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The New Zealand Dental Services

Treatment of Enemy Aliens

page 121

Treatment of Enemy Aliens

On the outbreak of war enemy aliens were interned on Somes Island in the middle of Wellington harbour. The New Zealand Government immediately authorised free dental treatment for all internees, the work to be carried out by the NZDC. A dental officer visited the island at regular intervals doing fillings, extractions and prophylactic work, and sending the dentures to Trentham Mobilisation Camp for processing. The policy was to examine all internees every three months. It is interesting to note that reciprocity from the German Government for our nationals interned there was not given until September 1943. The following cable was received from the High Commissioner for New Zealand in London on 5 September 1943:

2067. German Government propose on reciprocal basis dental treatment for civilian internees be provided at the expense of the interning power same as for prisoners of war. United Kingdom Government agree on behalf of their own internees. Please advise whether you agree for New Zealand.


The Minister of External Affairs replied on 7 September:

No. 616. Your telegram No. 2067. We are agreeable on basis of reciprocity to provide dental treatment for civilian internees of German nationality detained in New Zealand. Indeed we would point out that this free service has been given to German nationals during the whole period of their internment.


When it is realised that the New Zealand soldiers who were guarding the internees at the beginning of the war were members of the Regular Force, and as such ineligible for free dental treatment, the Government's interpretation of its obligation to enemy aliens was generous indeed. This gratuitous concession put the Government in a strong position when it came to dealing with all the petty complaints which they expected and received. Most of the internees accepted the benefits and appeared grateful, but some refused treatment from the dental officer, demanding attention from civilians, and others considered they were entitled to and demanded dental luxuries. As far as the Dental Corps was concerned, the standard of dental fitness and the treatment offered were identical with those for the mobilised New Zealand Forces.

Among the internees was a German who had been practising as a dentist in New Zealand before the war. He asked the Camp Commandant to allow him to have his dental engine with him so that he could work in the camp. At first sight this appeared reasonable and the Commandant granted it, providing no liability was incurred against the Army. It is unfortunate that the request was page 122 not more carefully examined as it led to arguments and incidents which might have been avoided. At the instigation of the DDS the permission was withdrawn for reasons given in the following memorandum from the Adjutant-General to the Minister of Defence:

The policy at present is for dental attention to be provided by the Army dental section to all internees who require it, on the same scale and up to the same standard as that given to personnel of the armed forces.

If permission were granted for the use of this dental engine, it would lead to requests for further equipment, instruments and stores which would involve the Government in an expense which is not justified. The amount of extra equipment which would be involved before an adequate service could be provided would be considerably more than the dental engine now asked for.

It is understood that there are other dentists on the island and there may conceivably be more in the future, all of whom would have equal claims to consideration, which, if not granted, would lead to a plea of favouritism.

Lastly, if the use of private equipment were allowed, a claim for deterioration on account of wear and tear would undoubtedly be made against the Government at a later date.

It is therefore recommended that the application be declined. The DGMS and the DDS are in agreement.

This was written in May 1941 but did not finish the matter as a further application was made in March 1942 through the consul for Switzerland, quoting an extract from Article 14 (Prisoners of War) of the Geneva Convention:

It shall be permissible for belligerents mutually to authorise each other, by means of special agreements, to retain in the camps doctors and medical orderlies for the purpose of caring for their prisoner compatriots.

Legal advice was sought on this point. The legal opinion was that, considering there was a very complete service provided by the NZDC, this Article did not create any duty to allow the applicant to treat German internees, who incidentally were only in a bare majority. Apart from the legal opinion, an incident had already occurred which showed the inadvisability of granting the application. Just before being deprived of his instruments, the German dentist had extracted all the upper teeth from an Italian internee who had complained of a vague pain in the incisor region. The dental officer had seen the Italian a month before and had signed him as dentally fit. Apart from being a breach of customary ethics, which mattered little under the circumstances, the dentist's action placed the Army under an obligation to provide a full upper denture where one should not have been needed. Permission was therefore again refused. A further offer of assistance from the same source in May 1943 was declined with thanks, the applicant being told that the NZDC was fully organised and adequate to carry out all necessary treatment.

page 123

In February 1943 the internees, about 180 in number, were moved to a camp on the Pahiatua Racecourse in the Wairarapa district because, with the possibility of enemy attack on New Zealand, Somes Island would probably come under fire. An NZDC section was deployed for their use. Occasional visits from this section should have been enough to satisfy any reasonable demands but the internees decided to be difficult. Representations were made by both the delegate of the International Red Cross and Dr Schmid, representative of the protecting power, that a local dentist should attend the camp to undertake special work, such as gold fillings, at the internees' expense. This class of work was not authorised for the New Zealand Forces, but in this case the request was granted on the understanding that the private practitioner should do only that work recommended by the officer commanding the dental section. The privilege was abused and unauthorised work was done.

It was therefore decided that the NZDC section should remain permanently in the camp and undertake all classes of work, which could be done with equal skill and much more expeditiously. The decision as to whether special work was necessary was left to the dental officer, with the right of appeal to the DDS.

This was a considerable concession and placed the internees on a better footing than our own men, who had to pay for special work, as it was considered impossible to implement the decision without providing all materials free. There were still some grumblers but, after explanation by the consul for Switzerland and the German camp leader, nothing further was heard of the matter.

In late 1944 the internees were returned to Somes Island as it was considered by the Chiefs of Staff that the danger of attack had sufficiently diminished. The responsibility for treatment then rested with the officer commanding the dental section at Fort Dorset who visited the island once a month.

In the various reports from the dental officers who examined and treated the internees are some interesting observations on dental conditions and peculiarities. They are insufficient to form scientific conclusions but are worthy of study.

14 February 1941: I personally carried out a dental examination of internees and in no instance was it considered that dental treatment was urgent. A number of chronic conditions was found, being, it is estimated of some years standing. The general cleanliness of the mouths was bad, the Italians on the whole worse than the Germans.

8 January 1942: The oral condition of the Japanese was very bad and apparently no attempt had ever been made at mouth hygiene. Practically everyone who did not require full extractions, required very extensive scaling and prophylactic treatment.

13 May 1942: The oral condition of the Japanese, while showing improvement, still leaves much to be desired.

page 124

30 August 1942: … the oral hygiene of the Italians is not as good as it should be. Nearly half the fillings were for the Germans of the older age group while the percentage of fillings required by the Japanese is small. The Italians without exception dislike dentures and every endeavour has been made to save teeth so that dentures can be avoided. Local anaesthesia is used extensively for conservative work.

Racial characteristics have to be taken into consideration when doing prosthetic work. In particular the best results have been obtained with Germans when the setting up is such that a sliding protrusive movement of the lower jaw is easily made. These internees appear to make that movement the test of comfort in a denture, even though better aesthetic, and just as good functional results, could be obtained with a slight overbite.

All the internees who have had dentures inserted express satisfaction with the results.

8 December 1942: It would appear that oral hygiene of German and Italian internees leaves much to be desired but that of the Japanese is quite good.

The improvement in the oral condition of the Japanese may have been due to the instructions given by the dental officer to their leader, who spoke fluent English. The philosopher might draw conclusions from these reports. The German with his practical outlook demanding mechanical efficiency even at the expense of aesthetic design. The mimicry of the Japanese in his ready adaptation to new conditions, exemplified by his effort to improve his oral hygiene. The laissez faire of the Latin, or should it be status quo?

When Japanese prisoners of war began to arrive in New Zealand they were given the same generous treatment. They were in camp at Featherson in the Wairarapa and were provided with an NZDC dental section as a matter of course, which is in marked contrast to the service received by our prisoners of war in Germany, Italy and Japan. (See Chapter 32.)