On October 15, 1942, New Zealand serviceman Charles Owen was beheaded in a lunatic asylum on a tiny island in the South Pacific.
A guard in the Coastwatchers—a unit of civilian and military surveillance personnel in the Pacific—Owen had been captured by the Japanese on nearby Maiana Island in the spring. After three days tied to a tree on Betio, the westernmost islet in the Tarawa Atoll in what is now Kiribati, Owen and 21 other prisoners were interned in the Tarawa Central Hospital’s ‘native lunatic enclosure’.
From their cells, the captives would have heard the regular bombing raids being conducted in the area by the United States Air Force. Several months after the Allied forces’ violent and decisive victory at Midway, they were pressing their advantage in the South Pacific.
Rather than inspire hope in the prisoners, however, the raids likely paralysed them with fear. The Japanese imperialist military had blocked its government’s ratification of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War in 1929, leaving them exposed as valuable collateral. Retribution for the attacks would be swift and severe, as it had been for POWs throughout the Pacific. The 22 prisoners were executed by sword.
As members of the British Commonwealth, New Zealand soldiers in World War II were more likely to find themselves in the North African or European theatres than fighting in the Pacific. Owen’s death would have been almost entirely insignificant, an unlucky footnote in the greater Pacific campaign, had it not been for a curious coincidence which
may have had ultimately devastating consequences.
In 1942, Allied forces launched Operation Watchtower, a combined-arms offensive at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Six months of intense fighting saw the US Army recapture the island, taking prisoners from the Japanese Army, Navy and imperial workforce in land and naval battles.
Prisoners taken by the Americans were dispersed to facilities in nearby Allied Pacific countries, such as Australia and New Zealand. At the request of the US Army, Prime Minister Peter Fraser, head of the New Zealand war cabinet, re-established the defunct Featherston military camp on September 4, 1942. Formerly the largest training camp in New Zealand, processing approximately 60,000 troops during World War I, the Featherston camp was demolished in the late 1920s by a war-fatigued government. Few buildings remained on the original site, but, 70 kilometres from Wellington, the location served well geopolitically.
Contractors had just one week to build the camp. Four compounds were constructed, rectangular and surrounded by barbed wire. Temporary cooking and bathing shelters were erected along with tents for the incoming prisoners. They were originally intended to house around 450, but by 1943, the camp held more than 800.
One hundred and twenty-two New Zealand soldiers were deployed to guard the facility, drawn for the most part from green reservists unsuitable for overseas service. “They had received no special training for managing prisoners of war,” writes Mike Nicolaidi in The Featherston Chronicles. “Nor had they been forewarned they were about to come face to face with the enemy on home ground.”
By contrast, more than 250 of the Japanese captives at the camp were military veterans, thoroughly aware of the imperialist nation’s fierce military code, the Senjinkun (Instructions for the Battlefield). A pocket-sized manual issued to Japanese soldiers in the Pacific war, the Senjinkun contained directives for troop conduct in every area, from the battlefield through to the veneration of Japanese sovereignty and unwavering loyalty to the Emperor.
“Never live to experience shame as a prisoner,” it reads. To be captured was to experience spiritual death; physical death was the only reprieve.
This ideology required that enemy prisoners be treated as sub-human, cowardly and without rights. It guaranteed brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese, who murdered, mutilated, tortured and raped millions of POWs and non-combatants during World War II. Cruelty was sanctioned and encouraged by the Japanese armed forces, and in some respects, they expected the same in return.
As the first of the prisoners from Guadalcanal arrived at 1PW Featherston in September 1942, they were surprised and suspicious of the comparatively kind treatment they received. Ill and malnourished POWs were given medicine and food, and the administration allowed a democratic selection process to take place among the prisoners to elect representatives.
The first intake were mostly non-combatants from the imperial workforce, who had been sent to Guadalcanal to build an airport. They lived in No. 1 Compound and were engaged in daily labour around the still-burgeoning camp: clearing gorse, cooking, gardening and cleaning the compounds. In November, however, a further 250 prisoners arrived, almost all of them military. Among the group were 120 Navy men from the warship Furutaka, which had been sunk by the Americans at Guadalcanal.
Many of these troops were unaware of the Geneva Convention adhered to by New Zealand and often gave false names to camp authorities in order that their families would not be disgraced by their capture. The men preferred that they be considered killed in action.
They believed they could never return to Japan, whatever the outcome of the war, and several hardened elements resolved to salvage their reputations in the only way they could.
Within a month of their arrival, these soldiers began to accumulate rudimentary weapons, planning a violent rebellion for Christmas Eve. Lieutenant Toshio Adachi, of the Furutaka, argued against the uprising on behalf of the moderate POWs, mostly naval units, who feared they would be caught up in the revolt and punished.
Hoping to prevent conflict, a young naval officer reported the plot to the commanding officer, Major R. H. Perrett, and the plan was foiled. Had the reverse situation occurred in a Japanese POW camp, it isn’t unfair to speculate that every prisoner would have been executed in reprisal. But, as a signatory to the Geneva Convention, New Zealand could not harm the masters of the Japanese rebellion.
The threat of immediate violence passed, but the same Geneva Convention that extended protection to the Japanese also allowed for physically fit POWs to be put to work. The work corps, being civilian, took no issue with their duties around the camp. But many soldiers, in keeping with the Senjinkun, preferred death to forced labour. They numbered too few in December 1942, but February saw the arrival of more assertive prisoners, and the balance of power began to shift.
First they turned on their own, demanding their officers commit suicide to demonstrate the spirit of a Japanese soldier. Refusal was met with the threat of death. The workers, deemed too lowly to bother with ritual suicide, they intimidated and harassed.
On February 23, a Japanese NCO stood at the barbed-wire fence of No. 2 Compound, watching workers from No. 1 Compound labour outside. “Teki wo risurumaneha,” he called out—don’t work for the enemy.
The men dropped their tools and marched back to their hut, infuriating their New Zealand guards. Lieutenant Colonel Donald Donaldson, by that time camp commandant, issued an imperative which gave the prisoners three days to improve their conduct before order would be enforced. The next day, the 24th, Adachi and his men woke to a demand for more than double the regular number of prisoners for work duty. Aware the soldiers resented work, Donaldson had imposed forced labour on the men as a disciplinary measure.
Adachi pleaded with a camp interpreter. The request was impossible, he said. There were too many malnourished and injured men to supply that many workers. An uneasy impasse was reached. To the guards, the refusal represented open disobedience—the same sentiment that had inspired the foiled plot to riot the previous Christmas. They were on edge, ill-trained and badly suited to managing an increasingly hostile force of veterans. One guard, however, may have been particularly unhinged.
As the situation at Tarawa Atoll developed in late 1942, information began to flow back from the front. It’s possible that news reached New Zealand of the murder of the 22 POWs by Japanese forces in retaliation for the American attacks. Jack Owen, a guard at Featherston and one of the few New Zealand servicemen with direct and regular contact with the Japanese, may have learned during this time of the death of Charles, his younger brother. Denied the rights that Jack was obliged to extend to the captives under his care, Charles had been cut down unarmed.
By late February, many of the prisoners at Featherston were in a state of total defiance, and the tolerance of the camp guards was crumbling. It was a calamity in the making.
The morning of February 25, 1943, dawned clear over Featherston. At 6.00AM, the labourers began to stir in No. 1 Compound. As on every other day, roll call was at 6.30AM. The work party assembled, enjoyed their usual Japanese-style breakfast at 7.30AM, and left for their specific tasks. Nobody emerged from No. 2 Compound.
The men in No. 2, long averse to working as captives, were now in open revolt. A message emerged through the translators. The prisoners would not work, and the once-moderate Adachi demanded a meeting with Donaldson. He was refused, and instead negotiated alongside another officer, Nishimura, with the camp adjutant, Lieutenant James Malcolm. Inside the camp office, the men spoke for two hours. In the dusty yard of No. 2 Compound, 240 prisoners sat silent and cross-legged on the concrete floor.
Under orders from Malcolm, Jack Owen took a Thompson sub-machine gun—or Tommy gun—from the camp armoury and headed to No. 2 Compound, accompanied by 46 armed guards. Owen took a position on top of a roof on the eastern side of the compound, flanked on the right by a corporal named Dickson, positioned on the roof of the latrine, who was also armed with a Tommy gun. On a building to Owen’s left were two men with rifles. Other guards stood in an arc at ground level, rifles levelled at the prisoners.
When negotiations stalled inside the camp office, Malcolm ordered Adachi and Nishimura to return to their compound. There would be no contact with Donaldson, Malcolm insisted. The prisoners would parade, immediately. The Japanese refused. Isolated, ostracised and spiritually anguished, the extremist elements among the captives may have recognised their chance for an honourable death.
Adachi and Nishimura retreated, attempting to take refuge in the now-agitated crowd. Malcolm ordered their arrest, and several guards waded into the throng after the pair. The Japanese prisoners began to shout and push, advancing slowly on the guards. The atmosphere became nervous, and angry. As Nishimura reached the prisoners’ hut, a scuffle broke out and a Japanese NCO was stabbed in the leg with a bayonet.
“The non-commissioned officer who was stabbed winced with pain, and more or less spontaneously grasped the bayonet with both hands,” writes Mike Nicolaidi, quoting Adachi’s recollection of events much later. “The New Zealand soldier hurriedly pulled the bayonet up and out.”
The blade sliced clean through the tendon and bone of all 10 of the prisoner’s fingers. They dropped into a pool of blood on the ground. As the man screamed in pain, Malcolm attempted to take control of the situation. Grabbing a pistol, he fired a warning shot above the retreating Adachi.
“I decided upon a show of arms as my next move,” he told a court of inquiry a month later, “there being no remaining expedient apparent to me to get over the situation.”
Malcolm fired once more, the bullet tearing through Adachi’s shoulder and into the forehead of a prisoner behind, killing him instantly. Seeing an officer shot and another soldier killed, the Japanese became frenzied, throwing rocks and other improvised projectiles at the guards—among them shuriken, sharp throwing stars used by samurai that had been cut from roofing iron.
From the roof came a roar as Owen opened fire with his Tommy gun on automatic. A hail of bullets ripped through the air and tore into the tight contingent of prisoners. Forty-six guns followed suit as the guards reacted. Corporal Dickson picked off the men to Adachi’s left with his Tommy gun on single-shot.
Len James, a serviceman who had been ordered by Malcolm to arrest Adachi and Nishimura, had retreated to a position alongside another guard, Wally Pelvin. As the guns opened up, Pelvin turned from the prisoners and was struck in the back.
“It was a ricochet from a bullet…” James later told Nicolaidi. “The only person who had a chance of getting us was Corporal Owen.”
Despite screams to cease fire, the guns roared on for more than 20 seconds, bullets ricocheting off the concrete pad and searing into the guards themselves.
Then silence, followed by the moaning and screaming of the dying and mutilated men.
Thirty-one Japanese died instantly. Another 91 were wounded, 17 of whom would die in the coming days. Ten guards were injured, Pelvin fatally.
Jack Owen had opened fire first, Len James said in a 1991 interview. He was intending to kill Japanese in retribution for the beheading of his brother. It was Owen’s gunfire that spurred the other guards into action, a momentary group bloodlust.
Grant Hays, a custodian at the National Army Museum at Waiouru, writes that a Red Cross inquiry in the immediate aftermath of the incident found Owen had fired most of the bullets.
The Featherston Incident was a singularity, the coincidence of many circumstances that converged upon a single moment. Charles Owen was one of approximately 400 New Zealand servicemen captured by Japanese forces in World War II. The Japanese, taken as prisoners in the first grand movement of the advance of Allied forces in the Pacific, would become the first (and only) victims of warfare on New Zealand soil since the New Zealand Wars between the British and Māori. The first fatal shot would be fired by Charles Owen’s big brother, an act of passion that could be argued was a war crime under the terms of the Geneva Convention that the guards were so determined to maintain. Ironically, one of Jack Owen’s bullets also cost a local serviceman his life, the first and only wartime killing of a New Zealander in this country since the 1870s.
Agents of the British government heavily edited the first incident report, fearing Japanese retribution against Commonwealth prisoners, so many of the details of the day, as recorded by the servicemen, were lost. The modified report emphasised the necessity of the guards’ collective actions, and perhaps exaggerated the danger they faced in order to downplay Japanese propaganda.
Neither the ashes of the 48 Japanese killed at Featherston nor the bodies of the 17 Coastwatchers and five civilians beheaded at Tarawa have ever been found.
All that remains in remembrance of the deaths at Featherston is a grove of small cherry trees. There are 68, arranged in rows. When the blossoms fall in the spring, they cover the grass briefly in pink. At the entrance to the grove is a small plaque, and on it is written the translation of a 17th-century haiku by Matsuo Bashō.
Behold the summer grass
All that remains
Of the dreams of warriors.