Featherston Camp memorials and Sakura Garden

Featherston Camp memorials and Sakura Garden

Featherston Military Training Camp was opened in the flat, empty countryside between Featherston township and the Tauherenikau River in January 1916. At the peak of its activity during the First World War, the camp housed as many as 8000 men. After the war, the site was used briefly as an internment camp, TB hospital, then as a storage depot, but the buildings were gradually sold or demolished from 1920 onwards. (The Kahutara and Kaiwaiwai halls were both formerly part of the camp's Soldiers' Club.)

The site was retained by the Defence Department for some years, and from 1942 to 1946 part of it was used to house a prisoner of war camp for Japanese military personnel. On 25 February 1943 a tragic incident occurred when a protest by about 250 prisoners escalated and the guards opened fire: 48 prisoners were either killed on the spot or later died of their wounds. One guard, Walter Bevin, also later died of wounds received from a ricochet bullet.

The camps and the incident have been described elsewhere (see, for instance, Featherston CampFeatherston incidentFeatherston's camp - roadside stories, and the sources listed below). This entry simply describes the memorials which have been established at the site.

After the prisoner of war camp was closed, the buildings were demolished or removed and most of the land was sold off. However, during the 1970s, interest in Featherston's military past revived.  On Anzac Day 1975 Featherston officially 'twinned' with the Belgian town of Messines, which had been liberated by New Zealand troops towards the end of WWI, and a proposal was made to rename the section of SH2 that  bisected the camp's former site as 'Messines Way'. In 1976 a group of local citizens began raising funds to purchase a plot of land to the south of SH2 for a memorial park or layby. This area was subsequently vested in the Featherston Borough Council and a roadside sign was erected to mark its purpose ("This site is a memorial to the Featherston W.W.I camp and the soldiers who passed through it. It also emphasizes Featherston's international 'twinning' with Messines in Belgium, and recalls the W.W.II Japanese prisoner of war camp.")

The memorial park was formally opened on Anzac Day 1979. A  cenotaph or Stone of Remembrance, similar in design to the one in Polygon Wood, Belgium, had been erected at its centre. This was unveiled by Featherston mayor Bill McKerrow and dedicated by Army chaplain Padre Michael Cahill  to the memory of all who had trained at the camp.

A plaque on one side bore the inscription: "This camp was the last / New Zealand home for / thousands of W.W. II soldiers / - Let us keep N.Z. / worthy of their dying." In 2021 this plaque was replaced with the reference to World War II corrected: "Featherston Camp was the / last home for thousands / of soldiers in World War One / (1914-1918)/ Let us keep New Zealand / worthy of their dying".

The  plaque on the other side gave some historical information. A revised and corrected version was also unveiled in 2021: "Featherston Military Training Camp / Operational from 24 January 1916 / In 1917 the camp post office was 5th / busiest in New Zealand. /  The land opposite this memorial park was / the main barrack camp. / The area east of Camp Road was Canvas / Town which served as a  "hardening up" / process before departing on the Rimutaka / route march to Trentham Camp and final embarkation."  

The park contained a number of other memorial items. A small Japanese section had been planted out with eight cherry trees and displayed a memorial plaque provided by a group of former POWs. Its inscription combined two Japanese characters with their English translation ("[Chin Kon] / Repose of souls / Ex Japanese P.O.W.  W.W.II"). Nearby was another plaque donated by local businessman K.J. Nyssen, who had brought the Batavian Rubber Company to Featherston in 1961. This was  inscribed with the text of a haiku by the noted Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and an English translation ("Behold the summer grass / All that remains of the / dreams of warriors.") 

Concrete seats and tables had also been donated by the Japanese, Belgian and American governments and the NZRSA. The plaque on the Japanese embassy's seat read simply: "In memory of 68 servicemen who died here in World War Two" (referring to all former Japanese POWs who had died of whatever cause at the site during the camp's duration). The Belgian plaque read: "Donated by the Belgian people / In gratitude to NZ Servicemen / who were the first to liberate Messines / in W.W.I." And the American: "Donated by the / N.Z. American Association Inc. / 'For I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep.' / Robert Frost"). The RSA plaque: "Donated by the N.Z.R.S.A. (Inc.) / In fond memory of those who gave /their lives for their country".

After a ceremony held by former POWs at the Repose of Souls plaque on 12 December 1986, the idea arose of establishing a Japanese 'peace garden' which would incorporate a more substantial memorial to the Japanese POWs. In 1993  Mr Toshio Nakamoto, owner of the Japanese company Juken Nissho (JNL), which had opened a timber mill near Masterton in 1991, bought a plot of land beside the memorial park for this purpose, and donated it to the South Wairarapa District Council. However, the proposal initially met with strong opposition from the RSA. 

Over the next few years, attitudes gradually mellowed, particularly after the first visit of the Japanese  amateur male-voice choir Chor-Farmer to Featherston in 2000. The scope of the memorial project, too, was reduced. On  6 July 2001, a tree-planting ceremony was held at the new site, when local volunteers planted 68 cherry trees, and the peace garden was formally opened in July 2002. A  modestly-sized arbour or gazebo had been erected, and on 6 September 2012 a memorial shelter, which displayed historical images, was also opened.

The garden of remembrance, usually popularly referred to as the 'Japanese Peace Garden',  was officially named Sakura ("Cherry Blossom") Garden in 2016. 

Two  other memorial items remain to be mentioned. On  8 December 1996, a plaque dedicated to the memory of Private Walter Pevin was unveiled ("Private Walter Pelvin / No. 496685 HD N.Z.T.S. / died 28.2.1943 / As a result of injuries received on duty / during the disturbance at the POW camp, / Featherston on 25th February 1943"). And in one corner of the grounds is a Gallipoli Lone Pine descendant with an accompanying plaque:  "Gallipoli Medallion / Aleppo Pine (Pinus Brutia) / Hellensis / Descendant Lone Pine / on Gallipoli / Obtained / Melbourne Garden of Memories."

Sources (listed in chronological order of publication): C.J. Carle, Gateway to the Wairarapa, Featherston, 1957, pp. 123-32; 'Featherston and its twin', Featherston Chronicle, 5/5/1975, pp. 6, 13; 'Featherston's Camp memorial', Featherston Chronicle, 29/1/1979, p. 13; 'Featherston's military camp memorial', Featherston Chronicle, 26/3/1979, p. 12; 'Unveiling of memorial', Featherston Chronicle, 7/5/1979, p. 6; Owen Sanders, Incident at Featherston, Auckland, 1990, p. 51; Denis Welch, 'Disputed ground', NZ Listener, 16/9/1995, p. 24-6; Mike Nikolaidi, The Featherston Chronicles: A Legacy of War, Auckland, 1999; David Yerex, Featherston, the First 150 years, 1857-2007, Featherston, 2007, pp. 117-21, 170-2; Yukiko Numata Bedford, 'The "Peace Gardens", Featherston, South Wairarapa and the Chor-Farmer', Environment & Nature, vol. 5, no. 2, December 2010, pp. 16-30; Neil Frances, 'Walking on Featherston Camp', The Volunteers, vol. 36, no. 3, March 2011, pp. 155-62; Neil Frances, Safe Haven: The Untold Story of New Zealand's Largest Ever Military Camp, Featherston, 1916-1919, Masterton, 2012, pp. 163-4, facing p. 152; Tim Shoebridge, Featherston Military Training Camp and the First World War, 1915-27, [print edition] Wellington, 2012, pp. 48-50; Yasuhiro Ota, Shooting and Friendship over Japanese Prisoners of War,  Massey University, Palmerston North, MA thesis, 2013; Matt Philp, 'A safe haven', Heritage New Zealand, no. 133, Winter 2014, pp. 20-3; Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge, New Zealand's First World War Heritage, Auckland, 2015, pp. 48-51, 62-5, 75; 'Mayor surprises top choir', Wairarapa Times-Age, 11/9/2016 [hard copy 13/9/2016, p. 5].

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