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War Economy

The Impact of American Forces in New Zealand

The Impact of American Forces in New Zealand

The war gave New Zealand its first experience as host to foreign armed forces. The arrival of American forces in June 1942 brought a feeling of relief to many New Zealanders. Menaced by the southward sweep of Japanese forces in the Pacific, they had spent their most anxious time in the first half of 1942. Much of New Zealand's fit manpower was engaged overseas; what remained could not be adequately armed. The measures taken to defend the very long shore line of this sparsely populated country were desperate and determined, but completely inadequate. The only strong opposition to Japan in the Pacific was from United States forces, which might be occupied elsewhere should New Zealand be attacked. Churchill had given assurances of British aid should New Zealand be invaded,1 but it was feared that help would arrive too late.2

The position seemed to change completely when the USS Wakefield entered Wellington Harbour on 14 June 1942. She carried 5000 United States servicemen. By the end of the year over 15,000 Americans were in New Zealand. For 1943 and the first half of 1944 there were usually about 30,000,3 though the numbers

1 For example, Churchill wrote, on 17 March 1942, in a cabled message to the Prime Minister of New Zealand:

‘The fact that an American Commander will be in charge of all the operations in the Pacific area will not be regarded by His Majesty's Government as in any way absolving them from their determination and duty to come to your aid to the best of their ability, and if you are actually invaded in force, which has by no means come to pass and may never come to pass, we shall do our utmost to divert British troops and British ships rounding the Cape or already in the Indian Ocean to your succour ….’—Documents, Vol. III, No. 160 (New Zealand War History Branch).

2 Wood in his Chapter 16 deals with New Zealand's defencelessness at this stage.

3 See also Table 15.

page 476 varied considerably as contingents were moved into the Pacific and others replaced them. All were stationed in the North Island, mostly around Auckland and Wellington.

The first American arrivals found camps ready for them. Many more camps were to be prepared by New Zealanders for American servicemen and much of their food was to be supplied from local production. Besides the camps, hospitals to accommodate 9400 patients, stores and many other buildings were constructed and handed over for American use.1

Relationships between New Zealanders and the visiting servicemen were most friendly. An American writer sums up for one Marine division:2

‘It is doubtful if any alien troops ever received a warmer and more sincerely friendly welcome than the Second Marine Division got in New Zealand. Nearly every home was open to them, and thousands of Marines learned the niceties of 11 a.m. “morning tea” and 4 p.m. “afternoon tea”. As often as they could the Marines donned their green winter service uniforms and responded to dinner or week-end invitations in Wellington, Paekakariki, Otaki, Palmerston North, and Foxton. The friendship was not one-sided—the Marines immediately and immensely liked the New Zealanders, and they charmed their hosts and hostesses by quickly adapting themselves to local ways.’

American servicemen spent freely in New Zealand. They were paid at higher rates than most servicemen of other allied countries. Those who had been in action had substantial amounts of back-pay to draw. Their dollars, exchanged into pounds at the current rate, would buy much more than in the United States.

Florists, milkbars, hotels, night clubs and restaurants did a roaring trade with the Americans. Taxis could not cope with all the business offering; dry cleaning and pressing shops were overworked.

To the New Zealand consumer this extra demand was not an unmixed blessing. Many traders saw such good profits to be made from the Americans, with their high pay and free spending, that they annoyed New Zealanders by neglecting them. Commodities already in short supply became even scarcer under pressure of the American demand.

Equally significant was the effect on the labour market. The American authorities, in Auckland and Wellington particularly, hired civilian personnel and made inroads on the labour force which was already in short supply. By paying higher rates of wages

1 See also Chapter 9.

2 Richard W. Johnston, Follow Me, p. 83.

page 477 than were customarily paid by local employers, they secured first call on labour which was not held under direction in essential industries.

At current rates of exchange these wage rates may not have seemed high to the Americans, but their purchasing power in New Zealand was greater than similar workers could have had in America. New Zealanders rushed for opportunities to work under such favourable conditions. Those who missed out became dissatisfied, especially those who were prevented from joining in the scramble by being held under direction in essential industries. New Zealand employers unable to meet the higher wage costs were also aggrieved.

In November 1942, when it became apparent that more New Zealand civilian labour would be needed, because United States troops were no longer available to handle supplies to and from the wharves,1 a conference was held in Auckland with the United States authorities. A member of the War Cabinet, Mr J. G. Coates, was present, with the Secretary of Labour. In the course of discussion the Americans were requested to pay award wages; but agreement could not be reached on this point.

In 1943 and the first half of 1944, various United States authorities in New Zealand usually employed between 1500 and 2000 civilians as regular workers, as well as casual labour which might vary between 500 and 2500 according to circumstances.

Not only were high rates paid for most of this cilivian labour, but the supervision seems often to have been inadequate. Large sums were paid out in overtime, but there was often no effective check on hours worked. Some employees claimed and were paid wages for hours of work which they could not possibly have worked. One, for example, was paid for hours which implied that he had averaged three hours sleep each 24 hours for a fortnight. While this was an extreme case, plenty of other improbable cases came to light.

Meantime, after December 1942, the wage rates New Zealand employers could pay were restricted by the Stabilisation Regulations. Not surprisingly, many became disgruntled.

A fundamental difficulty was that there was no central United States employing agency in New Zealand. By the time a determined attempt was made to bring about an improvement, the position had been aggravated by the considerable numbers already employed at high rates of pay by a variety of United States agencies.

1 Waterside workers handled American supplies from ships' holds to the wharf sheds.

page 478

The New Zealand Government was embarrassed by the higher wage rates being paid by the United States authorities, because of its effect on the stabilisation scheme, and because scarce labour in New Zealand was being depleted. Then, in the course of investigations into liability for the insurance of workers, in June 1943, ten months after the signing of the Lend-Lease agreement, a somewhat startling new piece of information came to light. Under the agreement New Zealand was responsible for payment of most of this labour under Reverse Lend-Lease.1

Had this important fact been made known earlier it might well have changed the course of events. The Secretary of Labour wrote in July:2

‘… had it been made known to the late Mr Coates and myself when we visited Auckland last November that wage costs were a charge against lease-lend, we would, I think, have been in a different position and could have requested closer control over the wages paid.’

Further representations were made to the United States authorities and some improvement followed, but the position was never completely satisfactory. The damage had been done—existing employees were receiving the higher rates of pay. Dissatisfaction somewhere was inevitable.

There is no real excuse for the New Zealand failure to realise the implications of the Lend-Lease Agreement. But perhaps the rather loose arrangements for employment of civilian labour by some American authorities highlights a more important point. There is a need to guard against a possible weakness in inter-Government reciprocal arrangements, such as the Lend-Lease Agreement. One government, not having to bear the cost, may have an inadequate incentive to provide effective supervision of the people it employs; the other, not being directly concerned in particular contracts, is unable to do so.

These economic influences of stationing American servicemen in New Zealand, while they had an important effect on life in New Zealand at the time, were trivial compared with the economic advantages of the movement of supplies under the Lend-Lease Agreement. Moreover, the most significant aspect of their presence here was the measure of security it brought against Japanese invasion.

Most United States personnel had left New Zealand by the middle of 1944. Many New Zealanders were sorry to see them go.

1 All labour except administrative personnel was to be paid under Reverse Lend-Lease.

2 Secretary of Labour to Officer in Charge of Labour Department, Auckland, 20 July 1943. Copy on Labour Department file 3/3/1684.

page 479 Lasting friendships had been made, and about 1400 New Zealand women married American servicemen.

In October 1944 a Wellington newspaper reported:1

‘The United States Naval Operating Base in Auckland will be closed on Sunday morning and its officers and enlisted men will leave New Zealand shortly. The American flag, which flies over the Base headquarters, will be lowered at 9 a.m. and this small ceremony will virtually close a period in New Zealand history which has been of great significance to this and neighbouring countries, and of intense interest to all New Zealanders.’

1 Evening Post, 21 October 1944.