The Australian mayor from Cowra, home to a major prisoner of war camp during World War II, bonded with Japanese high school students in Tokyo on Thursday, welcoming the decades-long exchanges between the two communities that started following a tragic mass breakout attempt by Japanese internees.

Known as the Cowra Breakout, the Aug. 5, 1944 escape attempt is the largest prison break staged in modern military history, with more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners launching an attack on Australian soldiers. Over 230 Japanese soldiers died as a result.

Efforts to prevent such a tragedy from happening again led to the start of a student exchange program between Cowra High School and Seikei Gakuen, a private school in western Tokyo, in 1970. The program, they say, is the longest of its kind between the two countries.

"It's very important that we educate our students to know that there's a bigger, wider world," Cowra Mayor Ruth Fagan told Kyodo News as she visited the Japanese school for the first time since being elected last year.

(From L) Deputy Mayor of Cowra Paul Smith, Cowra Mayor Ruth Fagan and Cowra Councillor Bill West pose for a photo at Seikei Gakuen in Musashino, western Tokyo, on April 18, 2024. (Kyodo)

Under the annual exchange program, one student from each school spends a year at the other school, according to the mayor.

Touching on the Japanese internees who lost their lives in the Cowra Breakout, she said they were "our enemies" at the time of the war, but their spirit should be honored.

After the war, Cowra in New South Wales set up a cemetery for the Japanese soldiers who died.

Naoto Senda, principal of Seikei Gakuen's junior and senior high schools, said the exchange program "began through the mutual understanding that it was important for young people to contribute to the development of both countries" with the incident in mind.

Cowra is planning on holding a commemorative event in August for the 80th anniversary of the incident.

Of the 2,223 Japanese soldiers housed in the Cowra Prisoner of War Camp in the rural Australian town, 1,104 stormed its gates, armed with baseball bats and sharpened table knives. The prisoners used woolen blankets and wore baseball gloves to protect themselves as they climbed over the barbed wire fencing during Australia's midwinter.

The breakout became the only land battle fought on Australian soil during WWII.