How American Soldiers Found Love and Life in New Zealand During World War II

Warfare History Network

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Key Point: American forces fought alongside New Nealanders to defeat the Axis. Here's how some Americans and News Nealanders fell in love.

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.

1,400 War Brides

With so many New Zealand men off fighting the war, New Zealand women took over running the farms, working in factories, and doing other work that had traditionally been done by the men, just as American women were doing. There was little in the way of romance for many New Zealand women during the early war years, but that all changed with the arrival of young and seemingly exotic Americans, who came courting with flowers, boxes of chocolates, and hard-to-find nylon stockings. The Americans also introduced the population to things like doughnuts, milkshakes, and the latest dance grazes from the United States, such as the jitterbug.

Relationships between New Zealand women and American men were kindled almost as soon as the men stepped off their ships. According to the official record, 1,400 war brides resulted from the American presence in New Zealand. More than a third of those war brides married men of the 2nd Marine Division. Some New Zealand war brides moved to the States after the war. Some American servicemen elected to make New Zealand their home after the war.

Joe Wetzel of Monroe, Louisiana, met and married Peggy Whiting of Elthem, a small farming community in central North Island, while in New Zealand. Wetzel survived the fighting on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian. Since his bride did not want to live in the United States, Wetzel decided to make New Zealand his home. He was one of four former Marines to settle in New Plymouth after the war and was the last one in that city until his death a few years ago.

Robert Clinton Libby of the 2nd Marine Division, who married a local girl before shipping off to Pacific battlefields, spent his formative years bouncing from one foster home to another until he escaped to the U.S. Marine Corps. He had no problem making New Zealand his home. As a former foster child, he had nothing to go back to in the United States.

Clifford Carrington of Chicago, Illinois, also from the 2nd Marine Division, was one of many Marines taken in by New Zealand families. The Whitehouse family of Otaki, north of Wellington, lived close to Carrington’s camp at Tihati Bay. They adopted Carrington and some of his buddies. Carrington and Sylvia Whitehouse, the family’s teenage daughter, developed a relationship. They lost contact during the war, and Sylvia and her family assumed that Cliff had died. However, in 1989 he made an unannounced visit to New Zealand and looked up Sylvia’s number in the telephone book. The two were married in 1990.

Staying in Contact After the War

During World War II, the number of children born out of wedlock and the number of hushed-up abortions increased in New Zealand. Some children were put up for adoption while others were raised by single mothers and stepfathers if these women married after the war, and most did. However, many of these children did not learn for years that their biological fathers were American servicemen; others probably never knew. Since the end of the war, many American veterans have returned to New Zealand to try to locate children they left behind. Likewise, New Zealanders have been trying to locate their American fathers. In both situations there have been heartwarming successes as well as heartbreaking failures.

Leonard S. Skinner graduated from high school in 1941 and enlisted in the Marine Corps soon after Pearl Harbor. After boot camp, he was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division. He was among those of the 2nd Division who landed on Guadalcanal with the 1st Marine Division. He fought the Japanese on neighboring islands for five weeks before returning to the main battle that raged on Guadalcanal.  The campaign for control of the island concluded in February 1943. One of the relative few who did not come down with malaria, he eventually joined the rest of the 2nd Marine Division living the good life in New Zealand, that is, when they were not on maneuvers.

While camped at McKay’s Crossing outside Wellington and before the division shipped out for the landings on Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands that took place in November 1943, he met and became friends with a New Zealand girl named Peggy Seerup. He spent many weekends and leaves with her family in the small town of Ohura in central North Island. They remained friends throughout the war, exchanging letters. They continued to stay in touch after the war, with many visits back and forth between the two families They had both married in their respective countries by this time. This relationship extended into second and third generations and continues to this day.

Norman Hatch, a Marine combat photographer, came to New Zealand with the 2nd Division and followed it around the country, recording its adventures on film. Along with other Marine combat photographers, he took film footage of the bloody fighting on Tarawa.  After editing, the documentary film won an Academy Award the following year. Norm was never able to make it back to New Zealand, but he has stayed in touch with friends he made there during the war.

Deserters and “Dear John” Letters

Although it may have been a memorable time for New Zealand women and American servicemen stationed in New Zealand, the home front situation was cause for concern among New Zealand fighting men both at home and overseas. It was of special concern when some of them started receiving “Dear John” letters from girlfriends and, in some cases, wives. In 1943 when some New Zealand servicemen started coming home on furlough to find the Yanks had taken over, there were a number of alcohol-fueled fights and riots. Much of the discord had to do with women and the racial attitudes of some Americans. The U.S. military was still segregated in those days, and Maori home on leave did not take kindly to some of these American attitudes.

In spite of these confrontations, few Americans who spent time in New Zealand during the war had unkind things to say about the country or its people. In fact, both New Zealand and U.S. military authorities were kept busy throughout the war years rounding up American deserters who preferred life in New Zealand to combat in the Pacific. However, according to information released to the press in those days, the number of American deserters was in the hundreds, not the thousands. When the 2nd Marine Division left for the invasion of Tarawa, only two Marines were not present and accounted for.

During one of their efforts to round up deserters, American Military Police and New Zealand civilian authorities were surprised to come across an American sailor who had jumped ship 25 years earlier. After spending so much time together, members of the 2nd Marine Division and the people of New Zealand had become so close that New Zealand newspapers printed not only the names of New Zealand casualties from the war, but also the names of Americans killed on Tarawa.

50,000 to 60,000 Americans in New Zealand

Between 1942 and 1944, there were from 50,000 to 60,000 Americans in New Zealand at any given time. When they started leaving as the war moved north, the Americans left behind more than broken hearts and adoptive families. They left over a dozen hospitals and clinics to be used by the New Zealand government as it saw fit. They also left a lot of military equipment. Even today, throughout New Zealand there are clubs dedicated to preserving and showing jeeps and other vehicles left behind during the war.

Unlike the Americans who came to New Zealand during World War II, there are few Americans today who have never heard of the island nation. The living veterans of World War II are well into their 80s and 90s. For those still standing there are few friends and comrades left with whom to share their memories.

This article originally appeared in 2012 on the Warfare History Network.

Image: New Zealand Government.

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