PG Navarro

US Marines in New Zealand

This picture by Marine artist Peter Navarro seen on the front of the hut is the inspiration for the collection inside the hut.

PG Navarro, Marine, Mapper and Artist

By Dayll McCahon

Six months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941 - a gifted young artist quit work as a photo-engraver in Houston and enlisted with the U.S. Marines. It was 7th June 1942, and within 48 hours Peter (Porfirio) G Navarro was on a bus to boot camp. Here, along with fellow Texans, he was issued with a rifle and told to treat it like a wife: “When they issue you the rifle they tell you that you are now married to it… take good care of it… you even have to sleep with it at your side,” he wrote to his Spanish speaking family.

Several months later, his strong artistic, lithographic and photographic skills saw him assigned to the Mapping and Reproduction section of the 2nd Engineer Battalion, 18th Regiment, 1st Marines, and sent to San Diego.

By November 3, Navarro was aboard the SS President Monroe, courtesy of the American Navy, enjoying slightly better food and conditions than most, due to being given a special task! [1] After three weeks sailing, he saw “rolling green hills… probably the most beautiful sight I had ever seen… roads cutting through them and dotted with tiny cars as they wound their way up and down the sloping terrain. Soon we saw the entire city of Wellington, complete with quaint houses clinging to its hillsides.” He was also less impressed by the huge quantities of butter served in the country and the small tough steaks.

Camp at Paekakariki was enjoyable in the prefabricated huts which were formerly occupied by New Zealand troops. There were many classes, from learning triangulation, map reading and operating photographic equipment, to weapon familiarisation including how to assemble the new Reising submachine gun. There was even time for “sketching and painting of the breath-taking scenery.”

However, within a few weeks Navarro was on board the USS Bellatrix, bound for an unknown Pacific Island near Guadalcanal. A Christmas Eve stopover in Auckland was most memorable for him because of the cheerful girls who suddenly arrived at the Officers’ Club with food and punch. They sang around a piano till curfew at 11pm, when, regretfully the Marines had to leave, unable to say they were sailing away that night.

Reaching Espirito Santo in the New Hebrides islands, Navarro and his fellows were put to work making maps for the beleaguered Marines in Gaudalcanal, some of whom had been under fire at the front; Navarro was gratified to learn their mapping work enabled much more accurate bombardment of their enemies. Though uncomfortable in sweltering tropical heat with millions of mosquitoes, camp life,was safe, with monotonous food but regular movies. Then the bombing began, supplies became short and tropical diseases ran rife, especially hepatitis and rotting wounds.

After five months and with great relief, they were taken back to New Zealand. Navarro and others were hosted by the McCleland family who took them back to their hill country Canterbury farm, entertaining them at the local pub, where the Americans were surprised by warm beer. They practised driving on the opposite side of the road, went horse riding spent a few nights in a city hotel enjoying the attention of numerous girls, before they sailed across to Wellington, staying at Camp Judgeford. #8 Playing cards at Judgeford. #9 Taking a break while field training. Navarro remembers meeting an old friend who had ‘shell shock’ or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as we now call it. He (the friend) was highly distressed thinking he could see body parts in the early evening darkness, a result of the very bloody Guadalcanal battle. Hopefully walks with Navarro helped him.

More cheerfully, there was entertainment organised for the Marines and they especially enjoyed a 35-girl stage show. The highlight for Navarro was a Maori haka: “They made horrible shrieking sounds as they danced to the sound of their martial music, and stuck their tongues out in such a grotesque manner that I thought any enemy facing them would be quickly scared off.”

The food at Judgeford was excellent: apparently they adored our cream and butter. It certainly helped for the field training and steep hiking the Marines were undertaking. Interestingly, Peter Navarro was diverted to a secret task that was less physical. [2]

Then after being told he was off to photograph the Battle of Tarawa, he was kept back at the last minute because of his process-camera skills. Photographing battles was dangerous work. Indeed, a friend’s brother borrowed one of Navarro’s cameras in October but he never saw it again: the photographer was killed in action. However, by early 1944, Navarro had arrived at Camp Tarawa in Hawaii with his unit and soon was busy mapping the island of Saipan to aid its invasion. After it fell, he sailed there in July with fellow Marines so that they could clear out pockets of Japanese resistance. It was hot and dangerous work because unlike European enemies, the Japanese did not believe in surrender. Snipers were always about, even close to camp.

Time must have dragged despite a Christmas visit by entertainers. Then in early 1945, the Marines were preparing to invade the island of Okinawa, and told that mainland Japan would be next. So Navarro was amazed when on July 6th he was told, “Turn in your gear. You’re going home.” He wrote, “I couldn’t wait to tell someone some good news for once.” Three weeks later, he was really home, and World War II ended soon after, with the atomic bombings in Japan.

PG Navarro met his future wife, Mildred Packer in Carolina and after a time, returned to Houston and ran a business Supreme Graphic Arts for 30 years. Later again, he worked as a Postal Service clerk. He was well known for his painting, sculptures and commercial design skills.

During this time he unearthed his old sketches from numerous scraps, letters and notebooks. Working up these, as well as some of his cartoons, he turned them into finished drawings and paintings, and produced the superb illustrated book, “In the Pacific from Points Unknown” in 2014 with his son, Mark Navarro. He died aged 99 in 2020 leaving 6 children and numerous other family members. He is remembered as having “an inquisitive mind” and “a life well lived” by the Lufkin Daily News.

[1]. Life at sea. Conditions aboard the overcrowded troop ship were difficult. They were warned not to drop litter lest it gave away their position, and anyone overboard would not be rescued. There were only 2 meals served a day, with extremely long, slow queues. Eating inside the hold was so stifling, with condensation droplets falling on their food, that Navarro sometimes did not eat.

He was fortunate, however, to be asked by the ship’s First Mate to design a certificate, illustrated with mermaids, to be given in a ceremony to “Pollywogs” – those who had never crossed the equator. They then were called “Shellbacks.” The job required working in a spacious flag room, where meals were brought to him and a friend he kindly co-opted, to enjoy in front of a porthole. Across the equator he awoke amazed to see they were no longer alone with an ammunition ship, but in a flotilla of “easily a hundred ships”, protected by a battle ship and destroyers speeding around their perimeter. Dozens of sperm whales delighted them too. # Photo of certificate

[2]. Mapping “Helen”. Called out of a movie one night, Navarro wrote he was “asked if I could make photographic copies of a map using filters to blank out all coloured details and grid lines, leaving just an outline… an island surrounded by reefs. They insisted that they watch … because it was such a top-secret operation.” He was told “under no uncertain terms” that what he had just worked on should be divulged to nobody. The map grid markings had been intentionally removed. Retaining the image of the shape in his mind, he soon realised it was the island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll. Later he worked on the map of it under the codename “Helen”, in a sentry-guarded hut where special ID cards were required to enter. He also witnessed a Melanesian man, “tall and wild-looking” speaking Oxford-style English who was working as an American spy in those islands, and with the Intelligence Section had viewed Navarro’s maps but hidden by a blanket! He gave them valuable information about the area they planned to attack.

Main source: In the Pacific from Points Unknown : one Marine’s Journey in WWII with Art, Photos and Letters, P.G.Navarro and Mark Navarro, privately published, San Bernadino CA, 2014.

US Marines in New Zealand