History II: Featherston Military Camp

In 1915, the area between Featherston and the Tauherenikau River was acquired by the Ministry of Defence. The area was chosen as the site to train the New Zealand soldiers heading to Europe to serve in World War I.

Development began on the site with over 1,000 workmen constructing what would become NZ’s largest military training camp; Featherston Military Camp.

Visit www.truecrimenz.com for additional information on this case. Including a transcript of this episode, with supporting pictures, sources, and credits.

Hosted by Jessica Rust
Written and edited by Sirius Rust

Music sourced from:

Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“Babylon”, “Day of Chaos”, “Hidden Past”, “Long Road Ahead”, “Round Drums”, “Unnatural Situation”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0

The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but we make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.


In 1856,  the provincial government surveyed the area southwest of the recently founded Masterton. They chose a spot near Lake Wairarapa for a new township. Named after the provincial government’s superintendent Isaac Featherston; the town was dubbed Featherston.

The town’s growth was initially hindered by the high cost of land. However, by the 1870s Featherston had become an important service town due to its proximity to the railway.

In 1915, the area between Featherston and the Tauherenikau River was acquired by the Ministry of Defence. The area was chosen as the site to train the New Zealand soldiers heading to Europe to serve in World War I.

The site was chosen due to a number of benefits. Firstly, the site was near the railway line that connected to the Hutt Valley and Trentham military camp. Secondly, the nearby Tauherenikau River provided a ready source of water and thirdly, the site was in close proximity to Papawai Rifle Range where the soldiers learnt to shoot.

Development began on the site with over 1,000 workmen constructing what would become NZ’s largest military training camp; Featherston Military Camp.

The camp opened on the 24th of January 1916 with 1,400 men from the nearby Tauherenikau camp marching to their new home the next day. The Evening Post reported on the opening of the currently incomplete Featherston Military Camp: 

“The camp, as might have been expected, was not quite finished yesterday when the troops entered. Some 300 men of the Public Works Department were still engaged in hammering and banging away, and it is anticipated that it will be three weeks or a month yet before they are finished. The administrative offices, shops, canteen, etc., are now receiving their final attention, and the hot showers will soon be ready. The cold showers, however, are already available. The electric light also should be turned on shortly, and the permanent canteen will be opened at the end of the month, a temporary one being run in the interim. The camp will not be fully occupied until Sunday next, when the 10th Infantry Reinforcements, who are at present enjoying their final leave, are due to return”.

With over 250 buildings, Featherston Military Camp was more akin to a small town and was in fact larger than Featherston itself. At one time there were up to 10,000 men training in Featherston Military Camp. It’s facilities included 17 shops, 16 dining halls, churches, a 400 seat picture theatre, a concert hall, a soldier’s club, an officer’s club, a post office and a hospital.

Supplying the camp was an immense task. Provisions arrived via the railways. The six cookhouses each prepared meals for 1,500 men. Twenty one tonnes of food was prepared and consumed daily and over 1,800 litres of milk was drunk.

Infantry would train for sixteen weeks at Featherston Military Camp before being shipped overseas; these soldiers became known as the First NZ Expeditionary Force. During the course of World War I, over 60,000 soldiers were trained at the camp.


In October of 1918, NZ was hit by an influenza pandemic. Brought home from Europe by the soldiers returning from World War I. The virus spread first to military camps like Featherston before spreading to the civilian population as the soldiers returned to their homes.

Coinciding with the end of the first World War, the crowded streets celebrating the Armistice on the 11th of November 1918 did much to spread the pandemic.

By mid-December 1918, around 560,000 people were stricken with ‘the flu’, about half the population of the country at the time, including the Auckland district health officer Dr. O’Sullivan; leaving the Health Department head office without leadership or a qualified medical officer.

Schools, shops, pubs, theatres and banks closed as life halted to limit the spread of infection. Churches and School halls were set up as emergency hospitals; doctors and nurses worked themselves to the point of exhaustion. In the end, about 9,000 NZers succumbed to the pandemic.

As the first World War concluded, Featherston Military Camp was used briefly as an internment camp for German prisoners of war; then as a quarantine hospital for people suffering from tuberculosis and venereal disease. Before becoming a storage facility for leftover weapons and other unused military ordnance from the end of the war.

During the 1920s, some buildings were moved and reused at other military bases; while the rest were dismantled or destroyed. By 1930, only the concrete foundations remained.


On the 7th of August 1942, American soldiers began a campaign against the Japanese military in the Solomon Islands to retake the region for the Allied forces; the battle was named after the island it was fought on: the Battle of Guadalcanal.

The Japanese soldiers were quickly outnumbered and overwhelmed by American Marines. The Allied forces swiftly took command of the island’s key geographical locations, including (most importantly) the almost complete airfield being built by the Japanese. The airfield dubbed Henderson Field became an important operational base for the allied push into the pacific.

The campaign continued for many months. In early November 1942, the Japanese attempted to retake the airfield with 7,000 infantry troops. The 7,000 strong force was transported via the ocean in transport convoy ships; supported by Japanese naval warships bombarding Henderson Field — attempting to destroy the Allied aircraft that posed a threat to the transport convoy. 

The U.S. military launched a counter offensive, sending their own aircraft and warships to defend the airfield and fend off the encroaching attack. Over three days the U.S forces fought bitterly against the axis forces. By day three, U.S. aircraft and battleships had destroyed most of the Japanese troop transport ships, and the Japanese began to pull back and retreat.

Over the three days of fighting, the United States forces lost ten battleships, thirty-six aircraft and 1,732 lives. The Japanese casualties were more significant with an estimated 7,000 killed in the campaign. Numerous Japanese soldiers and civilians of the imperial workforce were taken prisoner by the U.S. forces.

At the behest of the United States government, NZ reopened Featherston Military Camp as a prisoner of war camp. Contractors had only one week to construct the camp. A high barbed wire fence was constructed around the perimeter of the four compounds which housed the POWs. Temporary cooking and bathing shelters were hastily erected and 122 NZ reserve soldiers were deployed as guards to the camp.

The first Japanese prisoners of war sent by US forces arrived in the Wairarapa at the end of 1942. At first, as mostly civilians from Japanese imperial workforce arrived, the POWs were compliant in their daily labour which included clearing gorse, cooking, gardening and cleaning the compounds.

Once the daily chores were completed, to pass the time the prisoners were allowed to cultivate small gardens, play tennis, play Mahjong and were even shown a movie once a fortnight.

In November 1942, a further 250 prisoners arrived, mostly Japanese military veterans — bringing the total number of POWs to 800. These soldiers were housed in the second compound and were more unruly due to their adherence to their nation’s fierce military code, the Senjinkun or in English, Instructions for the Battlefield. 

The code spoke on a number of topics including military regulations and combat readiness. However one passage spoke on Japanese honor and how they should never surrender, “Never live to experience shame as a prisoner”.

The Japanese soldiers in compound 2 first turned on their own officers in compound 3, demanding they commit suicide to demonstrate the spirit of a Japanese warrior. When the officers refused, the steel minded soldiers threatened the officers with death.

The civilian workers in compound 1 were deemed too lowly for ritual suicide; however the soldiers of compound 2 would initmidate and harass them for ‘working for the enemy’

Under the rules of the Geneva Convention, the guards were forbidden to punish the prisoners physically, “Captured combatants and civilians under the authority of an adverse party are entitled to respect for their lives, dignity, personal rights and convictions. They shall be protected against all acts of violence and reprisals”. 

As punishment for the trouble they were causing, the soldiers in compound 2 were asked to perform manual labour. They refused. In late February 1943, Lieutenant Colonel Donald Donaldson, the camp commandant issued an imperative to the Japanese prisoners, giving them three days to improve their conduct, or order would be enforced.

25 FEBRUARY 1943

25th of February 1943. 6.30am. The laborers from compound 1 and the officers from compound 3 and 4 all appeared for roll call. No one emerged from their huts in compound 2. 7.30am rolled around and still no one was seen from the second compound.

Finally, word came through the translators that the soldiers in compound 2 were refusing to work. The compound’s democratically elected representative Lieutenant Toshio Adachi demanded a meeting with camp commandant Lieutenant Colonel Donald Donaldson. Donaldson refused. Instead, camp adjutant Lieutenant James Malcolm met with Adachi in the camp office.

While the meeting was taking place, the remaining 240 POWs from compound 2 sat cross legged and silent on the compound’s concrete floor. Under orders from Lieutenant Malcolm 47 armed guards entered the compound, two guards with tommy guns took position on the roof flanking the protesting prisoners. The other 45 guards stood at ground level, pointing their rifles at the POWs of compound 2.

After two hours, negotiations between Lieutenant Malcolm and Lieutenant Adachi stalled,. Malcolm ordered Adachi to return to the compound and communicate to the rest of the prisoners they would have to work; Adachi refused.

Adachi returned to the compound and slipped into the crowd of POWs. The NZ military guards slowly advanced forward pursuing Adachi. The atmosphere became agitated and angry. The Japanese prisoners defended their position and a scuffle broke out. In the fallout, a Japanese soldier was stabbed in the leg with a bayonet. The injured soldier screamed in pain, the NZ guard hurriedly pulled the bayonet out. As he removed the weapon, the blade sliced through the prisoner’s hands severing the tendon and bones of all 10 of the prisoner’s fingers.

Lieutenant Malcolm attempted to take control of the situation, firing a warning shot above Adachi’s head from his pistol. However, the warning shot only created more chaos, Malcolm made a decision, “I decided upon a show of arms as my next move, there being no remaining expedient apparent to me to get over the situation.”

Malcolm took aim and fired once more, this time the bullet travelled through Adachi’s shoulder and entered the forehead of a prisoner behind him, killing the POW instantly.

It was at this moment a riot broke out. The Japanese became frenetic and began throwing rocks and improvised throwing stars the prisoners cut from roofing iron.

From the roof, the guard Jack Owen opened fire with his Tommy gun before the other 46 armed guards followed suit, firing at the crowd of prisoners. One guard, Wally Pelvin who was close to the crowd as the firing began, turned and retreated to a safer position. As Wally pulled back, he was struck by a bullet ricocheting off the concrete floor; killing him.

Lieutenant Malcolm screamed to cease fire, yet the firing guns continued for more than 20 seconds. As the smoke cleared, the guards were witness to a grizzly sight. Forty-eight Japanese lost their lives in the massacre, with a further seventy-four wounded. 

Along with killing NZ guard Wally Pelvin, a further nine guards were injured from ricocheting bullets.

Fearing retribution from the Japanese, agents of the British government heavily edited the incident report from the 25th of February 1943. The edited report exaggerated the danger and emphasised the necessity of the guards actions. Due to this tampering, many of the details of that day have been lost.

Although shedding some light on the situation, one of the guards, Len James said in a 1991 interview that the first person to open fire was the guard on the roof Jack Owen. Jack Owen’s brother had been beheaded on October the 15th 1942 in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and Owen had expressed a desire for retribution. A Red Cross inquiry into the aftermath of the incident found that Owen had fired the most bullets. 

A successive military court of enquiry exonerated NZ of any wrongdoing, but acknowledged the fundamental psychological and cultural differences between captor and captive.

Featherston Military Camp continued to house the Japanese prisoners of war until the conclusion of the second World War. On the 30th of December 1945, the prisoners were transported by train to Wellington and delivered to two American tank landing ships. The prisoners were returned home to Japan.


Post World War II, the government retained ownership of the site of the Featherston Military Camp; leasing the land for grazing. Although in 1960, the government sold the northern part of the site to a neighbouring farmer; before selling the rest to private ownership in 1990.

The victims of the massacre that became known as the ‘Featherston Incident’ became the first and only fatalities of warfare on NZ soil since the NZ land wars of the 1800s. 

In 2001, a Japanese peace garden was erected to commemorate the prisoner of war camp. Today if you visit the site that used to be Featherston Military Camp you will be greeted by a grove of pink Japanese cherry trees — 68 in total.

As you enter the grove, you are greeted by a small plaque in remembrance of the ‘Featherston Incident’. The plaque is a translation of a 17th-century haiku written by renowned Japanese poet Matsuo Basho; it reads:

Behold the summer grass
All that remains
Of the dreams of warriors


Te Ara, Featherston, https://teara.govt.nz/en/wairarapa-places/page-8
Wairarapa NZ, Featherston Military Camp, https://wairarapanz.com/featherston-military-camp
NZ History, Featherston camp, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/featherston-camp
NZ History, 49 killed in Featherston POW incident, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/49-killed-during-riot-at-featherston-pow-camp
NZ History, Featherston incident, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/incident-at-featherston
NZ History, Featherston incident plaque, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/featherston-incident-plaque
NZ History, Featherston Military Training Camp and the First World War, 1915–27, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/files/documents/featherston-camp-low-res.pdf
Wikipedia, Featherston prisoner of war camp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Featherston_prisoner_of_war_camp
New Zealand Geographic, MASSACRE AT FEATHERSTON, https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/massacre-at-featherston/
Te Ara, Featherston prisoner of war camp, https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/1216/featherston-prisoner-of-war-camp
Stuff.co.nz, Exhibition shows how Featherston Military Training Camp played key role in NZ WWI effort, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/last-post-first-light/76157022/exhibition-shows-how-featherston-military-training-camp-played-key-role-in-nz-wwi-effort
NZ History, The 1918 influenza pandemic, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/influenza-pandemic-1918
NZ Parliament, Centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic, https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/centenary-of-the-1918-flu-pandemic/
Wikipedia, Guadalcanal campaign, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guadalcanal_campaign
Wikipedia, British Solomon Islands, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Solomon_Islands#World_War_II
Wikipedia, Henderson Field (Guadalcanal), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henderson_Field_(Guadalcanal)
Wikipedia, Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_Battle_of_Guadalcanal
Wikipedia, Senjinkun military code, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senjinkun_military_code
Better Care Network, Basic Rules of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, https://bettercarenetwork.org/library/social-welfare-systems/child-care-and-protection-policies/basic-rules-of-the-geneva-conventions-and-their-additional-protocols

Geoffrey Rice, The Making of New Zealand’s 1920 Health Act, http://www.nzjh.auckland.ac.nz/docs/1988/NZJH_22_1_02.pdf

4 thoughts on “History II: Featherston Military Camp

  1. Thank you for sharing this I’m from featherston .I’m not your if you know but there is the museum in featherston dedicated to the camp and all those who died my family had a hand in setting it up so others can see the history.i think you can tell I was born and raise in featherston . You can drive uup to where the shooting range is and see the wall that why used to hold the targets as it pitted with holes from shots. Many thanks again for this little slice of history


  2. Thank you very much. Very interesting story. My wife’s family is Japanese, and she was very surprised to hear about Japanese POWs being imprisoned in NZ, as was I.


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