Pacific Islanders in the NZEF

Page 5 – Difficulties faced by Pacific Islanders

Pacific Islanders faced many difficulties when they left their island homes for the first time and joined the army.

Most of these men spoke no English. One of the first tasks at Narrow Neck was to identify those who did speak some English - they were usually the ones promoted to NCO. The others were taught basic army commands but were dependent on their comrades explaining what was happening.

Wearing boots caused many problems for men used to going barefoot over hard coral. Boots had to be made to fit the ‘abnormal feet’ of some Niueans.

The army diet required further adjustment. The Niueans and Cook Islanders at Narrow Neck were given more fish and fruit and less meat than the New Zealanders.

The greatest problem for the Pacific Islanders was their lack of immunity to European diseases. The Niueans were especially vulnerable because of the isolation of their island. Sickness and death began at Narrow Neck and followed the men throughout their journey to war and return home.

As soon as the men arrived in Suez some were hospitalised. Here the isolation they felt was heightened by language difficulties. In Egypt, France and England many Niueans and Cook Islanders were hospitalised with complications arising from measles, dysentery and influenza. Often they were the only Pacific Island patient in the entire hospital and unable to communicate with those around them.

Climate added to the toll of illness and was behind the decisions to withdraw the Niueans from northern France and send the second Cook Islands contingent to Palestine. Those still overseas at the end of the war faced the final hurdle that confronted all troops, the Spanish influenza epidemic.