In June 1942, as the Pacific war raged to the north, US servicemen began pouring into New Zealand. Most of them settled into a base camp at Paekakariki, on the coast northwest of Wellington. It’s now a park, where Peter Jackson filmed the Pelennor battle scenes of The Return of the King.
Legend says the Marines and GI’s came to help defend New Zealand from the Japanese, who were rampaging south in those early months of the Pacific war. The reality is that government had agreed to let New Zealand become a base for the counter-attack into the Solomons and other islands. Men and supplies poured in; and they poured out again just as quickly when those campaigns got going.
Wellington was suddenly filled with GI’s, with jeeps fuelled by red-tinted petrol, with ‘deuce-and-a-half’ Chevrolet trucks and with a cornucopia of supply pouring off the ships that relentlessly piled into Port Nicholson. The milk bars were filled with polite-speaking young men from strange, far-away places known to most Kiwis only as sites on a map.
It was a culture shock for the Americans too. Some of the servicemen had never been outside the US – in these years after the Great Depression, work was hard to come by and for many, the army was their first job. New Zealand was a strange foreign land. They had been told to behave themselves, and they did, mostly.
Tensions still ran high at times. Some soldiers found romance with young New Zealand women in a country where many of our own young men were overseas fighting. Racial tensions ran high; pakeha New Zealand attitudes to Maori differed from white American attitudes, and there remained the problem of women being apparently poached. In 1943, there was a riot, the ‘battle of Manners Street’, where New Zealand men took on American servicemen in a down-town Wellington punch-up. One New Zealand historian has insisted that it did not happen as envisaged, but actually it did. My late mother-in-law, as a teenager, was caught down-town when it flared.
But for the most part, the Americans made friends. Some found romance, got engaged, planned lives with New Zealand women, perhaps back in the States. And then – quite suddenly, amid the secrecy of war – they vanished. off to fight in Guadalcanal, at Tarawa and in the other places that marked the course of the Pacific War. Some of them did not come back.
Others came in. Up to 45,000 US servicemen were here at some stages in the war. New Zealand became a rest-and-recreation area, and a hospital. Casualties who recuperated here included Don Adams – yes, that Don Adams. And eventually, as the tides of war moved north, it was over.
One of their significant camps was the Marine installation at Motukaraka Point, at the head of the Pauahatanui inlet. I found a memorial there a few weeks back. A poignant reminder of the times when young men crossed the Pacific to this southern land to fight for their country – and for ours. I find it inspiring. Do you?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012