South Wairarapa Mayor pays tribute to Cowra Breakout 75 years on

08 August 2019

South Wairarapa has played its part in commemorating the 235 lives lost in a tragedy that took place in Cowra, Australia, 75 years ago this week.

South Wairarapa Mayor Viv Napier was in the New South Wales town to remember the Cowra Breakout, an event that bares similarities to the Featherston Incident which occurred during World War II.

On 5 August 1944, more than 1000 Japanese prisoners attempted to escape from a prisoner of war camp located near Cowra. During the escape, which was the largest prison escape of WWII, 231 Japanese soldiers and four Australian soldiers were killed, with the remaining escapees recaptured and imprisoned.

This happened about 18 months after the Featherston Incident. On 25 February 1943, a riot broke out at the Featherston Prisoner of War Camp after a sit-down strike when some Japanese prisoners refused to work. As a result, 48 Japanese prisoners of war and one New Zealand guard died, and a further 63 prisoners were wounded.

A Twinning Agreement between Cowra and Featherston was signed in November 1999 by the then mayors, Bruce Miller of the Cowra Shire Council and John Read of the South Wairarapa District Council.

This document recognised the similarities of these two events, which occurred at campsites holding Japanese prisoners of war following their capture in the Islands and South Pacific campaigns, and was the basis of a promise to encourage and embrace friendship between the two towns, and their respective councils and countries.

The contract says, “These events brought the tragedy of war to these two communities in a most tragic and provocative manner. It is upon this basis that Featherston and Cowra have decided to further develop their relationship. Both towns have sought to learn from these experiences by establishing closer links with former enemies for the benefit of present and future generations.”

South Wairarapa Mayor Viv Napier was among dignitaries from both Australia and Japan who laid wreaths at a special commemoration event held in Cowra at the POW Camp site on Monday. She said the event was very moving and made extra special by the presence of a 98-year-old Japanese former prisoner of war who was a survivor of the tragedy in Cowra.

Mayor Napier said the strong bond between Featherston and Cowra resulting from the Twinning Agreement would continue to be nurtured for years to come, as would both towns’ relations with Japan. “It’s been a really amazing way of rebuilding and strengthening relationships between our three countries.”

Last year, a Cowra Council representative gave a speech at the ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Featherston Incident.

South Wairarapa District Council