Allied Romance: How Americans Defended and Lived in New Zealand During World War II
March 23, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: New ZealandAmericaAlliesWorld War IIPacific Theater

Allied Romance: How Americans Defended and Lived in New Zealand During World War II

It would never be the same.

Early in the 20th century, the population of New Zealand was just under a million. According to official sources, 20 percent of New Zealand’s eligible manpower served in uniform during World War I. Of that 20 percent, 100,000 served overseas, and of that 100,000 more than 60 percent became casualties. During World War I, the United States had roughly four million in uniform with 8.2 percent becoming casualties.

A generation later, the population of New Zealand was approximately 1.6 million. New Zealand men of military age (18-45) numbered roughly 355,000. Of that number, 135,000 served overseas during World War II during six long years from 1939 to 1945. This small nation also had a Home Guard of 124,000 men at its peak, many of whom had served in World War I. The majority of New Zealanders who served during World War II served in the Army (127,000). Another 6,000 served in the Navy, 24,000 in the Air Force. In addition, 9,700 New Zealand women also served in their country’s armed forces. Altogether, 10,130 New Zealanders lost their lives in World War II and another 19,345 were wounded. This was quite a sacrifice for such a small nation.

New Zealand Joins the War

Soon after New Zealand declared war on Germany in 1939, the 2nd New Zealand Division was formed and sent off to fight alongside its British counterparts in Greece, Crete, and  North Africa. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces moved rapidly south, taking British strongholds such as Hong Kong and Singapore. New Zealanders and Australians alike, with most of their fighting men on the other side of the world, felt vulnerable to the new approaching threat. Many people in both countries feared an actual invasion as a result of Japan’s conquests.

At the behest of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and in agreement with Prime Minister John Curtin of Australia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed U.S. Army divisions to Australia in early 1942. Some of these early U.S. arrivals down under were originally trained and destined for Europe, but with Australia and New Zealand threatening to bring their forces home from battlefields in Europe and North Africa, Roosevelt redirected the U.S. troops to the Pacific. Other U.S. Army units, along with U.S. Marine Corps and Navy personnel, were sent to New Zealand. Had this not happened, Prime Minister Peter Frazer of New Zealand, like John Curtin of Australia, would have been tempted to bring New Zealand forces home.

The U.S. 37th Division arrived in Auckland in June 1942. That same month Lt. Gen. A.A. Vandergrift’s 1st Marine Division landed in Wellington in preparation for the planned counteroffensive against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands set for August with landings on Guadalcanal. In February 1943, the 3rd Marine Division arrived in the Auckland area for a five-month stay before heading off to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, followed by the Army’s 25th Division. At the same time elements of the 2nd Marine Division that had fought in the Solomons with the 1st Marine Division rejoined the balance of their parent 2nd Marine Division in camps around Wellington.

U.S. Command in the Pacific Theater

With U.S. entry into World War II, the Pacific became an American theater of operations. The majority of Allied forces in that theater came under U.S. command. This might sound simple enough, but it was not for those unfamiliar with the U.S. military’s way of doing things. Mackenzie Gregory was a young ensign in the Australian Navy when the war broke out. He was one of the survivors when his ship, the cruiser HMAS Canberra, was sunk at the Battle of Savo Island along with three American heavy cruisers in August 1942.

Gregory was trained in the tradition of the British Royal Navy. Almost overnight he had to reeducate himself: “The first few times I had to change to a new course while part of a U.S. Navy task force were an absolute nightmare. It meant literally picking up the fleet formation steaming on a specific course, rotating that force [for example] through fifty degrees, and then putting it down again so that the ship maintained its relative station just as if you had not moved.”

This proved to be the situation for all Allied forces serving in the Pacific under U.S. command. Everybody had to start doing things the American way. And not having trained together before the war proved fatal in the early days, especially in the early naval battles.

Meeting the Americans

An agrarian nation, New Zealand was cut off from the rest of the world in terms of foreign travelers. Tourism was not part of New Zealand’s economy the way it is today. However, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the friendly invasion of U.S. military personnel, that changed. Most New Zealanders knew about the United States in those days because of the plethora of Hollywood movies that inundated the country, movies mostly about cowboys and gangsters. Radio programs from the United States were also popular imports to New Zealand before the war. However, few Americans of that day had ever heard of New Zealand.

Robert Dunlop, who served in the 3rd New Zealand Division (the only New Zealand Army division to serve in the Pacific) before it was disbanded in late 1944, was in Fiji when U.S. Army troops first arrived there before heading off to New Zealand. He remembered that a lot of the young Americans they met in Suva did not know where Auckland was.

“These Americans didn’t know anything about New Zealand,” recalled Dunlop. “Some didn’t even know if they had to get on a truck and drive to the other side of Fiji from Suva to get there, or get back on the boat. We had these trucks with a Kiwi bird stenciled on the door panels, and it was frequent that a Yank asked, ‘Say guy, what’s that chicken on your truck?’”

When elements of the 2nd Marine Division left Guadalcanal to join the rest of the division in New Zealand, they were not told where they were going when they boarded ship. Joe Wetzel, a Marine of the 2nd Marine Division, Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Battalion, said they just assumed they were on their way to “another stinking island to fight more Japs!” However, to their pleasant and unexpected surprise, when they entered the Cook Straits and saw a modern city before them, the capital of Wellington, and some of those hardened Marines started crying. They knew then they were not going to fight on another stinking island but have some time to rest and recuperate.

Marines on Pago Pago

Even before the Japanese entered the war, New Zealand sent troops to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa to secure what they considered their northern frontier. When Japan attacked, holding and reinforcing those islands became even more important. The United States shared this concern, and within the first four months of America’s entry into the war it had over 100,000 military personnel south of the equator to protect the sea lanes between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. One Marine brigade was sent to Pago Pago, American Samoa, in January 1942, followed by another in March. This relieved New Zealanders of some of their concerns.

Carl Matthews of Dawson, Texas, was 16 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps before Pearl Harbor and was a member of that first Marine brigade sent to Pago Pago in January 1942. However, he came down with an undiagnosed tropical disease while there and was invalided home, missing out on Guadalcanal later that year. After recovering from the still undiagnosed illness he had acquired in Samoa, he joined the 4th Marine Division and saw combat in the Marshalls and Saipan in the Marianas. He was wounded on Saipan and invalided home for a second time.

An Invasion of Young American Servicemen

Many U.S. Marines and sailors coming to New Zealand from Guadalcanal were sick with recurring bouts of malaria and other tropical diseases, and others suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. By this time, most of New Zealand’s young men had been gone for three years or more while parents, wives, children, and friends worried about whether they would ever see them again. Most of the U.S. military personnel coming to New Zealand were young.  For many of these Americans this was their first time away from home. A lot of them were homesick and frightened.

New Zealand families with sons of their own they had not seen, and might not see, for years took in these young American servicemen and gave them homes away from home. Today, these aging veterans consider New Zealand their second home. The 2nd Marine Division Association made this clear in the 1960s when it began having its reunions in New Zealand every fifth year. During these reunions the veterans reconnected with New Zealand families and in some cases old girlfriends.

Stan Martin spent the war years in the New Zealand Navy but was on loan to the Royal Navy throughout, routine in those days of the British Commonwealth. He became involved with the 2nd Marine Division Association and helped these veterans reconnect with those who helped make them welcome in New Zealand. He was made an honorary member of the association and attended many of their reunions both in New Zealand and the United States.