By Brenden Shirley, Curator of Accoutrements, Social History and Medical
New Zealand’s only prisoner of war (POW) camp was located on the outskirts of the small Wairarapa town of Featherston, some 60km north of Wellington. Featherston was no stranger to having a military camp located on its door step, as there had been a large army training camp based there during the First World War. However, this camp however was different; this camp was not for New Zealand soldiers, but for the enemy.
The camp was established at very short notice in September 1942 after the New Zealand government was asked by the American government if they would be willing to detain Japanese prisoners captured by the American forces in the Pacific. Although the government agreed to this request, what they did not realise was that around 450 Japanese prisoners were already on their way and would arrive in New Zealand within a matter of days! As a result, a series of tents, temporary cook houses and bathrooms had to be quickly set up and a rough perimeter fence were hastily established on the site of the old army camp at Featherston.
The first prisoners to arrive at this new camp were mainly Japanese civilian labourers who had been captured in the Solomon Islands whilst building an airfield. Upon arriving at Featherston, the POWs were tasked with building their own huts and many of the other amenities required to fully establish a working camp. Many of these men had worked as draughtsmen, architects and skilled tradesmen in Japan before the war and so were well suited for this type of work. The prisoners were issued with old New Zealand World War I era uniforms which had been dyed dark blue to serve as their POW uniform. They were also given old lemon squeezer hats to wear which were also dyed dark blue and then flattened out.
Soldiers were hastily recruited to serve as the guards and managerial staff of the camp. The men selected were generally those that were either too young or too old to serve overseas or that were unable to go due to medical or personal reasons. These men were only given a vague idea of what they role was to be and were not given any training or instruction in how to deal with prisoners of war or more specifically, about the Japanese and their culture. Not only was this the first prisoner of war camp to be based in New Zealand, but it was also the first camp in the British Commonwealth to detain a large number of Japanese prisoners. As such, there were no official regulations or previous experience available for the guards or their superiors to refer to as a guide for how best to manage Japanese prisoners and to understand their totally different cultural beliefs and values.
Fortunately, the first group of prisoners that arrived at the camp were generally well behaved and seemed happy to help clear the campsite and erect the buildings. Most of the prisoners formed good relationships with the guards and established a thriving market in the trade of their hand made wooden carvings for cigarettes and other items not normally made available to the prisoners.
However in November 1942 the second major group of Japanese prisoners arrived at the camp. This group was very different to the civilian labour force workers in that it was almost entirely made up of Japanese naval men who had been captured after their ships had been sunk at Guadalcanal. Unlike the civilian labourers who had quickly accepted the reality of their capture and their requirement to work, the Japanese military personal at this time followed a strict interpretation of the traditional Japanese Senjinkun code which 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 military POWs were held in a separate compound from the civilian labourers, who they looked down upon for not being fit enough to serve in the military. This area was known as compound 2.
By February 1943, there were over 800 Japanese prisoners at Featherston POW Camp and around 122 guards. The original Commanding Officer of the Camp, Lt Colonel Robert Harry Perrett, was transferred in December 1942 and was replaced by Lt Colonel Donald Hamish William Hawken Donaldson. Donaldson was regarded by his men as a strict but fair disciplinarian and encouraged the enforcement of the Prisoners of War rules as outlined in the Geneva Convention. In particular, he emphasised the section which required all physically fit POWs (except for officers) to work. Although the Japanese government had signed the Geneva Convention, they had never ratified it or informed their military about its existence. As a result, these demands came as a shock to the military POWs who suspected that this simply a ruse by the enemy.
As a result of this understanding, the military POWs were very reluctant to co-operate with the work order which they considered to be aiding the enemy. They also felt that much of the work that they were ordered to do, such as gorse cutting and fence building, beneath the status of soldiers and more suited to the civilian prisoners. During December 1942 and January 1943, Lt Colonel Donaldson had several discussions with the Japanese officers of Compound 2 and had to make many concessions just to convince even half of the prisoners he wanted to go out and form work parties. By late February 1943 the situation had not improved and the military POWs had become increasingly unruly with several men rumoured to be planning to commit suicide (hara-kiri) as a way of redeeming themselves for the disgrace of having being captured. After separating out the suspected “suicide squad”, Lt Colonel Donaldson brought matters to a head on the 24th of February by ordering 105 men from No 2 compound to go out with the work parties the following day. This was almost twice as many men as the prisoners had previously agreed to.
The following morning, the 25th February 1943, the 240 Japanese prisoners of No 2 compound staged a sit in style protest by sitting down in a group outside their huts and refused to parade for work until they had a meeting with the Camp Commandant to discuss the increased numbers. Unfortunately, Lt Colonel Donaldson was not present at Compound No 2 and instead it was his adjutant, Lieutenant James Malcolm who was in charge at the scene.
After heated discussions and the removal of their leader failed to persuade them to move, Lt Malcolm attempted to maintain order amongst the prisoners by firing a warning shot towards the crowd of prisoners. Whether or not this first warning shot hit one of the Japanese prisoners is greatly debated. Regardless, a second shot was then fired at Lieutenant Toshio Adachi (who served as an intermediary between the POWs and the guards) with the intent to wound him. This shot struck Adachi in the shoulder and was enough to cause the POWs to charge at Malcolm and the other guards, armed only with the rocks and sticks they had picked up from the ground. The 47 guards, who were standing in a U shaped formation around the prisoners, instantly opened fire. Several other guards were stationed with machine guns up on top of the roofs of the latrines located behind the POWs, who then also opened fire. Within 30 seconds, 31 Japanese POWs were dead and another 91 were wounded, 17 of which would later die of their injuries. As a result of ricocheting friendly fire by the
machine guns on the roof, six guards were also wounded and a seventh, Private Walter Pelvin, died of his injuries 3 days later. In total, 49 men were killed in what was at that time the deadliest event on New Zealand soil.
The incident at Featherston POW camp on the 25th February 1943 is the defining event which the POW 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 none of those things. It as little more than the tragic climax of a cultural misunderstanding with stubbornness and arrogance from both sides. Despite this, Prime Minister Peter Fraser in his official
statement several days after the event, described it as a “serious disturbance” and stated that firm action was necessary to quell the riot and to restore order.
A court of enquiry was held in March 1943 which, considering that New Zealand was at war with Japan at the time, drew a reasonably even handed view of the incident and found that neither side had acted with deliberate malicious intent and that the incident was primarily the result of a fundamental lack of communication between people with widely different cultural and psychological values. As a result, no charges were made to either side. Given the fear of reprisal to New Zealand POWs still held in Japanese camps, this was deemed the best outcome as the government was understandably reluctant to draw too much attention to the event either by blaming the Japanese or alternatively, by bringing discredit to the New Zealand Army during a time of war. Access to the findings of the court of enquiry were kept restricted for the next 30 years during which the rumours and misinformation about what really happened on that fateful day only grew.
Despite this tragic incident, the camp continued to operate peacefully until the end of the war when the remaining prisoners were repatriated to Japan. Sadly the location of the ashes of the 48 prisoners who had died at 1943 are believed to have been lost and were never able to be returned home to Japan with their countrymen as was intended. In 1979 a Repose of Spirits memorial plaque was erected on the former site of the camp by ex-Japanese POWs to help ease the sprits of the men who were lost at the camp.
In the post war years, as relations with Japan recovered, there were many return 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 regarding the Featherston incident of 1943. Although the camp was later demolished, the land was turned into a memorial site in 1979 and in 2002 a Peace Garden was established on the edge of the site. The garden consists of 48 Cherry blossom trees, one for each of the Japanese prisoners who lost their lives at the camp. The peace garden, despite some controversy following its original development, is now a quiet and peaceful site for reflection and contemplation on what remains a tragic and widely misunderstood chapter in New Zealand’s history.
Featured image caption: A Maori camp guard (identified as Hape Williams) talking with a Japanese POW at Featherston POW Camp, 1943. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: 1/4-000790-F.
Carr-Gregg, Charlotte (1978). Japanese Prisoners of War in Revolt. University of Queensland Press.
Featherston Heritage Museum Archives.
Nicolaidi, Mike (1999). The Featherston Chronicles. A Legacy of War. Harper Collins New Zealand Limited.
Sanders, Owen (1982). Incident at Featherston. Price Milburn and Company Limited.
Shinya, Michiharu (2001). Beyond Death and Dishonour. Castle Publishing New Zealand. (Originally published as The Path From Guadalcanal in 1979)