The Dominion Post
POWdeaths still stir debate 70 years on
WHAT happened at the Featherston prisoner of war camp on February 25, 1943, remains an emotive subject for many people even today.
Details of the 48 Japanese prisoners’ deaths were censored at the time and it is a deeply controversial moment in Wellington history.
The government opened the camp in September 1942 at the request of the United States military, to house prisoners captured in the Pacific Islands. About 800 Japanese soldiers were held at the camp and put to work in the fields.
They had been brought up in a militaristic society driven by concepts of honour and shame, and surrender was utterly humiliating for many of them. Some considered ritual suicide, or fighting back and breaking out of the camp. However, compared with allied servicemen in Japanese prison camps, their treatment was enviable.
The location of the Featherston camp was censored, but an Evening Post reporter was allowed to visit in December 1942. He reported that prisoners were well treated and well fed, but were afraid to be photographed. They met most of the work with a simple ‘‘Shikata ga nai’’ – ‘‘There’s nothing to be done.’’
‘‘Those in charge have little difficulty in maintaining control ... these men are well behaved and content with their lot.’’
That glowing report was shown to be deeply flawed just two months later.
Exactly what happened on February 25 is unlikely ever to become clear. The official version was that about 240 prisoners, led by Toshio Adachi, staged a sit-in and refused to work. Adachi was refused a conference with camp commander Lieutenant Colonel Donald Donaldson and, when guards tried to seize him, the other prisoners started throwing stones.
Adachi was wounded by a warning shot, and prisoners rushed at the guards, who then opened fire.
Thirty seconds later, 31 Japanese were dead, with 17 later dying of their wounds. A further 74 were injured. One New Zealander was killed and six wounded.
The government covered up the details. A simple statement was released on March 1, direct from prime minister Peter Fraser.
‘‘Jap prisoners riot,’’ The Evening Post read. It does not appear to have asked many questions of the official version. ‘‘The unfortunate results are to be regretted, but in the circumstances firm action on the part of the guards was necessary to quell the riot and restore order. None of the prisoners of war escaped.’’
On March 3, Fraser told the press that the Red Cross had been allowed to visit the camp, and pronounced the conditions normal. An official court of inquiry later exonerated the New Zealanders.
The incident remains controversial, as does commemoration of the site. Cherry trees planted by a Japanese businessman there in 2001 were ripped up.
In 2013, Massey University lecturer Jim Veitch suggested the incident may have been the fault of the New Zealanders and the Government could do more to set the record straight, triggering an angry backand-forth on the letters pages of The Dominion Post. The Dominion Post – 150 Years of News is available via dompost.co.nz or 0800 50 50 90. Priced at $34.95 + $3 postage and handling or $29.95 + $3 p&h for subscribers.