Honouring Kapooka sappers

Book. Penguin author John Sheahan will be at Smithton Library next Thursday (December 17) to read from and talk about his new book, The Kapooka Tragedy: remembering 21 May 1945.

On this day, 26 sappers were killed in an inexplicable explosion during an exercise at the Royal Australian Engineers’ training base at Kapooka, a suburb of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

It was a funeral of large proportions, more than 7000 people turned out to pay their respects to the mostly young lives lost. To this day it remains Australia’s largest military funeral on home soil.

Their story is little known, and it was not until 2010 that a memorial opened.

This led Sheahan, who lived next to Kapooka Army Base for many years but learned of this wartime tragedy only in 2008, to write the book.

According to Sheahan, “There are two parts to this tragedy – the explosion and then the silence.”

“In this book I have tried to give each of the 26 men his own space,” he said.

“I was fortunate to have been able to speak to some surviving relatives and friends. Of others, I know little which, in itself, speaks volumes.”

In researching the explosion and its aftermath, Sheahan interviewed witnesses, friends and family members over four years. He drew on the 1945 Court of Inquiry, service files, newspapers, photographs and eyewitness accounts to recreate the story of what happened leading up to the explosion and what happened afterwards.

He makes no attempt to discover what actually caused the explosion.

“So much time has passed and I have neither the detective skills nor the military contacts to explore that mystery. My interest was more taken by why the whole thing was forgotten.”

To RSVP phone Smithton Library on 6478 9561 or head along to the Nelson Street library at 11am.

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