Sad (and Sorry?) Secret of the Wairarapa

We traversed the lower Wairarapa a few times as we explored the towns and sights. And as we do, we picked up the tourist pamphlets to see what to see and learn more about the places. Most  of the information was helpful, plus or minus Boggy Pond. But there was one bit of history that was mentioned fleetingly, and indirectly. Which made it all the more interesting. I didn’t spend 2 decades in local government without learning the signs of something being avoided.

Featherston, at  the bottom of the Rimutakas was the site of a large POW (Prisoner Of War) camp during the Second World War; housing about 700 captured Japanese soldiers. The site was originally set up during World War I as a military camp; to train up young NZ soldiers to be shipped out to Europe. It could accommodate 8,000 men plus 500 horses, and had 250 buildings spread over 70 acres. It’s Post Office was one of the busiest in the country. It was big.

It continued until 1942 when the Government decided it was to become a “detention centre” for captured Japanese soldiers. Of this the otherwise very informative Featherston guide says “Episodes and incidents that took place during this period have marked Featherston and the camp for history.”  That’s all it says. Which raises more questions than it answers. The guide concludes “…the only reminder of this once outstanding complex is a rest area on the site and a garden alongside.” With not a clue as to where the site was. Another information  source referred to cherry blossom trees without explanation.

None of the excellent maps and guides give any indication of where this “camp” was located – the best indication was “2 kms north of Featherstone” and I guessed it would be adjacent to the railway line which heads north from Featherstone. It wasn’t. After one of our rambling drives and heading back to Greytown out of Featherstone, I noticed a picnic area sign on SH2 a couple of kms north east of Featherstone and on impulse turned off. Into a sombre little area, almost hidden from the road. There was a monument of some sort, and references to the NZ Army Training Camp. And a memorial to a NZ guard killed by the Japanese POWs. At the far end was a grove of trees, presumably the cherry blossoms well past their blossom stage.

We counted over 40 trees. I started to get the feeling the number was significant. Subsequently I read that 46 of the Japanese had been killed in a “disturbance”. So there would have been 46 trees. A little forest. There was an old information board near the exit from the “picnic area” that explained the Army training camp that had been mainly over the road, but also on that site. The information board could only be read by pushing through overgrowth.

So, it is a significant historical site for being where tens of thousands of New Zealand lads trained and departed for distant wars, as well as where 46 Japanese prisoners and one of their NZ guards died in a disturbance/riot/incident/massacre. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the latter, it would seem that there remains considerable ambivalence that sees it swept under the carpet. And this collective avoidance seems to prevent recognition of the former, the massive NZ army camp that was there.

It is a strange and sombre little site of significant historical importance. Signposting it as a picnic/rest area only adds to the strangeness. I was pleased to have found the place, and disturbed by the unease evident. Seventy years on, it might be time to lay some ghosts to rest.

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