Sailors Memorial

The Sailors’ Memorial is now a well-established fixture at the US Marines’ Memorial in Queen Elizabeth Park. Installed in May 2012, as part of the 70th Anniversary (Salute 70) commemorations it represents a Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP) best known as a Higgins Boat – the US Marines’ craft of choice in World War II. The memorial commemorates the ‘landing incident’ on June 20 1943, when 35 “Higgins” craft were deployed from five US naval ships anchored south of Kapiti Island. It was bitterly cold day, with a heavy surf running. No surprise, that the practice landing was a fiasco and most of the boats ran aground on sand bars. By the time they floated it was pitch dark. Boat-6, that of the beach party, was last to leave, but its engine cut out. Under tow it capsized, and ten sailors drowned.

Seventy years later, (May 28 2012), conditions were identical when three shipmates from USS American Legion came to Paekākāriki to attend the Salute 70 celebrations. Sadly, all men are now deceased. Ray Plante was on the ship itself, Ted Picard was coxswain (driver) of an LCVP loaded with Marines in combat gear, while Frank Zalot was in the beach party of 25 sailors whose task was to manage the flotilla after landing their human cargo.

At the time, the Trust was committed to recording these events. There was a need was for something sculptural, with close reference to the boat itself. After two false starts and with only a month to go until Memorial Day, GWRC landscape designer, Barry Straight, came up with a winning solution.

It was realized by Nigel Pritchard, the owner of Riverbank Engineering, Otaki, who had recently invested in a laser-cutting machine which could cut shapes from a design is fed into its computer, reproducing every detail of the drawings supplied. Quite quickly Barry’s design emerged from a single sheet of corten steel.

A week before Memorial Day the weather cleared enough allow Trust members and park staff to dig a foundation hole. The next day, shortly after 9 am, a light truck reached the park towing a trailer loaded with the steel boat. It was hoisted over the hole using sheer legs and block and tackle, just as Horatio Hornblower’s sailors would have done during the Napoleonic Wars. Reinforcing steel and concrete provided an anchorage.

For the survivors of this tragedy, the dedication of the Sailors Memorial was a powerful and emotional moment. For the designer, the manufacturer, the Parks staff and the Marines Trust members, a month of anxiety had ended happily.