When a US President came under New Zealand command

It is seventy years, this month, since Operation SQUAREPEG – the New Zealand assault on Nissan Island, the largest atoll in the Green Islands Group, west of the Solomons.

Green Island and the battle plan. Public domain. From  http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Paci-_N81633.html
Nissan Island and the battle plan. Public domain. From http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/ tm/scholarly/ tei-WH2Paci-_N81633.html

The island was needed as an air base for operations against the main Japanese naval bases at Rabaul, but it’s become one of the forgotten sidelines of the Pacific Campaign – even in New Zealand memory, playing second fiddle to the North African and Italian campaigns.

For my family, though, it is a piece of history. The effort opened with a commando raid – a reconnaissance in force – ahead of the invasion. My grandfather was on that raid. Some years ago I pieced what happened together from his letters home and official material. The story forms part of the book I wrote in 2003 on the Pacific War.

My grandfather went ashore with 321 others. under Colonel F. C. Cornwall, around midnight on 30 January 1944. They landed at Pokonian plantation at the north end of the lagoon. Here they established a perimeter from which to begin a day’s reconnaissance. All went well until mid-afternoon when the perimeter came under attack from Japanese forces.

My grandfather emptied his pack out on the beach and filled it with grenades, then joined a group of others on a Higgins boat, intending to flank the attackers. When the boat got out into the lagoon it came under fire from half a dozen Mitsubishi ‘Zeroes’. Amidst the drama, Bill Aylward – sitting on the thwart next to my grandfather, turned to one of the pintle-mounted machine guns and returned fire. Soon everybody on the boat was joining in, using machine guns, rifles – and drove off the marauders. Afterwards, my grandfather wrote that Aylward certainly deserved a medal. He wasn’t alone; and Aylward was awarded the Military Medal for his actions.

pacwarThe incident put paid to any thought of staying, and the commando was pulled off to their boats, awaiting pickup that night. In the scrabble, my grandfather wasn’t able to pick up his mess gear. But they had the information they needed. What they didn’t realise was that the garrison had almost surrendered to them. None of that stopped the main New Zealand invasion force taking the island on 16 February. US Marine engineers were clearing jungle for a runway even before fighting stopped, and the first aircraft made an emergency landing there on 5 March.

My grandfather was stationed on Nissan Island for some time, with the other New Zealanders and a small US force. The whole came under New Zealand Divisional commander Major-General H. E. Barrowclough – including the American contingent, which was led by a young Lieutenant by the name of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Yes, that Richard Milhous Nixon. It’s the only time that a US President has served under New Zealand command… albeit a quarter century or so before he became President, but hey…

Do you have any family stories from the Second World War that you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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16 thoughts on “When a US President came under New Zealand command

  1. A wonderful tribute for your grandfather. As I finish with the Korean War, I’ll be restarting with WWII and it is my intention to make the posts more international and show exactly what the Pacific was going through during those years. So many people are completely unaware of these stories.

    Great job here.


    1. Thank you. It was a war often forgotten these days. New Zealand was in the front line in many ways – not least as the base for the campaign through the southern island chains. There are memorials to the US forces here, including at their main base in Paekakariki (adjacent to the field where Peter Jackson filmed the Pelennor Fields scenes in Return of the King). There’s also a plaque on the Wellington waterfront which I walk past several days a week. Nobody, these days, seems to realise quite how dramatic and important all this was at the time.


  2. What a great family connection to have – and that is an incredible story to have returned fire at attacking Japanese Zeroes.

    The Pacific Campaign does seem to take a backseat in the minds of many. Most New Zealanders know names such as El Alamein and Cassino but would struggle to name a single battle from the Pacific, which is ironic considering how close to home many of those battles were. This is quite a contrast to how the Australians remember their contribution with the Kokoda track campaign reaching almost Gallipoli-like status in how it is remembered and commemorated. I’m guilty of it myself, I really need to read more about the New Zealand involvement in the Pacific.


    1. The Pacific campaign was definitely second fiddle to the main focus of our attention in Europe, even by New Zealand priorities of the day – the government dismantled the division, in the end, to meet the manpower crisis of 1944. Those who weren’t re-distributed into New Zealand industries were sent on to Europe where they formed the core of the re-formed 2 New Zealand Division in early 1945. That’s an intriguing story of itself. After Cassino, Freyberg understood that most of his men were combat-weary. Some had been serving since 1940, and he hatched a plan to renew the division which he was able to implement late in 1944. We don’t often realise that the ‘2 NZ Division’ that led the charge across the battles of the stop banks that ended the Italian campaign in April 1945 was effectively a new force – fresh, fully trained, and with its own organic armour support.


  3. Wonderful post, Matthew! Not only is it a beautiful tribute to your grandfather, but it’s also a glimpse into a bit of WWII history that unfortunately is often overlooked.

    My grandfather was too old to go to war — and my father was too young — so my family’s only connection to WWII comes through a chance encounter with a young man name Douglas Munro (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Albert_Munro).

    Douglas was homesick for his family the night before his deployment from the naval base in Long Beach, California, so he looked up “Munro” in the phone book. He found a Charles Munro in San Pedro (my grandad), called, and asked if he might join the family for dinner. They welcomed him, of course, and sent him off as a family friend.

    But they never saw him again: He died heroically when he deliberately drew enemy fire so a detachment of Marines could escape a small island during the Second Battle of the Matanikau, near Guadalcanal. Douglas is still the only member of the US Coast Guard to have received the Medal of Honor.

    Coincidentally, a few years ago my parents and I attended the annual gathering of the Scottish Clan Munro in Washington state — where Douglas Munro was from — and one of the events was the laying of a wreath at the Capitol building in his honor. It wasn’t until my father saw Douglas’ photograph that he learned the fate of the young man who had joined his family for dinner all those years before. It’s one of the very, very few times I’ve seen my father weep openly.

    Of course, Douglas was only one of the thousands of young men whose heroism and selflessness saved countless others. Thank you for helping keep their stories alive.


    1. Thank you – and what a wonderful family story of your own! It’s extraordinary how lives brushed past each other in that war – brief meetings that, often, ended without further contact for one reason or another, despite the best will of everybody involved. Such is the tragedy of war!


  4. Hey Matthew, Susie sent me and I’m very glad she did! These stories are so important to share and record and all of us need to ensure they continue to be passed along to future generations. A few years ago, my husband and I located my uncle’s grave in a tiny Allied cemetery in Normandy, surrounded by farmland. They were the only WW2 graves in a WW1 cemetery. We were the first family members to track it down and coincidentally learned some personal information about him simply by reading comments in the guest book. Thanks for sharing yours!


    1. I published this one in 2003. I have the packet of my grandfather’s wartime letters that my grandmother wrapped up in late 1944 and which remained unread from then until I read them in 2002. I wonder how many similar collections exist here and around the world?


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