Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Actions worsen and time softens

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My earliest recollection of life is visiting my father in hospital when I was nearly three years old. I vividly remember this for two reasons. First we weren’t allowed to go into the hospital proper because he had diphtheria and was therefore isolated. I recall my mother holding me up to the window so I could talk to my father from the wide concrete window-ledge above the solid brick wall.

The main reason the memory endures however, was that my father told us of a disturbance during the night when a large contingent of Japanese prisoners-of-war had been admitted who were seriously wounded. The word ‘Japanese’ struck terror into the heart of an impressionable two-and-a-half year old.

The Japanese had come from the POW camp at Featherston. The Japanese never did invade New Zealand despite widespread fears that they would, but 800 prisoners who had been captured at Guadalcanal were brought to Featherston in 1942.

They were mostly civilians who had been drafted into the Japanese navy, but later captured military personnel were also interned at Featherston. These military prisoners regarded capture as the ultimate disgrace. In February 1943 there was a sit-down strike and a subsequent riot that saw the guards open fire, although there had apparently been no order to shoot.

Although the one-sided altercation only lasted about thirty seconds 31 Japanese were killed instantly, 17 died later and about 74 were wounded. If 91 wounded and dying Japanese had been admitted to the Masterton hospital the night before I was went to visit my father then perhaps I had good reason to be alarmed.

Of historical accounts I have been able to read on the subject there is no disclosure about where the wounded prisoners were taken. The whole incident was hushed up at the time in case there was retaliation on Kiwi POW’s in the Japanese camps.

It’s entirely possible therefore that I was the only infant in the country to have been briefed about the episode.

The hatred for the Japanese was manifest at the time and took a long time to subside. Strangely our distaste of the Germans was relatively short-lived. We happily drove Volkswagens long before we accepted Datsuns and Toyotas.

There was probably an element of racism in this attitude.

We ended the war with Japan by dropping two atomic bombs; on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki and last month President Obama visited the sites where the devastation was wrought, but purposely did not apologise for the carnage.

I suppose we should be pleased with ourselves that today we are not so barbaric. Despite what ISIS is doing to its prisoners-of-war no one is calling for the western alliances to drop a nuclear bomb on any of the terrorists’ strongholds, reasoning that many innocent citizens would be killed in the process.

And yet in 1945 that’s exactly what we did and were able to justify our actions by calculating how many of the allied forces would have perished had the war lingered.

I guess no one is estimating the number of civilians ISIS is killing. Like the road toll, a few here and a few there and it doesn’t have quite the same impact on our consciousness.

“Nature has left this tincture in the blood, that all men would be tyrants if they could.” - Daniell Defoe


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