When Americans came to town...

Over 100,000 American servicemen stayed in New Zealand between 1942 and 1944, recuperating from fighting and training for the future operations against the Japanese forces. They brought with them money and new forms of entertainment, like jazz, dancing and American food. Many left New Zealand with kiwi wives. As the American culture was taking over major New Zealand cities, kiwis started to refer to this as the American Invasion.

An American sailor and a Marine with friends at Oriental Bay (Alexander Turnbull Library).

US Army soldiers and the Marines began to arrive in June 1942. The atmosphere was that of jubilation: all boats were greeted with kiwi orchestras and the arrivals greeted kiwis by giving out oranges and American coins as souvenirs. It was the time of deprivation in New Zealand and well-fed and well-paid American soldiers were a welcomed sight. For some, dating American servicemen was a lucrative option, as one kiwi woman described it:

An American never came without bringing you a corsage or a packet of cigarettes if you smoked, and candies. [1]

Upon their arrival in June 1942, American soldiers were issued Meet New Zealand guidebooks, which you can read here (a rather fascinating read!). These servicemen were sent to New Zealand to both protect the country (in lieu of New Zealand soldiers who were fighting in the Middle East) and to use New Zealand as a useful staging post for controlling the Pacific and fighting the Japanese.

American personnel resided in camps, most within a short train journey to either Wellington or Auckland city. The camps were stationed on Kāpiti Coast near Wellington and in Auckland as widely as in Pukekohe in the south and Warkworth in the north. However, the American troops often travelled across New Zealand for training purposes. One woman remembers that as a little girl in 1942, she was at first, terrified:

Suddenly around the corner came a long line of jeeps with soldiers in their camouflage uniforms sitting inside. What a shock I got. I took off back home at high speed shouting out to my mother to ‘Get inside quick. The Germans are coming.’ What a relief when it was explained to me that these men weren’t Germans but Americans who were over here in New Zealand protecting our land. What I do recall is their friendliness and hospitality as they stopped their jeeps and got out at our front gate and gave us biscuits and sweets and had a friendly chat to my parents on the Wairoa-Gisborne main road on their way up north.[2]

The training for American troops was all about preparing men for the Pacific conditions. Tararua Ranges were used to simulate the ‘tropical jungle’ while Petone and Eastbourne in Wellington were used for practice landing. This must have been a bit of a sight for the local residents.

United States troops, marching along Jervois Quay, Wellington (Alexander Turnbull Library).

Some aspects of American culture were making their way into the lives of New Zealanders: jazz concerts and outfits selling hamburgers, doughnuts and Coca-Cola were becoming common in Wellington and Auckland. Jitterbug, a type of swing, was introduced by the visitors and became very popular at the kiwi dancehalls. Geraldine Mason remembers how she first learnt this dance when taken out by a Marine:

The first time I saw the jitterbug being performed was at a dance at Hutt Park put on by the Marine Corps. As usual, my girlfriends and I wore long dress frocks. A Marine met us at the gate to escort us past the guard and into the hall. He expressed surprise seeing us in long frocks. We asked him what the girls in the States wore to dances and he replied, ‘They just wear a skirt and blouse – we push them around a bit.’… They sure could dance.[3]

United States Marines and New Zealand women at a dance (Alexander Turnbull Library).

American men were making their way into the hearts of many kiwi women with their good manners, taxi rides home and gifts of flowers. Approximately 1500 kiwi women married American soldiers between 1942 and 1944 - approximately 13% of the total number of marriages in New Zealand during these years. This was not welcomed by the kiwi men and many fights broke out. Best known among them was the Battle of Manners Street, when on 3rd April 1943 just after 6pm, hundreds of kiwi and American men clashed. In 1943 pubs and bars used to shut at 6pm and men, many drunk, were forced outside. One contemporary woman remembers:

There were an awful lot of fights between the New Zealand men and the Americans when they came here. They used to have fist fights. I don’t think the Americans wanted it so much as these men resented them. The Americans and the New Zealand servicemen didn’t get on terribly well together.[4]

Regardless of the tensions that sprung up occasionally, most kiwis were welcoming of the Americans and many hosted servicemen in their homes. These ‘home visits’ were organised by the officials and the American servicemen would normally be hosted by a kiwi family for the duration of the weekend. Nancy Gillespie, who was 17 at the time, remembered how her family hosted Private Graden Maines:

Looking back and thinking how young he was, he looked like a boy. He was so young. He must have been about 18. He came to our farm and he had meals with us. I think he must have stayed a night. My dad must have taken him out all over the place, because he called my father Uncle Bill, and I think Dad must have thought, ‘Here’s a lad who’s going off to goodness knows what, and I’ve been there doing that,’ and he was just lovely to him. Everybody was… He gave me a little badge – a pin. And he gave my cousin, Kathleen, one too.[5]

In late 1943, American servicemen were departing, but not many new reinforcements came in.

By mid-1944 only a few hundred soldiers were still staying in New Zealand and the American invasion has thus ceased. It is still remembered fondly by many kiwis, and not so fondly by others! If you want to read more about this fascinating time, check out sources in footnotes bellow.

[1] Alison Parr, Home: Civilian New Zealanders Remember the Second World War (Penguin Group, 2010), 217. [2] Harry Bioletti, The Yanks Are Coming: The American Invasion of New Zealand, 1942-1944 (Century Hutchinson, 1989), 72. [3] Georgina White, Light Fantastic: Dance Floor Courtship in New Zealand (HarperCollins, 2007), 108. [4] Parr, Home, 222. [5] Parr, 227. Cover image information through this link.

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