February 1943: This month last century

70 years ago, 48 Japanese prisoners of war are killed during a riot at the Featherston prisoner of war camp (25 February 1943)

From 1942, Japanese prisoners of war were brought to New Zealand and interned at the camp at Featherston, in the Wairarapa. This camp had previously been used as a military training camp during WWI.

Carved and painted wooden model of an alligator. 1945, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Purchased 2012. Te Papa

Carved and painted wooden model of an alligator. 1945, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Purchased 2012. Te Papa

The carved alligator (above) was made by an unknown prisoner at one of the camp’s so-called ‘hobby huts’. The other item (shown below) is an example of one of the tokens used at the camp. These tokens, plus craftwork made and bartered by the prisoners, were used to procure goods, as legal currency was not permitted in the camp.

Internment Camp token, Five Shillings. 1941 - 1945, Australia. R. Arendeen & Sons Pty Ltd. Gift of the New Zealand Army, 1946. Te Papa

Internment Camp token, Five Shillings. 1941 – 1945, Australia. R. Arendeen & Sons Pty Ltd. Gift of the New Zealand Army, 1946. Te Papa

The Japanese prisoners also had to work for ‘the enemy’ while they were incarcerated. This included vegetable-growing, furniture-making and shifting rocks. This work caused some prisoners considerable shame. On 25 February 1943, around 240 of them staged a sit down strike to protest against being made to work.

In the confusion and rioting that followed, prisoners began throwing stones and guards opened fire. As a result 48 Japanese prisoners and a New Zealand guard were killed. The other New Zealand guards were absolved of any wrong-doing at a military enquiry the following month. The court’s finding were not accepted by the Japanese Government.

This fatal event occurred when Japan was depicted as a threatening enemy in popular culture and print media (see poster below). However, war-time censorship and fears of retaliation helped to keep news of the clash from being widely circulated in the press.

Poster, ’The Rising Sun Must Set’, 1942, Wellington. New Zealand National Savings Committee. Gift of Mr C H Andrews, 1967. Te Papa

Poster, ’The Rising Sun Must Set’, 1942, Wellington. New Zealand National Savings Committee. Gift of Mr C H Andrews, 1967. Te Papa

Go to Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand for further details about the 1943 incident at Featherston

Read more about the New Zealand home front during World War Two on the Slice of Heaven website

5 Responses

  1. Adele

    if you can visit the site of the camp in NZ Spring, you will see the lovely flowering cherry trees in blossom. .its beautiful, worth sitting there and rest awhile thinking of history.

    Reply
  2. Adele

    I was down at the Japanese Peace Garden the other week.. flowering cherry trees, lovely when in bloom! Then went on to the Heritage Museum in Featherston to show visitors to the area, what they had for both WW1 and WW2. Photographs of this area on my computer! Well worth viewing the Heritage Museum.. Highly recommended.

    Reply
    • Kirstie Ross

      Thanks for your comment Adele. Yes – visitors to the Wairarapa can see some interesting displays related to the world wars at Featherston’s Heritage Museum.

      Kirstie

    • Adele

      I had visitors to Carterton the other week, and we did Heritage Museum at Featherston. they appreciated being shown what we have to offer around the Valley… they have some treasures in this museum, and all my work on WW1 soldiers will end up with them, am researching the back ground of the soldiers, have some lovely information on some of them..

    • Adele

      they also have items from the Japanese Camp… items prisoners made etc..

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