As my regular readers know, June of last year marked the 70th anniversary of the arrival of U.S. Marines and other American servicemen and women in New Zealand during the dark days of World War II. Through a series of related anniversaries over the past year we have commemorated the service and sacrifice of those U.S. forces and their Kiwi counterparts, as well as the profound, positive impact that the American visitors had on the many communities across New Zealand which hosted them during the war.
The small town of Mahia, on the east coast of the North Island, was one of the communities which proudly hosted Marines in the 1940s. The U.S. 2nd Marine Division trained in and around Mahia in preparation for deployment to liberate occupied islands in the Pacific in a series of iconic battles. My Embassy colleague Colin Crosby and his family recently joined visiting Marines for a weekend in Mahia to help mark the anniversary of the Mahia landings. Below, Colin shares highlights of the anniversary ceremony and talks about what Mahia meant to the liberation effort.
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CC: Thank you Ambassador. On a beautiful, sunny, windswept Sunday I joined USMC Major William Allen and other active-duty Marines to honor the U.S. servicemen who trained at Mahia in 1943 and unveil a permanent historical marker on the beach commemorating those events. We came at the invitation of local community leaders and the New Zealand Military Vehicle Collectors Club, a group of enthusiasts who preserve and restore historic military vehicles and equipment used by American and New Zealand Forces in the Pacific during World War II.
Like many, I had been unaware of the special link between Mahia and the United States. The area had achieved international fame as the home of Moko the dolphin, but many outside of the Gisborne area had forgotten about the areas historical links with the United States and our Marines.
For me, the fact that so many local residents came together to remember the events of 70 years ago was a dramatic reminder of the deep, positive impression that the Marines made on the people of New Zealand in the many communities, like Mahia, that they touched during the War. So what happened seven decades ago on these beaches, located just south of Gisborne?
In 1943, U.S. Marines based out of Paekakariki, Wellington, and Auckland came to Mahia to carry out a series of amphibious training exercises on the peninsula. They were part of the more than 150,000 American servicemen and women who came to New Zealand over the course of the war, beginning in 1942. The Marines came to defend New Zealand (as most of the country’s own military was bravely fighting against the Axis in Europe and Africa) and to prepare for the campaigns which would liberate the Pacific from the invaders.
Mahia’s beautiful broad beaches, sheltered harbors, and relative isolation combined to make an ideal location for the Marines to conduct mock amphibious assaults in preparation for landings in tropical islands to the north. The practice landings at Mokotahi and Opoutama beaches were some of the last significant training exercises for the Marines in New Zealand prior to their ferocious and costly assault on the Tarawa Atoll in late 1943.
The rugged beauty of the Mahia peninsula and the warmth of the local community were among the last vestiges of peace and serenity that the Marines experienced before departing to some of World War II’s most horrific battles. In just three days of fighting at Tarawa alone, more than 1,000 U.S. Marines were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.
At the ceremony, I was particularly moved by the commitment of the local community to highlighting their community’s special connection with the United States. There were no government ministries involved, no generous grants to pay for the events, and no big committees. Instead, the commemoration was organized and run by hard working members of the local community who wanted to mark their town’s important role during World War II.
Residents like Will and Cathy Coop, New Zealand Military Vehicle Collectors Club members Ross Hedley and Robin Beale, and many others donated hundreds of hours of time to organize the weekend’s events. The Coop family, following the tradition of hospitality practiced by many Kiwi families during World War II, graciously opened up their home to the visiting Marines during our stay, leaving us all with fond personal memories of Mahia.
During our brief visit local residents shared childhood memories about the Marines and the time they spent in Mahia in 70 years ago. They recounted stories passed down from their parents and grandparents of inviting the Marines into their homes as guests, just as present-day Mahia residents opened their homes to my family and the visiting Marines for the weekend. In 1943, such visits were for many folks their first real experience with Americans.
Resident William Blake told us about how off-duty Marines would line up to rent his horse for short rides around the peninsula, with each Marine giving him a dollar or two. By the end of a long day, William came home with his pockets stuffed with money, a welcome infusion of cash into the family’s tight wartime finances. Other residents remembered Marines coming out to the local school and sharing chocolate bars with the children and talking about life in America.
My two young sons accompanied me to the commemoration, and naturally the highlight of the day for them was seeing the vintage WWII “half-tracks,” armored cars, and original “Willys” Jeeps brought by members of the New Zealand Military Vehicle Collectors Club. Club members conducted a mock amphibious assault on Opoutama beach, complete with re-enactors firing blanks from machine guns. After dark, there was a dramatic reenactment of an air raid with a WWII-era searchlight used to “shoot down” a plane piloted by local resident Richard Coop.
Mahia and other similar communities throughout New Zealand played a crucial role in supporting American servicemen and women during World War II, most notably in preparation for the Allied counterattack into the Pacific. For my family and me, it moving and gratifying to see how important preserving this part of our shared history is to New Zealanders.
Thank you to the Mahia, Wairoa, and Gisborne communities, members of the Wairoa RSA, the Mahia Marae Committee, and all of those who attended the weekend events for their efforts to honor the memory of the soldiers, sailors, and marines who fought in World War II and the generosity of the communities that supported them when the risk and need were greatest.
Thanks, Colin. It sounds like it was a wonderful, uplifting weekend. I would like to add my thanks to everyone involved in the 70th anniversary commemorations in Mahia, another strong example of the deep historical ties and enduring people-to-people bonds between our two societies.