THE deaths of 26 soldiers in a training accident at Kapooka in 1945 is so little known that even most people in the Australian Army do not know about it, according to former soldier who has written a book about the disaster.
With the 70th anniversary of the worst training tragedy in Australia’s military history being commemorated at the site on May 21, Andrew Johnston hopes his book The Forgotten Rising Sons will shine a light on the incident and give due credit to the 26 men who gave their lives for their country as much as anyone who fell in battle.
The soldiers, most of whom were trainee sappers being taught how to crimp a detonator, died when explosives detonated inside a bunker they were in just outside the Kapooka camp.
“Using the military court of inquiry report and the early groundwork by Dr Peter Rushbrook, I’ve condensed my book into more than 400 pages, which includes some of the iconic photos that those who know about the tragedy can relate to,” said Mr Johnston, a former warrant officer who was medically discharged from the army in 2011 and who teaches justice studies at TAFE in Brisbane.
Mr Johnston said his book centred around Sergeant Herbert John (Jack) Pomeroy, the engineer instructor who died that day on his 31st birthday.
But the book also contains personal stories from some of the other bereaved families, many of whom have never been able to attend the annual commemorative service conducted by the Army Recruit Training Centre.
Mr Johnston agreed it was sad the Kapooka tragedy was not well known outside of Wagga.
“As a soldier, I did not know about it,” Mr Johnston said.
He said Australians had the right to know of the mistakes made by the military, whether they be operation planning errors or training accidents.
“It’s disappointing most Australians do not know about these 26 lives lost in training,” Mr Johnston said.
“The majority of the victims were just 18 or 19.
“The war was coming to an end, but they still had that desire to serve.
“They were as keen as mustard to do their bit.”
Mr Johnston said he intended to attend this year’s commemorative service and looked forward to meeting up with the families that helped him write his book.
“As one family member put it to me, I’m the only person who has bothered to record the tragedy and mark it through the release of my book. I know that is not the case, but it is a sad indictment that many families believe that the sacrifice of their loved ones continues to remain one of the military’s most guarded embarrassments.
“For me, writing the was not only a labour of love, but it was my way of dealing with separation from the army after 20 years of proud service.
“It became my therapy, which prevented me going down the dark path of depression.
“In this story I had a purpose, and 26 unknown soldiers of Wagga helped me get there.”
The funeral procession for the dead soldiers in 1945 was attended by some 7000 Wagga residents and has been described as Wagga’s saddest day.
In 2008, a senior education lecturer at Charles Sturt University, Dr Peter Rushbrook, published his research into the tragedy.
At the time it was described as the first time the story of the 26 soldiers went to print outside the pages of a newspaper.
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