Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Graham Stewart as Chairman of the POW Campsite Management Committee, Cowra 2003
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Koorawatha, New South Wales, on 20 March 2003 (AWM S03083)
TERRY COLHOUN: Graham, how did you come to be involved with the Management Committee for the campsite?
GRAHAM STEWART: It goes back quite some time, quite some years, when Cowra Shire Council decided to set up a committee to manage the development of the Cowra prisoner-of-war campsite. They wrote to the National President of the RSL at the time, requesting that he nominate a senior member of the RSL. The National President of the RSL in turn wrote to Cowra Shire Council and simultaneously to the State President in New South Wales of the RSL nominating a State Councillor, Graham Stewart, myself, as the nominee from the RSL to be appointed to any committee that was being formed.
COLHOUN: How did you feel about that?
STEWART: I accepted it quite willingly as I live in the area, that is my property is near a village called Koorawatha, which in turn is near Cowra, and also my particular interest in military and militaria matters, which of course is possibly exemplified by my military background as a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. I was quite prepared to undertake any task that was called on me. At the same time I was also the President of the Cowra Sub-branch of the RSL of Australia.
COLHOUN: Therefore, you would have had some knowledge of the camp and the breakout itself?
STEWART: Absolutely, as a matter of fact I have been a friend of author, Mr Harry Gordon, for quite a number of years and in the writing of his two main books on the Japanese breakout at the campsite on the evening of the 4th–5th August 1944. I provided some information to Mr Gordon, which is included in his later book on the breakout called Voyage from shame.
COLHOUN: In what way has the campsite changed since the end of the war, apart from the fact that buildings would deteriorate over that time?
STEWART: As a matter of fact, after the end of the war there were quite a number of military establishments in the area of Cowra, for example, a major training camp, which during the course of the war trained in excess of 100,000 troops and, of course, there was the prisoner-of-war campsite. It was decided by the Federal Government of the day that massive disposal auctions were to take place throughout Australia, including the Cowra area. Consequently, all the buildings that were ex-military – that is the training campsite and also the prisoner-of-war campsite – the buildings were in turn sold and removed. The campsite itself, the training campsite itself, was, however, deferred for some time because the buildings were used as a migrant camp holding area.
COLHOUN: You became the Chairman of the Management Committee. Did that happen immediately or was that after a while?
STEWART: That was probably after a while, I would suggest it was two years after I became a member of that committee, because initially it was a matter of determining what our aims and ideals were and also to develop some form of constitution, agenda for the development of the campsite. So, initially and for the first two or three years, the matters that were considered by the committee were basically administrative matters. Subsequently, when the emphasis was then moved to the actual campsite, etc., is the point where I was appointed as the Chairman.
COLHOUN: You were, in fact, a committee of the Cowra Council. Did they have ideas which they fed down to you of what they would like to happen at the campsite?
STEWART: Absolutely, as a matter of fact a member of council was Mr Graham Apthorpe who still is the Economic Development Manager. Mr Apthorpe attended all meetings, etc., and mostly he was either filling the capacity as minute secretary or, alternatively, as secretary of that committee appointed by council to undertake such a role. Mr Apthorpe is still vitally concerned in matters appertaining to the prisoner-of-war campsite.
COLHOUN: When you became the Chairman you entered, in fact, a new phase of really thinking about what you were going to do with it. What sort of plans did you develop at that time?
STEWART: We started off with ideas which we examined in detail, and we also had outside advisers that came to Cowra to give information regarding certain matters that we ought to keep in mind as far as developing a project. The overriding factor was tourism and the fact that if the campsite could be developed it would be a marvellous attraction for the Central West of New South Wales. So, in other words, approaches were made to two countries, one in particular, and that is Japan, the other being Italy. However, the prime concern initially was Japan. The Embassy in Canberra was approached and a number of members of the embassy staff, including the Ambassador of Japan, visited Cowra on some occasion to discuss certain aspects of what we ultimately wanted to achieve. This was very, very successful and brought about a number of very valuable support from Japan. When I say “valuable support” I mean in terms of advice, etc., and also financial support. So, it enabled us to undertake certain investigations leading up to how we could develop the campsite. As I previously said, the overriding influence was tourism, so the assistance of the New South Wales Government Tourism Department assisted greatly in providing advice and assistance from the State Government.
COLHOUN: Given the fact that the Federal Government had decided that all the buildings should be removed, there were just the foundations, there wouldn’t be much else to work with. What could you do?
STEWART: No, that is a fact as it was at the time because there was only these broken concrete slabs; there was foundation material. The area was overgrown. There were three basic titles to the area that the campsite comprised. One title was held by the New South Wales Agricultural Department. One was held by a private citizen and the other one was held by the Cowra Shire Council. So, it was a matter of negotiating to arrange for the three titles to be put into one title and that necessitated the purchase of land from the private individual and also the transfer of land from the New South Wales Agricultural Department to the Shire of Cowra.
COLHOUN: I’ve been told that what is now shown as the campsite is not the total area that was previously occupied during the war. Is that right?
STEWART: No, that’s not quite correct. It now, as a result of the three titles being amalgamated, comprises the area. The initial decision that was made to develop the campsite was to incorporate a Son et Lumiere or Sound and Light Show similar to that that was done at – where Peter Lalor…
COLHOUN: In Ballarat, Eureka…?
STEWART: Yes, similar to the Sound and Light Show that’s been set up in Ballarat at the Eureka or the place of the Eureka Stockade.
COLHOUN: That didn’t happen though, did it, the Sound and Light thing?
STEWART: As a matter of fact, a tremendous amount of time and effort went into that, plus other associated aspects of it. Initially, we had been talking about rebuilding two or three of the appropriate huts to show what they looked like when the Japanese prisoners of war were held there. However, for a number of reasons, it was decided to exclude those ideas, the basic reason being security, that the cost of adequately setting up an adequate form of security would be financially prohibitive so it was decided “No, we could not go that way.” That’s when it was decided that the best way to go about it was to undertake a project including the Sound and Light Show, or Son et Lumiere.
COLHOUN: In fact, although it mightn’t have come out of your committee, what has developed under the tourist people is a sort of re-creation at the Tourist Centre of the breakout and the camp.
STEWART: As a matter of fact, part of the Sound and Light Show, it was decided that one small part of it, would be included in, for want of a better term, what was going to be in the Interpretive Centre, as it was known to the people that use this device and promote it, is called Pepper’s Ghost. Now, this has been set up, because of the difficulties of progressing the ideas for the development of the campsite, in the Cowra Tourism and Information Centre and is very, very popular indeed. It shows a number of artefacts from the campsite itself and this is quite spectacular, this particular set-up in the Tourist and Information centre. It is a continuous running programme that lasts approximately 20 minutes and is very, very popular with so many visitors, not only visitors but the people of Cowra itself, including myself. I’ve seen it probably a hundred times or thereabouts.
COLHOUN: Why is it called Pepper’s Ghost?
STEWART: Because it was developed approximately 108 or 110 years ago by a person called Mr Pepper and it was – I could be corrected for accuracy on this one – but I believe it was developed in Europe in France somewhere at that time.
COLHOUN: You are talking about the hologram now, are you?
STEWART: Yes, Pepper’s Ghost, and what is Pepper’s Ghost, because that is the hologram. So, I could give a more detailed answer.
COLHOUN: That’s just fine. What I wanted to do now is to point out, as you very well know, that it’s the 60th anniversary of the breakout coming up in 2004. I imagine you are involved in that and will be having some thoughts with your Management Committee as to whether in fact some change should be made to the campsite to fit in with this new era.
STEWART: Yes, and first of all and overriding everything, is the fact that the campsite itself has been heritage listed and because it has been there are very, very strict controls and restrictions on anything that can be done in the campsite itself. For example, the slabs of concrete that are in existence that indicate where buildings were, even if the concrete is busted in any way it cannot be, shall we say, cleaned up and made to look…
COLHOUN: Is that a good idea? It seems to me that it’s just going to deteriorate and defeat its purpose. If you are not going to preserve it, it’s just going to rot away.
STEWART: That’s exactly my feeling, as a matter of fact, however, because my voice isn’t as loud as the voice of the heritage people, I cannot do anything about it and also my information is neither can Cowra Shire Council, nor can New South Wales Tourism Department. So, that’s a pity. However, what we have done, and if I can briefly describe it this way, the initial undertaking, which included the amalgamation of the three titles was also for the public to delineate the boundaries of the campsite itself. Now, this we were going to do by, at appropriate points, such as corners, etc., we were going to put in painted barber pole style telegraph posts to show the limits of the campsite itself. There is also a viewing platform which has been developed in such a way that you can oversee the whole of the campsite. At the same time there is a walking path through – when I say “a walking path” it is undeveloped as such, it’s merely across these paddocks that periodically sheep are brought in to act as lawn mowers and you go to another point on the other side of the campsite where there is an explanation board and then you go to another point, and so on, with these explanations. We had envisaged putting up, and I believe this is one thing that ought to be done for the 60th anniversary, which will be 4–5 August 2004, and that is to have what is commonly referred to in different States and locations as “mushrooms”, “talking mushrooms”. So that you go to a particular point, press a button and you select whether you want it in English or Japanese or Italian, because there were Italian prisoners of war in the campsite, and you get an explanation one of those three languages to each point that you go to. I think that would be an advantage considering the restrictions that have been placed on it by the Heritage Committee.
COLHOUN: Would you have to ask their permission to do that?
STEWART: Absolutely; nothing can be done…
COLHOUN: It rather restricts you, doesn’t it?
STEWART: Of course it does and, to a certain extent, yes, I can accept that if we were in a place like – what’s the place down in Tasmania where our ancestors were put?
COLHOUN: I’m not quite sure I’m with you there.
STEWART: The convict…
COLHOUN: …the convict…? down at Port Arthur.
STEWART: Port Arthur, yes. Now, if we’re talking about Port Arthur and the fact that there are part-buildings, as a matter of fact quite extensive ruins there, yes, I can understand it, but you can’t move this, that or whatever you feel you would like to move or take away. However, in this case we’re talking about nothing apart from the remains of where buildings were, which is a slab, a broken up slab, a concrete slab, and that’s all. So, yes, I do agree with you.
COLHOUN: Are you allowed to clear the grass?
STEWART: Only in so far as we bring stock in and one of the big hazards in a rural area is noxious weeds and that, of course, noxious weeds, etc., are very, very dangerous as far as agricultural and pastoral pursuits are concerned.
COLHOUN: Thank you, Graham, very much for giving us your time and what you’ve told us about the campsite and I guess we should wish you luck for the future.
STEWART: Thank you, Terry. There’s quite a lot more I could provide, however, if this meets your purposes I’m very, very pleased with that. So, I would finish up by saying any time you want elucidation about any of the points that you have inquired about please don’t hesitate to contact me as an addendum or an addition to what you already have, Terry.
COLHOUN: Thank you very much.
Transcribed by WRITEpeople, May 2003
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Printed on 01/26/2022 04:40:32 PM