NEW ZEALAND: Part I
Wellington, Pahautanui, Napier
he memory of the sunny morning when our transport sailed into Lambton Bay is still vivid. Wellington is a
beautiful city. Gleaming white buildings cling to the steep hills which surround the bay, which is, or was
then, incredibly clean, sparkling blue. Our transport was anchored in the harbor for two days, waiting for
space at the docks. The ragged, cruddy troops spent most of that time standing at the rails and yearning to
We arrived in February, which was midsummer down under. The past months had destroyed most of my romantic notions about the idyllic South Seas, but New Zealand felt like home. The temperature was moderate and invigorating...so different from the steamy atmosphere of the Solomons. No snakes, no mosquitoes, and better yet, no Japs. The stench of Guadalcanal and the sweaty boredom of life aboard the troop ship certainly affected my perceptions, but my love for New Zealand has persisted for over five decades. It's rooted in more personal things than climate or scenery... the people, the New Zealanders.
They welcomed us... and they tolerated us. The Japanese threat had been blunted and they felt that we "bloody fine Yanks" had saved them. Our success in the Solomons relieved fears of imminent Jap attacks on Australia and New Zealand. Their home guard, which consisted of almost everyone in the country, was prepared to defend the beaches and they had realistic plans for guerrilla actions if a Jap landing succeeded. Ironically, their young men were in North Africa fighting the Germans and earning their "Anzac" reputation as superb fighters.
Marine basic training always emphasized taking advantage of targets of opportunity, and the winsome, lonesome, young women of New Zealand were opportune targets. Some Marines exploited the situation, but the majority behaved pretty well. We fell in love with the country and made lasting friendships. There were many marriages in spite of the incredible red tape required by Marine Corp's regulations. A prospective groom had seemingly endless counseling sessions with the chaplain and his commanding officer. He had to fill out stacks of forms, and each seemed to require the signature of every officer in the division. But, love prevailed in spite of the impediments. We had three marriages in our battalion and, if that ratio prevailed, there must have been hundreds of weddings in the division. Many of these brides became young widows months later when our division hit Tarawa. Many wives moved to the United States after the war and I know several Marines moved to New Zealand.
We didn't get to stare at the scenery very long. We finally got to debark via a gang-plank rather than those damn slippery, swaying cargo nets. We climbed aboard the trucks lined up on the dock for the trip to camps in the hills north of Wellington. Our battalion went to Pahautanui. This was a camp about two miles away from the railway station at Paremata. Most of the division unloaded ten miles further north at Paekakariki. We felt lucky to be closer to Wellington, but this geographic advantage was offset by the distance of our camp from the train station. To make liberty in Wellington, we had to either hike the two miles from camp to the depot at Paremata or wait for sporadic truck transportation.
We were in quarantine for two weeks. I'm not sure whether this was an attempt to wash out the malaria, dengue fever and jungle crud from our systems, or to instill some rules of proper behavior into us before we were allowed to descend upon civilized civilians. Initially, we had a light schedule. Mostly we cleaned our gear, drank milk, and took showers. The Corp's unquenchable thirst for fresh milk strained the dairy industry. The New Zealanders went on voluntary rationing to give us most of the supply. Besides the cold milk and unlimited fresh water, we got real meat. We didn't even care that it was mutton. The taste wasn't all that important; it looked like beef, it had a texture like beef, and it didn't come out of a can.
Camp Pahautanui was nothing like Camp Elliott...no parade ground, PX or two-storied yellow barracks with indoor plumbing. It was laid out in seemingly haphazard zones. The core of each area was a large, roofed, open-sided concrete slab which contained all the plumbing facilities. The surrounding little doll houses became our new homes. Each hut was about eight feet wide and sixteen feet long. There was room for four cots, four sea-bags and enough space left in the center for the portable kerosene heater. The big open pavilion was the marketplace and community center where we met to hear the latest rumors and exchange scuttlebutt. Instead of going to the village well to fill water jugs, we went there to get our little kerosene tanks filled. A low wall separated two long metal troughs. One side had faucets where we shaved, brushed our teeth and washed our clothes; the other side was the al fresco latrine. There were four shower heads on each end and the water was occasionally hot or at least comfortably warm. Right now this strikes me as primitive, but I remember how luxurious it seemed then.
We received ten day leaves. I was flattered when Red Brown and Gabe DeCaro invited me to join them. PFCs don't usually buddy around with sergeants. Most of the troops decided to look for someplace not so overrun with Marines. We took a train headed north, got off at Napier, a small town located on Hawke's Bay, and registered at the Masonic Hotel. Brown and DeCaro had a room together and I, the PFC peon, had to share my room with another single. The hotel manager introduced me to Sam Ellis, a tall lanky Marine from the 2nd Infantry Regiment. Sam was a "good ole boy" from Georgia who had a drawl that made a big hit with the New Zealand girls. (I had trouble understanding him.) He was alone, and this was unique, since we usually prowled in pairs, or packs, like the wolves we were trying to be. I envied Sam although he irritated me. He was brash, bold and very successful with women. He was everything that I secretly aspired to be... glib, sophisticated, experienced. On afternoon, I came into our room to find him in bed with a dining room waitress. He invited me to join the party but I scuttled out of the room and went to the bar. I didn't know who I hated most... Sam for his tempting invitation, or myself for my timidity.
The New Zealanders retain the British custom of morning tea. At 7:00 AM the maids deliver tea to each room. They knock. And they knock..... and knock..... and knock. If they get no response, they come in and set up the tea table. We didn't appreciate these early reveilles, so good old Sam devised an effective solution to these morning disturbances... Just ignore the door rapping and let them come in with the tea cart. They'd find us stretched out naked on our beds, exhibiting our manly charms. The scheme worked. The following morning the tea cart remained outside our door and there were no more tea-time arousals.
We arrived in Napier late on a Saturday afternoon. After getting our hotel base established, Brown, DeCaro, and I went on reconnaissance and did some pub crawling. In one bar, we met a friendly bartender, Dave Black, who offered to get us a couple of bottles of black market whiskey. He arranged to pick us up Monday and take us to his home near the beach where we could have a "bash". This sounded great but it still left us with the weekend. DeCaro suggested we all go to church in the morning. "That's a great place to meet girls." And that is what we did.
DeCaro went to Catholic Mass. Red Brown and I went to an Anglican service. We were ashamed of our motives for being there when we were so warmly welcomed by the parson and the congregation. Neither of us had guts enough to refuse tea with the vicar, his family and several friends. The surprising, and gratifying thing is, we enjoyed our afternoon. DeCaro was really pissed off. He had hung around the hotel all afternoon waiting for us to show up and finally assumed that we were off having a wild orgy somewhere and didn't cut him in on the action. When he found out what we had been doing he got more irate at first, and then he cracked up. After that, he often called us his "holy altar boy buddies".
Dave picked us up Monday afternoon and took us to his house, two blocks from the beach. He introduced us to his wife, Lola, and two other women. One was Rose; I remember her very well. I wanted to make her my date, but I got aced out by DeCaro. I thought Lola was a great hostess but she and Dave were married so I figured Red and I would be competing for the attention of the other girl. I can't conjure up any recollection of her at all. Anyway, Red Brown took her over, so , as usual, my function was to be the patsy. This turned out to be a lucky break for me. We spent the afternoon on the beach. Dave rustled up some trunks that would only fit skinny DeCaro. Red and I finally got uninhibited enough to strip down to our skivvies. In the evening, we returned to the house and continued the party. When Dave announced that he had to go to work, and departed, the atmosphere seemed to become supercharged.
DeCaro was coming on strong with Rose. They were kissing and stroking on the couch. Red Brown and the other girl had disappeared. Lola suggested that we leave DeCaro and Rose alone. We went out to the kitchen and sat and talked. She wanted to know about the States and had an impression of Montana that she had received from the movies. I enjoyed telling outrageous stories about cowboys and Indians, but she soon realized that I was teasing her. I felt comfortable and easy talking to her.
She and Dave had a hasty marriage when they were both seventeen and in school. Their families supported them until they graduated. Their baby was a healthy boy and the future seemed promising. Three years after their marriage, the boy died. Polio? Their marriage fell apart. Since their church forbid divorce they still shared the house but they didn't live together. They liked each other but didn't love each other. This was a heady talk for a naive, over-age virgin. Sitting there in my damp skivvies, I was talking intimately with a warm, caring person who helped me push back the horror, nastiness, and death of the past six months. I literally fell in love at the kitchen table.
I've never forgiven DeCaro for what happened next. He staggered bare-assed into the kitchen looking for the bathroom, then lurched back through a few minutes later. This ended our conversation. Disgusted, Lola asked me to round up my buddies and get them out of her house. I found Red Brown on the porch. We got DeCaro dressed and poured him into the cab. We sure weren't presenting a very flattering picture of the Corps. Before Dave hauled us off, Lola asked me to come see her the next day if I'd promise to come alone.
The next day Sam had a party arranged. He was in love again. He had made a great connection with a girl and he had to find dates for her friends. He set up a party and was buying all the liquid refreshments. I got pressured from Brown and DeCaro too. Though I was pissed off at them for their behavior the night before, I was still an obedient PFC. If your sergeant tells you do something, you do it. In this case two sergeants were giving me an order... thinly veiled as a request. I reluctantly called Lola and postponed our date.
53 Bayside Road has remained in my memory throughout the years. It is a significant location in my life. I've always felt there should have been a monument built at Fishtrap, Montana, where in 1919, I took my first unaided step. There should also be a bronze plaque attached to the doorway of that house in Napier to commemorate another significant rite of passage.
I spent the balance of my leave living two lives. I'd come back to the hotel from Lola's about 4:00 or 5:00 AM, usually finding Sam in his bed with a friend. I could sleep until noon before Brown and DeCaro would roust me out. They were ticked off at me for falling in love and not wanting to cruise with them. They wanted to score with as many women as they could, and were using me as their point man. For some unaccountable reason, I had much better luck establishing friendly contact with females than either of them. I was shy...but they pushed me to approach girls and make a pitch. I guess my shyness helped. I didn't push hard; I didn't have a glib line of patter. Looking back, I suppose I was likeable, neat, relatively sober, non-aggressive, and non-threatening. I'd prowl with Red and Gabe all afternoon and help them pick up girls. I didn't drink much with them...I didn't want to mess up my relationship with Lola. She had warned me that she barely tolerated drinking and had no use for drunks. When it got dark, I'd leave and hike out to her house.
She came to the station the evening we boarded the train for the return to Wellington. It was almost a reprise of my departure from Butte almost a year before. I think we both sensed that we were saying a final goodbye. Although we exchanged letters and made plans to meet in Wellington, things never worked out. I guess we were temporary anchors for each other. The world was crazy...the future was uncertain. Lola gave me comfort, friendship, and love. I hope she received the same from me. I think of her so often...
*** *** ***
For the first few months we were in New Zealand we got liberty every weekend. Friday afternoons, trucks ran an irregular schedule to the train station, two miles from camp, where we waited for the train to Wellington. The Wellington station was near the docks...only a short walk from Lampton Quay. The USO had headquarters at the nearby Hotel Cecil, where the New Zealanders treated us royally. Everything was free. Beds, showers, food, dances, movies, games... and the staff tolerantly put up with our often boorish behavior.
Hotel Cecil, Wellington, New Zealand, 1943
When I went on liberty with Brown and DeCaro, we would head for the Saint George Hotel. The officers had tried to make this hotel their private preserve so we delighted in providing a thorny intrusion. New Zealanders are not class conscious and they refused to designate any areas "Officer Country". We didn't have money to toss around like the lieutenants and captains (I don't remember where the majors and colonels hung out.) We took a perverse pleasure in sitting in their lounge and having just as much success attracting feminine companionship as they did.
Like Cinderella, we had curfew. All enlisted Marines were to be off the streets by midnight. You either had a hotel room, a shack-up, or you got to the train station before the bells tolled twelve. One night at closing time, Red, Gabe and I got ousted from a pub several blocks from the depot. We tried to sneak down back alleys to the station but two navy shore patrolmen in a jeep spotted us. We scattered and ran. The SP's jumped out of the jeep and took out after us. One chased me, the other zeroed in on DeCaro. Red Brown got away, but they nabbed me and DeCaro. We got hauled to jail, and shoved into a cell with three other despicable felons who had violated curfew. There was one broken-down cot with a passed out Marine sprawled crosswise over it. The floor was covered with vomit and piss, so we stood up all night clutching the bars. This was probably the longest night of my life. We heard the corporal of the guard when he phoned our battalion to report that he had two of their men in custody. Culprits had to stay in the brig until an officer from their unit came to take charge of them. Some outfits let their wayward troops stew in jail for two or three days before they showed up to claim them but our battalion came through splendidly. It was early morning when Lt. Philsbury arrived and signed us out into his care. He took us to the Cecil, sent us to the showers, and had our uniforms cleaned. After breakfast, he escorted us back to camp. We felt the lieutenant was sprucing us up for our appearance before the CO and a summary court martial, but we never heard any more about the whole episode. I was surprised by my promotion to corporal a week after this incident.
*** *** ***
I particularly disliked guard duty. Each battalion got the duty on a regular rotation basis and over half the troops had to stand watch. I didn't get caught in the net too often but I sure hated it when I did. Those were miserable, long, cold, four hour watches. "Walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert; Salute all officers; Repeat all calls more distant from the guardhouse than my own; ..." Those are three of the ten general orders that we all had to memorize. I seem to have forgotten the other seven.
On one guard duty stint, I manned the sentry box at the camp gate. This tour of duty sticks in my memory because of some graffiti inscribed on the wall that appealed to my fondness for mathematics. I have remembered it well:
"There was a wild Jap on Rabaul,
Who had a triangular ball.
The square root of his prick,
Plus one pecker, times six,
Was three-eights of four-fifths of screw all."
Culture and inspiration lurk in unexpected locations.