Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Lawrance Ryan as Chairman of the 60th Anniversary of the Cowra Breakout Committee, Cowra 2004
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 7 August 2004 (AWM S03334)
TERRY COLHOUN: Laurence, we recorded in March 2003, just after you became chairman of the organising committee and you expressed some thoughts then on where you hoped this week would end up. Now, I’m looking at the transcript of it. You said that you thought this might be the last chance to bring together people who had some participation in the running of the camp, or perhaps in the breakout, particularly Japanese. Has it worked out that way?
LAWRANCE RYAN: Very much so Terry. I think what we set out to do right from the first part of the planning process for the commemorations was to include both Japanese and Australian veterans of the breakout and I think the events we have planned and the wonderful response that we have had certainly indicate that. We have got a number of people from the breakout association who are Australian veterans here in Cowra this week. We are also very, very pleased that four of the former Japanese prisoners of war have come to Cowra for the anniversary commemorations.
COLHOUN: You also hoped that there would be some lasting memorial. What have you done?
RYAN: The lasting memorial for the 60th anniversary is the Cowra Peace Pathway, which is a wonderful pathway that was proposed by Tony Mooney to travel through the Cowra Rotary arboretum. The memorial, the Peace Pathway, the whole idea of it is to commemorate significant acts of reconciliation that have occurred between Cowra and Japan in the 60 years since the breakout and to give people the opportunity to actually become part of that feeling of participation in that reconciliation. So the way we have done it is to have two large metallic photographic plaques at either end of the pathway: one shows the act of reconciliation between Mrs May Weir at her property at Homewood just outside of Cowra back in August 1944 when she gave Japanese escapees tea and hot food when they approached her home rather than send them away; and at the other end of the pathway is that quite famous photo of Moriki Masaru and Wal McKenzie, a former prisoner of war and former guard sitting side by side in the Japanese garden. Eventually that pathway, which is about 300 metres long, will be filled with pavers purchased by people who have a love of the values of peace and reconciliation that are shown here in Cowra. We are very, very pleased to say that for the pathway so far – stage one of the pathway we set for 200 pavers – in excess of 200 pavers have been sold for the launch on 5 August. We are absolutely delighted that we have been able to attract that much attention in such a short time. It shows that people both in Australia and in Japan who have supported the concept of the Peace Pathway do really see it as great opportunity to look at what has happened here at Cowra and to make a positive contribution in their own right, saying they support the ideals of reconciliation and peace that have occurred here.
COLHOUN: Another thing that you were hoping to do was to develop a cultural programme, which would, you had hoped, include a production of a play called Blood Yellow. Did you succeed in this area?
RYAN: We certainly did, Terry. We had a wonderful programme of cultural events as well as commemorative events. Blood Yellow was a play by an Australian author by the name of Barbara Stellmach. It was first brought to our attention by the late Marion Starr, and in 2003 the musical dramatic society here in Cowra staged a production of Blood Yellow in memory of Marion and it was very, very successful. Immediately after the conclusion of the production I said to the cast would they be interest in doing it as part of the 60th anniversary commemorations, and they said they certainly would. As a result we have four productions of Blood Yellow scheduled during the anniversary celebrations.
COLHOUN: What’s the link with Cowra or with the breakout.
RYAN: Blood Yellow is a play about the breakout. It’s set in a house overlooking the campsite, and it revolves around the emotions and the events as they occur on the night of the breakout. You first see the house before the breakout, we then see it during the breakout and the conclusion after the breakout when a Japanese prisoner of war turns up at the front door of the house. Now, we see that interaction in people, knowing that the camp is there but not really understanding what’s going on there and with the breakout, with the fear associated with the breakout and then the even greater fear when one of the Japanese turns up at the front door of the home. It is a wonderful story and it sort of encapsulates the feelings and emotions of the Cowra people on the night of the breakout.
COLHOUN: What sort of other cultural activities are there?
RYAN: There are some very great cultural activities, actually. The Embassy of Japan has been very generous. They have a wonderful exhibition called Sharaku, who was a traditional Japanese artist, which starts off with woodcuts. The exhibition portrays great Japanese actors and the various ways Sharaku has portrayed them in art and so on. We have also, on the afternoon of 4 August, a concert to be performed at the Cowra Civic Centre which features Rily Lee, a noted grandmaster of Shakuhachi and Mr Terry Colhoun who is going to do Japanese poetry in English. That will be a great cultural exchange. At the same time we have the Urasenke Foundation performing a tea ceremony and the Ambassador hosting a reception. There will be other exhibitions as well, such as: the Cowra Art Gallery features works from all over Australia, including many from the Australian War Memorial; the Cowra Japanese Gardens features works by local artists; and another historical exhibition at the Returned and Services League (RSL) rooms and also in the Cowra Visitor Information Centre.
COLHOUN: We didn’t previously talk about the Italian involvement in the breakout period, but of course there were Italians occupying about half the camp at the time the Japanese were here. I notice from the program that you have an Italian component in your week’s activities.
RYAN: It’s very easy – because the breakout is such an important historical event – it is very easy to forget that the camp did host Italians from 1941 to 1947. We wanted to go out of our way to show that involvement, and early in the commemorative program we staged a number of events that relate specifically to the Italians. There was a Mass celebrated in Italian at St Raphael’s Church. We actually had Cardinal Cassidy, a retired cardinal who spent many years in Vatican City, who conducted the Mass in Italian. We also had a wonderful commemoration out at Mulligan’s Winery on the Grenfell Road. Mulligan’s have just established a most magnificent display of memorabilia relating to the Italian prisoners of war and we were very, very pleased when a 93 year old former prisoner of war, who lives not far from Cowra at Parkes, was able to come across with his family and be part of those commemorations. It was really something special to see that man here.
COLHOUN: You were hoping also that there would be an involvement of young people. How have they become associated with what you are doing this week?
RYAN: We were lucky that the local schools have shown an involvement, and even luckier that the Japanese Nagakura Foundation donated a significant amount of money for us to host what we call a “Youth Ambassador” program. We selected ten students from local schools who have been trained in the history of the breakout and, looking at events during the commemoration program, they will be the human face of the commemorations. They will be the “meeters and greeters” of people at the various commemorative events and we think it is a great way to pass the baton on to the younger generation, to interest them in what has happened here at Cowra and to give them the opportunity to be part of the great commemorations of the breakout. And very interestingly one of those ambassadors is the current Seikei exchange student, Sarah Yamada and we are very, very delighted that she is able to take part in the event.
COLHOUN: What about Japanese children, any young people coming from Japan?
RYAN: Yes, we have a group of 27 students coming from Nara who will be here on the main day. They will be going to the major commemorative events and of course, what they will be doing rather than going to the official luncheon, they will having a luncheon of their own with our youth ambassadors. It is a great opportunity for the high school students from Nara to mix with the Cowra High School and St Raphael’s High School students, and to actually pass on that friendship from one to one with students of their own age.
COLHOUN: Another thing that is quite unusual is the gentleman from Japan, Mr YURA Shigeru, who designed the Japanese War Cemetery in Cowra and who is, in fact, in this house at this very moment.
RYAN: He is indeed, and we were delighted when Mr YURA rang us and said he was coming and we offered, and allowed him to stay with us. He is here in Cowra and is going to take an active part in the commemorations. He will be there at the handing over of the plans, the original plans from the War Cemetery, at a service and afternoon tea on Thursday afternoon. We are really delighted that he can be here and are looking forward to making his stay here a very memorable one.
COLHOUN: Well, the week is not finished yet but it’s progressing well. You talked about passing the baton on to young people. You’re a young man yourself, you’re not thinking of handing it all over at this stage?
RYAN: Terry, I think I’ll be involved in the Cowra–Japan relationship for a little while longer, but I think if we can get even one or two local Cowra young people interested in what we have done this week, who want to see it continue, who recognise that the reconciliations and friendships developed in Cowra as a result of the Cowra breakout, that that reconciliation and understanding is something worth carrying forward, then we have achieved what we have wanted to achieve here in Cowra this year. Sure, it’s great to commemorate, and it is appropriate that we commemorate those events that happened, but we have got to recognise that what happened here in Cowra wasn’t just the recognition of one single, historical event – the one event that changed our town and that has led to such friendship and wonderful co-operation between Cowra and Japan. I think if we can encourage young people we have certainly achieved what we set out to do, to pass that baton onto the younger generation, and to make sure that the ideals of peace and reconciliation that have been shown by others over the years by the Cowra breakout won’t be forgotten.
Transcribed by WRITEpeople, November 2004
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 06/24/2018 03:33:35 AM