Ngaire Wallen: Tuff Crater perfect location to mark US troop presence

Photo / Christine Cornege
Photo / Christine Cornege

In the ceremony of Anzac Day dawn, bugles and red poppies, we acknowledge those who died, and also remember that life was different then - with conscription, men were men, and women mostly stayed home.

Seventy years ago this year, the American forces arrived in New Zealand to establish a base for the Pacific Fleet. There has been no recognition of this anniversary, in Auckland at least.

A web search of "American troops in NZ WWII" quickly gets you to the site, which provides a comprehensive narrative of the story and provides a list of books and articles on the subject for those seeking further information.

Up to 45,000 troops were here, when the population of New Zealand stood at 1.6 million. And of our resident population, many thousands of our young men were absent, sent to the other side of the world to fight.

My attention to the subject of American troops in New Zealand was sharpened on a site visit to Tuff Crater.

Located on the North Shore, just past the harbour bridge, Tuff Crater is a flooded volcanic crater, chosen in 1942 as the site to construct fuel tanks for the American fleet. Shortly after bulldozing the footprint of nine tanks and the commencement of construction, the theatre of war shifted north and the project was abandoned. These tank footprints remain, clearly visible on Google Earth, and herein lies the opportunity to turn one day of remembering into something more.

North Shore Forest & Bird are doing a heroic job of replanting the Tuff Crater, a public reserve. Over the past few years vast quantities of weeds have been removed, and each year volunteer planting is restoring native bush. In eradicating the weeds, the footprints of the fuel tanks have been exposed and are clearly visible. A well formed path meanders around the crater rim, between the tidal flats and the "tank farm" as it is commonly referred to. It would take but a short step to incorporate into this environment some sort of memorial, or marker, to acknowledge the presence of the American troops, their influence on our culture, and to remember that some 5000 of them who left from New Zealand to fight in the Pacific lost their lives.

Some of Auckland's best-loved and used public parks include memorials - the Savage Memorial at Orakei, the Logan Campbell obelisk on Maungakiekie, and, of course, the War Memorial Museum in the Domain. The revegetation and upgrade of facilities at Tuff Crater provides an opportunity to create a slightly less imposing, but also important, marker.

My family were relatively unscathed by World War II - two uncles served overseas, one a prisoner of war for a number of years, but both returned safely. My aunt served as a nurse in the Middle East (when in her 90s she described her time overseas as "the best years of my life").

My grandfather joined the Air Force based in Auckland, but did not serve overseas. I recall hearing the comment the "Yanks" were "over-paid, over-sexed and over here", borrowed from Europe but nonetheless equally applicable to New Zealand in the 1940s.

My mother-in-law was one of the women who staunchly manned the guns implanted on various headlands around the Waitemata Harbour. She had a lovely turquoise necklace, a gift from a "Yank" - my understanding is she befriended a married man, that it was a platonic friendship, and that he returned safely to his family in the US. All of these family members are now dead.

The number of citizens who can speak first-hand of World War II is rapidly diminishing, and very soon, it will be too late. History lost. And that is why, for the benefit of future generations, every opportunity to tell the story of our country, who we are, where we came from, matters. And that is why the efforts of the North Shore Forest & Bird Society should be supplemented by incorporating the story of the American troops in New Zealand into the Tuff Crater restoration.

Lest we forget, or lest we just can't be bothered?

Ngaire Wallen is an Auckland landscape designer.

The Auckland Museum has the official Book of Remembrance open again this year for the public to post messages during the ANZAC period.

The public can also download the Dawn Service programme here.

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