I grew up in the backblocks of New Zealand, ignorant until quite recently about the impact of World War II at home, particularly friction between American and Kiwi servicemen.
Prior to the 90th birthday of a family member in New Zealand, I did a modicum of research to find out what it was like for a Kiwi lad growing up in the World War II years. Amongst other things, I discovered that when this fellow was 15 (April 1943), a brawl broke out between American and New Zealand servicemen in Wellington in what became known as “The Battle of Manners Street”. The brawl, which has been greatly exaggerated over the years, lasted about four hours and was eventually quelled by civil and military police. There were other antagonistic affrays between soldiers and sailors in Auckland and a second incident, in Wellington’s Cuba Street.
As happened in Brisbane and other Australian capital cities, women formed romantic liaisons with American troops. About 1,500 Kiwi women married Americans during World War II. As recounted in New Zealand History online: “The soldiers were starved of female company, and many Kiwi women were charmed by the Americans (sic) good manners and ability to afford taxi rides, ice-cream sodas and gifts of flowers.”
Between 1942 and 1944 up to 45,000 American soldiers and sailors were based in New Zealand, before or after the war in the Pacific.
Most readers would be familiar with the much-chronicled “Battle of Brisbane” – a vicious World War II brawl between US and Australian troops on November 26 and 27, 1942, an incident army censors sought to supress. The fracas was sparked by tension between US and Australian servicemen over the former’s extra-curricular activities with local women. American troops were better paid, better turned out and had access to luxuries like chocolates, nylons and cigarettes (Or as the saying apparently went ‘Over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ Ed). Smokes were available to US troops duty free from a canteen in Queen Street. Australian troops complained about the unfairness of this and, after briefly being given access to the canteen, the practice was deemed illegal.
In New Zealand as in Australia, allied troops engaging in public brawls was certainly not what the top brass wanted to read in newspapers. There is evidence that much of the detail about the three-hour Battle of Brisbane was hushed up at the time, likewise the Manners Street incident. Censorship was loosened in 2013 with the release of previously classified CIA documents. In one of these documents, a 1942 report by US war correspondent J Edward Angly (which I downloaded from the CIA website), observed that resentment was rife among Australian troops during World War II. The Americans were more affluent and by reasons of their manners and appearance, more attractive to local women. There was also some tension in that the Australian militia could not be sent to a Pacific theatre of war beyond their mandated territory. “The Americans know this and are inclined to rib the Australians about it,” Angly observed.
The “Battle of Brisbane,” where up to 4,000 people slugged it out on the streets, resulted in one fatality and eight serious injuries.
Anyone who has seen Queensland Ballet’s evocative production of ‘Cloudland’ would recall the tension between American and Australian servicemen, out for a night of drinking and dancing at Brisbane’s once famous dance hall.
On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Brisbane, Dr Judith Powell said in a blog the incident had become such a part of Brisbane folklore that when Queenslander Jeff Horn met reigning welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao in the boxing ring at Lang Park, the event was billed as “The Battle of Brisbane”.
The Battle of Manners Street does not hold that kind of mystique, but looking into it allowed me to discover that World War II had more of an impact on Kiwis at home than we might realise.
On June 19, 1941, the liner RMS Niagara was sunk by a mine laid by the German auxiliary cruiser Orion off the coast of Whangarei, north of Auckland. Everyone aboard escaped and was transported to shore. But a large consignment of gold from the Bank of England worth £2.5 million pounds went down with the ship. The gold was a (then secret), payment from the UK to the US for munitions supplies.
German surface raiders operated in New Zealand waters in 1940 and 1941, sinking four ships. Japanese submarines also operated in New Zealand waters in 1942 and 1943. They sent reconnaissance aircraft over Auckland and Wellington, but did not carry out any attacks.
For all of that, Kiwis tend to remember the more emotive brawl between (inebriated) soldiers in Wellington’s streets and laneways. There were racial elements to both brawls, with the presence of African American sailors and soldiers in Australian cities a challenge to the then ‘White Australia’ policy. Various sources say the Battle of Manners Street was sparked by US servicemen and sailors complaining about Maori servicemen being served alcohol in the Allied Services Club. The Maori soldiers in turn complained the Yanks were getting preferential treatment.
Up to 1,000 people, including some civilians, were involved in skirmishes which were quelled by civil and military police three or four hours after the violence started. No reference to the riots appeared at the time in local newspapers or on the radio.
According to a 2013 update by stuff.co.nz, false rumours that two American serviceman had died that evening persisted for decades.
It is worth pointing out that servicemen on furlough typically went on drinking binges and in New Zealand at the time, pubs closed at 6pm.
The ‘Six O’Clock Swill’ was notorious for prompting binge drinking and bad behaviour in general.
Hard to imagine the Australian and US military having such antipathy today, drunk or sober, especially when it appears that we are still able and willing to support the American military when the occasion arises. Although Australia was not directly involved in missile strikes on Syrian targets, PM Malcolm Turnbull has not ruled out joining the US, UK and France in future military action if Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad again uses chemical weapons.
Never mind that, you say, what happened to the gold?
Oh, the gold? Yes, 94% of it was salvaged for HM Government by an old ship that found the wreck by dragging its anchor back and forth across the Whangarei harbour (exploding the occasional mine). According to this Wikipedia entry, there are still five gold bars down there – somewhere.
Even after 78 years, the legacies of war keep surfacing. Kiwi environmentalists are pressuring the government to assess the risk of a major oil leak from the Niagara.
Auckland Conservation Board chair Lyn Mayes told the New Zealand Herald last year that the rusting hulk was a ‘ticking time bomb’. While only sporadically leaking oil over the years, the Niagara’s two main oil tanks still contain 2000 litres of oil.
Which makes you wonder about the wrecks of 30 ships sunk by German and Japanese submarines around Australia’s coastline between 1942-1945.
I don’t like the use of the word ‘famous’ in this list of shipwrecks as so many of them represent lives tragically lost at sea. But it is a fascinating peek into our war-time history.