Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Lawrance Ryan as Chairman of the 60th Anniversary of the Cowra Breakout Committee, Cowra 2003
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 19 March 2003 (AWM S03087)
TERRY COLHOUN: First of all, thank you very much for participating in the project. Your contribution will be very useful to us.
LAWRANCE RYAN: My pleasure.
COLHOUN: You are a young man. You were born well after the breakout and here we find that you are chairing the committee for the 60th anniversary of the breakout. How would that happen?
RYAN: I suppose there are two reasons for that: the first is all through my life I’ve had an interest in the history of Cowra and an involvement with various community groups throughout Cowra. So, from that perspective I suppose I have got runs on the board as to a genuine interest in what happened during the breakout and the years since then and also a proven record of being able to organise events, or being involved with the organisation of events. From the second point of view is that I have been at various times employed in a number of roles with the Cowra Tourism Corporation, ranging from Customer Service Officer at the Visitor Centre at the Japanese Garden right through to the Tourism Manager here for Cowra. So, I suppose my knowledge of tourism in the area, my knowledge of Cowra history all combine to make me, I wouldn’t say a logical choice, but a choice for a younger person who could look to be involved not only with the 60th anniversary commemorations of the breakout but also in years following.
COLHOUN: Well, I can sense that a lot of people in Cowra would support the idea of a younger person because this week in talking to many people the message comes through from time to time “We need to involve younger people.” So, you are showing them how. This is, of course, a council committee and you have to report I suppose to the Cowra Shire Council.
RYAN: The committee was formed at the request actually of the Mayor, so basically our reporting goes through Graham Apthorpe, who is the Council’s Development Officer, but he reports directly to the Mayor on this committee.
COLHOUN: Well, how are you approaching it? What’s the sort of philosophy that you’ve got in mind for the celebration?
RYAN: I suppose it can be seen almost as a pivotal point in the history of commemorations of the breakout in that we are looking at sixty years since the actual event took place. There has to be a limited amount of time left where we can actually get participants from the breakout, whether they be guards or former prisoners, together on any one occasion. With that in mind, we perhaps have to look at this 60th anniversary as being almost a final closure of those relationships between actual participants and looking from how we can move on there to keeping those participants’ families involved and the actual town of Cowra involved, because, as you said, even to my generation the breakout was something that happened in the past. We have got to keep people aware that it was perhaps the one most important pivotal event in the history of Cowra and the only way we can do that is to look to move on now from the fact that we have – perhaps won’t be able to have the actual participants together any more, how can we move on from there?
COLHOUN: There are two things that I see in relation to the breakout commemorations: there is still, perhaps more in the official area, some sensitivity amongst the Japanese…
COLHOUN: …about prisoners of war and the breakout and so on, and the other thing is that we are now two generations really from the event and people are going to start losing interest in it. Do you think that perhaps not only is this the pivotal point in being able to attract those who were involved in it but maybe Cowra has to rethink the breakout after this?
RYAN: Yes and no, I suppose I would have to say there. From my perspective you can’t rewrite history and the breakout is commemorating an event that perhaps no other town, not only in Australia but anywhere in the world, experienced anything on such a large scale as far as a military uprising.
COLHOUN: I think it is recorded that it’s the biggest breakout in modern history.
RYAN: In modern history, yes. With that in mind I suppose what we’ve got to look at with the breakout is that, yes, I do see a chance that Cowra will lose interest in it as we get further away from the event. I think perhaps we’ve got to look at not so much the actual breakout now but the aftermath, the reconciliation process that’s happened. I often speak about the breakout. I often speak about things that happen since. To me it isn’t the breakout that’s the main thing; it’s that simple act of the former members of the Australian Armed Forces who as the RSL looked after the cemetery. That, to me, is the pivotal event. Sure, the breakout was the trigger, so to speak, for that, but it’s what happened since, that out of that bloodshed something so positive came about that makes it – it’s a universal thing. Everyone wants to look at reconciling with former enemies, to wipe the slate clean, so to speak, and to move on. Here in Cowra we have that example of that. Perhaps the breakout is the unfortunate, the unseemly side of what happened, but the positive things that happened as a result of that breakout are something that we don’t ever want to give away, we want to always hold those ideals quite high.
COLHOUN: You mentioned not only the guards but the prisoners themselves and it is interesting that in Japan there is now an association that came out of the cupboard, as it were. Are you hoping for some Japanese contribution to your programme?
RYAN: We would certainly like Japanese involvement and we have certain events that we are already planning in the programme that would have Japanese participation up to and including the Embassy of Japan and Consulate – dinners and so on. From another perspective I think perhaps we should be looking at giving something back to the Japanese. The Japanese have been quite generous in some respects as far as what they’ve given to Cowra through donations to the Gardens and so on, perhaps it’s time we looked at how we can give something back to cement that relationship a little further.
COLHOUN: Have you got something in mind?
RYAN: We’ve got a number of ideas of what we could leave as a lasting memorial. For the 50th anniversary, for example, there’s a sculpture down in Squire Park, in the main street, of the four Australians who were killed. Maybe we can look at something that commemorates not only the Australians who died and who were there guarding, but perhaps the Japanese. One thing that we are thinking about at the moment is a community mural, perhaps using the two large water reservoirs that overlook the campsite. We are looking at something along the lines of some sort of image to reflect the history and reconciliation, to reflect the friendship that’s developed out of the breakout and hopefully that would be seen, to the Japanese, as giving something back, of recognising that their presence here at Cowra brought about a change for the better in the whole community.
COLHOUN: What other ideas have you got for your programme?
RYAN: Quite a few actually, there’s I suppose the traditional things, a dinner where we would have former guards and former prisoners, a vigil in the evening where you would have a gathering up at the actual campsite, and it would culminate with the sounding of the siren that went off the night of the breakout. That siren is located out at the Cowra Fun Museum. The Lachlan Valley Railway Society here would like to run a train trip out to the site where two Japanese prisoners died on the day of the breakout. There is a number of other things: the Temora Aviation Museum has a Spitfire and a Wirraway there. We would like them to fly over the town and recreate the aerial search for the Japanese prisoners. There’s other things we would like to do to involve the locals, an art display based on perhaps themes Cowra people feel relate to the breakout and the reconciliation since. There’s a number of artworks – a lot of people don’t realise the Japanese and Italian prisoners produced a number of artworks at the camp during the period of the war and we could use those as the basis of an exhibition which we could expand. We would like to get school groups involved so that school students learn of the breakout and the reconciliation process that’s happened since. We would have to get the Cowra Fun Museum involved – whose display is exceptionally good out there – the Visitors Centre with the hologram – we are looking at helping the Visitors Centre get money to improve the area leading up to that hologram display. They have the actual gates from end of Broadway at the camp. We would like to use them as the entrance. So, there’s quite a few things, Terry, that we’re looking at doing in a positive way that would involve as many people as possible, not just former guards, former prisoners and their families, but others in the community as well.
COLHOUN: Did you say the “Cowra Fun Museum”?
RYAN: It’s called the Cowra Fun Museum; it used to be called…
COLHOUN: It doesn’t seem to fit quite well with what you are about.
RYAN: The Cowra Fun Museum is one of the largest regional museums anywhere in Australia. It used to be called the Cowra War, Rail and Rural Museum, but found that people would drive past and think “That must be very, very boring.” So, he decided what he’d do to involve children would be to call it the “Fun Museum” and in doing so I think probably cut away from his market from the adults, but his displays out there are absolutely phenomenal, not just to do with the breakout but some of his other displays, things you wouldn’t expect to see. From a military viewpoint he’s got the largest collection of German Second World War uniforms in the Southern Hemisphere, and that’s just a typical example of some of the things he’s got. But he does have quite an extensive display that relates to the Cowra prisoner-of-war camp. He’s bought old sheds off properties and recreated them. One of them turned out to be the solitary confinement cell from in the camp and when he re-created and put it together piece by piece here was all this graffiti written all over the walls in either English, Italian or Japanese. That’s the sort of exhibition he’s got. He has got one of the gun carriages from out at the camp. He’s got the actual siren that was sounded on the night of the breakout. His collection is extensive and excellent as far as capturing not only a sense of what happened at the breakout but also the military history of Australia so I would certainly recommend anyone to have a look at that.
COLHOUN: Certainly; you had some competition from some birds a moment ago too.
RYAN: Sorry about that.
COLHOUN: No, it’s delightful. I guess you would be doing the sort of things people would expect – there would be some kind of memorial service at the War Cemetery?
RYAN: Certainly, yes. That would occur on the actual morning, 5 August 2004, the anniversary date of the breakout. That always is well received both by the Cowra people and by visiting Japanese and we would hope to involve the Ambassador in that. That would be an ideal situation. The dinner that we would hold on either the Thursday evening or the Friday – as yet we haven’t formalised the dates for a lot of the events yet, but we would have a dinner where we hope to get a guest speaker of some prominence. For the 50th anniversary Digger James, who was then the President of the RSL, came down and was the guest speaker. We would hope to get a like guest speaker, somebody who is sufficiently well recognised in the community to attract people in their own right.
COLHOUN: I notice on your desk here that you’ve got a lifetime membership of the Cowra Musical and Dramatic Society. Could we therefore expect some cultural events?
RYAN: You certainly can. There are actually two plays written about incidents involving former Japanese – sorry, about Japanese prisoners of war rebelling in camps. There’s one called Blood yellow that is written about the Cowra prisoner-of-war breakout. We were always a bit dubious about doing it. But there was a lady here in Cowra who passed away this year by the name of Marion Starr. Marion had always been saying to me “We must do this Blood yellow”. Well, we’re going to do Blood yellow this year as a tribute to Marion in June. There’s another play written by a chap by the name of Vincent O’Sullivan who comes from New Zealand. It’s about a similar incident to the Cowra breakout that happened in 1943 at Featherstone Camp on the North Island of New Zealand. In that one the Japanese refused to work. The guards opened fire on them. I think it was 49 Japanese were killed and one of the guards was killed in a subsequent riot. We are hoping to stage Shuriken in 2004. The reason we would prefer to do it in 2004 instead of Blood yellow is because Blood yellow has some sensitive aspects, for example, there’s a Japanese prisoner of war killed by a civilian. We thought it would be better if we did something in 2004 when there’s likely to be Japanese officials here that actually doesn’t relate to Cowra but relates very much to a similar incident that happened in New Zealand. So, far enough away removed that it isn’t seen in any way as being insulting to the Japanese who might be here, but Shuriken is an excellent play in that it covers very, very fully the fact that the Japanese feel that sense of shame at being prisoners. I think it is really a worthwhile project. But, to have two plays about similar incidents in two years – it will be challenging for us because they’re both fairly heavy plays, but from my point of view I’m proud to be involved in the Dramatic Society that’s going to be doing them.
COLHOUN: The actual date of the 60th anniversary is 2004, August the…?
RYAN: August the 5th, which is a Thursday, which does present a bit of a quandary to us in some respects in that to stage a dinner on a Thursday you’re probably not going to get as many people along, for example, to a dinner or to other events as you may if it was on a Friday and they were coming to Cowra for a long weekend. Our programme though that we do have covers a week. It covers from the Sunday preceding the anniversary to the Saturday following the anniversary. So, hopefully, we’ve given enough time frame for people to become involved in some, if not all, of the events at any time during the week.
COLHOUN: Well, good luck and we’ll be watching to see what develops from all these ideas from a young man who’s looking at it far differently than we of the Second World War would have done.
RYAN: Thanks very much, Terry.
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 01/22/2022 10:29:38 AM