Marines in NZ

US marines in New Zealand

The extraordinary stay

1942 and 1943 were extraordinary years for Kāpiti. In this brief, but momentous wartime environment, just 500 Paekākāriki’s residents shared their space with over 15,000 young American Marines.

The first wave, consisting of units of the 1st Marine Division, arrived in Wellington on USS Wakefield on 14 June 1942. The 5th Marines regiment occupied Camp Mackay and the partially complete Camp Paekākāriki. Their stay was short-lived and by July 22 most of these men were despatched to Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands.

Auckland also experienced an American ‘invasion’ as soldiers from the 43rd, 37th, and 25th Infantry Divisions of the US Army arrived into their harbour on June 12, 1942.

 US military forces

Those who had the longest association with our region were the 2nd Marine Division, who arrived in Wellington in November 1942 in a fleet from San Diego.

As well as the 2nd, 6th and 8th infantry regiments housed in Camp Mackay, Camp Paekākāriki and Camp Russell, there were also men from the amphibious tractor, medical service units, special weapons and tank battalions. Headquarters teams (10th Marines) were based in Wellington city while the specialist units in Hutt Valley, Masterton and the Porirua districts.

Map of sites used by US military forces

Map of sites used by US military forces in New Zealand, 1942–1945

For most of the troops their first stay was brief and on Boxing Day 1943 they were sent to reinforce their comrades in the Solomon Islands.

When they returned in February 1943, they were battle-worn, ravaged with malaria, and many were wounded or hospitalised. New Zealand proved an ideal place for recovery as Kiwis opened their homes for rest and recreation and the Marines delighted in fresh milk, eggs and vegetables.

Training resumed with week-long patrols in the Tararua Range, joint exercises with armoured vehicles in the Paekākāriki dunes, shooting practice, and the all-important beach landings in Higgins boats. A major exercise on 20 June went tragically wrong when a landing craft overturned, drowning ten of its crew of 24 naval seamen (For more information about this accident visit Sailors Memorial.

The climax of the training was a 70-kilometre route march in full kit from Paekākāriki to Foxton. After final 'beach landing' exercises on Mahia Peninsula in October, a fleet of sixteen ships was assembled in Wellington Harbour, and trainloads of Marines in full kit left Mackay’s Crossing and Paekākāriki.

This time it was ‘the real thing’ and on November 1, 20,000 men and 1500 vehicles headed for Japanese-occupied Betio in the Gilbert & Ellice Islands (now Kiribati), to fight in the Battle of Tarawa.

Map showing the Second World War’s Pacific theatre of operation

Map showing the Second World War’s Pacific theatre of operations, 1941–1945. The dark line marks the high tide of Japanese expansion across the Pacific in July 1942. Source: NZ History

Having spent 15 months preparing their defences they found the Japanese garrison of 4,500 had survived the formidable ‘softening up’, prior to the battle and through miscalculation, many Higgins boats in the attacking U.S. flotilla went aground on coral, forcing their occupants to wade ashore into enemy fire.

In two days over 1000 Marines who’d lived and trained in New Zealand, died and over 2000 were wounded. However, such was the ferocity of the battle that few of the Japanese defenders survived. This was the start of a torrid and bloody journey through the Pacific to end the war.

Related Pages

Training and Battles

Training Photos in the Norm Hatch Collection

Naval Exercise Photos in the Norm Hatch Collection



External Links

Map of the Pacific theatre, 1941-1945, New Zealand History, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012

US military forces in New Zealand map, New Zealand History, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 10-May-2021