From Heritage New Zealand, Summer 2007
by Noel O'Hare
A small exhibition triggers memories of great and enduring friendships
"A Friend in Need" - Old St Paul's and the US Marines in New Zealand WWII runs until May 2009.
Many of the tourists who tramp through Wellington’s magnificent Old St Paul’s are no doubt puzzled to see the 48-star United States flag prominently displayed in the nave. Even more intriguing is its companion, the flag of the 2nd Marine Division, United States Marine Corps.
Thereby hangs a tale, and it’s told now in a small exhibition, “A Friend in Need – Old St Paul’s and the US Marines in New Zealand WWII”, tucked away beside the altar.
The exhibition commemorates an extraordinary period in New Zealand history, when there was a real threat of invasion by the Japanese, and the country was virtually defenceless. Then, on a grey winter’s day, 12 June 1942, thousands of American soldiers came to the rescue. They sailed into Auckland and Wellington harbours to be met with the sort of rapturous reception that might have greeted All Blacks returning with a World Cup. If such a thing can be imagined. Many of those Marines worshipped at Old St Paul’s during their time in New Zealand.
In a small country of only 1.6 million inhabitants, the friendly invaders made quite an impact. At any one time between June 1942 and mid-1944, there were between 15,000 and 45,000 Americans stationed in camps around New Zealand.
They were mostly young men, 17- and 18-year-olds, in military uniforms. “When the Americans arrived, it was just like heaven. All of a sudden, the place was full of young men who sounded and looked like film stars,” recalls Joan Ellis, who was 18 at the time, one of four sisters living in Petone, near Wellington.
The 21,000 Americans who sailed into Wellington were mostly camped in two large settlements near Paekakariki. The Auckland contingent, a further 29,500, was scattered in camps from Pukekohe to Western Springs.
They were everywhere, on the trains, in the streets, the pubs, the milk bars, the cafes, the cinemas, the dance halls. “It was not possible to attend mass in our church without seeing young, handsome, friendly Marines. They were responsible for us taking a renewed interest in regular Sunday church attendance,” recalls Ellis in her recent book, A String of Pearls: Stories from US Marines & New Zealand Women Remembering WWII.
Drab, sleepy New Zealand, where the pubs closed at 6pm, was brought to life by nervous teenage energy. Dance halls were packed three and four nights a week, and musicians had to up the tempo as stately waltzes gave way to “jitterbugging”. Ellis recalls: “Our dresses were fullskirted so as not to restrict movement, and at times we were tossed about like rag dolls by our partners, who had introduced us to this style of dancing.”
The Marines arrived in Wellington in November 1942, but a month later the partying was over, and they were sent to Guadalcanal in the Solomons, the first Allied offensive against the Japanese. After months of combat on restricted rations, and with many suffering from dysentery and malaria, they were shipped back to New Zealand to recuperate.
Although New Zealanders found the US military presence reassuring in the face of an invasion threat, the reality was different, as Marine Lloyd Gladson explains in Ellis’s book: “Little did they realise that we were so worn out and ill in the first few weeks of our arrival from Guadalcanal that we could never have found the strength to assist them to resist the onslaught of the enemy.”
Another Marine, Hank Henderson, recalled an unfortunate side-effect for the young men. “As the men began to get leave to go to town, we learned that trips to town triggered malaria episodes ... The combination of a few social drinks and close physical contact with a pretty girl almost invariably generated severe chills that could frustrate even the most ardent romance.”
Although many Americans found mutton hard to stomach, they came to appreciate the food on offer, especially after their semi-starvation on Guadalcanal. As serviceman Norman Moise observed: “What a treat it was to sit in a restaurant with a plate of steak, eggs and chips, consume it and then ask for seconds. And the milk! Oh my! It was nectar to our half-starved bodies. Then there was the beer! ... we soon adjusted to the warmth, and it didn’t detract from the flavour. We managed to drink gallons of beer without complaining. We had found our Valhalla!”
Home visits helped the young soldiers to get well. “They were practically killing us with kindness and hospitality,” recalled Henderson. “We were wined and dined at every turn. You could hardly walk down the street without receiving multiple invitations to dinner, to stay the night, or to stay as long as you wanted in their homes. The only introduction necessary was the Marines uniform.” The soldiers returned their hosts’ generosity with a seemingly endless supply of small gifts: Salter’s peanuts, cigarettes, chewing gum, Hershey bars, nylon stockings. Hospitality extended beyond the cities. Marines were invited to stay on sheep stations, or “ranches” as they called them.
“It was a wonderful basis for forming friendships,” says Joan Ellis. “People are still travelling backwards and forwards to visit each other, grandchildren of the Marines who were here are coming to visit the grandchildren of people they met here.”
Inevitably, many wartime relationships went beyond friendship. Americans found most New Zealand women unusually pretty. New Zealand women found American men charming, attentive and good mannered, especially when compared to the gauche, shy home-grown variety.
About 1500 New Zealand women married American servicemen stationed here. American authorities frowned on such unions, and did their best to discourage them because of the likelihood that such relationships would not survive the War. They also knew that romantic liaisons could breed resentment among New Zealand servicemen who came home on leave to find their wives had been unfaithful or their girlfriends going out with a Yank or pregnant.
Resentment about the “bedroom commandos” did boil over on occasion when the pubs closed. Racism was also sometimes part of the mix: Marines who came from states where racial segregation in public places was still the norm were uncomfortable sharing a bar or café with Maori. The most famous incident, dubbed the Battle of Manners Street, took place on 3 April 1943. According to the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand in 1966, “It has been estimated that over 1000 American and New Zealand troops were involved, as well as several hundreds of civilians. The battle lasted for about four hours before order was restored by the civil police. Many American soldiers were injured during this affray and at least two were killed. The ‘Battle of Manners Street’ was the ugliest riot in New Zealand’s history.”
However, the incident was never accurately reported because of wartime press censorship, and some believe it has been wildly exaggerated. “I was there that particular night,” says Joan Ellis. “My sister and I were volunteering in the Allied Services Club. I think we were told not to go outside. They talk about it being a Maori soldier-Marine thing. To be honest, I think it was just a few drunken servicemen who got out of control, lost their tempers and had a big punch-up ... I think it was magnified out of all proportion. I’ve met guys who were there and said it was nothing. It was wartime, people had been drinking and had things to get out of their systems, I suppose.”
Many of the soldiers who survived the war in the Pacific, though, had fond memories of New Zealand and of the friendships they made. Some former Marines returned here for a reunion in 1993, to mark the 50th anniversary of their arrival in New Zealand. Many attended special commemoration services at Old St Paul’s, where they had worshipped as young soldiers and were taken into the homes of the congregation.
At dawn on 1 November 1943, the Americans left Wellington in an armada. “Suddenly, the whole place went dull and boring,” says Ellis. She and her sister made plans to go to the States, but, in the end, “just got married like everybody else was doing”.
She did end up marrying a Marine she met at the 1993 reunion. “It was the most wonderful, magical thing that ever happened to me, and to him as well. But it didn’t work. I’m a New Zealander, he’s American. There was no way I could adapt to his culture, just as he couldn’t adapt to mine. We were both too long in the tooth by that time. We were in our 70s.” Now 83, she treasures the memories of the year the Yanks came to town. “It was the most exciting time of my life.”
“A Friend in Need – Old St Paul’s and the US Marines in New Zealand WWII” runs until May 2009.