Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Prisoners of War

V: Japanese Prisoners of War in New Zealand

V: Japanese Prisoners of War in New Zealand

Following the Allied landing at Guadalcanal and the subsequent actions against Japanese forces in the Solomons, some 800 Japanese prisoners captured on land or picked up at sea were brought to New Zealand. A camp to accommodate them was established at Featherston in September 1942 and the first batch of prisoners page 357 arrived shortly afterwards. The site of the camp was the piece of land used as a military training camp during the First World War, where an area of 60 acres was now enclosed by barbed wire. At first there was practically no accommodation other than tents, but the onset of spring weather alleviated any discomfort which might have resulted from this, and by March 1943 a good number of wooden huts were ready for occupation. There were also mess huts, shower huts, and covered latrines, and all the barracks were described by a neutral observer as ‘airy and well-lit’.

Each prisoner was allowed five blankets and a full set of clothing, including an extra pair of trousers. Food was prepared by the prisoners' own cooks and included a daily ration of as much as six ounces of meat or fish, four ounces (later ten ounces) of rice, and twelve ounces of bread, as well as fresh milk, butter and fresh fruit. Many of the men arrived suffering from tropical and deficiency diseases, but after a few months in the camp many showed a gain in weight and nearly all a general improvement in health. There was full provision for medical, dental, and optical examination, and all medicines, dental work, and spectacles were supplied as needed. Most of the prisoners were required to work at camp duties, including clearing gorse and levelling, for which they were not paid, and at first 57 only were engaged on remunerative work, making concrete building blocks or cultivating vegetables. The latter were paid at the rates agreed by the Commonwealth governments for payment to German prisoners. Those who did camp duties only usually had their afternoons free and spent this and their other leisure hours playing outdoor sports, sketching and carving, beautifying the entrances to their huts, or playing Japanese card games. Although they had ample opportunity to write and send off letters, nobody availed himself of this privilege for fear that he might make an ‘unfavourable impression’ on his family.

Of the 600 to 700 prisoners, some 500 (No. 1 Compound) were members of work units of the Imperial Japanese Army; the remainder (No. 3 Compound, later No. 2 Compound) consisted of eight naval officers and a number of naval ratings, and regulars of the Japanese Army and Air Force. The former had created from the first practically no disciplinary problems. But the latter had on occasions disobeyed orders regarding hours of work and had even made difficulties about supplying a working party, had deliberately allowed their compound to become untidy, and had several times given evidence of insubordinate behaviour and even of concocting schemes for overpowering the guard. But such behaviour was not greatly dissimilar from that of many New Zealanders and other British prisoners in Europe. Moreover, the prisoners had in December 1942 voiced their appreciation of their food, accommodation, and page 358 general treatment to a neutral inspector, who had reported on the same occasion that relations between the prisoners and their guards were very satisfactory. The situation, therefore, seemed most unlikely to give rise to any incident as serious as that which took place on 25 February 1943.

It can be safely said that the New Zealand authorities responsible for Japanese prisoners of war at Featherston adhered strictly to the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929. In fact, in matters of general treatment and discipline they erred on the side of generosity towards the prisoners, in a way that would be normal in the treatment by the New Zealand authorities of their own depot troops. No immediate drastic action was taken, therefore, when on the morning of 25 February 1943 a working party from the compound containing naval and regular army prisoners, which had been ordered the night before, refused to parade for the New Zealand duty officer until an interview had been granted with the camp commandant. There was at first merely some parleying and repeated orders by the adjutant of the camp for the men to parade for work, and for two Japanese officers who had got into the men's compound to leave. All these were met by refusals, accompanied as time wore on by unconcealed amusement on the part of the prisoners. About 10.30 a.m., nearly two hours after the first act of disobedience, the orders became ultimatums, but threats by the camp authorities merely received the reply that force would be met with force. One of the Japanese officers having been forcibly removed, the adjutant threatened the remaining one with his revolver, fired a shot near him and then fired again, wounding him in the shoulder. There was immediately a shower of stones and other missiles from among the 240 or so prisoners, and a concerted rush towards the 34 armed men of the guard who were by this time in the compound. The latter opened fire when the nearest prisoner was seven yards away and the burst went on for 15 to 20 seconds. When it became possible to estimate the casualties, it was found that 48 Japanese had lost their lives and 74 had been wounded. One of the New Zealand guards died in hospital and six others were less seriously wounded as a result of ricochets.

In the subsequent investigations a number of hammers, meat forks, spanners, chisels, knives, and some implements improvised from sticks and nails—a secret collection with counterparts in hundreds of prisoner-of-war camps in Europe—were found in the possession of the Japanese prisoners. They were no doubt ready to be used as occasion demanded, and would perhaps have been used on the occasion described if it had been possible. It seems doubtful, however, whether the two Japanese officers who were considered responsible for the prisoners' resistance to authority page 359 would have instigated anything so futile as a mutiny backed by such crude weapons against the rifles and automatics of the guards.

A court of inquiry which met five days later to report fully on these happenings found that they arose from the failure of Japanese fighting personnel to appreciate the provisions of the Prisoners of War Convention1 relating to compulsory work, from a mutual misunderstanding between prisoners and guards based on differences in language and mental outlook, and from the desire of these fighting troops (backed up by two Japanese officers and several NCOs) to continue the fight against their enemies. It should be remembered that among British prisoners in Axis hands the last two of these factors were usually present, but not the first, failure to understand the obligation to work being replaced in their case by determination to give as much trouble as possible to the enemy enforcing it.

Details of the incident were communicated to the Japanese Government, and a report of the proceedings of the court of inquiry was later forwarded. Subsequent exchanges with the Japanese Government consisted, on their part, of protests concerning the incident and rejections of the findings of the court of inquiry, and on our part, of repudiations of these protests, which at the same time drew attention to examples of flagrant disregard of humanity and international law by the Japanese in their treatment of Allied prisoners of war. It was feared that severe reprisals might be taken by the Japanese on New Zealand prisoners in their hands. But although the incident was brought to the notice of camps in which our men were held,2 the only repercussions seem to have been that it provided Japanese guards with yet another pretext for making discipline for a time more severe and punishments for trivialities more harsh.

Meanwhile the New Zealand authorities continued to be meticulous in their observance of the Prisoners of War Convention and to supply the Japanese prisoners at Featherston with every amenity. The diet was improved still further from the Japanese point of view by the addition of fish and of more materials for seasoning, and the quantity remained such that some could not eat all their ration. Although the canteen received the same scale of allocation as other military canteens, its chocolate, biscuits, cigarettes, and toilet soap were quickly sold out to the prisoners, who were now page 360 earning more money. All prisoners were accommodated in wooden huts holding eight at a maximum, their recreation barracks were improved, sports grounds were made, and officers' quarters were equipped with easy chairs. Even men who were undergoing detention for breaches of discipline were confined in ‘new, comfortable detention quarters’ and assured a neutral inspector that they were being well treated. The hospital was fitted with the most up-to-date equipment, including an X-ray plant and an operating theatre, and prisoners received, in addition to routine medical and surgical attention, bone and skin grafts, orthopaedic treatment, and electrical and Swedish massage. A fulltime doctor and dentist attended to the needs of the sick, who received if necessary extra fresh milk and eggs. The prisoners were issued with two sets of uniform, those doing dirty work were able to draw still further items, and all prisoners could exchange any worn garments for a new one. They were able to buy slippers, wristlet watches, drawing materials, fountain pens, pictorial magazines and trinkets.

True, they were obliged to work for a maximum of 33 hours a week, but some of the work, in the joinery for example, was so congenial that it became difficult to make the prisoners stop work at the end of the day. Another popular form of work was market gardening at Greytown, where shelter sheds were built to protect them from the elements and to provide facilities for making morning and afternoon tea. Further parties worked at camp construction, pig farming, loading river gravel, making concrete blocks and (later) fireplaces, jute winding and stone crushing. At their request face-masks and sunglasses were provided to protect the workers from dust and sun. Naval and regular army prisoners, who had at first refused any work other than camp fatigues, were persuaded by mid-1943 to accept these paid occupations, although two whose consciences would not let them do so were allowed to work, one as an officer's batman and the other making wooden sandals for his fellow prisoners.

Reports by a neutral observer mention the ‘mental suffering’ of the prisoners, and there is no doubt that the end of the war seemed to hold little hope for these men, more particularly if it resulted in a victory for Japan. Since they had surrendered, they could expect no consideration from the Japanese authorities; to their country and to their families, they were ‘dead’. Four men had to be kept under special observation for a considerable time to prevent their converting this fiction into fact by committing hara-kiri, and there was a comparatively high proportion of mental cases in the camp, although some were only temporarily affected. Everything possible was done to distract them from the hardships of their captivity. They received 500 dictionaries, as well as books from the New page 361 Zealand Red Cross Society and from the Army Education Service. A New Zealand chaplain held lessons in English and a class for prospective converts to Christianity. They were supplied with cards and mah-jongg sets, ping-pong table, wrestling ring, sports grounds and equipment, radio and cinema shows. There was a fortnight's holiday from work at Christmas and a supply of ice cream to cheer them at New Year. By September 1944 a neutral inspector was able to say that their morale had ‘improved’: he had no difficulty in saying that they enjoyed ‘very good material conditions’, and that the ‘spiritual side’ was also ‘very well cared for’.

* * * * *

The disparity between the treatment of New Zealanders and other British nationals in Japanese hands and of Japanese held prisoner in New Zealand is so obvious that it needs no restatement here. It is nevertheless as well to appreciate how wide was the gap between the treatment accorded their captives by the two countries, both of which agreed to observe the standards of the Geneva Convention of 1929. In mid-1944 ‘up-country’ maintenance parties of British prisoners on the BurmaThailand railway were dying in hundreds as a result of dreadfully long hours of work; of ruthless neglect of the sick, many of whom were driven out to work; of insufficient food, and of shockingly primitive and unhygienic general living conditions. At the same period in New Zealand Japanese prisoners were working a maximum of 33 hours a week; were supplied with sunglasses, eye-masks, and a third uniform if requested; were able to get bone and skin grafts, orthopaedic treatment and Swedish massage in their camp hospital; were being issued with more good food than they could eat; and were living in comfortable quarters, each compound equipped with a radio and the officers' mess with easy chairs.

It is true that all Japanese camps were not as bad as those of Burma and Thailand. In some there appear to have been elaborate arrangements for bathing and laundry, and in a few, adequate medical arrangements. Some camps, too, were allowed considerable facilities for keeping rabbits and other livestock. But these are overshadowed by the large number in which men were kept on the verge of starvation, were refused medical attention until beyond the point where they might have survived, and were denied medicine when there were unopened cases of Red Cross medical supplies within the camp area. In her shortage of suitable accommodation for prisoners of war and of material to build it, of European types of food and of drugs and other medical supplies, Japan was in a still more difficult position than Germany, when she, too, was page 362 suddenly faced with the custody of vast numbers of prisoners of war. But this does not explain nor justify her fanatical obstruction to the operation of relief schemes, nor her withholding of relief supplies after she had allowed them to enter her territory.

It has been estimated that the prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camps of the Far East stretched over an area of some 5,000,000 square miles. Treatment was worse, generally speaking, the farther captives were from Japan itself or from one of the sub-centres of occupied territory. Prisoners of war on the island of Macassar seem to have fared worse than most others from almost every point of view—notification, mail, relief supplies, and general treatment. It is understandable that the areas more remote from Tokyo would be less subject to whatever influence would be exercised by Allied negotiations or whatever humanitarian views were voiced by Japanese. By the same token these areas would be slower to reap the benefit of changes of policy, such as that which decreed in 1944 that the treatment of Allied prisoners of war should be improved. Unfortunately the majority of these prisoners of war remained in the more remote areas of the south-western Pacific for the greater part of the war.

Allied authorities had from the first carefully considered whether they should give publicity to the treatment of their prisoners of war and civilian internees by the Japanese. It was for some time difficult to decide whether such publicity, so far from influencing the Japanese to improve conditions, might not merely irritate them and be the cause of further hardship to those in Japanese hands, besides being a source of pain and sorrow to their relatives. On balance it was decided that, since the conditions of captivity could hardly be much worse in some areas, it was worth while testing Japanese sensitivity to world opinion, in case it might influence them towards the removal of possible grounds for criticism.

Official Allied statements at first covered the state of negotiations with the Japanese on various matters affecting the welfare of captives in their hands, and then became more outspoken on the inadequacy of the Japanese prisoner-of-war diet and ill-treatment such as that experienced by prisoners of war working on the BurmaThailand railway. In January 1944 Mr Eden made a statement in the House of Commons setting out the serious situation in which our people in the Far East were placed; this was timed to coincide with similar statements at Washington and in various parliaments of the Commonwealth. Besides producing a violent reaction in Japan by way of denials and attempted refutations, these statements are thought to have had a salutary effect on the Japanese Foreign Ministry and perhaps even on Japanese Military Headquarters. There followed the Japanese press and radio anti-atrocity campaign page 363 to which reference was made earlier in this chapter. But evidence also points to some change of policy which brought about a general amelioration of prisoner-of-war conditions. There were improvements in conditions at some camps, concessions regarding the visits of neutral inspectors, and some progress in negotiations for sending relief supplies. Thereafter it became Allied policy to release reports of atrocities as soon as they were received, but to refrain from making them the subject of a government statement.

The anxiety of relatives for prisoners and internees in the Far East, aggravated by lack of communication and by occasional accounts of atrocities, proved much more justified than had similar anxiety for those in Germany and Italy. The special nature of the problem created by prisoners of war and internees in the Far East was recognised in the setting up of Far Eastern sections of governmental and welfare organisations, and even in the publication of a separate periodical by the British Red Cross. Intimidation of neutral agents and brutal repression of camp leaders made it difficult for Allied authorities always to gain an accurate picture of the situation. It was perhaps as well that relatives did not know the extent of underfeeding and overworking, of medical neglect and savage cruelty, practised in a large number of camps. But they would have been relieved had they known the apparently illogical but unshakeable optimism which permeated nearly all of them. The cruelty and neglect of the Japanese appear, quite understandably, to have had the effect not of destroying but of reinforcing the feeling of superiority to their captors with which a great number of prisoners were imbued. To them, therefore, it was just a matter of time before the Allies triumphed, and every effort had to be made to survive until that day came.

1 Although copies of this Convention in English were always available, there was no translation in Japanese until after this incident.

2 At the Jaarmarkt camp on Java, for example, a notice was posted stating that the New Zealand Prime Minister had announced that there had been 111 casualties, of whom 48 were killed by machine-gun fire, due to disobedience of orders in a prisoner-of-war camp in New Zealand. If satisfactory explanations were not forthcoming, reprisals would be taken.