A Japanese work party with armed guard outside the Featherston POW Camp [circa 1945]. PHOTO/FEATHERSTON HERITAGE MUSEUM COLLECTION
A new film that aims to tell the full story of what has become known as the ‘Featherston Incident’ at the town’s World War II prisoner of war camp is in its formative stages.
Wairarapa war historian Neil Frances and film-maker Allan Honey are teaming up to make a doco-drama that captures what life was like at the camp.
It’s the second time the pair have joined forces to tell stories of the past. They collaborated in the making of 2016 documentary ‘March On’.
It looked at what life was like for soldiers training for duty in World War I at the Featherston Military Training Camp.
Honey, a video editor by trade, said he felt ‘March On’ needed a sequel but hoped his latest project would have a far wider reach.
He aims to secure funding to ensure the film is made to a high standard and released country-wide.
Honey and Frances are still in the research phase and at this point can’t say when the film will be made.
Getting the story as accurate as possible is the men’s top goal.
Through dramatic re-enactments, the film will portray the day in 1943 when 48 Japanese prisoners and a Kiwi guard lost their lives.
Honey said more than 100 people were shot and injured in the riot on February 25.
“The camp commandant was ex-WWI – he’d been injured quite badly, he was a career soldier and very old school.
“In the days before the incident he’d asked the Japanese to supply 30 men to do work details, but the Japanese refused.
“On the day of the incident he asked for 105 men – I guess to sort of show them who was in charge.”
The 250 Japanese prisoners of Compound 2 refused to work.
As tensions rose, the camp adjutant fired a warning shot with his pistol and “at that point, the Japanese started throwing stones and rushed towards the guards, who had rifles and machine-guns”.
“There was no order to fire but obviously some of the guards panicked and 22 seconds later there were over 100 wounded, of which 48 afterwards died,” Honey said.
Frances said he wanted the film to capture the wider sense of what life was like for those living and working at the camp.
“A lot of people have heard about the shootings, but the rest of camp life was far less violent and in actual fact, one of the things I have found fascinating is when they were leaving in late 1945, and when they had returned to Japan, many prisoners sent letters and messages of thanks to NZ authorities saying how well they were looked after and treated.”
The camp was established at the request of the United States, in September 1942, on the site where the military training camp once was.
The first contingent of prisoners included about 450 Japanese engineers.
Shortly after, about 250 Japanese naval personnel were captured, shipped to NZ, and put into Compound 2 at the camp.
The prisoners were responsible for helping build the camp, and were sent out on work parties, which included clearing rocks, gorse, and roadworks.
The camp had only been established for about five months when the “incident” occurred.
Honey and Francis have been reading through the hefty army investigation report into the riot, and they’ve had access to the diaries “of what was happening at the camp on a day to day basis”, which were kept by the camp administration staff.
Featherston Heritage Museum is also helping with the men’s research.
Honey and Frances invite anyone with information, photos, anecdotes or stories of the Featherston POW Camp to join them at the Wairarapa Archive on Thursday, August 9 at 10am.