(Wairarapa Times-Age)

1 May 1999






A view from inside the wire

(Fhe Featherston Chronicles)THE fullest account yet published on a Japanese prisoner-of-war mutiny which left 48 Japanese dead, many more wounded, and a New Zealand soldier dead in Featherston on February 25, 1943, has just been published.

Written by Feilding journalist Mike Nicolaidi, the book, titled The Featherston Chronicles, A Legacy of War, is well-researched, very readable and a valuable historical account of an unique incident on New Zealand soil. But Times-Age chief reporter DON FARMER, whose father was one of a handful of New Zealand guards put “inside the wire” to bring to heel 240 rebellious and suicidal prisoners, contends the book should really be read along with two others – Hirohito,by Edward Behr and The Railway Man, by Eric Lomax – to fully appreciate what might have been in the minds of men involved in a deadly “incident” 56 years ago.


(Inside the camp)

(ABOVE: FORCED idleness for Japanese prisoners who didn’t take kindly to being asked to make up work parties for work outside the camp)

SEVERAL conclusions can easily be drawn from reading The Featherston Chronicles.

Accepting that Mike Nicolaidi’s archival research is accurate, it’s clear three factors can be identified as primary causes for 49 very preventable deaths inside No 2 compound that brilliantly fine summer’s day – inexperienced, indecisive and bumbling officers, a trigger-happy machine- gunner and arrogance.

The bumbling officers and the machine-gunner were ours but the arrogance belonged to the Japanese.

What will not be gained from reading the new book in isolation, is any perception of what would have happened to New Zealand soldiers had the boot been on the other foot.

What would have happened had hundreds of New Zealand prisoners-of-war sat down and refused, hour after hour, to go to work for the Japanese.

Nicolaidi has been circumspect or politically correct enough to largely skirt that issue.

To get that sort of insight, The Featherston Chronicles should be put alongside The Railway Man, Englishman Eric Lomax’s chilling account of the treatment of Allied prisoners forced to work on the Burma-Siam railway.

Nicolaidi’s book likewise does not explore to any great depth the Japanese psyche which existed during the war years, and which some people would say hasn’t changed to any noticeable extent since the end of hostilities.

For that, it’s necessary to read Hirohito, by Edward Behr, an excellent account of a race of people who in the 1940s staunchly believed there were two types of human beings – the glorious Japanese and everyone else.

Nicolaidi flirts briefly with this by acknowledging that the Japanese prisoners in Featherston, especially the “ fighting men” captured at Guadacanal, considered themselves superior to the New Zealand guards.
But Behr looks searchingly into the Japanese mind and soul, coming up with startling revelations on just how superior the Japanese thought themselves to be.

This misguided sense of superiority reached ridiculous levels such as a belief that the mental processes of Japanese per se, were on a much higher plane than all other races and that the very blood that flowed through their veins was of a higher calibre than the rest of mankind.

Although several hundred prisoners held at Featherston were coolies and disinclined to cause any sort of trouble the rest were military men and far more intent on being unco-operative.

My father said many of them were openly hostile and troublesome. As battle-hardened veterans they played a hard game and if given an inch they would take a mile.

He especially sorted out Junior Lieutenant Adachi Totaro, who has become better known as Adachi Toshio, as being an agitator not liked or trusted by the guards.

Adachi Toshio was a ringleader in the stand-off over work parties which led to the slaughter of 48 of his countrymen and Private Wattie Pelvin.

Nicolaidi has been rather kinder on him saying that he was largely a man called on by his imprisoned countrymen to do their bidding.

It would seem that a fair percentage of the “fighting men” felt they were failures, having been captured, and that they had to die for the emperor to atone for their battlefield survival.

Adachi Toshio didn’t share their enthusiasm for suicide and become embroiled in emotional tugs of war which culminated in the ill-advised sit-in, and the shootings.

Adachi Toshio survived, was repatriated to Japan where he was to become a minister and later returned to Featherston on missions of remembrance and goodwill.

He was reported to be greatly disappointed when South Wairarapa District Council, after much debate and soul-searching, rejected Japanese money-driven attempts to establish a peace garden on the site and called instead for Japan to apologise for atrocities committed during the war.

(Adachi Toshio and Ken Martin)

(ABOVE: ADACHI Toshio, left, and former Lieutenant Ken Martin back together in happier circumstances in 1986. Mr Martin was one of the most able officers in the camp and was well-liked by the rank-and-file soldiers)

In the Railway Man author Eric Lomax documents Japanese cruelty at its worst.

“A hefty Japanese sergeant moved into position, lifted his pick-handle and delivered a blow across Smith’s back that would have laid out a bull. It knocked him down, but he was trodden on and kicked back into an upright position again.

“...felt myself plunging downwards into an abyss with tremendous flashes of light which burned and agonised. I could identify the periodic stamping of boots on the back of my head, crunching my face into the gravel, the crack of bones snapping, my teeth breaking.”

Two wrongs don’t make a right of course, and for this reason the shootings at the Featherston prisoner-of-war camp, taken in isolation, were needless and regrettable.

What should not be lost though is that Allied prisoners of war were treated much more harshly, indeed inhumanely by the Japanese who inflicted many more deaths on those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands than was the case in reverse.

Nicolaidi’s book contains references to the day-to-day treatment the Japanese prisoners received at Featherston, from the mouths of the prisoners themselves.They acknowledge they were well-fed and housed, and they were not physically abused.

Unlike the Featherston incident, there was no official inquiry into deaths on the Burma-Siam railway, no blame apportioned to anyone, no interest whatsoever in fair play, no concern whatsoever for decent burials or any reverence shown for the dead or their families.

In 56 years there has been no meaningful apology from the Japanese Government, no memorials to the Allied war dead along the blood-stained route.

Perhaps this would help explain to Adachi Toshio, and others, why old soldiers and students of history rose up against a “ peace garden” at Tauherenikau,which opponents feared would really only serve as a shrine to the Japanese dead.

There is no getting away from the fact that the Featherston camp hierarchy failed their own men and the Japanese prisoners miserably on February 25, 1943.

(Ken Martinand former POWs)

(ABOVE: Ken Martin points out some of the old landmarks to Adachi Toshio and other former prisoners, Kigoshi Gotoh and Sakurai Jinsaku, on the site of the prisoner-of-war camp during the Consolation of the Spirits ceremony held in 1986. Sakurai Jinsaku told author Mike Nicolaidi he was a lowly-ranked prisoner and had no clear idea how the 1943 incident had started)

Nicolaidi’s account clearly establishes that the top brass were completely flummoxed by the Japanese work refusal and the train of events which followed.

Fewer than 50 guards – some shaken from their beds having just gone off duty – were ordered into No 2 compound to try and intimidate 250 restless and surly prisoners. They were arranged in horseshoe formation around a concrete slab and machine gunners were posted on roofs looking down on the whole schemozzle.

Meanwhile officers, showing no negotiating skill at all, embarked on what could only be termed a farcical attempt to re-establish order which culminated in discharging a revolver at least once, and possibly twice at near point-blank range at Adachi Toshio.

With this the mutinous Japanese, armed with an assortment of home-made weapons and stones rose as one and charged the guards. There is some confusion over whether an order to fire was ever given, but the upshot was that the New Zealand soldiers trapped inside the wire did just that.

In less than a minute the ground was littered with Japanese dead and wounded.

Also dead was Private Wattie Pelvin, a man with a young family and a personal friend of my father.

Several guards were also wounded.

In the numbed silence after the firing had stopped, and the surviving Japanese had either fled for the safety of the huts or had thrown themselves on to the ground, a shocked young guard approached my father. “God, we were lucky,” he said.

My father, who was uninjured, agreed saying that he was not as lucky as the young soldier.

When asked why, my father replied: “Well, there’s blood streaming down the side of your face, the lobe of your ear’s been shot off.”

The death of Private Pelvin and practically all the injuries to the soldiers were caused by ricochets and many of these were put down to the shooting done by those posted on the roofs, behind the mustered Japanese prisoners, including machine-gunners.

Bullets not only rained down on the charging prisoners but bounced off the concrete slab into the line of soldiers.

Nicolaidi’s research casts doubts on whether an order was ever given to fire. He suggests, with the benefit of archival records, that an over-anxious machine-gunner, Corporal Owen may have initiated the shooting of his own accord.

Owen had a score to settle with the Japanese as his brother had been reported missing in action and was thought to have been taken prisoner.

In truth, his brother, along with 16 other New Zealanders, had been captured and executed by the Japanese on Betio Islet, part of the Tarawa Atoll, in October, 1942.

What also needs to be remembered, is that the New Zealand guards at Featherston were, in the main, rookie soldiers nowhere near as versed in the ways of war as were the prisoners they were guarding. Some of the guards were still teenagers awaiting postings overseas, and who had never seen a dead person, let alone killed anyone.

The Featherston Chronicles, A Legacy of War, makes a brave and honest attempt to document the events of a black day, but doesn’t succeed in washing away residual guilt which has built up over the years in the minds of New Zealanders.

Reading the Behr and Lomax books does that.


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