped. I went back to the compound but by the time I went into Broadway there were already about 30 dead bodies lying there. I was with my colleague FURUKAWA, who was also a crew of the same flying-boat. He was an engineer and he had some injury. I said to him that if he should die I would charge out and get killed, but I told him not to die. That’s what I was telling FURUKAWA. That’s how I spent the time.
COLHOUN: Were you injured?
TAKAHARA: I got a scratch from a bullet. Actually, the bullet scratched my buttock, and then hit somebody who was behind me, a soldier called DOKI. It struck his heart and he died instantly.
COLHOUN: Were you well cared for afterwards?
TAKAHARA: Before the sun rose, the Australians were shooting, but once day broke, they stopped. Eventually the gate was opened and they told us to stand up. An Australian officer appointed me as an interpreter and he asked me, or told me, to persuade the others to go back into the camp, so I did that.
COLHOUN: Did you feel disappointed that the bullet did not hit your heart?
TAKAHARA: That was before sunrise, so what I thought I would do was just lie on the ground and be still. I was hoping that no bullet would hit me, that was how I felt.
COLHOUN: Mr TAKAHARA, could the breakout have be avoided? Did there have to be a breakout?
TAKAHARA: I know there was another breakout in New Zealand before that at Cowra. I felt that Japan’s defeat in the war would eventually trigger a breakout like that, because at that stage, under those circumstances, we felt that there was no way we could return to Japan.
COLHOUN: May I go now to Mr YAMADA? Do you think the breakout could have been avoided?
YAMADA: Well, the most shameful thing for us was to be captured alive, that’s what had been drummed into us. I’m not sure of the situation in the Russo–Japanese war, but we had never met anybody who was a prisoner of war who had returned to Japan, so we thought no prisoner of war would ever return. That’s what I thought. But to be honest, I think I wanted to wait a bit longer. I wanted to see how the war would develop and see what happened and then decide. I think that is the feeling I had towards life, that I wanted to cling to life. But once the decision was made to breakout I felt, okay, I will go along with it. That’s what I felt.
COLHOUN: Do you think, Mr YAMADA, that the Australian soldiers in the camp, the guards, the administration should have known a breakout was being planned?
YAMADA: I think it would have been better if they had predicted it better.
COLHOUN: You might like to speak on this too Mr TAKAHARA. From where you were in the camp, do you think the administration was not doing its job properly, that they should have known something was being planned?
TAKAHARA: I don’t like saying this, but I think the interpreter or interpreters who were working at the camp did not truly understand the feelings of the Japanese well enough. If there had been a chance for more understanding, and more reasonable discussion, I think the outcome might have been different. People say that Japanese prisoners broke out because of this separation between the soldiers and non-commissioned officers. It’s a kind of rational reasoning, but there could have been another way to work it out. For example, if they said there were just too many prisoners of war in the camp, please move some of them out of the camp to somewhere else, and also, if they had given more time for this move, then the outcome might have been different. So I feel there was not enough understanding between the interpreters, or between the Australian side, and the Japanese side.
COLHOUN: Mr MURAKAMI, you might have some thoughts about this too. After the breakout, were you surprised that Australian guards did not know it would happen?
MURAKAMI: I never wondered about what the Australians were thinking or expecting but I would have thought they would have been prepared for the possibility of breakout.
COLHOUN: Gentlemen, we have been talking a long time. I have more questions I want to ask you about your return to Japan and your present visit to Cowra. Would you like to take ten minutes rest, and have a cup of tea before we continue?
There has been a short break and now we are coming to the last few questions in this long interview. Gentlemen, thank you for you patience. I would now like to talk to you about your return to Cowra this week for the 60th anniversary of the breakout. Why did you come back? Could I ask Mr YAMADA first. Why did you come back to the commemoration service?
YAMADA: Well, 231 people died in the Cowra breakout. The decision was made by vote when we actually broke out and everybody thought we would die, but something happened and we are still alive. We also returned to our homeland, so I always feel sorry for those 231 people who died. In Japan, on 5 August every year, I pay respect to the spirits of the dead by presenting incense. We also get together as the Cowra Association to pay our respects to the spirits of the dead. This year is the 60th anniversary, and I think it is very significant to commemorate. I am the president of the Cowra Association and I don’t know how much longer I will live, so I really wanted to come back to Cowra to pay my respects to the dead. I also wanted to express my appreciation to the people from Cowra who looked after the graves and paid their respects to the war dead every August. I wanted to make some contribution, even though it is small, towards Australia–Japan relations. Even though the start was a tragedy, I wanted to make something good out of this.
COLHOUN: Mr TAKAHARA, you have been to Cowra many times, though this, of course, was a very special week. On a very cold and wet morning this week there was a commemoration ceremony at the two war cemeteries, the Australian and the Japanese, where you laid a wreath and there was an Honour Guard from the Australian Defence Force. Did it surprise you that this kind of ceremony would be arranged 60 years after the breakout?
TAKAHARA: Well, I was surprised, but the first occasion to commemorate the incident occurred on the 40th anniversary. Before that I got to know Father Tony Glynn, who has since died. I used to see him about once a week in Japan for a drink, and we would talk about various things. One thing we often talked about was changes to make Australia and Japan more friendly, to have a better understanding of each other. He founded the Australia–Japan Society in Nara. Tony Glynn thought that in order to bring out goodwill, Christianity and Buddhism should get along, so I persuaded 12 Buddhist priests to come along to the 40th anniversary. Two years later was held the first meeting of the Nara Australia–Japan Society, and since then, Australia–Japan societies have spread across Japan and become very popular. That was a start to this commemoration.
COLHOUN: I would like to ask Mr MURAKAMI a question I should have asked before. What name did you use in the Cowra camp?
COLHOUN: What thoughts will you take home after you have been to the ceremony this week?
MURAKAMI: I took some photographs. I would like to show these photographs to my family in Japan and tell them how big and beautiful the ceremony was. That’s what I will take back.
COLHOUN: The last question is to the president of the Cowra Association, Mr YAMADA. Have we in Australia shown proper respect to your dead colleagues and do you feel that their spirits are now at rest?
YAMADA: I feel personally that the way Australia treated the dead soldiers, and also the spirit of the dead soldiers, was very thorough and very warm. And I feel, though I don’t know much about the religious aspects, that their spirits are peacefully at rest. I visited Cowra for the 40th anniversary with Mr TAKAHARA and at that time, the primary school band played the Japanese national anthem. That really moved me. It was the first time I had heard the Japanese national anthem played by Australian children. That was a very emotional moment for me.
COLHOUN: Thank you very much gentlemen for your time, for your patience, and for sharing your experience. We welcome you as friends and thank you very much for your time.

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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.

YURA Shigeru
Keiko Tamura
Oliver & Telfer
Cyril Treasure
Telfer & Cowley
Gary Beck
Bruce Miller
Steve & Chris Kawamata
Don Kibbler
Graeme Drew
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Lawrance Ryan (2)
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Click images to enlarge. Pictured are (from left) Keiko Tamura (interpreter), Terry Colhoun (interviewer), MURAKAMI Teruo, TAKAHARA Marekuni and YAMADA Masayoshi in the council room of the Australian War Memorial.

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