Long-time Whangarei resident Denis Hewitt recalls a time when it was said 'Northland sank a couple of inches into the sea'…
During the Second World War, while all of Europe and the British Empire's soldiers were struggling to contain and defeat Nazi Germany, Japan decided to make the most of the situation and expand her territories into the Pacific. Australia and New Zealand were there for the taking and Japan knew it. We were defenceless. What few fighting men we had were already involved in the European conflict. Even if they were at home, it was impossible, as it still is now, for New Zealand or Australia to defend themselves against a strong nation such as Japan in the nineteen forties. We didn't have the manpower, the guns, the boats or the ammunition. We never will.
Both Australia and New Zealand were completely defenceless. Mother England was on her knees as was the British Empire. None of them could possibly come to our aid. We were done for.
My poor parents and all the other parents and people in New Zealand were horrified. I can't imagine how they felt. Or can I? A ruthless, cruel enemy at our doorstep and there was nothing that they could do to save their children and their fellow New Zealanders. There was absolutely nothing that they could do but prepare for the worst.
And then came the Americans! When the battle-weary American troops arrived in Wellington, the Wellington people lined the streets in their thousands and cheered and cheered the Americans. God bless America! New Zealand thought that they could save us. The Americans were not nearly so confident. They thought that they had lost New Zealand.
The troops that arrived in Wellington at that time were worn out from fighting in the tropics. They were emaciated, injured and suffering from tropical diseases, particularly malaria. The Wellington people took them into their homes and fed and cared for them. The Americans loved them for that.
Meanwhile, thousands of other American servicemen were arriving in other parts of New Zealand. These included younger soldiers who were just learning to fight. Many thousands arrived in Northland, Whangarei in particular. We welcomed them with open arms. We welcomed their airplanes, we welcomed their tanks, we welcomed their massive guns and all of their modern ammunition. Such was the weight of all this gun power, it was said that Northland sank a couple of inches into the sea!
Most of all we welcomed the men. They were such pleasant and polite young people. Very generous, a bit bewildered and homesick. We billeted them in our homes and our daughters danced with them at night.
The USA had learnt a valuable lesson from the disaster in Pearl Harbour. When they came to New Zealand, they dispersed their troops over a wide area and attempted to conceal most of the camp sites. There were American camps, it seemed, under every block of taraire trees that surrounded Whangarei: Maunu, Maungatapere, Kensington Park, Moody Ave and Three Mile Bush, Kamo. It was well that they did conceal them as the Japanese had launched a small sea plane from a submarine near the Hen and Chickens Islands. This plane flew over Northland, Whangarei in particular, presumably looking for the Americans and also for ideal places to land on our beaches.
My father, Captain Arthur (Bill) Hewitt was second in command of the defence forces from Auckland to the North Cape. From all the available information that he had received it appeared that the Japanese intended landing in Bream Bay, Ruakaka, Marsden Point, Uretiti and the Whangarei Harbour.
In Three Mile Bush, Kamo, there were at least four separate army camps. There were at least two American camps and, as I have been told, two New Zealand camps. One American camp was beside Rotomate Rd under the taraire trees. The other was in Forest View Rd. The late Robbie Pohe said that this camp comprised mainly African Americans. He commented on how pleasant they all were and how they, with the other Americans, endeared themselves to the Kamo residents.
When my father visited the Three Mile Bush camps, he was amazed to find that the officers' tents had carpets on the floors! Dad's house never had a carpet on the floor! The soldiers were well looked after by their own people. They were 'wealthy' compared to us Kiwis. The men had silk stockings to give away to our girls, and their mothers. They had dollars to spend and give away to the kids. Chocolates and lollies and freshly-baked bread covered in lard were freely given to lines of Kiwi kids. Sadly, some Whangarei shopkeepers ripped our Americans friends off by grossly overcharging for food and other goods.
I was told that the Americans were overwhelmed by the local people's hospitality and they tried to reciprocate by helping wherever possible. They helped re-form Three Mile Bush Rd and helped build some of the stone walls. Many must have died here. Train loads of injured fighters were off-loaded at the American hospital at Whangarei Boys' High School. Others died in training exercises, especially when practising landing on our beaches. Much to the horror of our teenage Kiwi boys, who were training with them, the American soldiers used live ammunition, even when training. The Kiwis soon learnt to keep their heads down!
I am unaware of any places where the Americans were buried in Kamo or Whangarei so I expect that it is true, as I have been told, that all the bodies were returned to the USA. Certainly, when they left Kamo they were very tidy, cleaned up and took everything with them. Apart from two concrete pads, you would never know that a huge army was camped in Three Mile Bush.
We never heard from our American friends after the war. Sadly, we realise that most of them died in the Pacific, fighting for their freedom and ours.
In many places, in many other parts of the world, where our Kiwi soldiers fought and died, great memorials have been built in their memory. Those people were, and generations later, still are, just so grateful for the sacrifices our young men made in fighting for their homes. I ask you, is there anywhere in Whangarei or Kamo where a memorial has been built to similarly remember those gallant young American soldiers and airmen who saved our country from being overrun by a ruthless enemy? Many thousands of those young Americans died fighting in the Pacific. I have yet to find a memorial reminding us and thanking them. In fact, sad as it really is, most of the people now living in Whangarei have no idea that thousands of American soldiers actually lived in Whangarei during the war and their very presence and their heroic efforts in the Pacific conquered a ruthless enemy.
Without the Americans neither you nor I would be here today!
– Abridged from the True Tales of Kamo.