The army camp established outside Featherston for training First World War recruits took on a very different nature in the Second World War. More than 800 Japanese prisoners of war were held in the camp, and when some refused to work, conflict broke out. Guards opened fire, and 48 prisoners and a guard died.
Archival audio: Excerpt from 'Promises to Keep', by Wild Geese
Narrator: During World War One, the first job for new recruits arriving at Featherston’s army camp was picking up rocks. They had to move big, round, river stones left behind by the Tauherenīkau River as it meandered across the South Wairarapa.
This arduous, backbreaking job is recalled in the river memorial on Featherston’s main street, one of New Zealand’s more distinctive war memorials. In spring, it is enlivened by the blossoms of the cherry trees planted around it.
Two kilometres north of the town, a less obvious roadside memorial marks the site of the Featherston camp. A faded noticeboard, almost hidden by flax bushes, tells us that up to 8000 troops lived here during training before leaving for the war. At the end of the eight weeks’ basic training, the recruits’ route-marched across the Rimutaka Range to Wellington, where they embarked for service overseas.
The camp hardened men for the rigours of war. But the closeness of their accommodation led to disease. Influenza and meningitis outbreaks claimed a number of lives.
Near the roadside memorial, there is an inscription on a small plaque:
Behold the summer grass
All that remains
Of the dreams of warriors
Narrator: This Japanese-style inscription is a reminder of a very different sort of camp that existed here during the Second World War. Over 800 Japanese prisoners of war were held in the old Featherston army camp.
The Japanese were made to work growing vegetables, making furniture, running a jute mill and a piggery as well as shifting rocks. To the Japanese, however, capture and internment meant a ‘loss of face’. Being made to work added to their humiliation.
In February 1943, the Japanese refused to work and instead congregated within the prison compound. Armed guards trained rifles and machine guns on the discontented group. The senior officer of the Japanese prisoners, Lieutenant Commander Adachi, did little to help resolve the impasse. When the New Zealand soldier in charge shot Adachi in the shoulder, the Japanese prisoners rushed the guards, who, in turn, opened fire.
When the shooting stopped, 48 Japanese prisoners lay dead and a further 74 were injured. One of the New Zealand guards received severe injuries during the incident and died a few days later. Another small memorial in the roadside reserve remembers Private Walter Pelvin.
Though it was a major event, the riot never made the news due to the strict press censorship that was in effect during wartime. A later inquiry attributed the cause to cultural misunderstanding. The Japanese apparently did not understand their obligation to work, and the New Zealand authorities had not made the text of the Geneva Convention available in the camp.
There was much ill-feeling towards the Japanese amongst New Zealanders during World War Two. New Zealand feared invasion from their enemy. And Kiwi troops taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Pacific were made to work like slaves on arduous projects such as building railways. With little food and regular beatings, these men often laboured until they dropped dead.
More than half a century after the war, little sign remains of the Featherston camp. Yet in in the 1980s, the creation of this roadside memorial reserve led to reconciliation with the Japanese, and a memorial to the slain prisoners. Forty-eight flowering cherry trees stand in a grid, creating a garden of remembrance, each tree marking a Japanese prisoner who died.
Archival audio: Excerpt from 'Promises to Keep' by Wild Geese