Americans Everywhere

Maurice Perry

In about June 1942, after the war in the Pacific had started, the Government took over the farms between Paekakariki and Raumati South for a training area for United States marines, shortly to arrive in New Zealand. Three large camps were built: Paekakariki, just north of the town and camps, McKay and Russell, built either side of the road at McKays Crossing. McKenzies’ farmhouse was used as accommodation for American officers. By late in 1942 there were US marines in large numbers in those camps and of course all around the Kapiti area. Their jeeps, trucks, armoured cars and tanks were a very familiar sight on all our roads. Another vehicle unknown to us before was the station wagon, often built with wooden side panels and doors. Station wagons were always used for officers’ transport.

One evening, during our dinner, a loud rumbling noise from the farmland just to the east of us aroused everyone’s curiosity. On the hills to the east of Dell Road we had our first ever sight of military tanks moving over our farmland. For over a year then the sight and sound of tanks became very familiar and offered great entertainment for us locals. Half-track armoured cars and jeeps were also frequently involved in those manoeuvres. Marines on manoeuvres would often set up an overnight camp in a park or just amongst the trees off Dell Road or Tenniscourt Road. For communication, although they had good radios, they often strung phone wires on our power poles and used their field telephones between the different units. Radios in those days were far larger and heavier than today, as the transistor had not yet been developed.

Mrs Mitchell, who ran the shop in Poplar Avenue opposite the present shops, made and sold fruit cake that the marines took a liking to. We would often be asked by marines on manoeuvres to buy some of this and always some icecreams. Our two-wheeled cart was used both for collecting scrap metal and carting the items we had bought for them from the shop. Meals for these troops came in the chow wagon, usually a jeep towing a trailer from one of their camps.

On one occasion they were trying a modification to the caterpillar tracks of one tank by fitting extra growsers. On a hillside the tank lost traction and rolled into a shallow pond, injuring two of the crew. They managed to climb out through the turret, but the tank was well stuck. A radio call back to base at Camp McKay had a large bulldozer being sent up the beach to the rescue.

Inflatable landing craft were often used in landing practices on our beach. These were often kept in sand hills where Hydes Cutting meets the beach. The boats were powered by Evinrude outboard motors. Unfortunately on one occasion a wave capsized one boat and some marines drowned. That sad event cast an atmosphere of gloom for some time, with everyone feeling great sympathy for the families and survivors.

The Paekakariki Hotel, owned by Mr Jack Shelley of Wellington, was the only supplier of liquor in the area, so the marines were good patrons of that establishment. The long building beside the highway at Paekakariki Railway Station was built in 1943 to house supplies arriving by train for the marine camps.

Marines were taken into many of our homes for meals, or just an evening in a family environment. The sound of gunfire or mortar bombs exploding was a constant part of the experience there in those days, as the training continued throughout the rolling hills that had once been McKenzies’ Farm.

As children we would collect used cartridge cases (made of solid brass) and mortar bomb tail-fins, to sell as scrap metal. This gave us all some good pocket money. Another item left lying around over the paddocks was small tins of instant coffee. These formed part of a field ration-pack, but seemed not to be wanted by the marines. We collected many of these and gave our parents their first introduction to instant coffee. American cigarettes – lucky-strikes, camel, etc – were in plentiful supply, and were handed out with great generosity. Local families also received items of clothing, silk stockings or USMC badges etc as gifts. Their presence here in 1942–1943 had a big impact on life for everyone on the Kapiti Coast. It also had the addition of giving us all added security in the event of a Japanese invasion (believed by the government to be very likely).

Because of the invasion threat, we were prohibited from having any lights showing out to sea. Houses on the waterfront had to have all west-facing windows blacked out. Occasionally the ranger on Kapiti Island would radio to Paraparaumu that a light was showing and a local EPS (Emergency Precautions Scheme) person would be sent to remedy the problem. During the war all cars had their headlights permanently dipped for the same reason. Military vehicles all had their headlights shielded to just a narrow beam of light. On the north side of the Pukerua Bay hill road, a tank trap was built to hinder the movement of enemy vehicles should they land in this area and try to drive south.

The sounds of rifle fire, machine gun fire and mortar bomb explosions on their training ground were something we became used to in those days. Fox holes dug into the paddocks, often with some camouflage netting over the top, were frequent sights.

From McKays Crossing north and all along Poplar Avenue there were signs announcing WARNING GUNFIRE AT ANY TIME! KEEP OUT! U.S.M.C.

Marines on manoeuvres were likely to be seen anywhere in the district. On one occasion we were walking down Waterfall Gully Road returning from a picnic and passed a troop of marines walking up the hill. We had noticed the odd machine-gun nest, mortar set-up or communication post being established amongst the trees as we walked down. The troop going uphill was on an observation exercise, hoping to spot these. I’m sure we helped their exercise along that day by telling where we had spotted each one.

On another occasion we had walked down the beach for a picnic at the Whareroa Stream. During lunch we were entertained by tracer machine fire going over our heads and landing in the sea. This was surely the best addition to a family picnic one could ever hope for. Before very long a marine officer came running along the beach shouting “You are in the firing range – GET OUT!” We reluctantly but hurriedly gathered our gear and headed north out of the firing range.

One weekend in 1943 we drove to Raumati, but all was empty and quiet at the three marine camps. The US marines had sailed from Wellington to the Pacific Islands to engage in what they had been trained for. The place seemed very different with no jeeps or tanks or trucks, no sounds of gunfire, no Americans to buy Mrs Mitchell’s fruitcake and generally fewer people around.

The entire Second Division went straight to the Gilbert Island of Tarawa, the first step in America’s island-hopping advance across the Pacific. Here the very existence of the American Marines, assault landings on defended beaches, was sorely tested. The Japanese had two years here bunkering in and their tight lines of defense proved deadly. Unfortunately too the Japanese fought with the honour of the suicidal kamikaze, and vowed to take as many of the enemy to the grave with them as possible.

But even before they reached the deadly beaches, the jagged reefs proved impregnable for the troop carriers and many marines were forced to disembark up to 650 yards offshore, where they simply sank in their heavy kit straight to the bottom. This was the first day. By day two they were joined by the Eighth Marine Regiment. 4200 Japanese prepared to die meeting them. Despite the allies finally defeating the Japanese here on November the 23rd, Americans at home were shocked to hear of the tally of 1000 dead and 2000 wounded. A picture was painted of what was proportionately one of the most costly battles in US history. Only sixteen live Japanese soldiers and one subaltern were taken prisoner from this battle. These were our marines. Lessons were learnt in this battle, and the Allies successfully defended the entire Pacific.

That short but very interesting time in our history had ended as suddenly as it had started, but there were still to be two more years of war ahead of us, but without the marines with us on the Kapiti Coast. In 1979, wrought iron gates were installed at the McKays entrance to Q E II Park as a memorial to the marines. They had left a huge legacy of their time here during that very tense time in our history.

Towards the end of the war another sound of explosives was being heard, as Gould’s contractors built a road for Campbell’s sawmills along the escarpment above Waterfall Road. A sawmill was being established at Paraparaumu and a road pushed through the native bush in the headwaters of the Whakatiki River, a tributary of the Akatarawa River close to the base of Mt Wainui. This road branched off the Maungakotukutuku Road. The sawmill operated at Paraparaumu, using logs from there for some years until the supply of native timber dwindled and the mill became uneconomic and closed. The remnants of that road are still visible from Raumati South.

One item needed to make medicinal drugs during the war was ergot, a small black fungal growth that could be found on both marram grass and tall fescue. Both of these grasses could be found growing on the sandhills of the Kapiti Coast, so children could often be seen with a paper bag scouring the coastal areas for them. We were paid a small amount for this, so a great deal of it was needed to produce a decent sum.

On the announcement of the war’s end in August 1945, the Eatwell family decided that a dance in the large recreation room built behind Kawatiri would be appropriate. Raumati South residents enjoyed a great evening of dancing, singing and partying that night –  everyone was very happy to help celebrate the most wonderful event to happen in five years.

After the war the government arranged for the marine camps to be dismantled and the buildings sold. Many of the huts were bought to be used as baches, or used to extend existing baches. Building materials had been extremely scarce during the war and for the first few years afterwards, so this ready source of timber was very welcome. What had been army huts or other camp buildings soon appeared on many properties on the Coast.

There had been no new vehicles imported during the war years, so a shortage of all cars, trucks, and tractors existed as well. The armed forces sold all manner of vehicles and equipment no longer needed with hostilities ended. One vehicle that was bought by many farmers was the New Zealand built bren-gun carrier. On occasions I would see one of these, (minus the bren gun) driving over the hills of McKenzie farm, being used in lieu of a farm tractor.

The farmers returned to the farms and carried on once again as peacetime operators. In 1954 the government, together with the Wellington City Council, decided to purchase the three farms north of Paekakariki, to create a park for the future use of Wellingtonians. The area was named Queen Elizabeth II Park, which quickly became shortened to Queen Elizabeth Park. The whole area would not be needed for some years, so farming was carried on much as before, but with new operators.

Over the years since then, ammunition, pieces of military equipment, thousands of used and thousands of unexploded cartridge cases have on occasions appeared when any earthmoving activity has been carried out. More will keep on appearing for years to come.

Throughout the war years there was always aircraft activity overhead. The various RNZAF planes were common sights in our skies and at Paraparaumu airfield. After the war a Paraparaumu resident, Jack Gold, bought some surplus planes and some of these ended up at Paraparaumu. One morning in 1947, word went around that an amphibious biplane was parked on Raumati Beach. He had bought two amphibian Walrus aircraft at Woodburn in Blenheim, and taxied one across Cook Strait at night. Apparently there was no certificate of airworthiness, so flying them home was definitely a no-no.

On Christmas Eve 1947 we were all watching some spectacular aerobatics being undertaken in a Tiger Moth. Unfortunately, later that day the plane crashed into a power pole in Paraparaumu Beach, setting fire to an adjacent house and killing the pilot. Rumour has it that he was flying under the power lines.

In those days the only picture theatre in our area was in Kapiti Road, close to the Blue Moon dance hall. Many community organisations and clubs were formed in the post-years, as the Kapiti Coast became ever more popular, especially once wartime petrol rationing ended finally in 1949.

In the late 1940s a tennis club was formed and soon became a popular part of weekend life at Raumati South, as was the bowling club formed in 1945. There was no public hall in the district, nor any facilities close to the tennis courts. Shortly after the war ended, there was a strong feeling that a war memorial should be erected. A public hall was decided on, and very soon planning and fund-raising began. A Queen Carnival throughout the district brought in a majority of the money. Raumati residents rallied around this ambitious project. In late 1951, foundations were laid and construction began for the hall. As construction progressed a grand opening was planned, and it was opened on the Saturday 12th April 1952.

A Surf Life Saving Club was formed, although Raumati South beach was generally very safe for swimming. The enthusiastic group set about fundraising for a clubroom to be built at the seaward end of Hydes Cutting. That worthwhile amenity was operational there from 1955 until 1968. The club rooms were used by sea-scouts after the demise of the surf club and were finally demolished in the 1990s.

The motor camp in Tennis Court Road closed about 1947. Shortly afterwards the subdivision that produced Jeep Road, McKenzie Avenue and Whareroa Road was established, and The Esplanade extended to the south. The Automobile Association had recently established a modern motor camp in Manly Street and this attracted most of the campers. About that time the Esplanade Tearoom was established at 54 The Esplanade and became a very popular refreshment spot in Raumati South. In recent years Raumati South has become more a place of permanent residence than a seaside resort, but fortunately it has retained all the charm of the latter.

Maurice Perry and Jacqueline Elliott

Building the Raumati South Memorial Hall 1952. Contributed by Maurice Perry.

Building the extension to the south side of the Raumati South Memorial Hall. Contributed by Maurice Perry.

Raumati South Memorial Hall. Built in 1952, the hall and grounds facility now includes the original two tennis courts, a basketball court, a small skatepark, and a bmx track on the north side. On the south side of the building are a modern children’s playground and large grassed ball play area. Te Kohanga Reo is now established in the old Plunket Rooms in the far corner. Between 2004 and 2008 the hard work of an active residents’ group secured funding to build a covered deck and public toilet facility. The building was completely repainted, and the reserve renamed Kawatiri Reserve – a welcome return of a name so long associated with the area. Contributed by Jesse Darby.