After a long flight in a C-130 Hercules, Dez Harrison arrived in Vietnam on the fifth of May 1967. As he puts it, when you’re young and green it’s all an adventure. Serving in 161 Field battery, Harrison says he was blessed with good leadership from non-commissioned officers who were mainly veterans of Korea and Malaya. As the memories rattle off, he has plenty of praise for the Americans in Vietnam, but less so for his Australian comrades. Stories of leave in Saigon and Singapore provide fond memories, but the reception back in New Zealand at the end of his service is less happy.
This episode of archive-compiled The Years Back series sees presenter Bernard Kearns exploring how New Zealand coped on the home front as World War II expanded into South East Asia and the Pacific. Access to imports was hampered and rationing bit. Fuel and rubber shortages are overcome with novel approaches and farmland becomes the garden for our allies. The episode also examines how industry switched from civilian needs to making war materials. The Home Guard changes from a bit of a laugh to deadly seriousness as the threat grows of invasion by Japan.
At any one time between mid 1942 and mid 1944, between 15,000 and 45,000 US servicemen were camped in NZ preparing for, and recovering from, war in the Pacific. The marines brought colour and drama to the austerity of home front life. Fifty years later this TV documentary used interviews, reenactments and archive material to explore the “American invasion”. Sonja Davies recalls a Wellington street fight kicked off by a racist insult directed at Māori, and her wartime pregnancy and romance (1,500 marriages ensued from “when the Americans were here”).
Ron Childs’ father had fought at Passchendaele in World War l. With another conflict looming, Ron signed up for the Territorials at age 18. A few months later war broke out, and he was in the army, guarding the entrance to Wellington Harbour with heavy artillery and searchlights. Poor health meant he never made it overseas; he spent the rest of the war on the home front. Serving in both the army and the air force, Childs was variously a gunner and dispatch rider.
In his matter-of-fact way, James Murray reflects on some of the horrors of the War in the Pacific. Joining the New Zealand Navy at 17, Murray found himself aboard an American destroyer, watching the first atomic bomb explode above Hiroshima. “We thought they’d blown up Japan,” he says. Earlier, aboard HMNZS Gambia, he’d watched Japanese kamikaze planes attempting to sink the aircraft carriers his ship was trying to protect. Later he was among the first to land on the Japanese mainland, helping take control of the Yokosuka Naval Base.
Joan Butland forged her father’s signature to join the Women’s Land Service. Her parents had already stopped her from becoming a nurse, so nothing was going to get in her way this time. Coming from a farm, her transition to the service was easy. But at just 17, her slight frame raised eyebrows among burly farmers, especially when it came to harnessing horses and driving four-horse teams. Butland shows pride in her home front contribution to World War ll in this interview, although in common with other former Land Girls it was only formally recognised in 2015.
Robert Wynn had already served in the Australian Navy before returning to New Zealand to join the army and fight what were called CTs, or Communist Terrorists, during the Malayan Emergency. Of the two years he spent in the country, he estimates he clocked up 18 months on patrol in the jungle. Aside from the enemy there were other concerns, including tigers and red ants. Robert saw action, but in this Memory of Service interview he doesn’t like to talk about that. Instead he focuses on his impressions of the country, and the unbreakable bonds forged with his fellow soldiers.
This episode of history series The Years Back focuses on the impact of World War II on Kiwi women. Through archive and interviews it looks at home front life: rationing (as recalled by Dame Pat Evison), fashion (‘Simplicity Styles’), and the arrival of American troops — around 1,400 women would later emigrate to the United States as war brides. It also shows the liberating effect of the war on many women as they took up the jobs left vacant by men serving overseas. Women joined the services too: with more than 8,000 enlisted across the army, navy and air forces.