Lest we forget war's brutal opera

The prisoner of war camp near Myrtleford.
The prisoner of war camp near Myrtleford.

"IN the evenings in the summer we'd sit out on the porch and listen to the Italians singing," an old woman once told me. "The voices would sort of float. It was the first time I'd heard opera. I was just a girl then."

It was a dreamy vision: women and old men - about the only locals left in the valley - putting aside the grind of farming at the end of the day and listening out for arias drifting on the air.

You could hear the homesickness in the music, the woman, a grandmother by then, remembered.

Those sitting out on their porches were infected by desolate hearts, too. It was wartime, and their own young men were away, up in the islands fighting the Japanese or taken prisoner.

This week Australia commemorates 100 years since the start of World War I - August 4, 2014. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but it wore into a century that would leave the imprint of bodies and hearts broken across generations in all manner of ways, even at home.

One of the strangest periods during World War II occurred near Myrtleford, a town lying in the Ovens Valley beneath Mt Buffalo in north-east Victoria, and one of the most hideous was outside another country town, Cowra, in NSW.

It's not much remembered now, but thousands of enemy soldiers captured overseas were sent to Australia to be held as prisoners of war (often alongside more thousands interned as so-called "enemy aliens" - most of them nationals of countries at war with Australia, but some of them naturalised citizens and others shipped in from Britain).

Dozens of camps were established in Victoria, NSW, Queensland, Western Australia and even one in Tasmania. Most of them have disappeared now, the only signs remaining a few concrete slabs in sheep paddocks on the outskirts of country towns.

A special camp for Italian officers captured in North Africa was thrown up at Whorouly, just outside Myrtleford.

They were cultured men, a lot of them, and they painted frescoes on the walls of their huts, made wine from wild blackberries and yes, sang opera, their voices amplified by the natural amphitheatre of the valley's hills on soft evenings.

Matters were altogether different, and would become vastly uglier, in the big sprawling POW camp outside the NSW country town of Cowra.

There were held about 2000 Italians, Koreans who had served with the Japanese armed forces, and Indonesian civilians detained at the request of the Dutch East Indies government.

As the war in the Pacific and South-East Asia became fiercer, around 2000 Japanese prisoners of war were added to the camp's population.

They sang no arias. Unlike the Italian POWs, they were not allowed beyond the wire to work on Australian farms.

They played baseball, weighing the bats in their hands and brooding. Each lived in shame, for there was no greater dishonour to a Japanese soldier than to be captured alive.

The 22,000 Australians who had the misfortune of being taken prisoner by the Japanese discovered the dreadful inverse of that code: they were treated as slaves, brutalised for having surrendered. Of the 9000 Australians who were forced to build the Burma-Thai railway, 2646 died, and all suffered. All but six men of the 2345 held in the Sandakan camp on Borneo perished, most on death marches.

Back home, on the night of August 5, 1944 - precisely 70 years ago on Tuesday - Cowra was the unlikely setting for World War II's biggest and bloodiest outbreak from any prisoner of war camp in the world.

At 2am, a Japanese bugler set his instrument singing and more than 1100 Japanese ran from their huts, shouting "banzai", and flung themselves at the wire.

According to the historian Gavin Long, they were armed with knives, baseball bats, clubs studded with nails and hooks, wire stilettos and garotting cords. Many carried blankets to toss across barbed wire, but it was clear to those who later inquired that escape was not the purpose of most of those in the charge, at least in the normal meaning of it.

Death was preferable to incarceration, and the prisoners knew they were running in to machinegun fire. Bodies hung on the wire like foxes on a farm gate. As huts burned, some prisoners in the camp were killed by their own.

Later, others lay on railway tracks, waiting for trains to behead them. By the end of it, 231 Japanese soldiers and four Australian soldiers were dead and 108 prisoners were wounded. All those who had escaped were rounded up within 10 days.

This week Cowra will remember with theatrical performances, tea ceremonies for the dead, wreath laying, the ringing of a peace bell and religious and cultural ceremonies.

None of it will change the past. War is a ghastly thing, even far from battle. 

All we might hope, after the world promised itself near a century ago that war would end, is that the remembering might yet inform and warn the future. 

And in the remembering, it is worth reminding ourselves that sometimes, in the most unlikely of circumstances, beauty might still drift on the evening air.