Kapiti Remembers the US Marines

When the First Marine Division arrived at Camp Mackay (Whareroa Farm), in mid-June 1942, the men were amazed to find a town ready and waiting for them. It had roads, streets, paths, water supply, power, sewerage, mess facilities and recreation halls – even hospital wards for the sick and a prison for the unruly. Allie Webber, Secretary of the Kapiti US Marines Trust

Two days of activity and reflection

By Roger Childs

The Kapiti Coast will be remembering the important part played by Americans servicemen and women in our history on Sunday May 28 and Monday May 29, 2017.

It is a reminder that 15,000 Marines lived in the Paekakariki area in 1942 and 1943, at a time when New Zealand was in danger from a possible Japanese invasion.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of American forces in New Zealand, there will be

 ~ A walk/run on an old route march

 ~ A Memorial Day Service

 ~ The dedication and opening of a restored Marines hut.

The three Kapiti Camps

The first Marines, on the USS Wakefield, arrived in Wellington on 14 June 1942, at a time when the Japanese dominated Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, and posed a significant threat to the security of Australia and New Zealand.

At any one time, between 15,000 to 45,000 American servicemen were scattered in camps from Whangarei to Wellington.

The Marines Camps north of Paekakariki

There were three major camps on the Kapiti Coast:

~ Camp Paekakariki

~ Camp Russell

~ Camp Mackay.

There were also 200 Marines signalmen stationed south of the airport in northern Raumati Beach off Wharemauku Road.

About 15,000 American navy, army and marine personnel passed through the Paekakariki camps in 1942-3 and had a massive impact on life in the area.

The Kapiti Coast was chosen for the camps because not only was there plenty of land available, but it was also close to the Tararua Range which provided rugged terrain suitable for military training for the war in the Pacific, and route marches.

In the Footsteps of the Marines

‘Fall in, goddammit, on the double!’
We were off on our first hike in New Zealand. A half mile to the camp gate, then two miles down the highway and a right turn up the slowly winding dirt road. It twisted in a slow rise for nearly four miles. We called it the Little Burma Road. From the top, fifteen hundred feet up, we could see the rolling green hills, small dotted farms, and in the distance the ocean.
Leon Uris “Battle Cry”

Uris was stationed in Paekakariki during the early 1940s and in his novel gives a vivid description of life for the American servicemen at the time.

His account of a route march in the hills behind Camp Mackay inspired local historian, Anthony Dreaver, to propose an event to follow the course.

Kapiti Joggers and Walkers took up the challenge and in 2012 over 140 walked or run a 13.4km course that roughly approximated the march described in Battle Cry.

Last year there were over 220 taking part, including a number of Marines and staff from the US Embassy.

2017 In the Footsteps of the Marines: Sunday 28 May – 13.2 km: social walkers and slow joggers start at 9.00am, race walkers at 9.30am and runners at 10.00am.  Starting and finishing at Whareroa Farm (Camp Mackay) off SH1. $25 entry fee, $30 on the day. Refreshments to follow. Information at www.enteronline or www.marinenz.com or email pamandroger.childs@paradise.net.nz

United States Memorial Day Service

This is now an annual event on the Kapiti calendar. In 2012, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival of Marines in Paekakariki, the Kapiti US Marines Trust, decided to have a series of events to mark the occasion: Salute70.

A highlight was the Memorial Day Service to remember those who died serving their country.

It was attended by over 300 people including the governor general, American Embassy officials and Marines, veterans from the camps, the mayor and other local body leaders, local iwi, school children  and the general public.

As in previous years, the 2017 service will be the first in the world.

2017  Memorial Day Service: Monday 29 May: Marines Memorial Site, Mackays Crossing, Queen Elizabeth Park. Arrive by 9.45am for a 10.00am start.  Seating will be available for those requiring it. After the service the Marine hut, restored by the MenzShed in Waikanae Beach, will be officially opened.

It was all happening in Paekakariki

My mother told me she was in the village shopping as a convoy of trucks rolled out. When they stopped at the crossing she watched in amazement seeing Prince sitting up in the front seat of one of the trucks. She rushed out to the truck and asked the driver for her dog. “No Ma’am” he replied, “he is coming with me. I found him”.  Paekakariki resident, Lesley Varcoe, recalling an incident from the early 1940s. (They got the dog back!)

In the early 1940s the American presence in the area had a huge impact on the small seaside village: population about 600.

There was a track that weaved through the Paekakariki Camp to Camp Russell further north.  This is now remembered as the sign-posted Yankee Trail through Queen Elizabeth Park from the north end of Tilley Road to the Marines Memorial.

The refurbished Marines Hut being loaded onto a truck at the MenzShed

American Marines beat a path along the trail to take advantage of services and amenities in Paekakariki:

  • buying goods in shops
  • worshipping at churches
  • dating local girls
  • going to dances
  • entertaining children.

So on 28 and 29 May, Kapiti will remember the American men and women who came to support New Zealand during World War Two, 75 years ago, and especially those who lived for a short time in three camps in the Paekakariki area.