Even before US troops arrived in New Zealand American naval victories had transformed New Zealand’s security situation. Contrary to the belief of many in New Zealand at the time, Japan never developed plans to invade either Australia or New Zealand. It sought instead to cut them off for the time being, but this plan was thwarted when the US Navy defeated a force making for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.
Any chance of eventual invasion was removed by the US navy’s victory in the Battle of Midway in June 1942. With the heart torn out of its carrier fleet, Japan lost the strategic initiative to the resurgent Americans. Its focus shifted to defending the vast perimeter it had secured in the Pacific.
The Japanese Navy, in consequence, had less impact on New Zealand’s own waters than the German Navy. Its presence was confined to occasional intrusions by Japanese submarines, which did no damage.
The US South Pacific Command launched a counter-offensive in August 1942. Forces that landed on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands were soon embroiled in a desperate struggle. After the Japanese were finally defeated there, the Americans drove north through the Solomons until late 1943, when the focus shifted to the central Pacific.
None of that here
When the American servicemen arrived in New Zealand for rest and recreation they were given a pocket guide which included a section on ‘What you won’t find’. The list included no central heating, no nightclubs, little organised entertainment, no hot cakes, doughnuts and waffles, no hot dogs or hamburgers, and no decent coffee. But the guide also told them they would find a warm welcome and hospitable people.
New Zealand’s role
New Zealand supported this counter-offensive. Its military forces were placed at the disposal of the South Pacific Command. It provided a base for organisation and preparation, a place of recuperation and recovery for American troops, and food and other supplies. Local industry was developed to meet American needs.
Prisoners of war
Japanese prisoners of war were brought to New Zealand from September 1942, and 800 were held in a camp at Featherston. On 25 February 1943, 31 were killed instantly and 17 died later from bullet wounds when they made a suicidal charge on guards, one of whom was killed (the only New Zealand serviceman to die from enemy action on New Zealand soil in two world wars). Because of this incident, more Japanese died at New Zealand hands than vice versa during the war.
Air and naval forces
New Zealand also provided forces from all three armed services for the Solomons campaign, where they served under American command. The Royal New Zealand Air Force made a major contribution. In all, 20 squadrons served in the Solomons, and there were 8,000 airmen deployed there in 1945.
The Royal New Zealand Navy sent the cruisers Achilles and Leander successively to Solomon Islands waters. Both were damaged by enemy action and had to be withdrawn for repair. Four minesweepers were deployed in January 1943, and 12 motor launches later.
A 13,000 strong, two-brigade division, the 3rd NZ Division, under the command of Harold Barrowclough, was deployed to New Caledonia in November 1942. It later moved forward into the Solomons, where it took part in three landings. Manpower problems at home forced its withdrawal and disbandment in 1944.