THE most hushed up wartime incident to occur on New Zealand soil happened 74 years ago today. At least three Gisborne men were there but they are no longer around to tell their tale. Not that they seemed to ever have talked much about the mass shooting of Japanese prisoners at the Featherston prisoner of war camp.
The Featherston story began with the capture of 800 Japanese soldiers and labourers in the South Pacific in 1942. The prisoners were interned in a hastily converted World War One military training camp.
Many of the guards were men who were ineligible for overseas service due to medical reasons or because they were too old or too young.
They could have little idea that instilled in the Japanese prisoners’ minds was the belief it was deeply shameful to work for the enemy.
On February 25, 1943, a sit-down protest by 240 Japanese military prisoners at the camp turned into a riot. The official account of events is that when the camp’s adjutant fired a warning shot above the mutinous prisoners’ heads, the prisoners, armed with stones, flattened nails and metal stars known as shuriken, rose up in rebellion.
The guards fired on them.
In less than a minute, 31 Japanese prisoners lay dead and 91 were wounded. Over the next few days, another 19 prisoners died of their wounds.
A military court of enquiry found cultural differences in the camp which led to the prisoners’ rebellion and the shooting. Wartime censorship suppressed news of the tragedy.
The military’s rationale was that news of the incident would jeopardise the safety of allied PoWs even more.
“It is difficult to think of two peoples less prepared for each other personally than New Zealanders and Japanese in the 1940s,” writes Shuriken playwright Vincent O’Sullivan.
His play is based on the incident he says was still hush-hush by 1983 when he completed the script.
Even as an adult, Gisborne woman Thelma Ratapu did not know her brother Clifford Wesche had been a guard at Featherston until her niece explored the family tree and told her.
Thelma was about 12-years-old when her brother was posted as a guard to the PoW camp. Clifford had previously worked on Mokomoko station in Tokomaru Bay.
So Thelma didn’t understand when her sister told her Clifford had been in a prisoner of war camp.
“My niece said Uncle Cliff was put in a Japanese jail. I said he can’t have been. He wasn’t in Japan at the time.”
Some years later, Mrs Ratapu’s partner told her there had been a kerfuffle at the camp.
“I said it was probably my brother boozing. I said if he was thrown in jail, it serves him right.”
She thinks he might have been a bit of a dag.
A military record of Clifford’s behaviour shows between May and August, 1942, he took a lot of sick leave. On August 26 he was “marched out to Area 7 Pool on farming leave without pay.”
Five months later he was posted to the Featherston PoW camp.
That was January. Presumably he was at the camp on February 25, 1943.
Ironically, in October, he was charged with “disobeying lawful command”, and fined.
Former Gisborne district RSA president, Brian Emerson believes his brother Reg was a private in the territorials or the home guard but he is not sure.
“I never found out a hell of a lot.”
What he does know is that by February that hot summer in 1943, Reg was a guard at the PoW camp.
“I used to think about what happened there when I did training camp in about 54 or 55 at Featherston. There were still some of the old buildings there. Even now you can see the concrete foundations of the buildings.”
His brother Reg recalled the incident once, but in few words.
“He said it was a bloody slaughter.”
O’Sullivan’s play closes with the reading of a haiku by 17th century Japanese poet Basho. The haiku is also inscribed on a commemoration plaque at the Featherston site.
Behold the summer grass
All that remains
Of the dreams of warriors.