US Forces in New Zealand

Page 10 – The end or a beginning?

Fond farewells

The end of the invasion was a more gradual process than its beginning. Many individual units would leave for battle only to return a month or two later, battered and bruised. The thinning of the American presence as a whole really began towards the end of 1943.

As Japanese advances in the Pacific were turned back, secure bases closer to the action became available and the possibility of an attack on this part of the world diminished. In late October 1943 Marines began embarking on transport ships in Wellington Harbour. Night-time ‘liberty boats’ took the men back to shore for fond goodbyes; and then at dawn on 1 November, as white sheets waved a last farewell from Seatoun beach, the armada sailed. Many empty camps around Wellington were taken over by the New Zealand military while others were broken up and the huts sold. Silverstream hospital was handed back to the locals in April 1944.

Three months later the last major US force, the 43rd Division, left Auckland. Stores and offices were vacated; the Red Cross clubs ceased operation; milk bars and pubs found business slack. In October 1944 the naval base at Auckland was closed. Although some 200 Americans were still at large in New Zealand as deserters and a few naval men were to be found in the ports until VJ Day, the invasion was over.

Some New Zealanders must have felt a sense of relief. The occasional bout of fisticuffs between Kiwi and Yank during 1943 showed that for a few the welcome had turned sour. But for many New Zealanders the departure of the Americans was an occasion of great sadness. In many cases the men were off to war, and there would be a time of anxious waiting as friends, lovers and acquaintances wondered whether those cheerful Americans who had wandered into their lives would survive. Perhaps they would come back sick or wounded; perhaps they would even die in New Zealand and be buried temporarily at Karori or Waikumete cemetery (after the war the bodies were exhumed and returned to American soil).

More commonly, news would come back that they had fallen on a Pacific beach. This was especially the case with the last Marines to leave Wellington, whose assignment was to capture Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. This landing turned into an American Gallipoli, with men mowed down by the Japanese as they waded ashore. More than 900 were killed and more than 2000 wounded. The columns of casualty lists printed in the Wellington newspapers made sad reading for many New Zealanders. Some were now widows; the papers began to print appeals from grieving American relatives for photos or information about their lost sons’ last days of happiness in New Zealand. On US Memorial Day in both 1944 and 1945 New Zealanders laid wreaths for the American dead.

Happy memories

The invasion had a happy ending for some. Almost 1500 New Zealand women travelled to the United States as war brides, although for them too the ride was often rocky. In anticipation of living in the United States a number had set up the Eagle Club to swap information on the three Cs: cookery, customs and the Constitution. They were then forced to wait. Space on the ships was tight, and many did not sail until 1946, often three years after their marriage. Some waited in vain for the necessary application on their behalf by their husbands, receiving instead notices of intention to divorce. Others travelled to the US only to discover that they had to produce a bond of US$500 on arrival. Fiancées had to wait even longer for the necessary permissions, if these came at all. Even those who made the journey successfully sometimes found the culture more foreign and their new relatives more suspicious than they had hoped. The Eagle Club extended its membership to the mothers who worried at home.

In the long term, the memories never quite faded. New Zealand’s first full encounter with Americans and their culture gave birth to new habits – swing bands, coffee and hot dogs – which would provide fertile soil for the increasing spread of American popular culture in the next generation. There remain many elderly women whose eyes light up and whose feet begin to tap when the subject of the invasion is raised, while their menfolk mutter cryptically about ‘those damned Yankees and our women’.

For many American soldiers, New Zealand was a green and welcoming home away from home. Some chose to came back to live here permanently, while others made regular post-war pilgrimages to ‘the land we adored’. They visited the old haunts, paid tribute at the memorials which had been put up to their comrades, and once in a while thought wistfully about a lost love, who allowed them to forget the war on Saturday nights at the Majestic Cabaret.

How to cite this page

'The end or a beginning?', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/us-forces-in-new-zealand/the-end-or-a-beginning, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Sep-2014