US Forces in New Zealand

Page 5 – Having fun US style

All dressed up and nowhere to go

Although the American forces in New Zealand worked hard, there had to be some time for fun; and, increasingly, those arriving had come to recover from war and to enjoy rest and recreation. This presented the American authorities with a problem, for New Zealand and American patterns of leisure were different. Many Americans were used to a lively urban culture; New Zealand cities were closed and deserted in the evenings and on Sundays. So the American soldier with a ‘liberty pass’ at first found it difficult to buy the alcohol he desired or the foods he craved. There was nowhere for him to dance to the songs he hummed.

One response was for the Americans to provide their own entertainment and to begin establishing enclaves of American culture in this foreign land. Like most soldiers, the Americans found ways of amusing themselves informally. There was the usual skylarking, teasing and swapping of funny stories; and there was much gambling, usually the games of blackjack and craps.

The Americans also provided their own organised entertainment. Sport was a particular favourite, since it helped to raise morale and improve physical fitness as well as providing enjoyment for spectators. Baseball and softball leagues were organised for weekend afternoons, and a crowd of 20,000 watched a baseball game at Wellington’s Athletic Park in January 1943. Boxing tournaments were held, and an intensely competitive game of American football was played on Eden Park in Auckland between the army and the Marines. In Wellington in mid-1943 an old Wakefield St building was converted into a gymnasium and venue for basketball and badminton. A skating rink was opened nearby.

There were occasional efforts to play sport with the locals. Tugs-of-war appear to have crossed cultural boundaries. On one occasion a game of rugby was played with New Zealanders – causing the Americans much amusement but also some disgust. The American photographer witnessing the performance described it as ‘mayhem’; the apparent object was to twist the opponent’s neck, ‘throw him on the ground, and take the football away from him’. Such occasions of sporting competition between the nations were rare. In general the Americans carried their own games with them.

Music and dance

The Americans also organised music for themselves. Their units were well supplied with bands, and at the larger camps there was a regular weekly concert. Occasionally travelling entertainers arrived to perform. The most famous was the jazz clarinettist Artie Shaw, who came with his navy band. The comedian Joe E. Brown was another popular visitor. If there was no live music available, from April 1944 the doughboys could tune into Radio 1ZM in Auckland, the ‘American Expeditionary Station’, to hear ‘Music America Loves Best’ or ‘American College Songs’.

Most of the bases, especially the hospitals, had photographic darkrooms and materials for painting, drawing and carving. They also offered regular showings of Hollywood movies – outside in ‘starlight theatres’ at the smaller bases, and in the recreation halls at larger camps such as Papakura and McKay. The recreation hall at Titahi Bay still stands. On special occasions the American Red Cross hostesses at the camps would arrange dances to which the ‘right type’ of women were invited as partners.

Red Cross clubs

Red Cross officials, nearly all of them women, organised Red Cross clubs in Warkworth, Masterton, the Hotel Cecil near the Wellington railway station, and two in the Auckland Hotel, one each for officers and men.

These clubs were oases of American culture. There was cheap American food – hamburgers, doughnuts, ice-cream sodas, Coca-Cola, apple pie, coffee. There were a library and desks at which to write home; there were games to play, such as table tennis and pool; and there were facilities for pressing and mending clothes. The American hostesses were supported by New Zealand volunteers, who worked in the canteens and supervised the ‘wholesome’ dances that were put on at these clubs.

How to cite this page

'Having fun US style', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/us-forces-in-new-zealand/having-fun-us-style, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012