Last weekend was the 80th anniversary of the ‘Featherston Incident’. FLYNN NICHOLLS sat down with Mark Pacey to explain the history of New Zealand’s only prisoner-of-war camp in WWII.
Wairarapa Archive historian and archivist Mark Pacey has spent the past five years researching the Featherston POW camp.
He intends to publish a book on the camp’s history next year because – while the riot that led to the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners of war and one New Zealand guard has been well-documented – its entire story has been neglected,
“I have hundreds of files relating to the camp, thousands of pages; I pretty much spend my holidays at the archive in Wellington,” Pacey said.
“I have some amazing materials, including photos sent by the granddaughter of one of the prisoners – she sent a photo of her grandfather and a photo of the ship he served on.
Tensions escalated in the lead-up to the riot because while the guards expected the prisoners to work, the Japanese army code of conduct instructed soldiers to be defiant even after capture, Pacey explained.
The field service code for the Japanese army, called Senjinkun, was distributed to every soldier.
A translation of the ‘honour’ section reads as follows:
“Meet the expectations of your family and home community by making effort upon effort, always mindful of the honour of your name.
“If alive, do not suffer the disgrace of becoming a prisoner; in death, do not leave behind a name soiled by misdeeds.”
Pacey said there was also another line directing soldiers not to do anything to id the enemy.
The first prisoners to arrive at the camp were not Japanese soldiers but Asian labourers and engineers taken from areas
under Japanese occupation.
They were captured by American soldiers while building an airfield in the Solomon Islands’ Guadalcanal in and arrived in Featherston in late 1942.
The Japanese officers and soldiers came between late 1942 and early 1943.
Over 800 prisoners were interred at the camp over the course of the war, of whom about 240 were Japanese soldiers.
The soldiers were much more formidable than the labourers and engineers and were resolutely anti-work, which Pacey speculated was related to their perception that – after the humiliation of being taken prisoner – working would assist the enemy.
Meanwhile, the local guards expected all the prisoners to work because compulsory work was permitted in the 1929 Prisoner of War convention.
But the soldiers refused and staged a sit-down protest, which is when things escalated.
On February 25, 1943, a riot broke out and the guards opened fire, resulting in the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners of war
and one New Zealand guard.
A further 63 prisoners were wounded.
But Pacey said that after the boiling point of “the incident”, things settled down at the camp for the remainder of the war.
A few prisoners converted to Christianity, and others worked in market gardens in Greytown.
They developed more of a relationship with the New Zealand guards and wanted to trade with them for goods like cigarettes.
Because the prisoners had nothing to trade with, they used wood offcuts and nails from the camp workshop – where they produced furniture, concrete kerbstones, and fireplaces – to make carvings for trading, including walking sticks.
Pacey has acquired some of the carved items for his personal collection, and there are several more examples in Featherston Heritage Museum.
“They would have taken hours and hours to make, maybe scratched out with a nail,” he said.
“Some of them have a paua inlay.
“I sometimes buy these things on TradeMe, but if I ever leave Wairarapa, these things will stay. I always want to bring these things back here.”
In the decades after the war, many former prisoners returned to Featherston with their families.
“I haven’t heard about that happening anywhere else.
“It’s quite unique to Featherston, and I think it shows the camp’s lasting impression on some of the prisoners,” Pacey said.
Acting Japanese ambassador Tatsushi Nishoka, speaking at last weekend’s 80th-anniversary commemoration, said Japan and New Zealand have made important steps towards reconciliation since WWII.
“The Memorial Garden no longer symbolises the tragedy that occurred 80 years ago,” he said, “but instead serves as a reminder of the progress towards reconciliation and appreciation that both Japanese and New Zealand people have made together.”