Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Barbara Bennett as Mayor of the Shire of Cowra, 1976–1980
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 19 March 2003 (AWM S03080)
TERRY COLHOUN: Mrs Bennett, thank you very much for participating in this project. It is very good to have your input. Your association with Japan was a double one: you were part of the Municipal Council, but you also had your daughter, Catherine, who was one of the first two exchange students. She was only 17 when she went off to Nara. I wondered, as her mother how did you feel about her going off to a country that you really couldn’t have known too much about at that time?
BARBARA BENNETT: Very, very worried, of course, nervous and delighted that she was going because at 17 she was old for her age, I think, and I think, of course you can’t possibly imagine what it’s going to be like until you get there but we did have some help in that there was a Japanese woman living in Cowra, who’d married an Australian serviceman during the war and come to live in Cowra. Catherine went and talked to her for quite a while, quite a number of times before she left and this Mrs Austin was a great help because she told her all sorts of little odd things about it. She couldn’t possibly attempt to teach her to speak Japanese in that time but she did in a way introduce her to some of the Japanese customs and manners, living in the house, and it was a help because at that stage there was no Japanese taught in the High School here, so Catherine went to Japan and Jenny Billington who also went had no Japanese at all – no Japanese at all.
COLHOUN: Jenny went to Seikei at the same time?
BENNETT: She went to Seikei.
COLHOUN: 1971, this was, 1971–1972 Catherine was there. Cowra by that time had established some of its Japanese contacts – apart from the breakout the War Cemetery had developed and so on – did you have any particular feeling about Japanese people and Japan yourself.
BENNETT: Well, my mother visited Japan in 1911 and I have a diary that she wrote when she visited then. She went with a family group of an uncle, an aunt, two aunts actually, and two cousins and they travelled with Thomas Cook and travelled around Japan and they just loved it. She always spoke – her diary is full of how much they enjoyed Japan, how well they got on with the Japanese and how they admired the country and I think that was a help because, having lived through the war, and I was a WAAF during the war, which meant that my feelings then were certainly very anti-Japanese. I was servicing aeroplanes to train our pilots to go and fight the Japanese. I was, I suppose, at that stage brainwashed a bit. I think we all were.
COLHOUN: That’s part of war, isn’t it?
BENNETT: It’s part of war. I don’t know if anyone else remembers, I’m sure people do, remember the cartoons by Armstrong. They used to come out in a Melbourne paper and he painted, drew, the Japanese as if they were monsters really. I think I was – as I say, I grew up during the war, and I used to see these. I think my parents were probably torn too, because Mum, having had her time in Japan and liking the people so much, they felt a great affinity for the Japanese, although they had to have interpreters, of course, they couldn’t speak Japanese, but they felt they were such happy people. This came through the diary all the time – happy people; happy children. They all cried when they left. The whole family group cried when they had to leave their guide, Toshi, his name was. He’d taken them around Japan all the time they were there, and they were there quite a long time, and they were all in tears when they had to leave him. There was this – it’s an ambivalent feeling, isn’t it?
COLHOUN: Yes. Did you have any fears for Catherine’s safety when she was going to Japan?
BENNETT: No, I didn’t. That’s one thing I didn’t have. I was worried about her being homesick. I had great faith that the Japanese family that she went to would look after her but naturally I was worried about her being homesick and wanting to come home. She knew she was going for a year. It was a long time.
COLHOUN: It is a long time when you’re a teenager.
BENNETT: At that time, now you stay with three different families, but then you stayed with the one family for the whole year so what if they didn’t like her? What if she didn’t like them?
COLHOUN: Did you ever get a chance to meet them?
BENNETT: Yes, yes, I stayed with them after she came back, when I went to Japan.
COLHOUN: What did you think of them and Nara when you went?
BENNETT: Lovely, lovely, I realise now how Catherine liked it so much. It’s a lovely place.
COLHOUN: It is a very beautiful city, isn’t it?
BENNETT: A beautiful city and, of course, she met Father Glynn. Because Mr Takase, that’s her Japanese father, was the Secretary for the Mayor of Nara and so he took her to meet the Mayor. It was just a most marvellous experience for anyone, it turns out.
COLHOUN: It seems from what she has told me on tape that it really shaped her whole life because she became a very successful potter and pottery teacher as a result of that schooling that she had in Nara.
BENNETT: She was very lucky, wasn’t she? That was because, of course, she had this wonderful man, Mr Sasaki who looked after her. He was one of the teachers, the English teacher at Ichijo High School, and she was given to him to look after, for him to look after her, and he is still a very un-Japanese Japanese. He encouraged her to continue with her pottery. Of course, they arranged for her, she probably told you, to leave school when she still had three months to go and so she concentrated on the pottery. For three months she worked in a small pottery as an apprentice. That sort of experience doesn’t happen to everybody.
COLHOUN: What difference did you see in Catherine as a person when she came home, I mean apart from being a year older?
BENNETT: A year older and a lot wiser and plump, she put on a lot of weight in Japan. The Japanese food suited her very well.
BENNETT: She had dreadful skin when she left, you know, teenage acne, and it cleared in Japan. I think it was the food, the rice, the vegetables, the fish.
COLHOUN: They eat very healthy food.
BENNETT: She always says she felt better in herself, health-wise, when she was in Japan.
COLHOUN: A wonderful experience. Now while all this was going on you were getting involved in local politics, or had you started before she left?
BENNETT: I started in 1971. I went on to the council in 1971.
COLHOUN: That was the Cowra Municipal Council or the Shire Council?
BENNETT: Yes, the Cowra Municipal Council, at that stage. I was altogether 16 years on council and all that time, of course, I was a delegate to the Tourist and Development Corporation at this time.
COLHOUN: That would have been one of your earlier contacts with Japan too, wouldn’t it?
BENNETT: Yes, of course, immediately.
COLHOUN: What do you remember of those years as the delegate, starting from the beginning of it, because it would have been just a sort of a very new project then, the garden?
BENNETT: Yes, well I was reading some notes the other day where I saw written that in 1973 the Tourist and Development Corporation decided to build a garden, so it was just starting when I was there. Of course, it took a long long time for anything much to happen. We thought about it, somebody thought about it, I think it was Don Kibbler. The story is that Don Kibbler and Peter Carruth, who was the Tourist Officer at the time, were sitting on a wall waiting for their – both their wives were away and they were doing their washing at the local laundromat. They were sitting on a wall looking over the River Park where the sports fields are now and close to town near the swimming pool, and they said, sitting in the sun, lovely day, looking over it, dreaming, “We need something else for the Japanese. The Cemetery is so popular and people are coming all the time to look at the cemetery, we need something else to interest people when they come. What we need is a Japanese garden.” Looking over this area they decided this was the place to build it, on the river.
COLHOUN: Yes, that was the first choice, on the river, wasn’t it?
BENNETT: That was the first choice, yes, and that’s how it started but it took a long, long time.
COLHOUN: There were initial objections to having the site on the river, I believe, having the garden on the river, and that’s why it moved to its present site.
BENNETT: Well, yes, that was one thing. One thing was it would have been quite a small garden if it was down on the river because the swimming pool was already there. It would have had to have been between…
COLHOUN: I see.
BENNETT: And so then at that stage we talked to a Japanese garden designer in Sydney, a woman who came up…
COLHOUN: Mrs Shibiako?
BENNETT: Yes, who came up and looked at the site and she made a plan for it; in fact, she made a model of it, that would fit in the back of a utility so it could be taken around and shown to people, getting them interested in getting it built and then we applied to the two Governments for help, of course, and this all seemed to take years and years and years to get anywhere.
COLHOUN: What was the council’s attitude to this?
BENNETT: They certainly weren’t all in favour of it. There were several people that would speak quite strongly against it, for one reason or another, because it was obviously going to cost council money. There was still, as I say, in Cowra a feeling against the Japanese and against the friendship with the Japanese. Most people in Cowra knew somebody who had been a prisoner of war in Japan or who’d been killed by the Japanese or whatever and most people felt – while most people were in favour of it there were people who weren’t in favour.
COLHOUN: Was that very, very public, this objection, or was it just under cover?
BENNETT: Because I didn’t hear it, you see. People don’t, if they know that you are on the council and your council are going to try and do this, I didn’t have many people come to me and say “Look, I don’t think this is a good idea. You should be spending money on roads, sewerage, anything.” But a few, I suppose, did, but it was interesting how the public opinion swung around, because the number that were against it – I suppose there was the odd letter to the paper saying “It’s all very well for council to spend money on a Japanese garden but we need such-and-such and such-and-such more than that.” That’s pretty well expected, I think, of anything that you want to do. That’s more or less to be expected. People who would like to see their own services improved don’t look to the long term and say, well, “This has got tourist potential. Is it going to bring money into the town and make it more prosperous?’ This is where the Tourist and Development came in, of course, with their publicity of what it would do, what it could do, and this helped, all this helped. But, things really did swing around once it started. People got enthusiastic. It was quite extraordinary. I remember noticing that if you want to really know what’s going on in a town you’ll talk to the taxi drivers who sit at the taxi rank…
COLHOUN: That’s true of most places, I think.
BENNETT: …sitting in the car chatting and the barbers, of course. I don’t go to a barber very often but I’m sure you learn more from going to the barber…
COLHOUN: You’ve got to do something while you’re sitting there having your hair trimmed, and especially ladies who are having their hair done. It takes a bit longer than men.
BENNETT: That’s right, but I remember thinking “Well,” somebody said to me “You know the taxi drivers are proud of the garden now and they are sending people up there.”
COLHOUN: You had won.
BENNETT: We had won.
COLHOUN: Yes. You were there at the opening, I guess.
BENNETT: Yes, indeed.
COLHOUN: So, you had I suppose two hats: you were there because you were part of the committee and also a member of the council.
BENNETT: Yes, that’s right.
COLHOUN: What do you remember of that event?
BENNETT: I remember the worry and the worry and the worry beforehand because you remember that we came to a point where we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere finance-wise. One Government said “Well, we’ll give you so much” and another Government said “We’ll give you so much.” There was still a lot, oh dear, we needed so much more money to even get started. At that stage, of course, we were still thinking of Mrs Shibiako’s little garden, but even that was going to cost and then the Ambassador from Japan, Mr Okawara, came over, visited us, of course. The Ambassador would usually visit because of the cemetery. He became enthused and he and his Secretary, Mr Anami, were the two heroes of this project really. I remember in my speech for the opening I said I was so grateful to all of the people who had done things for us, tried to list off all the most important ones and who had done this and who had done that and said “Look, I have to, I can’t speak of everybody but I have to single out three people.” One was Mr Okawara, one was Mr Nakajima, the garden designer and one was Alf Rose, the builder. I had to talk about them separately, put them up above everybody else who’d given money, who’d given voluntary hours, who’d done so much to help us, but when Mr Okawara came and Mr Anami and we talked about what we wanted to do, we showed them our plans and they gave us their thoughts and then Mr Okawara, with all his other commitments, took this to be his project. He was a marvellous man.
COLHOUN: I think he contributed a lot. I had the privilege of knowing Mr Okawara in those days and I recall him as one of the quite outstanding Ambassadors Japan has sent to Australia in recent years, but talking to different people in this project I get the impression that he did a lot. He had a hand in the early days of establishing the exchange programme.
COLHOUN: I was talking to Ab Oliver. I could very well understand your appreciation of how he adopted the garden.
BENNETT: You see, we were starting from scratch, weren’t we? We were starting from scratch really.
COLHOUN: It was a big project for what was, quite frankly, a small country town.
BENNETT: Yes, that’s right, and we couldn’t, we knew we couldn’t –if we were going to keep the whole council on our side we couldn’t be committing council funds. It had to come from outside; it had to come from outside. Of course, it did eventually. There are lists of big companies in Japan and in Australia, mostly in Japan, who helped us so much. But, it was all started by Mr Okawara who finally – also, he collected money in the Embassy in Canberra. We were short of a certain amount at the end when we got to the crunch, thinking “We can go. It will go.” But, there was a little bit – there was a shortfall and the hat went around at the Embassy.
COLHOUN: Isn’t that marvellous.
BENNETT: One of the most wonderful things he did was when these lovely Nanga paintings came to Australia and they went all around. They went to Canberra and he rang us and said “Would you like some of the Nanga paintings for your Cultural Centre?” Of course, we would. He arranged for them to be donated to us. They are still up there, of course, and a wonderful great thing to start off our Japanese Cultural Centre there.
COLHOUN: Another name, a non-diplomatic name that has come up in several conversations, and in fact your daughter and I were talking about this a few minutes ago, and that was the Nagakura family. They have been very generous in helping. In particular, talking to Catherine, in that they were responsible for the Pottery House.
BENNETT: That’s right, yes.
COLHOUN: And then there’s the Nagakura Walkway and Nagakura Picnic Park and now the Nagakura Foundation. Did you have any contact with them?
BENNETT: Yes, they visited quite a number of times and when I was in Japan I met Mr Nagakura. The other person, of course, you heard about Mr Nagano too?
COLHOUN: Yes, that name has come up.
BENNETT: That name, he was the one who actually officially opened the garden when it was finally opened and he was the one who helped enormously with money. He was the President of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He came in after we’d started, after the garden had got underway. We realised we really didn’t have enough money. We needed a fund, a contingency fund, because once it was planted we had a drought.
COLHOUN: Yes, I have heard a bit about this.
BENNETT: You’ve heard about this, and local people, a lot of the wives of the Tourist and Development Councillors used to give up their time to come and water things to keep them alive. Then, of course, the drought broke and we had enormous rain and the hillside began to…
BENNETT: …slip down and we had to spend the money putting…
COLHOUN: …protection in to save it.
BENNETT: …protection to save the walls, railway sleepers it was, because they fitted into the soil, you see. So, we suddenly realised we were going to have to have some sort of contingency fund. At that stage the garden was laid out. Mr Nakajima had designed it, of course. That was the other thing. We’ve skipped that, haven’t we? We skipped from Mrs Shibiako…
COLHOUN: You have mentioned Ken Nakajima.
BENNETT: Because we said “Well, who are we going to get to design it? We’ve got this design for the smaller area near the swimming pool and what are you going to do?” Mr Okawara said “Leave it with me. I’ll find you a designer.” He recommended Mr Ken Nakajima who came out and we showed him three sites. There was the one near the pool, there was where it is now and there was the same hill looking to the south instead of to the west. He looked at the three sites. When he looked at the hill site, where it is now, he said “This is it,” because of the rocks. He said “There’s a huge big rock there that is like the rock that the gods came down on.’
COLHOUN: I understand he saw a strong spiritual significance in that particular site and he adapted his plan accordingly.
BENNETT: That’s right and he also wanted the gum trees because he wanted it to be a Japanese garden in an Australian setting. He loved the rocks, as he said “rocks, rocks, rocks” and he brought in more rocks, rocks, rocks.
COLHOUN: Of course, if you go to Japan you find an exquisite use of rocks and stones everywhere.
BENNETT: This was such a big thing, such a big thing with him. You knew that when he died he wanted his ashes to be buried in Cowra.
COLHOUN: No, I didn’t know that. What’s that story?
BENNETT: Well, he – it wasn’t long ago when he died – had said that this was his favourite garden, of all the gardens that he has designed all over the world this is his favourite garden. It means more to him spiritually, so when he died he asked that part of his ashes be buried in Cowra, part of his ashes were to go to where he was born in Japan and part to Canada because he and his family had a house in Canada and they used to spend holidays skiing there and he wanted to be part of that. They visited us not long after he died and some of his ashes are under that big rock.
COLHOUN: That’s a lovely story.
BENNETT: Yes, and he felt a very strong affinity for this garden. It was incredible; it was. It shows, I think, in the design. It’s just beautiful.
COLHOUN: I had a look at it yesterday morning and I don’t think it has ever looked better. It looks beautiful. It has a real Japanese appearance, despite the fact that they are predominantly Australian plants, and so on, growing there.
BENNETT: Of course, they had to be, you know, and that’s another person that helped us enormously – a local nurseryman, John Hoile. He worked with Mr Nakajima trying to use Australian plants that would be equivalent to the Japanese plants, you see.
COLHOUN: Yes. You became the Mayor – the first female Mayor – of Cowra. What year was that?
BENNETT: I was Mayor for four years and I finished being Mayor in 1980.
COLHOUN: So it must have been about 1976?
BENNETT: Yes, 1976.
COLHOUN: That was a bit of a revolution in Cowra, wasn’t it?
BENNETT: Yes, it was. It had never happened before. It was the first – actually I was the first woman Mayor and the last Mayor, because the council has amalgamated during my time, so I was both an alderman and a councillor.
COLHOUN: You went through a very historic change then and you were part of it.
COLHOUN: The Japanese give great respect to the Mayor of a municipality. How did they react when they came here and found the Mayor of Cowra was a woman. Did you ever find that they took a little adjusting to that?
BENNETT: I don’t think I did, you know. I don’t think I did.
COLHOUN: They are very polite and even if they were a bit surprised…
BENNETT: They are very polite. Who did react was a woman, a very nice woman came from Japan to interview me at one stage and she was so delighted to find a woman as Mayor. I think that’s why she came and interviewed me and I thought that was nice. She was delighted. But the men, because they are very polite, as you know. They don’t come back, but the only – no, I really, I wouldn’t say I ever remember noticing any withdrawing at all. The only person, I must tell you, who withdrew from me was Mr Nakajima once. That was a marvellous incident. He was coming to start the planting of the garden big time and he was arriving by plane from Sydney, and Mr Oliver and I went out to meet him. He got off the plane and walked towards us and we walked towards him and I walked towards him with my arm out, you know, and he drew back. I thought “Oh, my gosh, what’s happened? What have I done?” Then I realised he was sick. He had hives. You wouldn’t believe it. He looked terrible. He hadn’t had a shave and he had obviously been very ill and he was frightened of giving it to us. That was what it was and we found out all about it because he had with him his, I think it’s a relation of Mrs Nakajima’s who did his interpreting. He’s called Ken too and he explained that Mr Nakajima was very ill but he was still – felt he had to come to get the planting underway and he had hives and he always had one good eye and one bad eye and inevitably he had one in the good eye. So, we were all very worried and bustled him off to the eye doctor in Orange who said he must go to hospital and have that dressed. There was nothing to do except to keep it clean and dress it. He must go back to hospital in Cowra and what happened was he was admitted to hospital and it meant that his eye was dressed morning and night but in the meantime he could get up, of course. So, he would get up, have his breakfast, have his eye dressed, get up, go up to the garden, oversee the planting and do a lot of it himself, come back to hospital about half-past-four in the afternoon, have his eye dressed again and have his dinner, go to sleep, and he got better. Everything got better although he was really overstressed. That’s why you get hives, isn’t it, when you’re overstressed. He got overstressed. He still talked for years later about this marvellous time he spent in the hospital in Cowra being looked after.
COLHOUN: A rather expensive hotel.
BENNETT: Yes, he didn’t have to pay for it either. He didn’t have to, because of his travel insurance, it was free.
COLHOUN: Lucky him; you also had the opportunity of meeting the present Emperor, who came out as the Crown Prince with the Crown Princess.
BENNETT: That’s right.
COLHOUN: You were on the council then?
BENNETT: I was on council then.
COLHOUN: Do you remember that visit?
BENNETT: I remember the visit very well. I remember, the part I remember was out at the cemetery, because it’s always been moving. I don’t know how many thousand times I’ve gone to the cemetery with a group of Japanese and you would think you’d take it as just another visit, but it never is. It’s always different. You feel the emotion. As soon as they get out of the bus or the car you can feel their emotion building up and they come in – having been talking, talking, talking, everybody goes quiet. You walk through the gardens to the cemetery there and it has a really nice feeling about it. It’s peaceful, the gum trees in the background, a few birds and you all stand there and all eyes are on the memorial and on the cemetery. It’s quite a moving moment, it really is, always quite moving, and I remember that particularly with the Crown Prince when he came. He was a student then in Canberra when he came over.
COLHOUN: Excuse me, I think that was his cousin.
BENNETT: That was his cousin?
COLHOUN: That was Prince Yoshihito Mikasa.
BENNETT: That’s right, he came too, that’s right. That was another one. But this man I remember very well. I remember them both – planted a tree, walked around and quietly looked at the headstones and things. It’s really quite an amazing business.
COLHOUN: Was it your experience in all these visits and you saw all sorts of people, from the Crown Prince down, that they formed a special feeling about Cowra and its people because of the way you looked after their war dead?
BENNETT: Yes. It was often mentioned; often. Now, Japanese are very careful to always have a little bit of – although they come on these visits and it’s all very jolly, but there’s always a few…
COLHOUN: …solemn moments…?
BENNETT: …serious words some time along the way. This always was mentioned, always. They feel very strongly about where their ancestors are buried, don’t they? When I went to Japan, a lot of the visits that I paid, the sort of goodwill visits I paid to groups of people, one group I remember particularly, of course the prisoners of war that I met, they have very strong feelings about Cowra. But one family I met, the daughter died when they were interned, they were living in Australia when the war broke out and the parents and the daughter – she was only a baby – got pneumonia in the camp and died and she was buried at Cowra when she was only about four, I think, three or four.
COLHOUN: This was a civilian internee?
BENNETT: Civilian internee, yes, and they, a long time after the war, they came out. I think they felt for a long time they couldn’t bring themselves to come but I think when they did come they brought a little tiny baby, like a little hearth, a little model of a hearth with ashes in it from the fire at home and put that on the headstone where their daughter was buried. When I went to Japan I met them again and once again they expressed their gratitude at the way that the people of Cowra look after the cemetery. This seems to be a very big thing, the fact that it’s always kept with trees and flowers and carefully mowed and looked after. It means a lot to them; a lot to them; a lot to the Japanese.
COLHOUN: When you look back now after almost, we’re talking about thirty years almost, what stands out in your mind in your official activities, your private activities, of the feeling that you developed towards Japan and Japanese people, as a Cowra citizen over all?
BENNETT: Well, we had exchange students too. We were involved with exchange students and this, harping back to the time when we were looking for the extra money for the garden, Don Kibbler and I went to Sydney and talked to the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry who were having a meeting in Australia. Now this was something that Mr Okawara set up, and Don – he took a, he had a film made of the garden as it was, and of course it was in a raw stage but the garden was laid out and the stream running. And this is asking them, of course, to give us money, to have this insurance fund really, so that we could do things – like if something went wrong – another drought or fire or something. And we showed them the film and I was asked to make a speech you see. I was terribly nervous. I stood up in front of this group of Japanese and it suddenly hit me, it was at the Wentworth Hotel auditorium, I realised that they all had their headphones on, so my speech was going to be instantaneously interpreted into Japanese. I don’t know why that made me so frightened, but I really almost felt that I couldn’t go on. But I looked around and caught the eye of the president Mr Nagano who I knew from beforehand and he smiled at me, and I felt so much better. Well, I got to this moment but I can’t remember all the things I said. I think I went onto automatic pilot and just talked – talked about myself, talked about the garden, talked about the feeling of the Japanese people, talked about having exchange students, myself having been a servicewoman. I could hardly believe that I could feel towards Japanese children, or Japanese girls or boys as if they were my own children. But that’s how I really felt about the exchange students that I had living here. You feel no barrier at all. They’re your charges, they’re your children. And their children are like – almost my grandchildren. I feel certainly like that about Catherine’s – Yoko – and she lived with us for a year, Yoko came here for four months. And recently after 26 years I think she came back with one of her children and walked in, looked around the house and said MUM! MUM! MUM! This is where I used to sleep, where the kitchen was. This is this and this is that. Oh, it was just so lovely, you really feel that there is no barrier at all.
COLHOUN: Well, you have had a wonderful journey and thank you very much for sharing it with us.
We are going to continue. We thought we had finished, however, Mrs Bennet has just remembered something, which we should hear about, and I think we will give her a chance to say it. It is a meeting you had with ex-prisoners of war.
BENNETT: Thank you very much. When I visited Japan in 1980 I was there for 18 days and it was mainly a goodwill visit, the Japanese Government paid for my fare and paid my accommodation and it was a very busy, very wonderful 18 days. And the highlight – well there were two highlights. One was to stay with the Takase family who were Catherine’s hosts when she was in Japan and the other one was to meet with – twice I met with ex-prisoners of war who’d been in Cowra camp. Some of them had visited Cowra but a lot of them, of course, hadn’t been able to. I went – I had dinner with them, a group of them in Tokyo and a group of them in Osaka. They spoke no English and I spoke no Japanese but I had very good interpreters at both dinners and it really was one of the highlights of my life – to talk to these men who had been prisoners at Cowra, and who were now back living in Japan. We had lovely dinners – and lots of sake and it was very cold and the sake was warmed of course, and delicious with the food, and I’m sure that helped. By the end of the dinners I felt as if I had mad a whole group of new friends, and it was simply marvellous what I heard that night – the two nights. When I was in Osaka the young – my young interpreter, who was a university student, whose subject at university was Japanese history, came back with me from Osaka to Kyoto on the train – I was staying in Kyoto. A number of the prisoners of war were also in the train. And we sat in a group, and they continued talking as they had throughout the dinner and he continued to interpret. When he dropped me to my hotel he said, “Mrs Bennett, this has been the most wonderful night of my life. I am a student of history and the Kyoto University but I learnt more tonight about the history of my country and my countrymen than I will ever learn at the University.” He said, “You don’t understand that in Japan it is difficult for a young man like me to talk to the older generation, they won’t tell me the sort of things that they were talking about tonight.” He was almost crying. He said, “Thank you so much, thank you so much.” It was very wonderful, really. And of course the conversations had been on such a personal level, because they talked about their own experiences, how they felt about being prisoners of war, how they felt that they should have died, of course, rather than be captured. But as they were captured, they were being looked after in Cowra. They got to the stage where the big joke was that I was their mother. Because I was the Mayor of Cowra and I was a woman, and they should have died in Cowra at the breakout – they should have committed suicide or died during the breakout – so they were born again in Cowra you see, and so I was their mum. And so probably they thought that they could talk to their mum about all sorts of things. And we went...
COLHOUN: A lot of them were the same age as you?
BENNETT: They were, of course they were – yes. And they talked about how they had gone to the hospitals and how the only things that looked after them, they said “do you know the sisters at the hospital in Bathurst and in Cowra, that looked after us? And do you know that they gave us rice pudding?” Because rice pudding was a traditional Australian pudding then, particularly for people that were sick. They couldn’t believe rice pudding...
COLHOUN: ...baked rice pudding?
BENNETT: Yes, baked rice pudding.
COLHOUN: ...probably with raisins in it?
BENNETT: That’s right! They gave them rolled oats. Rolled oats porridge, and of course the poor things, they had suffered so – up in New Guinea. They were covered in tropical sores and ulcers and they had terrible malnutrition, so they would have eaten anything. They couldn’t believe rice pudding. Oh it was wonderful.
COLHOUN: Well, that sounds as if perhaps in your long journey – Japanese-Cowra journey – that really was the highlight...
BENNETT: I think it was really, you know. I have enjoyed so much, so many lovely things, but I really think that was.
COLHOUN: Well, I am glad that we opened the tape again and thank you for sharing that with us.
Transcribed by WRITEpeople, May 2003
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.
Printed on 01/26/2022 03:20:12 PM