US Marines Remembered

AN EPIC STORY THAT TOUCHED OUR DISTRICT

By Anthony Dreaver
Chair, Paekakariki Station Precinct Trust
March 15, 2011

 

US Marine on patrol

An exhibition portraying the arrival on Kapiti of more than 15,000 US Marines opens to the public on March 20 at the Paekakariki Station Museum.

 

It shows the impact of the American ‘friendly invasion’ on what was then a sparsely-populated district.

Titled ‘A Friend in Need: the Paekakariki Story’ the exhibition reminds us that in early 1942 and  New Zealand — having despatched an Army Division to the Middle East — was exposed to advancing Japanese forces.

At Winston Churchill’s earnest request, NZ agreed that the 2NZEF would remain as a valued unit in the British Eighth Army, but that New Zealand would become the training ground and launching pad for American forces in the Pacific.

The friendly invasion

American troops were encamped in other parts of the Wellington region and around Auckland.

However the Kapiti district was to house the Second Marines Division, core of the assault force, in three huge camps.

This site was chosen because while it was in easy reach of the capital and its harbour, it also has near mountains and beaches for training in jungle warfare and beach landings.

Besides,it was thought the Kapiti Coast could be a target if New Zealand was ever invaded.

Conveniently, the Health Department was planning to open a tuberculosis hospital at MacKay’s Crossing. Its power, sewerage and water services could now serve the US Marines.

The first Marines to arrive were soon despatched to Guadalcanal, returning to recuperate; and they were soon joined by massive reinforcements.

 

When not in training, they got to know the locals and their country. And they liked what they saw!

 

A history of the Marines in World War II has a chapter about New Zealand entitled ‘The land they adored’. The author quotes a Marine who told him: ‘Our first sight of New Zealand was Mount Egmont; our second was Wellington and the harbour; and the third was women …

‘New Zealand was excellent, and the people were wonderfully friendly and very tolerant of our “invasion.”’

Into battle

The golden days didn’t last. As 1943 wore on the training became more rigorous – so much so that not only exhaustion but also injuries and even deaths became part of their experience.

On October 28 they embarked for Tarawa, now the heart of the Republic of Kiribati.

A three-day battle left 3000 casualties, over 1000 of them deaths (the biggest losses recorded by the Second Marines Division) – a large number of whom were young man familiar with New Zealand milk-bars, farm kitchens, sports flelds and pubs.

Many New Zealanders mourned ‘their’ Marine.

However there were happier outcomes with several hundred New Zealand brides emigrating to new homes in America.

Every few years since World War II a diminishing number of veterans has made the pilgrimage to their New Zealand home from home.

A tangible memorial is the gates to Queen Elizabeth Park. Others include many souvenirs, now the property of Paekakariki Station Museum, gifts to the museum when it was first established in 1993.

Taonga come home

A Friend in Need: the Paekakariki Story is adapted to the local setting from an exhibition created a few years ago by Story Inc. for NZ Historic Places Trust and the United States Embassy.

Its main cabinet is furnished with items borrowed from Paekakariki Station Museum’s collection. These have now ‘come home’.

A generous grant from the United States Embassy allowed the Museum’s trustees to place the core features in a new setting to emphasise the local links.

Visitors will see a narrative of the period as well as evidence of the lasting friendships that developed.

A brilliant audio-visual presentation by Story Inc. tells the story in five chapters that the viewer is able to select.

Equipment on display includes an entrenching tool, Paraparaumu’s Home Guard stretcher, and even expired ammunition, both American and Japanese, dug from the sand of Tarawa.

The museum is attended on Thursday to Sunday from 11am to 3pm (visits at other times by arrangement)

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