TERRY COLHOUN: Gentlemen, thank you very much for giving me your time for this project. May I ask you first, Keith, to just briefly outline your military background.
KEITH TELFER: I enlisted in the Army in 1940 and I was transferred up to Darwin and whilst up there I moved out of the infantry company and transferred to the Sixth Divisional Cavalry Regiment, then I served with them through the Northern Territory, top of Queensland and New Guinea and I was discharged in 1945.
COLHOUN: Thank you, and Alf, what was your military service?
ALF COWLEY: My pre-war military service was with the Militia Artillery Unit in Brisbane, which I joined at the age of 16. I enlisted in the AIF on 8 May 1940; put my age on a year to make the grade. I was made a Sergeant in the Second Anti-Tank Regiment, trained at Redbank in Brisbane, went to the Middle East and arrived in what is now Israel, Palestine, early in October 1940. My first campaign was in North Africa when most of the troops were in Greece when the Tobruk debacle was on, and my second campaign was the entire Syrian campaign. I came back to Australia early in 1942 – about the middle of 1942 I managed to transfer to the RAAF. I trained at Kingaroy and at Narromine and in Canada where I did the fighter course. I went to Britain and trained further and ended up in Bomber Command in an RAF Squadron, No. 218 in No.3 Group and was flying with them from about late in 1944 until the end of the war. I did 23 major operations in Germany and from that I came back to Australia and got my discharge at the end of 1945.
COLHOUN: Well, how did you get involved in the RSL, taking you first, Alf?
COWLEY: Well, I came to Cowra on a farming enterprise. I worked initially with Edgells, the cannery people. I was their Farm Manager. At the time I first came down here and actually joined the RSL I did know some of the 60th Cavalry blokes, Keith’s old unit in Syria. I was in Syria at Merdjayoun. One of the platoons, one of the companies, was there with Cutler who later got a VC in the area. Naturally, being an ex-serviceman, I suppose, I went to – I didn’t know anyone here – I got myself around to the RSL.
COLHOUN: When would that have been?
COWLEY: In 1946, early in 1946.
COLHOUN: What about you, Keith, your RSL…?
TELFER: My father enrolled me in the RSL at Mittagong in 1944 when I was away in New Guinea and I came to Cowra in 1946 and I transferred to the Cowra Sub-branch.
COLHOUN: Well, I know both of you became President in due course but I think, Alf, you were President before Keith, is that right?
COWLEY: I think I was President in 1950–51. At that stage, if you are referring to the Japanese, there was a feeling abroad that something should be done about the War Cemetery. Probably, that was to some extent instigated by the fact that there were Australians buried out there. The Australian graves didn’t look too bad but the rest of the precinct was a disgrace. The Japanese had a lot of four-by-two hardwood stakes driven in all over the ground. They had names on them. The thistles were about six or eight feet high and there were probably a few rabbit warrens around. I think probably that ex-servicemen didn’t think it was good enough. A lot of us had seen war graves in the First World War run by the War Graves Commission which always, to my knowledge, have been excellent and the RSL I think had the general feeling that something should be done about the graves in Cowra. There was no animosity as far as most of the blokes in the RSL at the time towards the Japanese who were up there. I don’t think they meant that at all. If we are cleaning up the Australian ones we would have to clean up the Japanese anyway. It was the same as to clean the paddock up that had no Japs in. I think that’s probably how it started. I don’t think it was meant to be a noble enterprise but if I may say so I think there were people like Ab Oliver who, in the back of their mind, hoped that something like finally happened came to fruition.
COLHOUN: I think that’s where you come in, Keith. You were perhaps more involved with the development of the cemetery after that started?
TELFER: I was Treasurer of the RSL in 1952–1953 and I became President of the RSL in 1954–1955. While I was in the first year of presidency in 1954, I received a letter from the Government stating that the Embassy of Japan would like to get our permission to come over and pay a visit to the War Cemetery. I wrote back and said “Yes” we would welcome then and two members of their staff came across. We showed them all around the War Cemetery, gave them a tour of Cowra, and on their return to Canberra I suggested that it would be a good idea if the Japanese Ambassador came over himself. A few weeks later my wife and I received an invitation to have dinner at the Embassy of Japan in Canberra, which we attended, and after discussions there we convinced the Ambassador that it would be a good idea for him to come to Cowra and have a look at the work that had been done by the RSL members and people.
COLHOUN: You would have seen the start of the official War Cemetery. Did you see that happen? You were both involved in a sense in starting it, in clearing up the area, but then you had Ambassador Suzuki. But, what about the actual beginning of when they formally started to build it? Were you involved in that, in any way?
COLHOUN: Did you see anything of that?
COWLEY: No, I was an interested observer, I was always in the ANZAC Day Parades, etc., an interested observer, but I was probably like Keith, I was so busy trying to get established, I’d been out of the country for so many years, and starting a family. I had a fairly responsible job at the time and I don’t think I was able to put the time in that other people were. But I think there were some stalwarts in the RSL that did carry it on and knowing people now, and some of the later Presidents.
COLHOUN: There was some business involved in handing over the land, wasn’t there, because it had to become the property of the War Graves Commission?
COWLEY: I understand that, yes. It was Crown land originally. In those days, and it still is at times, difficult to get transfers from the Crown land to anywhere else. So, it’s reasonable to assume that there would be a fair amount of bureaucracy involved in getting that transferred. I can’t remember much about it but the council would be the responsible party who acted in that area.
COLHOUN: Was there any opposition that you are aware of to establishing a War Cemetery here?
COWLEY: None that I could say was serious opposition.
COLHOUN: When you say “none that was serious”, so there was some, was there?
COWLEY: Possibly, usually the non-combatants are the people that have hostility, not the genuine ex-servicemen.
COLHOUN: What was your experience, Keith? Did you find any people that were opposing what you were doing?
TELFER: There was very little opposition. It was mainly people who had had no service in any of the Army units that were against it because they had a hatred of the Japanese. But there were very, very few people like that.
COWLEY: I did invite in my year all the next of kin I could find to an ANZAC Day and I still have letters at home acknowledging – Ben Hardy – who was awarded the George Cross, his sister came and stayed at my home. She bore no resentment to the Japanese at all. She only died in recent years and we kept contact with her. There were about five or six others and to my knowledge none of those people had resentment against the Japanese and they were the next of kin of people who were buried out there.
COLHOUN: I know that some groups of Japanese veterans have come to Australia as part of unit organisations, because there’s nothing like the RSL in Japan, but unit groups have come. Have you had any contact or has the RSL here had any contact with these people coming to have a look at the Cemetery.
COWLEY: I’ve never been invited to any function where ex-servicemen have come out here, of any type of function, RSL or council.
COLHOUN: What about you, Keith?
TELFER: I have never been invited to attend either. I think that it’s gone down in history, the people that had anything to do with the starting of the War Cemetery and the new people on top of the ladder have just forgotten the work that has been done by other people.
COLHOUN: And yet, what we are finding in this project we are working on, that this very unique Cowra–Japan relationship began with what you gentlemen and your colleagues did back in the 50s to clear the Japanese graves. That was the beginning of it. You people started it.
COWLEY: We did; quite. We just happen to be figureheads. Everybody got stuck into it, the people who did it. The credit is due to them just as much as it is to anybody else, but we happened to be there and did a bit of organising, but that’s about all. There was a general feeling that it should be done. But, it was confined to the RSL at that stage, but the RSL did not go out looking for any help from anybody else anyway. That would be pretty right, Keith?
TELFER: Yes, that’s right, definitely.
COLHOUN: And now it would seem that the RSL has just been forgotten in it.
COWLEY: Well, that may be due to different regimes in the RSL.
COLHOUN: It could be due to anything, couldn’t it? What do you think about the way that what you, in fact, started, and, as you say, you didn’t really set out to start anything in particular, you just did what you thought should be done, but you agree with me that there is this very unique relationship between Cowra and Japan, how do you feel about this having developed from what you, in fact, started?
COWLEY: Well, I’ve become quite friendly with various Japanese people who have been interested in industries in Cowra. They have always been on a very friendly basis and they are very pleased to know that our organisation has established the War Cemetery out there as has been established.
COLHOUN: There is a policy of the RSL at a national level that there still needs to be more work done in Japan to see that young people are taught the facts of the Second World War. Do you have any views on that, either of you?
COWLEY: I have had a lot to do with Japanese in business and the fact is that the Cowra outbreak didn’t influence, in my view, the top businessmen. They didn’t come to Cowra, for instance, Wooltops did not come here for any reason other than commercial, I can assure you of that. I acted for Elders who was the agent and twenty per cent shareholder in the establishment of that business. But, the Japanese had a very definite respect for Australians – I’m talking about the original managers that came out here – and they wanted to do the right thing as much as they possibly could. They fitted into the local community very, very well and very easily. I think that that tone has been carried on. I don’t know. Anywhere you go around Australia now people know the Japanese War Cemetery is here. There is never any criticism. I mix with all sorts of people and I’ve never heard anybody say “What a ‘B’ of a place Cowra is. You buried the Japanese there.” It’s quite the opposite view.
COLHOUN: In the RSL itself there has been a major change over the years in that the National President, Major General Peter Phillips, retired, has been officially to Japan – the first National President – and, more recently, the National Executive have gone to Japan sponsored by the Japanese Government. Do you have any views on that, either of you?
COWLEY: I think it’s an excellent idea. I could put in a plug here that perhaps they should take a couple of old blokes along. I don’t expect that. I can’t see why the RSL didn’t follow it up. I probably had the opportunity. I went to Gallipoli in 1989, whenever it was, that the RSL with June Healey as National Secretary, and her husband. I have got a close association with them. I went to Gallipoli with them and she got Bob Hawke to turn the aeroplane on. This is where it all started. I was there. There were about 18 of us. I can’t see why – we have had the best trade relations, as I can see, with Japan than any other country has ever had. It was more to our benefit than it was the Japanese. It got us out of the parochial woods and got us some economy going. You could put that on tape if you want.
COLHOUN: That’s on tape.
TELFER: I agree very much with the idea of the RSL keeping in contact with the Japanese because it is definitely in the interests of Australia to establish a real good relationship with these people. They are an excellent trade customer of ours and it has resulted in a lot of money being invested in Cowra and Cowra business people make money out of it too.