• Thu. Jun 23rd, 2022

Camp Pendleton Marines who formed the ‘Friendly Invasion’ in Paekakariki, New Zealand

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Jun 22, 2022

Rehearsal for the attack: The first Marines practice landing under fire on the beach at Paekakariki. Kapiti Island in the background.

Waves crash at the edge of the Tasman Sea. Kapiti Island blocks a horizon of its own that stretches all the way to Australia. And the ghosts of the 20,000 Marines of Camp Pendleton who formed the “friendly invasion” of 1942 are present.

It happened in Paekakariki, a seaside community just north of New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Last month saw ceremonies marking this “friendly invasion”, when the first 5,200 Marines came to practice amphibious landings under hostile fire. Every night, on these beaches, real red tracer bullets burned the sky. Landing craft full of Marines slammed their forward flaps and disgorged men on the beach in the face of simulated enemy fire, fire that would become real soon enough. In six weeks they would be heading for the Solomon Islands and the friendly invasion of Guadalcanal.

Marines “take” a beach at Paekakariki circa 1943.

Residents had to get used to landing craft crashing into the waves, the roar of Marines smashing their way through the shallows in full combat gear, red tracer bullets streaking around them in the night sky, to the dull sounds of artillery. And the danger was sometimes real: a landing craft was swamped by a large wave that caused the engine to stall. Nine bodies washed up on the shore. But the region’s rough seas did not deter military planners. They kept troops training for the Pacific at Paekakariki from 1942 to 1944.

“We were seen as a very good step for the Americans to launch the war in the Pacific, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” says Allie Webber, who on the New Zealand side is organizing an 80th anniversary meeting to commemorate these training landings. . . “They could train here. But we also offered, well, TLC. People liked having the Americans here. They opened their hearts to them. They invited them to their homes, they sheltered them – in hospitals and on their farms.

Tent City: 15,000 US Marines transformed New Zealand’s Paekakariki (population 500) into an instant metropolis.

And after the young men, came the young local women. “Do you have any sisters, Sonny?” It’s a refrain Russell Price’s father, Clive, heard often these days, because girls were expensive and GIs were short on time, but not of what was considered their Hollywood charm and lust. money to spend.

All was not in harmony. “My grandmother used to take on the Marines with her broom when they drove too close and destroyed our fence with their tanks,” Price explains. “Dad and his friends used to wait until they got to lunch, then board the tanks while they were in the mess. They were air-cooled Sherman tanks, and they often overheated. Dangerously. But it was just fun for Dad and his buddies to play in the floats while their crews were gone for lunch.

Not fun for the Marines, not when they left for the Solomons and Guadalcanal. “That first batch only stayed here for six weeks, until it left for Guadalcanal,” says Webber. “And then later the 2nd Marine Division came. They stayed here much longer and connected with many more people. Their smoking tents filled most of a valley. But even the 2nd Marine Division ended up leaving and going to the Battle of Tarawa, which was “a famous battle, a bloody battle.”

US Marines, First Division, plan a mock battle in the Paekakariki Dunes. The real battle was in six weeks.

“And so many people came back injured,” says Webber. “Many have gone to our hospitals. If they had been in combat, when they returned they were entitled to about 90 days off. So a lot of Marines traveled around New Zealand, and New Zealand families offered to have them stay on their farms.

Webber says far fewer veterans are coming to celebrate this year. “It’s the old story of people getting older, but they have a website we’re doing as part of this 80th year to tell better stories.” And they’re getting more business on the genealogy front. “A greater number are trying to trace their genealogy, women who married Marines and went to America at the time. And the greater number include women who became pregnant and had babies by U.S. Marines. I so get a lot of requests like “I’m trying to find my grandma” or “I think my dad was a Marine” His name was Mac, and he had beautiful green eyes, and Grandma the loved…’ Not very helpful when trying to find traces of a real presence, but these are real lives, so we try to help.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution to this year’s celebrations is a gift: old and previously unreleased films, 30 of them, as well as 800 photos featuring images by renowned photographer Norm Hatch. They include snapshots taken from the camps and actual battles on Guadalcanal. “This is invaluable contemporary information,” says Webber. “It is important.” And what movies! “The Marines came, they trained, they went to war, they lost 1000 men in the Battle of Tarawa [the Japanese lost 4000]then some of them came back here, in a kind of very Kiwi R&R,” says Webber.

But sometimes it’s just personal. Webber says she recently met one of Camp Pendleton’s top brass. “He was on an exercise here, and he read in the paper that we’re hosting six or eight 2nd Marine veterans. He thought that was amazing and he realized that none of his Marines had ever met a veteran. So he put them all in a minibus and brought them here. And we had this very nice little meeting in the park. These older veterans are just good looking guys, meeting these young dudes. It was quite moving, actually.