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.
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.
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.
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