Pacific aftermath

Page 3 – Troop repatriation

When the Armistice was signed in November 1918, Pacific Island troops in New Zealand service were stationed in a number of locations. The main body serving overseas was the almost 300-strong Rarotongan Company in Palestine. Individual men were in hospitals in France, England and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Groups were in training at Narrow Neck camp in Auckland. The 5th Cook Island Contingent had just arrived in Auckland, having left Rarotonga on 29 October.

The authorities had the major task of returning all servicemen to New Zealand and then repatriating the Pacific Islanders to their home islands. New Zealand military authorities were unclear about Pacific geography and island steamers had been requisitioned for war service.

Paying for Pacific repatriation

Official liability for repatriation costs was limited to ‘those Islands under the jurisdiction or present control of the New Zealand Government, i.e. Cook Islands, Chathams and Samoa.’ (Niue was often considered one of the Cook Islands; the Chatham Islands were part of New Zealand proper.) The main focus was on the Cook Islands and Niue, from which contingents had been enlisted. Individual men were returned to Samoa and the Chathams at state expense.

Men from other Pacific islands, notably Fiji, Tonga, and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, had also served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). The case for the New Zealand government to pay for their return home was to be considered ‘upon their individual merits’. The Fijian and Gilbert and Ellice Island contingents training in New Zealand when the Armistice was signed were sent back to the Pacific at official expense. So was the Gilbert and Ellice Islander Kaipati, who had been invalided home from France in 1917.

Shipping problems

The SS Moana returned the recently arrived 5th Contingent to Rarotonga in December 1918. It was then to return the Rarotongan Company, which was due to arrive in New Zealand from Egypt by late January 1919. But there was a problem: the Moana was not registered to carry nearly 300 troops. Its lifeboats had been condemned and its owners, the Union Steam Ship Company, were unable to provide enough replacements. The answer was to formally charter the Moana as a troopship. It could then carry the troops on deck with an adequate supply of life rafts and belts. In the event, sickness on board the SS Malta, the troopship bringing them from Egypt, meant that the men were unable to travel on this voyage.

The Rarotongan Company was instead moved to Somes Island in Wellington Harbour, recently designated a quarantine station in the effort to contain the new threat to life – the Spanish flu pandemic. The authorities had reason for caution in repatriating soldiers to the Pacific. Lack of caution in late 1918 had resulted in the introduction of the flu virus to the islands on regular shipping routes – Fiji, Tonga, the Cooks and, most disastrously, Samoa. For once, the lack of regular shipping to Niue was a blessing and prevented sickness and death on that island.

Leave, pay and pensions

Holding the Rarotongan Company on Somes Island fitted another principle decided on by the New Zealand authorities in relation to the repatriation of Pacific soldiers. The men were to be kept together as a group until they could be shipped home. Rather than travel around New Zealand on a rail pass like other returned soldiers, they would be granted final leave in their home islands.

This principle had been determined in late 1916 after the Niue Contingent returned from England. These men had been held at the Epsom Convalescent Home until shipping could be arranged. They were given three weeks’ leave on full pay from the estimated day of their arrival at Niue. Their date of discharge was the last day of this leave.

Pay and claims for pensions were to be settled before the men left New Zealand. Pensions would be paid out as a lump sum before sailing because of the difficulty of making payments in the outer islands. In practice, much of the money due was paid later. Some were still claiming, and receiving, outstanding payments in the late 1920s.

Vouchers were issued to each man for a civilian suit. Many servicemen also retained their basic uniforms. The men of the 5th Cook Island Contingent wanted to keep their army greatcoats. This rather surprising request was granted – with a corresponding deduction from their pay.

By late 1919 most Pacific Island soldiers had been returned to their homes. The main body of the Rarotongan Company was transported on the SS Paloona in February 1919, after inhalation equipment, thought to be effective in preventing flu, had been installed on the ship. Those delayed further by sickness were gradually returned during the year as they were given medical clearances.

How to cite this page

'Troop repatriation', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/pacific-aftermath/troop-repatriation, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016