Their own local watering hole, assisting with pest control and Catholic priests’ petrol costs, flowers for Solway College teachers, wild house parties, and several dollars contributed to the wartime economy: the US Marines were only in Wairarapa a short time, but “made a heck of an impact”.
This impact is captured in great detail in Our New Zealand Home, a new local history by Wairarapa archivist Mark Pacey, to be launched in Masterton next week.
Our New Zealand Home, published by Pacey’s own label Gosson Publishing, tells the story of the 3rd and 4th Defense Battalions of the United States Marine Corps [USMC]: Stationed at Solway from February to September 1943, and fondly remembered for “livening up the town that had been darkened by years of war”.
During World War II, the US military was based in the Pacific, fighting against the advancement of Japanese forces – and were sent to New Zealand for short periods for “rest and relaxation”.
Between June 1942 and mid-1944, there were between 15,000 and 45,000 American servicemen in camps in New Zealand, mostly throughout the Kapiti Coast.
When the soldiers of the USMC arrived in Masterton, it didn’t take them long to become a staple of the community: Well-known for their politeness, charm, willingness to lend a hand, and the occasional youthful hijinks.
And Masterton was not without its own impact. The title of Pacey’s book references a quote from a serviceman named Colonel Forney, which states: “The people of Masterton have cared for our sick, relaxed our battle worn, and generally rehabilitated the Third Defense Battalion…The extent of their hospitality has been of such unbounded capacity that Masterton is not just a billet but is now our New Zealand home.”
Our New Zealand Home is the culmination of three years of work for Pacey, who sourced most of the information from oral history recordings, found on old cassette tapes digitised by the Wairarapa Archive.
Pacey was inspired to start his research after speaking with a company looking to develop some land near the Marines’ camp – and soon discovered a treasure trove of “brilliant local stories”.
“It was common knowledge that the United States Marines had been in Wairarapa, but there hadn’t been a lot of information written down,” Pacey said.
“Back in the 80s, it became more common for people to record their life stories on tape, and these would be passed on to the Archive. The interviewer would ask, ‘Do you remember when the Americans were here?’ And they’d launch into these fantastic stories.
“I started off doing the research for myself, but I thought, ‘there has got to be a book in this!’
“I think that’s what people will enjoy most about the book – the military history is interesting, but the relatable, funny, human stories are what makes it. And they were so satisfying for me to record.
“It goes to show the importance of recording history.”
The first American servicemen to arrive in Masterton took up station at the Solway Showgrounds – and were in dire need of recuperation after intense fighting at Midway Atoll and Guadalcanal.
“They were absolutely knackered – they didn’t have a lot of food, supplies were running low, and malaria was starting to break out,” Pacey said.
“So, they needed some rest and relaxation.”
Shortly afterwards, servicemen from the 4th Defence Battalion, who had been stationed in Cuba and Vanuatu, arrived – much to the chagrin of their predecessors.
“There was a bit of resentment from the 3rd battalion. As far as they were concerned, the new guys hadn’t seen any real combat, so they’d gotten off easy. Plus, they’d had a head start with dating the local girls, and weren’t keen on the competition!”
To help the soldiers assimilate, they received a publication titled Meet New Zealand – which contained an index of popular local slang terms, such as “corker”, “lollies”, “togs”, “run it up the pole”, and “argue the toss”.
The publication also explained New Zealand’s ratio of sheep to people: In those days, about 18 to 1.
“Local farmers would ask the Marines to shoot rabbits on their properties. They thought, ‘well, these guys like to shoot and kill stuff, so they can help us out on the farm.’
“But, the Americans weren’t used to seeing sheep in the wild. So the farmers had to remind them: ‘Shoot the little grey things, not the big white things!’”
The community didn’t take long to embrace the Americans, with families inviting them for Sunday roasts – where they got to sample mutton for the first time.
To help them feel welcome, members of the community set up the American Red Cross Services Club on Queen St [where Kathmandu is now], which became a social hub for both US and New Zealand servicemen.
With the Americans’ specific tastes in mind, the cooks established a menu with all the comforts of home, such as grilled cheese sandwiches, doughnuts, and hamburgers.
Social dances were a regular feature – though they were “highly policed”.
“There were all these very stern old women who were in charge of procuring the girls to attend. They had to be a certain type of girl, usually from nice families.
“They were pretty strict – the women weren’t allowed to go outside of the building with their American friends at any time.”
If the Americans wished for romantic encounters in less regimented circumstances, there was no shortage of “entrepreneurial women” to tend to their needs.
“There were definitely a few brothels set up. There was one in Renall St – but we couldn’t narrow it down the exact location!”
Pacey said there was “no real evidence” of the Americans causing trouble in the community – apart from sneakily sending bouquets of flowers to Solway College staff and the police having to confiscate a keg from the odd raucous house party, they were “well-behaved”.
However, the Marines’ presence provided the perfect opportunity for local “sly groggers” to line their pockets, which may have slipped under the authorities’ radar. At the time, Masterton was a dry borough, with no premises licensed to sell alcohol – so the Americans were only too happy to purchase bottles of “dubious quality” homemade liquor over the Solway camp fence.
Other residents were more above board in their business sense: With families offering to iron the Americans’ uniforms – which had to be “pristine” while worn in public – in exchange for cash.
“There’s not a lot of money in wartime – so the Marines helped add to the local economy. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.”
If the Marines did resort to illegal activities, it was usually for the benefit of others: For example, a group of servicemen stole a barrel of petrol, which they gifted to Catholic priest Monsignor Nicholas Moore in return for rides into town.
“The local priest wasn’t sure if he should be accepting stolen goods – but they convinced him in the end!”
Pacey said the most time-consuming part of the book was doing the research – including transcribing the taped interviews – and sourcing photos – while the actual writing “only took a few months”.
He said he has received “great support” from members of the current USMC, especially from retired lieutenant colonel and US military historian Edward T. Nevgloski, who provided the book’s forward.
Pacey is also in the process of marketing Our New Zealand Home to a US audience – so the book uses American spellings and terminology.
Our New Zealand Home will be launched in Masterton on February 17 – 80 years to the day since the USMC arrived in Wairarapa.
Our New Zealand Home will be available at Hedley’s Booksellers and Paper Plus in Masterton from February 18, and can be ordered online at gosson.co.nz.