American life in New Zealand between 1942 and 1944 was centred on the camps, most of which were within marching distance or a short train journey from Wellington or Auckland city.
In the south, the major area of American settlement was on the Kapiti coast, between the west coast beaches and the mountainous Tararua Ranges. Around Paekākāriki there were three large settlements, Camp Paekakariki, Camp Russell (now in Queen Elizabeth Park) and, on the other side of the highway, Camp McKay (also spelt Mackay). Close by were smaller camps at Pāuatahanui, Judgeford Valley and Titahi Bay. In all, more than 21,000 men could be accommodated in the area.
In Auckland there was a scattering of camps from Pukekohe and Papakura in the south to Mechanics Bay, Western Springs, and various parks on the Auckland isthmus. Here 29,500 could be accommodated. Two other places also hosted the Americans. North of Auckland a number of farm camps were set up in the Warkworth area, while Solway Park in Masterton had beds for some 2400 Marines.
Many of the camp sites were quite small and occupied land that already had memories and associations for New Zealanders. In Wellington, Anderson’s Park where boys had played cricket and Central Park where lovers had strolled were suddenly covered in huts. Hutt Park raceway hosted not horses but American soldiers. Auckland Domain was covered by regular lines of army huts. In both Wellington and Auckland a remarkable number of buildings were used by the Americans. In the capital, Hannahs Building, the Bank of New Zealand, Odlins and Tisdalls served as stores or offices. It was difficult, if you lived in these two centres, not to be aware of the invasion.
Camp life seemed spartan for men landing directly from the United States, but comfortable for those arriving from the heat of a Pacific battle. At first most of the Americans lived in pyramid-shaped tents, but increasingly they moved into two-, four- or occasionally eight-man huts. There was often no electric light or heat, and the louvred windows let in the cold and the damp. Men brought up in the central heating of American suburban homes found New Zealand winters unpleasant.
Soldiers lined up with their own mess gear at the cookhouse and ate in mess rooms with bare wooden tables. Food was plentiful, and cooked if possible in American style. But the local staples, especially fatty lamb (‘god-damned mountain-goat’), were not easy for the visitors to cook or to eat. All the larger camps had stores from which American products – cigarettes, Coca-Cola – could be bought. The camps did their best to make the men feel at home amid bush and sandhills.
The first bugle call was at 6 a.m. and the men were at physical drill 10 minutes later. The subsequent routine depended on where they had come from or were headed. Those arriving fresh from the United States were here to be trained for battles on Pacific islands. There were few ceremonial parades in full dress uniform, although all stood to attention at sunset when ‘Old Glory’ was hauled down. There were long route marches to toughen up young city slickers and scouting missions in the Tararua Ranges, which stood in for tropical jungle; artillerymen learnt how to fire under camouflage; landings on Pacific beaches were practised on the Petone foreshore, at Eastbourne, and more ambitiously on Māhia Peninsula, south of Gisborne. When reality finally dawned at Guadalcanal and Tarawa, these practices must have seemed innocent and pleasant by comparison.
Wartime censorship meant that newspapers were not permitted to write about the American presence in New Zealand until November 1942, and thereafter the news was strictly controlled. One unfortunate episode never reported was the drowning of 10 United States Navy personnel off the Paekākāriki coast near Wellington in June 1943. Read more about this incident.
When the horror of the Pacific war got too much, the men might return to New Zealand. Some came simply for what a later generation described as ‘R & R’ (rest and recreation): a period of good food, good times and peace in which the body could recover and the mind let go of its nightmares. Others, less fortunate, returned on stretchers. Some were wounded; more came back suffering the fevers of malaria. In all, 19 hospitals were set up to take almost 10,000 patients. Cornwall Park in Auckland and Silverstream in Wellington were the sites of major institutions. To provide care and the human warmth of a familiar female accent, a considerable number of American nurses came to New Zealand. This was not just a male invasion.
Men too worked at providing the back-up needed by a modern army. The Quartermaster Corps took over large warehouses and areas of the wharves, procured local goods, and packed them off to the war zone. New Zealand conditions added some difficulties. Wet winters, the restricted range of vegetables available and periodic disputes with the ‘wharfies’ were not the least of the problems. Though locals at times muttered about the Americans’ fondness for machinery (they introduced forklifts to New Zealand), all were impressed with their efficiency and thoroughness.
The American forces worked hard and craved time off. But New Zealand leisure habits were very different to American ones. So the visitors devised their own forms of entertainment and established enclaves of American culture. There were games of baseball, jazz concerts, dances, and five Red Cross clubs which offered cheap hamburgers, doughnuts and Coca-Cola.