Few Northlanders have any idea what took place on their own soil in the 1940s during the Second World War. Now an exhibition at Kiwi North exposes the locations of 76 once-secret army camps dotted
around the region which served as temporary homes to both US and Kiwi soldiers. Rediscovered files, artefacts and memories give a glimpse into Northland life while war ravaged the world, writes Jodi Bryant.
The deceivingly attractive leaflet fluttering from the aircraft contained a nasty innuendo to the soldiers below: "Joe is so far away over there on the front and I'd love to go out and have a good time again. There's so little chance of Joe coming home. Well, I guess I'll just give Sam a call, he'll take me out," read the message next to the image of a woman draped seductively over the telephone, while pondering calling Sam.
This is an example of a propaganda leaflet presumably dropped by Japanese pilots to American soldiers below as part of a psychological operations strategy. It aimed to stir soldiers' desire to return home to their sweethearts, along with resentment toward other civilians at home. Both Axis and Allied forces produced large amounts of such propaganda to demoralise soldiers.
This flyer is one of many original remnants recovered from the war, now brought together at Kiwi North's latest exhibition
Tora! Tora! New Zealand!
"Tora" translates to tiger in Japanese and, said three times, was their code for attack. But we ultimately held our own.
Former Whangārei Museum Exhibitions curator of four years Georgia Kerby spent the best part of a year researching and compiling the exhibition currently on display before taking up her new position as an archaeologist for Geometria.
"I'm glad this is the exhibition I leave on, as I have loved reading about the history, it is such a big topic," she says.
Indeed, Northland Heritage New Zealand volunteers Dr Bill Guthrie and Jack Kemp spent over two years uncovering Northland's secret military camps, airfields and other sites, along with gathering items and memories from the war.
The idea for the Tora! Tora! New Zealand interactive exhibition was sparked after Georgia invited Bill and Jack to talk about their research and findings at an event two years ago.
"We had such amazing feedback on that presentation, we just thought, 'We have to do an exhibition on this'," says Georgia.
The project came about in 2017 when Heritage New Zealand area manager Bill Edwards realised there was much more to discover about what took place in Northland during the Second World War, and enlisted the help of Bill Guthrie and Jack.
Says Bill Edwards, "It's an interesting story because most don't know about these Northland campsites. You'd see roads to nowhere and wonder where they'd once led."
When Jack and Bill began digging deeper, their findings exposed a chunk of history, largely forgotten due to both the misplacement of records and the return of campsites to previous conditions.
Their findings are highlighted in the exhibition which tells the story of the extensive building and military activities throughout Northland following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, through to 1943 in response to Japanese threat and US alliance during the war.
After Pearl Harbour, New Zealand became intensely aware of its vulnerability to Japanese attack. With the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin in Australia, New Zealand was thought to be next in line and military attention turned to Northland.
While New Zealand had sent nearly 150,000 Kiwis soldiers to the other side of the world, the remaining women, farmers, older men and boys took charge of our home defence, with help from enlisted men waiting to travel overseas. In 1940 there was a national call for enrolment in the Home Guard, and soon joining was compulsory for all men between 35 and 50.
The Public Works Department created a network across the region of 80 installations forming "Fortress Northland" to defend against the Japanese military invasion. Within three months, our roads and coasts were covered in fortifications, supply dumps, accommodation, aerodromes, communication and medical centres and gun emplacements. There was very little evidence of their presence in Northland. There were no newspaper headlines, for obvious reasons.
Home Guard camps were stationed across Northland, as our first line of defence, keeping watch for the enemy that threatened to invade by sea. Then New Zealand offered bases for Pacific-bound US units and were glad of some replacements for their own serving overseas.
Bill and Jack obtained once-secret copies of the Public Works Department documents outlining maps logging 76 Northland military camps. These included an inventory of huts, ammunition dumps, latrines and mess halls, built to cope with thousands of US servicemen who had arrived in New Zealand in preparation for the campaign in the Pacific.
"The last people to have their hands on the camp plans – the Army – had filed the maps away with receipts for dismantling them… And with those maps, we located the lost camps," says Bill Guthrie.
Few locals would know some of these camps were right under their noses, including four army camps on Three Mile Bush Rd, Kamo, two of which housed hundreds of U.S. Marines on their way to or from the battles in the Solomon Islands. There were also six large army camps at Maungatapere, along with Glenbervie, Kauri, Kensington Park, Onerahi, Russell, Ohaeawai, Waimate North, Peria, Waipapakauri, with Ninety Mile Beach patrolled 24 hours a day. One was even established close to the Treaty House at Waitangi, with its commanding view of the Bay of Islands. Whangārei Boys High School was requisitioned as a US military hospital.
Routine and labour were the norm in the North – the armies dug weapon pits, wired beaches, built roads, managed kumara and potato fields and marched around the country.
Says Bill Edwards, "To me, it's an untold story about the Second World War and it was a secret story in a way because it had to be. It's to fill a gap in knowledge that no-one knew about. Our recent past is sometimes quickly forgotten, but the war is a defining point in New Zealand's story. Society changed profoundly after the Second World War... it's a story that needs to be told, especially to Northlanders, who had no idea what was going on in their own backyard."
The exhibition also features artefacts related to the period, including uniforms belonging to a Japanese navy flight lieutenant, US Marine Corps and former Whangārei Boys High student Lieutenant Colonel H.G. Carruth.
Giving insight into army life – both at battle and leisure – are a number of collected remnants, many from Northland camps, such as a US first aid kit, bullet shells, American Coca Cola bottles, Dunedin Moa beer bottles, a US army mess dish and cutlery and buckles. There are also Sake bottles washed up on 90 Mile Beach, a Japanese bayonet and a ceramic grenade on display.
Another example of entertainment is demonstrated by the 1930s gambling slot machine used at a camp near Kaikohe. Thought to have been brought with American soldiers, to play this model, a person inserted a 5c coin and pulled the metal handle. The illustrated fruits rotated until they stopped, hopefully in a matching row. Certain combinations won the players packets of mints.
Jack and Bill's public call-out also turned up a 1941 Indian motorbike recovered from a swamp near Kerikeri which had been sitting in a shed in Whangārei. Then there's the original Jeep belonging to Jack on loan for the exhibition. The four-wheel drive, three-seater, has a top speed of 80km/h, medical gear, radio and light armour could be installed. This one has a spade and axe mounted on the side along with a replica machine gun.
Barry O'Donoghue remembers his sister being showered with flowers when asked out by soldiers. One time, he says, a Jeep with driver and escort arrived at the house to take his sister to the dances.
Along with the artefacts are anecdotes like this from remaining locals' memories from those who served, captured just in time. They have all now passed, including Kaitaia's Tom Trigg, who died, aged 102, one week after sharing his memories with Jack.
"It was absolutely incredible to be able to talk to a 102-year-old fit man, and his recall was as clear as if it had happened yesterday," says Jack. "This is the history of our area; this is what happened at home while all the soldiers were serving overseas. It just goes to show the importance of getting a story from somebody before it's too late."
In True Tales of Kamo, Anne Prescott (nee Lilley), who currently resides at Jane Mander Retirement Village, remembers growing up on her parents' farm on Three Mile Bush Rd, where an American Marines' camp was based. Further army camps surrounded her homestead. She recalls the American marines approaching them with tin mugs to help themselves to their warm milk in the vat.
"This was a novelty for them, as they'd never seen cows milked before, let alone milk stored in a vat. There would be little left for us to sell, but my mother would say, 'Don't worry. They are fighting for us and they are helping to keep us safe.'
"My mother was aware that these marines would not survive their next war engagement as they were to blow up dams, bridges and other structures, and in doing so it was often necessary to blow themselves up too. My mother washed and pressed their army uniforms, often staying up till the small hours to get it done.
"I used to show off to the American marines, riding my three-wheeled bike rapidly through our herd of cows. They were amazed.
"A light plane from the north sometimes flew over our house, so low that you could see the face of the pilot and his leather helmet. It would dip down in front of the house and I would wave to it. Was it a friend of the Americans in the camp under the trees? I now believe this plane was a Hawker Hinds which was used to train pilots.
"Dad was one of the leaders in the Home Guard. He would wear a dog tag around his neck and he would tell us, 'Run for the trees'. He was trying to prepare us in case of an attack…"
By destroying Japan's aircraft carrier fleet in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the Allies stopped Japan in the Pacific and their offensive ability was gone. With the country no longer under threat, New Zealanders breathed a collective sigh of relief and the land was returned to its original condition, leaving little trace. By contract, Fortress Northland was destroyed and between 1943 and 1945 the buildings and camps were dismantled.
Though most camps were bulldozed flat, some sheds and offices were left to farmers as compensation and repurposed as storage sheds or baches. With exceptions; gun emplacements were left without guns. Other physical traces remaining include concrete water tanks and roadways connecting army huts, which can be seen via Google Earth. By Lake Ora, off Three Mile Bush Rd, there is still a concrete pad once made for troops to wash and clean their trucks and jeeps.
Otherwise, there is little to mark where they had been and seemingly no recognition of how many from the camps lost their lives in the savage battles in the Pacific.
As for the woman with the dilemma over having a date with Sam while Joe had a "date with death" – yes, the reverse side of the leaflet got nastier, she made her choice, but recipients of such propaganda remained undeterred. In fact, they preferred receiving these flyers over real artillery and used it as art or toilet paper.
Tora! Tora! New Zealand! runs until February 28 at Kiwi North.
# Further memories of US soldiers at Northland military camps can be read in Essence.