Today in History – 25 February 1943
Today marks the 80th Anniversary of one of the darkest and most misunderstood days in New Zealand’s military history. On 25 February 1943, at the Featherston Prisoner of War Camp, a tragic misunderstanding between two very different cultures resulted in the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) and one New Zealand guard.
The Japanese POWs held in the camp were a mixture of civilian labourers and naval men captured in the Pacific. Although both groups were Japanese, each had a very different opinion of their captivity. The civilian labourers formed a relatively amiable relationship with the New Zealand guards and often traded wooden carvings in exchange for smokes and other rations. We are lucky to have some of these wooden carvings in our collection and on display. However, the naval men considered being captured as a prisoner by the enemy to be the greatest dishonour you could bring upon yourself and a fate worse than death. However, the naval men considered being captured as a prisoner by the enemy to be the greatest dishonour you could bring upon yourself and a fate worse than death.
The situation was exacerbated when the Commanding Officer of the Camp encouraged the enforcement of the requirement in the Geneva Convention that all physically fit POWs (except for officers) had to work. Although the Japanese government had signed the convention, they had never ratified it or informed their military about it.
As a result, the naval POWs, unaware of this requirement in the Convention, were reluctant to co-operate and considered much of the physical labour work that they were ordered to do, such as gorse cutting and fence building, more suited to the civilian prisoners and not appropriate for them as military POWs.
Tensions around this rose between the New Zealand guards and the Japanese POWs until on the morning of 25 February 1943 240 Japanese prisoners staged a sit-in style protest. They sat down in a group outside their huts and refused to parade for work until they had a meeting with the Camp Commandant. Both sides misunderstood each other’s intentions, and after heated discussions (and the forced removal of their leader) failed to dissuade the protest to continue, the senior officer at the scene, Lieutenant James Malcolm, attempted to maintain order amongst the prisoners by firing a warning shot towards the crowd of POWs.
It is greatly debated whether this warning shot hit one of the Japanese prisoners, but, regardless, Lieutenant Malcolm fired a second shot at Lieutenant Toshio Adachi (who served as an intermediary and translator between the POWs and the guards) striking him in the shoulder. Armed only with the rocks and sticks they had picked up from the ground, the POWs charged at Lieutenant Malcolm and the other guards; 240 prisoners against 47 guards, with tragic results.
The 47 guards on the scene instantly opened fire. Several other guards were stationed on top of the buildings (the latrines) behind the POWs with machine guns and they also opened fire on the prisoners. In less than a minute 31 Japanese POWs were dead and another 91 were wounded, 17 of whom would later die of their injuries. As a result of friendly fire by the machine guns on the roof ricocheting, six guards were also wounded and a seventh, Private Walter Pelvin, died of his injuries three days later.
This incident at Featherston Prisoner of War Camp on the morning of 25 February 1943 is the defining moment with which the camp is now remembered for. It has been described as many things: a riot, a mutiny, a massacre, a mass suicide, and an escape attempt. In reality, it was little more than the tragic climax of cultural misunderstanding mixed with stubbornness and arrogance from both sides.
In the years following the war, and as relations between New Zealand and Japan recovered, there were many visits by former Japanese POWs to Featherston, including several visits by Lieutenant Adachi who became one of the leading advocates for commemoration, reconciliation and understanding between the New Zealand and Japanese people. Although the camp was later demolished, a Repose of Spirits memorial plaque and Peace Garden were later established on the site in memory of the 48 Japanese prisoners who lost their lives. The peace garden, despite some controversy following its original development, is now a quiet and peaceful site for reflection and contemplation.