Camps Genesis

The genesis of the Marines’ Camps - Merrill B Twining visits New Zealand

Colonel (later Major General) Merrill Twining was appointed to prepare for the arrival of US Marines in New Zealand, arriving on May 6 1942. His memoir, No Bended Knee: the Battle for Guadalcanal, tells what he found in this country.

US marines in New Zealand

Colonel Merrill Twining (foreground) in a sandbagged command shelter on Guadalcanal, where he was in charge of operations in 1942. Source Bridgeman Images

Early in 1942, Liutenant Twining was called to Washington for a meeting of staff officers to discuss the decision for the 1st Marine Division to shift its base to New Zealand.

As the advance man charged with arranging for the construction of our camps and facilities in the Wellington area, I was interested in ascertaining what construction items could be obtained in New Zealand ... The logistical impact on a small country would be considerable ... an isolated nation whose young men had gone to war some two years previously.

Twining reached Wellington on 6 May. The First Marine Division was scheduled to arrive on 14 June! Having briefed his Kiwi opposite number about what to expect he met an engineer officer, Captain Shepherd, to be his guide and advisor. The next few days were hectic. We prowled the hills and valleys from dawn to dark searching for sites. I’m convinced that New Zealand has only two directions, up and down. Although I was raised in the hills of Oregon, I had to struggle to keep up...

Soon we decided to centre the proposed installations around Mackay’s Crossing, twenty miles north of Wellington. This site provided an unlimited area several miles long by a quarter of a mile wide of nearly flat beachfront, suitable for the campsite plus necessary drill fields. It was also readily accessible by road and rail. It was backed on the east by an endless expanse of rolling hills, perhaps 300 feet high, given over to grazing sheep. This was the kind of training area the Corps had needed and dreamed of for years... This would give us a fine area for training, firing exercises, and physical conditioning and an extensive beach area for our beach defence and landing operations activities.... Within four days we were able to submit a plan embracing locations and requirements for a main camp at Mackay’s Crossing, four small additional camps nearby to the south, a proposed airstrip to the north, and nine additional facilities required for logistical purposes in and around Wellington (dumps, storage areas, offices and so forth).

I saw no evidence of training or preparation for defence along the New Zealand coast beyond the erection of a few concrete dragon’s teeth on the coastal highway north of the capital ... The reason was that with a generosity bordering on nobility the New Zealanders had sent their men to the great battles: North Africa, Tobruk, Crete and Singapore. In their present moment of need they stood isolated and alone....

Construction of our main camp on the beach at Mackay’s Crossing began at daylight the next morning. I had been in New Zealand for only a few days. In the United States it would have taken weeks to cut through the barriers of red tape and bureaucracy to achieve the same result.

US marines in New Zealand

Aerial view of the United States servicemen's camps at Mackays Crossing, Kāpiti Coast area. Source National Library

I went to Mackay’s Crossing each day to observe the construction. I was surprised to observe that the construction was being done almost entirely by hand. Even the concrete was mixed in small machines turned by hand. There were large numbers of elderly labourers, including some women. Noting my surprise, the New Zealand engineer officer who accompanied me said sadly, ‘We sent all our construction equipment to Singapore to work on the fortifications there.’

The New Zealand authorities enquired somewhat nervously I thought about what standards of construction we would expect in our camps ... They were greatly reassured to learn that we expected no luxuries. We had always lived under our own canvas and needed little beyond sanitary facilities (heads and showers) and screened galleys for preparing rations. Personnel would live in squad tents pitched on wooden decks ... Not quite convinced and feeling they could do more for us, they insisted on four-man wooden huts instead of the tent decks I suggested. These were constructed of green lumber from their South Island forests cut from trees in which the birds had been singing the week before.

US marines in New Zealand

Timber at Paekākāriki, for the construction of the United States servicemen's camps. Source National Library

At the end of the second week the engineers realised that they could not meet the scheduled date of completion at this slow rate of progress and agreed with me on the substitution of wooden tent decks with strongbacks [railings] for supporting the tents .. The rate of progress greatly accelerated, and the project was soon back on schedule... It was a great accomplishment by a country severely handicapped and distraught by war.

Rationing the troops presented no great problem, as New Zealand produced an abundance of food in great variety and of unsurpassed quality. Wartime lack of shipping had isolated New Zealand and exports were reduced to a trickle. Their shelves were full.