The US Marines on the Kapiti Coast


I didn't start out to include information on the site about the U S Marines or US Army in New Zealand during WW11 but as I have read more about the development of the Jeep and the reason for its "being" I couldn't help but develop an interest in those men and women who came down to my part of the world and in the case of the Marines in particular, the area in which I now live on the Kapiti Coast and one of the vehicles that has become synonymous with those "American boys", the Jeep.

I have taken the following information from a number of different sources but as I understand it these men and women came to New Zealand  to not only establish a "presence" in this part of the world in the dark days of 1942 as a deterrent to the Japanese, but to also establish base's for training and the later deployment of troops into the bloody Pacific theater of war most notably .   These camps were also used for R & R for the battle weary men who took part in the Guadalcanal battle and the other bloody fights that followed their redeployment as they fought their way through the Pacific to help give us the freedom that we enjoy today in New Zealand.   Many paid the ultimate price for that freedom and it is a debt we will never be able to repay.

The Arrival of the Troops
The first American soldier to set foot on New Zealand soil at the start of the "American Invasion"  was Sergeant Nathan E. Cook one of the soldiers of the 145 Regiment of the 37th US Army Division, who arrived in Auckland on June 12 1942.
Two days later the Marines arrived in Wellington,. These arrivals were the famous 1st Corps Marine Division, the oldest, largest (active duty), most decorated division in the United States Marine Corps. Nicknamed "The Old Breed",  these troops arrived on board the USS Wakefield and were greeted by a band playing the Marine Corps hymn "'From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.", it was Sunday morning  June 14 1942.
The 1st Division was soon joined in New Zealand and more particularly at Paekakariki  by the "Indian Head" 2nd Marine Division giving a combined standing of three Infantry Regiments, the 2nd, 6th and 8th.
Paekakariki consisted of two large Camps, Camp Russell (now Queen Elizabeth Park) and on the other side of the State Highway, Camp McKay.  Close by were further camps at Pauatahanui, Judgeford Valley (now the New Judgeford Golf Course) and Titahi Bay. where in excess of  21,000 men were able to be accommodated within the Wellington area.

 The separation of the two groups at two widely different locations  - Army units or "doughboys" in the Auckland area and the  Marines or 'leathernecks' to the Paekakariki Wellington area was to remain the pattern over the next two years and at any one time from mid June 1942 until May/July 1944 there were as few as 15,000 and as many as 45,000 American servicemen in camps through out New Zealand in preparation for or immediately after the horrors of war

Tragedy at Paekakariki June 20, 1943

There was strict press censorship of the American presence in New Zealand. The newspapers were not allowed to write about their arrival until November 1942, and even after that the news was heavily controlled.
One unfortunate episode that was never reported concerned the drownings of marines on the rocks beside the Centennial Highway just south of Paekakariki.
It was almost exactly mid winter - June 20 to be exact - the marine units were engaged in practising landings from the sea in preparation for the fighting that was to come. 
All went well until the third practice, the weather had deteriorated, a swell had developed and it was 2030hrs on a very dark night. The very last LC to come in grounded on a sand bar, a large wave created by the swell swamped the boat and men and equipment were thrown into the pounding surf.
Marines pulled some survivors from the water and while official reports say one officer and eight men drowned and their bodies were washed ashore.  Rumor has it that many more than this may have lost their lives that night.

Camp Life
Camp life must have seemed basic to say the least, landing  directly from the United States (some soldiers were no more than 17 years old),  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 louvered 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 tables of bare wood. Food was plentiful, and cooked as far as possible in a traditional American style. But the local staples, especially fatty lamb ('god-damned mountain-goat'), were less easy for the visitors either to cook or to eat. All the larger camps had stores where American products - cigarettes, Coca-Cola - could be bought. The camps did their best to make the men feel at home amid the bush and the sandhills.
Picture left -  Marines at the "PK" at Paekakareiki

The first bugle call was at 6 am and the men were at physical drill 10 minutes later. The subsequent routine depended on where you had come from and where you 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 to get the men used to 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 Mahia Peninsula near Gisborne. When reality finally dawned at Guadalcanal and Tarawa, these practices must have seemed innocent and pleasant in the extreme.

R & R and Hospitals
Some of the troops returned to New Zealand  to recover from the horrors of the Pacific war, some came simply for  "R & R" a period of good food, good times and peace in which the body could recover and the mind let go its nightmares. Others, less fortunate, returned on stretchers. Some were wounded, more came back suffering the fevers of malaria.  19 hospitals were set up to take these 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.

Support Infrastructure
Men  worked at providing the backup support for a modern army. The most important were the Quartermaster Corps, who took over large warehouses and areas of the wharves, procured local goods, and packed them off to the war zone in the Pacific. New Zealand conditions added certain difficulties to these tasks. Wet winters, periodic disputes with the 'wharfies', and the restricted range of vegetables available were not the least of the problems.  Locals at times muttered about the Americans' fondness for machinery , but all were impressed with their efficiency and thoroughness. 
*An interesting note is that the American forces are credited with the introduction of  fork-lifts to New Zealand


The Guadalcanal Campaign, also known as the Battle of Guadalcanal (Japanese: ガダルカナル島の戦い), was fought between August 7, 1942 and February 9, 1943 in the Pacific theatre of World War II. This campaign, fought on the ground, at sea, and in the air, pitted Allied forces against Imperial Japanese forces, and was a decisive campaign of World War II.  The fighting took place on and around the island of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands and was the first major offensive launched by Allied forces against the Empire of Japan.

On August 7, 1942, Allied forces, predominantly composed of forces from the United States, initiated landings on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida in the southern Solomons with the objective of denying their use by Japanese forces as bases to threaten supply routes between the U.S, Australia, and New Zealand.          

(Right - Marines on Guadalcanal 1942)