Read a story about the prisoner-of-war songbook
This beautiful and unique manuscript was found on the body of its maker, killed in a massacre of prisoners at the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Featherston during the Second World War. It is a songbook handmade from cigarette packets, with a song in elegant cursive Japanese script inscribed on the reverse side of each opened-out carton. There are 50 songs altogether, obviously recorded from memory and mostly popular in, or from films of, the 1930s and 1940s. They concern love, Japanese places, travel stories, melancholia and soldiers’ letters home from the Japanese colonies, among other things.
The Featherston prisoner-of-war camp was established in September 1942 to accommodate soldiers and sailors from the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, along with their Korean labourers, who had been captured by Allied forces during the Battle of Guadalcanal. The camp housed more than 800 prisoners in four compounds.
By 1943, tensions were running high between the prisoners and their New Zealand guards. At issue was the work that the prisoners were expected to undertake, including clearing gorse, gardening, cooking and clearing the compounds. Along with the dishonour of capture, many of these ex-combatants felt deep shame at having to participate in such daily labour.
On 25 February, 240 prisoners went on a sit-down strike. Eventually, a confrontation between the two groups erupted after a guard fired a warning shot. As the prisoners armed themselves with stones and approached the guards, the latter opened fire with pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns. During the melée, 49 people died — 48 Japanese prisoners and one New Zealand guard.
Both labour and creativity continued as part of camp life. Some prisoners produced elaborately carved artwork as well as furniture in traditional Japanese styles in the onsite workshop. Others fabricated items for New Zealand’s burgeoning state house construction industry. Chimneys, fireplaces and washtubs, all made from concrete, were produced at the camp.
At the end of the war, the camp was closed and all remaining prisoners were repatriated by ship to Japan. Today, a grove of cherry trees, popularly known as the Peace Gardens, acts as a memorial to those who died at Featherston. A plaque there quoting a haiku by the seventeenth-century poet Matsuo Bashō commemorates those killed:
Behold the summer grass
All that remains
Of the dreams of warriors.
Story written by: Seán McMahon
Copyright: Turnbull Endowment Trust
A page from the songbook