For a year from June 1942 New Zealand became an important United States military base in the Pacific. At any one time during that period around 50,000 US servicemen were living in camps close to Wellington and Auckland.
While there were the inevitable romances with New Zealand women, and friendships formed with local families, there were also tensions. Kiwi male jealousy of the better-paid and often more sophisticated Americans led to skirmishes on the streets of Wellington and Auckland. Racial tensions also surfaced between Māori and some white Americans, particularly those from the southern states of America who were unaccustomed to mixing freely with other races.
In an effort to bridge the racial gap, American officers travelled to the Waikato, to the Tūrangawaewae marae, in a series of visits arranged by Tainui–Waikato leader Te Puea Hērangi. US servicemen were also welcomed by Māori in Rotorua and Gisborne, and the Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club in Wellington visited American patients in hospital.
Although some New Zealanders kept in touch with the Americans they met, many more were left wondering what happened to their new friends. The visiting servicemen all left to fight in the Pacific, a theatre of war that took a huge toll of lives. New Zealanders lost more than 700 soldiers, sailors and airmen in the conflict; the total number of Americans killed in the Pacific was more than 92,000. The Japanese forces lost more than one million.
In 1943, 6000 men from 2NZEF were brought home on leave. This 'furlough' was intended to be for three months, but problems delayed their return to war. As well as difficulties with transport, there were also political tensions. About 40,000 eligible men were working in essential jobs and 13,000 of these were single. From the week of the furlough draft's arrival in New Zealand, there was pressure to release the returned men, and send to war those who had not yet done their bit. Vehement protests were led by the RSA, who felt this was a good chance for 'getting at the shirkers'.
Eventually, many of the returned men were allowed to end their time in uniform and stay home. The lucky ones included married soldiers with children, all men over 41, and Māori. In addition, more than 2500 of the draft were found medically unfit for further service. But just over 1600 faced a return to the front. More than 500 of these refused the order and were found guilty of desertion, a verdict that was later quashed. As with other controversial issues, much of what people learned at the time was hearsay. Full information about the 'mutiny' never reached the public because censorship kept the details under wraps.
Especially in the earlier war years, many young people continued with a vibrant social life. Dances and gatherings in towns throughout the country provided a chance for those left behind to enjoy themselves.
Sex outside marriage was widely regarded as unacceptable and although war can lend intensity to intimate relationships, there is no firm evidence that sexual mores in New Zealand changed during the Second World War.
Sexual pressure from men was not new; the war just gave a new poignancy to some of their arguments against chastity.
But the number of 'illegitimate' births – those outside marriage – almost doubled between 1939 and 1944. The number of adoptions, and abortions, also increased. 'War influences, resulting in unusual movements of the population and influx of servicemen to the more heavily populated centres, are no doubt responsible for the high figures recorded 1943–46.'
Official attitudes towards contraception for servicemen were inconsistent. The army made condoms available to Kiwi troops in North Africa and Italy because of the high risk of venereal disease in those countries. In New Zealand, however, the distribution of condoms to troops was ruled out by government decree. Along with sexually transmitted diseases, the rate of extramarital pregnancy rose during the early war years. Pregnancy outside marriage was widely frowned upon, and women who became pregnant were often shunned by their communities.