The Pacific War - 75 years on
The 15th of August marks 75 years since the end of the Second World War in the Pacific. In commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of VJ Day, we have put together some of the stories and experiences of New Zealanders who served in the Pacific.
The Pacific War was sparked into action, after the Japanese bombing of the American Naval Base, Pearl Harbour on the 7th December 19411. The following day, New Zealand, the United States and Britain declared war on Japan2.
Each of New Zealand’s forces, the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), the New Zealand Army, and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) served in the Pacific. It was in the Pacific that we flew for our own Air Force, in our own Squadrons. Though there were many others who played a role in the Pacific including the Cook Islands Local Defence Force and Coastwatchers.
Germany officially surrendered in the early afternoon of the 7th May 1945, New Zealand time. The news made the headlines in morning newspapers, but peace wasn’t officially announced until the 9th May 19453. The war in the Pacific ended four months later when Japanese Emperor Hirohito, announced the surrender of Imperial Japan on the 15th August 1945, but the official agreement wasn’t signed until the 2nd of September 1945, on board the USS Missouri.
At the outbreak of war, the RNZAF consisted of 91 officers and 665 airmen, and 109 aircraft ready for service in New Zealand. However, once war was declared on Japan, New Zealand moved swiftly to defend itself. Only a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbour, on the 7th December 1941 New Zealand’s first fighter squadron No. 488 (NZ) Squadron, under the command of the Royal Air Force, flew out from the Kallang airfield in Singapore and intercepted one of the first Japanese air raids on the city. A flight of eight New Zealand fighters went up against a formation of 27 aircraft. In the end, seven of the squadron's seventeen Buffalos had been written off4.
The action in Singapore, made New Zealand acutely aware of the impending danger facing New Zealand. Finance Minister Walter Nash, declared that despite the cost, “The war against Japan is our war.5" The RNZAF grew quickly and between 1939 and December 1941 it had grown from 1,000 members to over 10,000 members strong6.
From 1942, New Zealand, the United States and Australia began to develop a chain of island bases which stretched from Northern Australia, to New Caledonia, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
“These [island bases] were intended to serve as protection for major bases in Australia and New Zealand from which an offensive could eventually be launched. At the same time they were destined to become important supply and repair bases as the Allied forces moved northward through the Solomons.7"
The Pacific War also provided an opportunity to expand into a fully fledged air force. The RNZAF was able to quickly establish new squadrons. Eventually 24 squadrons were formed and served on bases throughout the Pacific. The majority of these squadrons served in New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, and Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) - home to the largest American Base in the South Pacific8.
Many of these squadrons saw action in one of the most infamous battles of the Pacific War, the battle of Guadalcanal. Guadalcanal was essentially a battle for Henderson Field; it took six months for the Americans, supported by the RNZAF to take the airfield. Once captured the Americans were assured a base that, once developed, would give them further air support. There were several attempts between August and November to retake the airfield, had it been lost the nearest base was in the New Hebrides9.
No. 3 Squadron moved to Guadalcanal from Espiritu Santo, in November 1942. Their role was to disrupt the ‘Tokyo Express’, Japanese reinforcements which were travelling between New Georgia carrying supplies and reinforcements. No. 3 Squadron flew Hudsons which were lightly armed and much slower than the Japanese Zeros:
‘They had to keep alert for both ships and approaching fighters. Their work was disciplined and highly efficient, providing accurate reports that guided almost all the American shipping in this period and laid the foundation for the New Zealand air force’s reputation in the South Pacific.’10
George Eric Gudsell was the first New Zealand airman in the Pacific to be decorated with the US Air Medal for his action during the Guadalcanal campaign. Part of the citation reads:
‘After relaying to his home base a complete report on the hostile task force which he had sighted, Flying Officer Gudsell, amid a hail of bursting anti-aircraft shells, precariously hovered over the surface vessels to obtain further important information by closer observation. When suddenly set upon by three fighters who blasted the top gun turret out of action and then concentrated their attacks on the stern of his bomber, he employed such skilful evasive tactics and fire control that the Japanese aircraft were forced to break off the engagement and retire …’11
Gudsell had also previously served in Singapore with Kiwi Ace, Geoffrey Bryson Fisken.
Fisken flew in the Pacific from very early on guduating with his Pilots wings in 1941. He recalled the night after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor:
‘There must have been fifty or a hundred planes just to show us how good they were, I suppose. Then the next day, it started out in earnest. They came over the next day, and we sent squadrons out. A lot of our pilots didn’t come back. They outnumbered us sixteen to one.’12
Fisken was wounded while serving with No. 453 Squadron, after the cannon shell of his plane split and bounced into his hip. He returned to New Zealand briefly, before joining No. 14 Squadron in Guadalcanal. Throughout his time in the war he had also served with 243 Squadron and 21 Squadron, during which time he was the highest scoring commonwealth pilot against the Japanese during the war13.
Women in the Pacific
After the attack on Pearl Harbor women’s enlistment for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) doubled. The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) had already sent hundreds of women overseas to the Middle East and the Pacific. After the battle of Coral Sea, and with the threat of an invasion greatly diminished, it was decided that a party of WAAFs would be sent to Laucala Bay, Fiji to replace some of the airmen who were being sent forward. The first party of WAAFs that served in Fiji had 19 members, and served as typists, clerks, equipment assistants and drivers.
Gwenda Christophers, served at Laucala Bay in Fiji, where she served as a meteorologist after her interest in medical (MED) was misread as Meteorological (MET)14.
Going up for cloud observations, she recalled a close call:
‘I was sitting in the blister of Catalina. The ocean was crystal clear. Suddenly I saw a black cigar-like shape sitting on the bottom … Tom Brewer, the co-pilot, came rushing back to the blister, said ‘tuck your legs up under you Chris’, threw a coat over me and out came the guns. As we went down and fired, hot shell casings flew past my legs. Unfortunately we didn’t get it.’15
Whilst service personnel did important work, they also made time for fun, often spending time at the American Officers’ messes and attending dances.
‘Girls were very scarce, so we WAAFs were always in great social demand. When we went to a dance there’d be five times more men than women, so we had to dance all night. All that exercise kept us fit.’16
The fight against aggressive Japanese forces in the Pacific islands was a daunting challenge for New Zealand soldiers, but one they ultimately rose to. Facing a serious threat of invasion, 3NZ Division was cobbled together to fight under American command in the islands to the north of the country. Despite being under-strength, lacking equipment and fighting in hot, difficult conditions, the Division distinguished itself in a series of island-landings that forced the Japanese back. Yet, the soldiers received little recognition for their efforts and names like Vella Lavella and Mono Island have almost no resonance for the New Zealand public today.
By 1942 Papua Guinea and Guadalcanal became the major battlegrounds in the Pacific War as Japanese forces advanced south into the islands. New Zealand was now threatened with invasion and soldiers were desperately needed to halt the advance. Units were ‘almost conjured out of midair’ from what personnel could be found, and 3NZ Division began to take shape by October 1942 17. The Division assembled in New Caledonia from late 1942 to early 1943 under the command of Major General Harold Barrowclough. After rigorous training in tropical conditions, the unit arrived in Guadalcanal in August and September 1943. It was immediately evident to Peter Renshaw that they were now in an active warzone:
‘[W]herever you went there’d be bones . . . We realised how savage the fighting was. Guadalcanal was really a battle that one side or the other had to win to stay in the war’18.
The ultimate Allied aim was then to capture the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul, New Britain, by ‘island-hopping’ up through the Solomon Islands. Joining this advance, 3NZ Division was split in two, with 14 Brigade sent to Vella Lavella and 8 Brigade sent to take Mono Island in the Treasury Islands. On Vella Lavella, New Zealand soldiers had their first experience of combat in the Pacific. While the Japanese were able to withdraw, the island was successfully taken with much greater losses inflicted on the enemy. Mono Island was different - it would be the first opposed landing by New Zealand soldiers since Gallipoli 19. In the event, the slow and disorganised opposition helped make the landing a success and Mono was taken20.
The final major operation for 3NZ Division was to assist in taking Nissan Island, part of the Green Islands north of Bougainville. Harry Bioletti recalled,
‘The whole battalion was going and we were landing in daytime too. The platoon in front of me ran into the Japanese. Could have been me. They were wiped out. We moved further on. The artillery bombed further ahead of us and there was nothing there.’21
Despite some strong resistance from Japanese soldiers, the landing was again a success. In taking the Green Islands, the drive to Rabaul was complete and the base was neutralised by air and sea. The Division was withdrawn and finally disbanded in October 1944. Despite having done their duty well in tough conditions, there was little recognition for their service. Given names like ‘coconut bombers’, they were undeservedly seen as second-class veterans.
After the devastating attack on Pearl Harbour, it was immediately clear that New Zealand, isolated and surrounded by sea, was vulnerable. Sending the bulk of its force to the Solomon Islands, the Royal New Zealand Navy fought a sustained campaign to repel the Japanese advance22. As Matthew Wright noted, it was the Navy that took a front-line role in the Pacific from the beginning to the end of the war23.
HMNZS Leander was first to the fight in the Solomon Islands, escorting a much-needed reinforcement convoy to Guadalcanal in October 1942. HMNZS Achilles joined Leander in mid-December while New Zealand minesweepers Moa, Tui and Matai arrived to patrol the Solomons by the end of the year24. In the strongly contested islands New Zealand ships were always in danger of attack. On 5 January 1943 Japanese dive-bombers destroyed HMNZS Achilles’ gun turret, killing 13 sailors, on 5 January 1943. A short time later HMNZS Moa (under Lieutenant Commander - later Vice Admiral Sir - Peter Phipps) and HMNZS Kiwi (under Lieutenant Commander Gordon Bridson) clashed with and eventually overcame the much-larger Japanese submarine I-1 in an intense ‘David and Goliath’ struggle25. Although more than twice its size, Kiwi had immediately engaged the submarine with fire from a ‘borrowed’ American machine gun and then rammed it three times.
Moa was later sunk on 7 April by a surprise Japanese air attack with the death of five sailors. On 13 July HMNZS Leander was struck by a Japanese Long Lance torpedo in the confused action at Battle of Kolombangara with the loss of 26. Chief Petty Officer Jim Murphy recounted his experience to Megan Hutching:
‘suddenly there was an almighty muffled bang, not a sharp one. The ship shook as though there was a severe earthquake, and then we started to list to port . . . . We got it on the port side between the foremast and the funnel on the only armoured-plated bulkhead in the ship, which split the explosion. Otherwise it could have cut us in half’26.
After having served in Europe and the Middle East, Jim and his compatriots were happy to be back in southern waters,
‘We didn’t mind scrapping in the Pacific; it was nearer home. It was a local thing, whereas before that it was a long way away from home.27’
As the Japanese forces were pushed back, New Zealand minesweepers continued their patrols and were joined by 12 smaller Fairmile launches, previously on Harbour defence, in March 194428. United States Navy Vice Admiral, William Frederick Halsey expressed his admiration of the Royal New Zealand Navy, stating that the,
‘ . . . alert and courageous actions of the users of these gallant little ships merit the highest praise.29’
The larger cruisers HMNZS Achilles and HMNZS Gambia continued north on final operations against the Japanese navy. Gambia was under attack by Japanese aircraft when it received the signal ‘Cease Hostilities Against Japan’ and fired some of the last shots of the war. After the atomic bombing of Japan ended the war, HMNZS Gambia was one of 400 Allied ships, covered by 1200 aircraft, which entered Sagami Wan near Tokyo Bay for the formal Japanese surrender. Onboard USS Missouri, Air Vice Marshall Sir Leonard Isitt signed the formal Japanese surrender for New Zealand on 2 September 1945. Lieutenant John David Allingham, senior New Zealand officer on HMNZS Gambia, was also present30. ‘Twelve signatures, requiring but a few minutes to subscribe to the instrument of surrender, marked a formal end to the Pacific war.31’
Japan surrendered following the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, putting an end to six years of war, where more than 11,500 New Zealand had been killed.
As with VE Day it was declared a public holiday and celebrated with formal speeches, thanksgiving services, dances and parades32. Years of fear, struggle and tension turned into ecstatic relief. In Wellington, munitions worker and nurse Ali Doyle remembered that they had 1000 people at a dance to celebrate VJ Day at Palm Grove on Cambridge Terrace, ‘Absolutely marvellous atmosphere. Everyone [was] laughing and happy, saying what they were going to do as soon as the peace was fixed.33’
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To commemorate those who served in the Pacific War, on the 75th Anniversary of VJ Day, please feel free to lay a poppy, leave a note or contribute memories to their Online Cenotaph records.
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Cite this article
Dan Millar and Madison Pine.
The Pacific War - 75 years on. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 10 August 2020. Updated: 12 August 2020.