49 killed in Featherston POW incident

25 February 1943

Fatigue squad at the Japanese prisoner of war camp, 1943 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/4-000776-F)

Just outside the Wairarapa town of Featherston, a memorial garden marks the site of a Second World War riot that resulted in the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) and one guard.

The camp opened in 1942 to hold 800 Japanese POWs captured in the South Pacific. In early 1943, a group of recently arrived prisoners staged a sit-down strike, refusing to work. Guards fired a warning shot, which may have wounded Lieutenant Adachi Toshio. The prisoners then rose and the guards opened fire. Wartime censors kept details of the tragedy quiet amid fears of Japanese reprisals against Allied POWs.

A military court of enquiry absolved the guards of blame, but acknowledged the fundamental cultural differences between captor and captive. The Japanese government did not accept the court’s decision.

After the war, the first POW to return to Featherston burned incense at the site in 1974 and a joint New Zealand–­Japanese project established a memorial ground. Today, a plaque commemorates the site with a haiku:

Behold the summer grass 
All that remains 
Of the dreams of warriors.