Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. At the time, Lawrence Ryan was a member of the Cowra Breakout Association and Grants and Executive Projects Officer at Cowra Council. He was asked to speak about the Cowra POW Campsite primarily, which is location number seven on the app. 


This audio interview with Lawrance Ryan was recorded on 20 September 2018  in Cowra by Nikkei Australia’s Mayu Kanamori and Masako Fukui. This interview was recorded for the Cowra Voices geolocative storytelling app, created in 2019, and launched to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of the Cowra Breakout. For more information, please refer to the Overview in this archive.

Lawrance Ryan 00:30

I’m Lawrence Ryan, I’ve been involved in the Cowra-Japan relationship for at least the last 20 years. Was the Chair of both the 60th and 70th anniversary committees, and was the, for many years, the President of the Cowra Breakout Association. So, hopefully, my knowledge of the Breakout story, I suppose, is something I’ve passed onto a lot of people and I’ve gathered it from dealing over the years with many of the actual people who are involved in the Breakout, whether they were guards, people who lived in Cowra at the time, or, in fact, prisoners of war as well. So the stories I tell may not be my own, but they’re ones that I’ve heard the actual firsthand accounts of in many cases.

Lawrance Ryan 1:09

Well, I always say to people that it’s very hard to believe when you look at the beautiful countryside here, that this was the site of the only land battle fought on Australian soil during the Second World War. It’s also very hard to imagine what it must have been like, during the Second World War when you had up to 5,000 prisoners of war and 1,000 Australian troops at the site. So here you’ve got what’s essentially now, I would describe as the most beautiful military heritage parkland in Australia, that 70 or more years ago was this scene of not only a land battle, but a major military installation. So it’s very hard for people to come to the site sometimes and envisage what they see. But hopefully, with the interpretive signage that’s around here, with the guard tower that tells its story, it gives you an overview of what the site was like, and as you look out at over the beautiful rolling hills, you can imagine yourself what it must have been like, back in those dark days of the Second World War. The prisoner of war camp site, if you’d have been here some years ago, would have just looked like a typical Australian farmland. It had reverted back to farmland after the end of the Second World War. But through the efforts of Cowra Council with both federal and state government funding, and Council’s own contribution, what has happened in the last 10 years or so has been to develop this into a beautiful parkland site. And it continues to develop each time. We’ve now got the replica guard tower, we’ve got the interpretive signage, we’ve got lots of information there that as you wander around the site, you can see the actual areas where particular events occurred. And of course, many of those events that people come to Cowra to see relate to the story of the prisoner of war breakout. And to me, yes, that is the single most significant event that happened here at the POW Campsite.

Lawrance Ryan 2:57

But to concentrate on that event solely, perhaps, it doesn’t really consider the fact that this camp operated for a total of six years, that there were many thousands of other people at the camp who weren’t necessarily Japanese prisoners of war. But there was also up to 1,000 Australian guards. So it’s a great story. There’s lots of information as you can find out here. There’s lots of stories to be told. But always remember when you have a look at it, that this was a major military site. And the fact that it’s now beautiful parkland in the rolling Australian hills just shows you the difference that can occur in only a few years, when a site just because of its location was selected as a prisoner of war camp, but then reverted back to what it was, and now has become a significant story, a place where stories are told about reconciliation, understanding, and the development of friendship between former enemies.

Mayu Kanamori 03:50

Can you tell us some of those, some of those, I know you have many, but some of those maybe a funny one, maybe a sad one?

Lawrance Ryan 03:57

Okay, well, one that I always tell people over the years is the famous story of the Cowra of break-in. And you’ve all heard the story of the Cowra Breakout, where 1104 Japanese prisoners of war attempted the mass breakout from the camp on 5th of August 1944. Well, many of the Italian prisoners felt a little different to that. And they were quite happy to live in Cowra. Some of them had been fighting for many years prior to their capture in North Africa. And so they came to Australia, firstly via North Africa, then India, and they arrived in Australia. They come out to a camp in quite pristine countryside. Here it is, they can relax a little. It reminds many of them of their own homes, particularly if they came from Southern Italy. And they’re up at the camp, and even the most hardline of the right wingers, the Fascist Italians, they still go out and work in market gardens and so on around the town. And one of those market gardens was inside the trotting track, the showground over at the Cowra Showground facility in West Cowra. And they used to go out there and work on a daily basis and they’d grow vegetables and they’d watch the horses being trained. And then they get on the truck at the end of the day and they’d come back into the camp.

Lawarance Ryan 5:09

Well, on this one day, a group of Italian prisoners of war missed the last truck, obviously, the security wasn’t high. So here they were in their maroon coloured POW uniforms. They’ve walked all the way back in through Cowra. They’ve got to the garrison gate entrance to the camp, and they’re banged on the gates until somebody came. And it wasn’t actually a breakout that the guards feared with people banging on the gates and so on. It was actually the Italian prisoners of war trying to break back in, after they had been left over at the showground. So that’s a story that I often tell, because it just shows you I think the difference in the mentality of the Italian prisoners of war, who were quite relaxed and quite happy to be here in Cowra, as against their the feelings of the Japanese prisoners of war, who felt that great shame have been captured and held here in Cowra. So the Italians, very relaxed and very happy to come back to camp, where the Japanese POWs had a completely different feeling towards it.

Lawrance Ryan 6:02

Well, there is stories of the Italians performing concerts, performing operas, I’ve seen synopsises that they’ve written various plays and performances. And the locals used to come out and sit on the, on the area sort of overlooking the camp and listen to them sing. And people often said, they used to always enjoy the Italians when they drove through town in the trucks because he’d always be singing. Of course, they would have chocolates and lollies from Red Cross packages, which they would hand out to the children as well, because there was rationing in Australia at the time, so it was pretty difficult to get hold of any treats for the children. So the Italians used to hand them out as they went through the town. And I do believe some of them were quite popular with the ladies as well in town, because a lot of the Australian men were away fighting. So here you had the Italian men here in town. And I think they were, they were strapping, strapping lads. And we’re very popular with some of the ladies around the town.

Lawrance Ryan 7:00 

The other stories that we tell also is the fact that we had the political detainees held here in Cowra. And in some cases, you had family groups held. And these people were from the Dutch East Indies. And they were, they had been exiled by the Dutch government. Many of them were academics, Communists who were looking to form a free Indonesia. And they’d been exiled in the late 1920s to West Papua, on the island of New Guinea there and what had happened was that when the war broke out, and the Japanese invasion was taking place into the South Pacific, there was a fear that those people would be freed by the Japanese, and installed back in the Dutch East Indies as a titular independent government. But what happened was, of course, the Dutch thought of this themselves, and they decided that they would request the Australian Government hold these people in camps in Australia so that there’d be no chance of them being freed by the Japanese from their detention. And those people came to Cowra in, in quite a number of family groups.

Lawrance Ryan 8:08

And there’s a story of course of Monty Brown, who was the Colonel in charge of the prisoner of war camp here at Cowra and Monty Brown used to give the children in particular, rides around in his car because he did feel quite sorry for them being held in detention camps. And during the war, in 1943, a decision was made actually to release those family groups back into the community. They couldn’t go back to exile in West Papua, because there was a fear of a Japanese invasion of New Guinea, which was already taking place in New Guinea proper. And there was also the fact that Indonesia had been overrun, or the Dutch East Indies had been overrun. So those people, they ended up basically in two areas. One group went to Mackay in North Queensland, another group went to Melbourne. And what happened was at the end of the war, those people were released, they were repatriated, and they did return to the Dutch East Indies, and in many cases, they joined the free Indonesian movement just as the Dutch colonial government had feared, and formed part of the freedom movement that saw independence granted to Indonesia in the late 1940s. So that’s an interesting story that’s often overlooked.

Lawrance Ryan 09:18

And I think, you know, there’s many stories here at the camp that people don’t realise. The story of the Breakout so dominates the telling of the Cowra Prisoner of War Camp story. But I really do think it’s a case of perhaps we do need to look at some of those other stories in more detail. And here at the camp. I think we’ve done that through the interpretive signage to a big extent. And the audio on the guard tower, they do tell complementing stories that give you a bit of an insight into what it must have been like at the camp. But as I’ve always said, it’s hard to imagine that here in Cowra with a population at the time of around about four, four and a half thousand people, you could have up to six thousand people alone at the Prisoner of War Camp. So when you look at, you look out at the pristine countryside and the silence of that’s probably only disturbed by a plane flying over or the car going past. Imagine the sounds that must have been coming out of this camp when it was in full operation.

Lawrance Ryan 10:15

And I’m not talking about when the breakout occurred with machine guns, I’m talking about the day to day operation of the camp, the men singing, the Japanese playing baseball or sumo wrestling. The Italians doing all their craft activities, the Indonesian families with the children down in D compound and the sounds coming out of there. So it must have been quite an interesting place to visit. And you can understand, I think, why it was a source of, I suppose, interest to the local community. But there was always that underlying fear, I suppose also in the local community, too, from the fact that at the time, there was a great fear of Japanese invasion of Australia. And the media was saying, you know, the Japanese are very war-like and that did frighten a lot of people in the Cowra community. But I think overall, the experience from the Second World War with Cowra was that the military did provide for the town, I suppose opportunities that didn’t exist in too many other places. And the camp being established in 41, and lasting through until 1946, early 1947 did give Cowra, I suppose an identity but also an income that sustained during the Second World War.

Masako Fukui  11:29

On that, so post war  Cowra now has an income, and like you know, it’s moved on from the violence of the Cowra, of the  POW camp. And now there’s an industry that actually thrives, the tourist industry. So how crucial has that story, and the evolution of that story been to Cowra, and can you speak as a Cowra person, but also as somebody who works at Council.

Lawrance Ryan  11:57

I think it’s the pivotal event in Cowra history.

Masako Fukui  12:00

Sorry can you say that, again.

Lawrance Ryan  12:02

I think the development of the Prisoner of War Camp and to a certain extent the Cowra Breakout is, in particular, the pivotal events in Cowra history. Cowra was like every other rural community. We had farming, we had, we’re very lucky we had good water because we’re so close to Wyangala Dam and the Lachlan River. But what makes Cowra different to every other community since the end of the Second World War, is the fact that we had this tragic event take place. And out of that tragic event came something positive. And that came about because of the local returned servicemen, and the fact that they maintained the graves of the Japanese who had died here at Cowra, because they said it was the right thing to do. And it was as simple as that.

Lawrance Ryan  12:47

The local RSL sub branch members began the job of looking after the war graves and we’re not 100 percent sure of the date, but probably late 46, 1947. They come back, many of them had fought against the Japanese. They see the war graves and they begin looking after those graves because as one of the RSL members said, it was the right thing to do. Now that was a big call, I think at the end of the Second World War, especially the publicity that atrocities had happened against Allied troops that was coming to the fore. But the Australians decided here at Cowra the returned servicemen that they would look after those graves.

Lawrance Ryan  13:23

And that’s the difference, I think, between Cowra’s story and the other stories of prisoners of war in Australia during the Second World War. And the fact that out of the 28 prisoner of war and internment camps in Australia, certainly the best known is Cowra. Certainly the one event that’s well known is the Cowra Breakout. And that’s why the majority of people, people do look at the story and want to come here and see the site of the Breakout. But I always say to people, there’s two things to remember that the Breakout was one day out of a six year history of the camp. And the Breakout, you’ve got to look at it as only a trigger. And that’s the trigger that led to the development of the relationship between Cowra and Japan. And that really, I think has become in the last 60 years, at least, the pivotal event in Cowra’s history and the pivotal story that Cowra has the ability to take credit for and that is how you can reconcile with a former enemy and lead the way in that reconciliation.

Mayu Kanamori  14:20

Can you tell us maybe some personal stories now, you know, personal stories that you felt that friendship that your work has made a difference? There must have been moments where you knew you made that difference that contact face to face with the person that you can remember.

Lawrance Ryan  14:38

I suppose if I was to say, two things that I’m proudest of, with my years of telling the story of the Breakout and the Prisoner of War Camp, was being able to meet guards and prisoners of war, to take them to visit schools. And that to me is more important than reading a sign or telling the story in a written form is to be able to take these people who were first hand witnesses of the events of Cowra, to take them to meet local school students, to tell them those stories from their own perspective. And to, I suppose, spread the interest to a younger generation. And we’ve noticed that, since that happened, which I think I was involved in from around about 2000, probably 2003, 2004, these visits have led to a greater involvement with the local schools. And I think that’s probably the most important thing that’s come out of telling the stories and engaging with people on a firsthand basis with those actual participants. It’s given the interest.

Lawrance Ryan  15:43

And now we still do our visits to the schools. And we still have people like Gordon Rolls, who goes up and tells his father’s story of the Breakout, and just a way of putting a face or into a name on a piece of paper, or to put a human interest into what has happened at the Prisoner of War Camp over those times. Because it’s all very well, to read the books and there’s been some wonderful books written about the Cowra, the Cowra Prisoner of War Camp and the story, and notably Harry Gordon’s books, which have been very popular over the years in a number of versions. But unless you see the site, unless you hear the stories that people tell you about the site, I think you don’t get the full ambience of what happened here in Cowra. And I think if I had to say one thing, it’s that ability to, to take those people with us up to the site to let them see, you know, young people to see and hear first hand what has happened.

Lawrance Ryan  16:37

And from my perspective, one thing that we have done right is to include in the guard tower, and the audio that’s fitted to the guard tower, is a discussion from Ron Ferguson, who was one of the guards who’ve many times I took the schools and Ron was very proud of telling his story. And Ron was a fellow who dealt a lot with the Italians. He was primarily there at the camp to, as the camp bugler, but he had a lot to do with the Italians. And then at the end of the Second World War, he returned prisoners of war, at least to lay in New Guinea, who are returning back to Japan being repatriated, and the stories he told of the friendships he developed with Japanese prisoners of war, makes you realise that veterans look at things I suppose slightly differently. And veterans look at things as if you fought in a battle at the end of that battle, you become veterans, you don’t become Japanese soldiers, you don’t become Australian soldiers, you become a veteran who returns to the site to see what’s happened, to recall what events had happened and to have camaraderie with your own comrades, but also with the people you fought against.

Lawrance Ryan  17:46

And I think a lot of the Japanese POWs when they came back to Cowra would find that they would talk to the guards, they would talk to soldiers who they’d fought against in New Guinea. And I always remember one local Cowra fellow said, no matter what you read about the Japanese, if you fought against them, you knew they were brave soldiers. And there was a number of comments made along those lines on the night of the Breakout. How the bravery of the Japanese was witnessed by the Australians and they gave credit for those, the bravery of those men. So again, it’s that sort of story of camaraderie between former soldiers no matter what side that they came from.

Lawrance Ryan  18:24

But we’ve been very lucky. Many POWs have returned over the years. Murakami san, who will, will always be remembered, because of his visits to Cowra, I think it’s up to about 12 or 13 visits to Cowra. And he always plays it down, he comes back, he said, because he, you know, he knows, knows where Cowra is, and he gets people to come along with him. But you wouldn’t come back to the site of something that you’re involved in so many times when it’s so far to travel, particularly when he’s been back here many times when he’s been over 90 years of age, without it meaning something to you. And so that’s something that I think from my perspective, I’ve seen, you know. The reaction of the veterans, both Australian, Japanese, we’ve had some Italians who’ve come back as well. Their stories are meaningful and add to the story as it’s told. They complement the – books that have been written, they complement the story on the guard tower. And by being able to have recorded them and, and taking them up to look at the site to take them to schools to have young school students come down and meet with them. It gave an overview and an opportunity to understand the story more than any written text could have done.

Lawrance Ryan  19:41

Mr Murakami first came to Cowra – the first time I met him was for the 60th anniversary. When he came with Takahara san and Yamada san. We had quite a bit to do with them, but because Takahara was so well known and spoke very well, and because Yamada was so involved with Cowra-kai, they tended to overshadow Mr Murakami at the time. Well, Mr Murakami came into his own, once he had outlived the others, and Mr Murakami became, to me, almost like a movie star.

Lawrance Ryan  20:14

And when he goes up to the Prisoner of War Camp, or to the War Cemeteries, he holds court. Now he doesn’t speak English at all. Professor Mami Yamada is with him all the time, and she translates for him. But he is the focus of attention. He tells the story well. He, I suppose to – has become, to me, the living example of the prisoner of war camp and will be a sad, sad thing when he can’t come to Cowra anymore. But he became the link between the past and the present, and the level of reconciliation that he personally was able to create, because of his numerous visits to Cowra. Now I can’t remember if it’s 12 or 13 visits. But if you’ve come to Cowra 12 or 13 times, and now you’re over 90 years of age, it must mean something very special to you.

Lawrance Ryan  21:11

And to me, as I said, he is the example that links between the past and the present. The fact that we still have somebody who was there, who participated in the Cowra Breakout, who’s still alive, who still comes to Cowra who tells his story, and has that interest in Cowra as a whole, to want to come back to the town.

Lawrance Ryan  21:35

Another one who regularly comes back is Professor Shigeru Yura, the designer of the War Cemeteries. He returns, at least every second or third year to have a look at the Cemetery. Again, he is well into his 80s. Brings his son now with him. And they usually stay with myself and my wife, Robyn, and goes up to the Cemetery, participates in the events that are up there. And I think just checks out that the way that the Cemetery is now, and the way it’s developed in the years since he designed it. It does reflect what he had set out to achieve back in the 1960s. We’re very lucky his original plans are held here by Council. So we have the original plans that he drew when he first came to Cowra. And he always says that he thinks that he was the first Japanese person to stay in Cowra, since the prisoners of war had been repatriated in 1946, when he arrived back in the early 1960s. He’d been commissioned by the Japanese Embassy to come here and design the Cemetery. He’d actually been designing the Japanese Ambassador’s residence at the Embassy. And he got the job of designing a Japanese War Cemetery here at Cowra.

Lawrance Ryan  22:46

And his stories of arriving in Cowra, with, I suppose a certain amount of trepidation. A Japanese person coming to the site of the Cowra Breakout. But saying that within a few minutes of arriving or going to where he was staying at one of the hotels, he’d been made feel welcome. And that was a pretty big thing in Cowra in the 1960s. And again, I think it shows that there was that level of relationship that had developed from the RSL sub-branch members, as early as the 1940s. That here we’ve got a Japanese architect come to Cowra to design the War Cemetery. And yet, he said he feels quite comfortable and quite relaxed. And as I said, we’ve been very lucky, we’ve got his plans here in Cowra. He returns here. So again, just like Murakami san, he must feel that level of connection with Cowra that you’ve got by knowing that you’ve been involved in something quite special.

Masako Fukui  23:44

So he stays with you. So what’s that like, the personal relationship? He comes to your home, that’s a big thing.

Lawrance Ryan  23:52

Yeah, look, he’s done it now for probably 10 years or so, 12 years probably. Look, he’s very relaxed. He sort of takes it as it comes. We drive him around. He turns up in Cowra pretty well self contained in a suitcase and, and away he goes. Looks after himself. We drive him to the events. If he brings his son up, he and his son hire car in Sydney and drive up. Had a flat tyre last time so we had to organise that before they could go back. But no, they, I think he does feel that level of pride and when the Council delegations go to Japan, he meets the delegation. He lives in Fukuoka, which has a connection with Cowra through the Nagakura Foundation and the establishment of the Saburo Nagakura Park. So we go to Fukuoka to meet with the delegation there and Shigeru Yura comes along to that event as well.

Mayu Kanamori  24:49

But what does it mean to you? How do you feel like you’ve got this person staying with you,  like he could stay in any hotel here. And, you know, does it make you feel proud as it make you feel more friendship, or  –

Lawrance Ryan  25:01

I suppose to me, it makes me feel the fact that, you know, I must have done something with the Breakout relationship or the Cowra-Japan relationship that warrants, you know, this connection between pivotal players in the story. And I don’t see myself as a pivotal player, I just see myself as one person along the line, there’s lots of people who have done things far more, far more than I have. Marion Starr, who for many years ran the Breakout Association, it was just – and Marion Starr, if she was alive today I dare say she’d still be running the Breakout Association. But she passed away quite suddenly. She controlled the Breakout Association effectively, she had a friend Es Davis who used to help her with paperwork and so on. When Marion passed away, it was Es Davis who came to Graham Apthorpe and I and said, would you take over running the Breakout Association. So I think events that can be forced on you, that put you into a position where you have to do something. But between Graham and myself, we saw that the Breakout story and the Prisoner of War Camp story and the relationship that developed in the subsequent years is probably Cowra’s pivotal story.

Lawrance Ryan  26:11

And to do something that reflects credit on that, but to advance it, is one way that you can do something in the community. Now, the fact that both Graham and I worked for Council, Graham for much longer than I have, but it gives you an insight into how Council works and how Council works to develop that relationship as well. But also gives me an opportunity to, I suppose, engage with many more people, doing tour groups, talking to people, working in the General Manager’s office, I get to, to look into the relationship with Cowra and Japan. I manage the Cherry Tree Avenue program, which is where a Japanese donor donates funds for a cherry tree which is planted in the Avenue, and that tree is matched with a local school student. I think that’s a wonderful initiative that goes back to 1988.

Lawrance Ryan  27:04

And the plan is eventually to have 1988 trees, it was started as a Bicentennial Project. 1988 trees that will link the Japanese Garden and the Japanese War Cemetery via the Prisoner of War Camp. Well, we’re up to well into the 970s now. And so maybe, if I live long enough, I’ll say it reached the 1988 level. But that’s I think that’s a great thing that I’ve been involved in. And that’s another way of getting young people involved.

Lawrance Ryan  27:36

And the idea is, for years it was based on people would put their names down the local Cowra school students. And sometimes it would take 10 years before they got matched to a tree. And which meant that by the time that came to matching them to a tree, they were already in senior high school or had already gone to university. So the fact that they wouldn’t see their tree growing to me lacked a little. So what I tried to do was to go to the schools and ask for the younger students to be involved, so that we’d plant trees for students and we include them that might be eight, nine, ten years of age. And the idea is and they’ll be in Cowra for another eight or nine years. And they will see that tree grow, they’ll take an interest in it. And we do see that, we see young people who have had a tree paired with a Japanese donor. And those young people have subsequently continued a relationship with Cowra and Japan via that tree. So they report if something goes wrong, if there’s an event, they come up to have a look at the tree, where the other events taking place, or they might come along to a tree planting ceremony, just to see other young people be involved in that as well. So I think that’s a great, great initiative. And probably that’s one of I think, my one of my favourite parts of the story and the relationship, that you’re engaging with young people and you’re actually doing something that’s physical and living and, and you end up with a beautiful avenue of trees.

Mayu Kanamori  29:05

I think Masako’s got a lot of questions. And I’ve been asking the questions, I’m going to hand over to Masako. But there’s one thing that I’d like you to tell me. You and I were in a car park somewhere like in Orange and you told me the story of how you got involved in all this, in a sense of you were the student. That day when – yeah, can you tell us that story?

Lawrance Ryan  29:26

My initial contact I suppose with the Breakout – I have a peripheral contact in one respect in that my uncle Hilton Mitchell worked for the railways. And he was on the train where the two Japanese prisoners of war committed suicide by throwing themselves under the Cowra mail train as it was arriving, coming towards Cowra on the morning of 5th August. So that’s my own family link. But where my real interest with the Breakout goes back to, I was a student at Cowra High School in Year 11 in 1978. I was pretty interested in history, particularly local history. And local history in the school curriculums at that stage didn’t get much interest. It was either ancient history, and modern history tended to focus on pivotal events. And so there was an opportunity to meet a group of Japanese POWs, who came to Cowra in 1978. And I was one of about four Cowra students who were invited to meet with them and it was up at the library at Cowra High School. And I suppose my interest was piqued because these, these gentlemen, and I can’t remember whether it was four or six of them, I should really do a bit of research and find out the group who visited.

Lawrance Ryan  30:48

But we sat there and we listened to their stories being translated to us. And they said, were there any questions and I asked them questions. I asked them questions that I would ask an Australian ex-servicemen. Where had you been? What had you done? What was your memories of the camp? And I suppose that’s where my interest came. Because, again, you can read things in a book. And you can read about how the Japanese servicemen at the time had been indoctrinated. But I always remember this story. I said, to one fella, I said, ‘you know, you escaped from the camp, what did you do’? And he pointed at me, and he said, ‘how old are you’? And at the time, I would have been 17, probably 16,17. And I said, ‘I’m 17’. And he said to me, ‘I was 21’. And he said, ‘I got outside the camp, I’d escaped’. And he said, ‘I climbed a tree. And I had look around’. And he said, ‘when I got up to the top of the tree’, he said, ‘where I could get a good view, I cried’. And I said, ‘why did you do that’? He said, ‘because all I could see was Australian bush’. And he said, ‘I knew I couldn’t see the coast. I knew I couldn’t get back to Japan from here. So what do I do’? And he said, ‘ and I wasn’t brave enough to kill myself, and I hadn’t died in battle. So I knew I was going to be recaptured again’. And I thought to myself, what would I do in that situation? If I was not much older than I was at the time, and I was in a foreign country, I’d escaped, because I felt great shame at being a prisoner of war. What would I do if I looked around, and I knew all I had to face before me was to be recaptured again. And that’s where my real interest in the Breakout story, I suppose started.

Lawrance Ryan  32:31

And to me, it just emphasises again, that whether you’re Australian, whether you’re Japanese, whether you’re Italian, you all have the same sort of feelings and, and those feelings of being in a foreign place, and being lonely and been frightened and not knowing what to do, would be the same sort of feelings that I would have just as that prisoner of war had when I spoke to him back in 1978. So that’s my first engagement with the Japanese prisoner firsthand. But I still remember it quite clearly.

Lawrance Ryan  33:08

When I take tour groups around Robyn will often say to me, that’s my wife, Robyn, she’ll often say, how many did you make cry today. And I’ll say, a few. Because I think the story deserves to be told in a way that reflects compassion. You know, it’s easy to look at the boy’s own histories of the story of the Breakout. But the stories of the Japanese who had escaped, and they’re running up the hill, and they’re under fire from the Australians with their small arms fire and their machine guns, and they’re checking on each other, to see if they’ve been wounded. Like they’re their stories of compassion that you feel something for whether you’re an Australian, whether you’re a Japanese, or wherever you come from. So to me, you know, the stories that that resonate, and, and I do, I suppose I do to a certain extent, when I do my tours, I do know if I’m connecting with people, if you can tell a story like that one, and you do get a reaction out of people.

Lawrance Ryan  34:12

You know, the stories that you hear, and I’m not going to retell the one that I set up at the camp, but the stories that you hear of families being so grateful to find relatives at the Camp because they thought they’d never see them again. And that happens with Australians. I’ve said that story a couple of times to Australian groups. And I’ve had Australian people crying because of the same thing. We had a documentary shot here. Well, it was a sort of a reality show, it was called, Poetry Slam. It was done by the ABC. And I told the story about the Japanese pilot who’d been shot down over Darwin and whose sister came back and said that she was so proud that she’d found her brother again after all these years and he’d been looked after by the Australians. And I looked at the lady, who was a well known Australian bush poet, and she was crying, same as other people have done. And it was because her own son had been lost in a skiing accident in New Zealand. And he’d never been found, his body had never been found. So she said she felt that same story, she just wished he could find where he was and could reconnect with him once again. So that’s the most moving story I’ve ever had up there is that one where she was crying, but it’s a case of you nearly need to put the photograph down. So you can see his photo and relive the story again.

Lawrance Ryan  35:42

There is one story I can tell about the Italians, if you like, and this is another personal story. The Italians are well known for their – at Cowra for doing a lot of productive things, whether it was art based, whether it was based on the careers that they’d had when they were in Italy. And they used to have things like tailors up there who would redesign their uniforms into these tailored suits. So they used to be able to re-stitch them so they would stitch permanent seams into the suits so they didn’t have to be ironed, they’d cut them so that they were tailor made. And so here you had all these, these Japanese in World War – ah sorry, he had all these Italians in maroon coloured World War I uniforms that had been tailored to fit them. So you’ll see that they’re quite close fitting in the body. And they’ve got beautiful seams in there that you think they’ve been ironed. Well, they haven’t they’ve, they’ve sewn that in.

Lawrance Ryan  36:36

I had two aunts, Marion Walters and May Morton, and they were my mother’s elder sisters. And they were tailoresses. It’s a job you don’t hear anymore. But they were commissioned and they used to work for one of the tailors in the street. And so they would do all the sewing for him. And they used to go out to the military training camp. And their job at the military training camp was for the Australian soldiers and trainees to bring their uniforms to them, and they would fix them. If they’d torn them, if they needed to have the sleeve shortened, if they needed to have the legs taken up, my two aunts would do this work for them. Well, they decided if they could do it at the military training camp, they should go up to the prisoner of war camp as well. And do it in the Italian section, not the Japanese section. But in the Italian section.

Lawrance Ryan  37:21

Well, my two aunts went up there and they said they couldn’t learn. They couldn’t teach anything. They couldn’t fix anything because the Italian tailors were better skilled than they were. They learned more from the Italian tailors than they did from the tailor they worked for in the main street of Cowra, because they’d never thought of these ideas of re-cutting the old suits, putting in the seams permanently. They had just been taught, you know, you cut these trousers this way you cut the jacket this way, cut a shirt that way. But here they are learning things from people who are very skillful up there, and it wasn’t just tailors up there. You had people building models, you had people making toys for children. You had the Italians playing their instruments. It was really I suppose, a hotbed of, for want of a better description, a hotbed of talent of all these Italian fellows who are up at the Prisoner of War Camp.

Lawrance Ryan  38:18

For example, they built the lone standing building at the Prisoner of War campsite is a stone hut. It was built by Italian prisoners of war who wanted to show what you could do with natural materials on the ground and not just a prefabricated hut. One of those fellows was a chap by the name of Bruno Dell’Amico, who went back to become a famous Italian cinematographer. And his job at the Prisoner of War Camp, he used to operate the projector, for when the movies were screened. So Bruno Dell’Amico built this electrical switch hut up there, he is an electrician by trade. There’s photos of him standing there with his two compatriots who worked on the project. But whether or not the decision to transfer from being an electrician to a cinematographer happened because of his work on screening movies at the Cowra Prisoner of War Camp, we’ll never know. But his son Evandro still comes here to Cowra, made a – written a book about his father’s time here in Cowra, and provided us with photographs of him actually working on, not only on the hut that he built here, but actually working on the projection unit at the Prisoner of War Camp. So there, the Italians did have a pretty interesting life. And in the case of Bruno Dell’Amico, may well have become a famous cinematographer because of his time here at the Cowra Prisoner of War Camp.

Masako Fukui  39:39

Thank you so much Lawrance, that’s wonderful.



The Cowra Voices Audio Archive Project 2023

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