An Invisible History: Wāhine Māori in the Air Force during World War II
Wāhine Māori voices form a significant absence from New Zealand’s military history. Theirs is a double invisibilty of service due to their gender and ethnicity. Thousands of Pākehā women enlisted in the Air Force, Army, and Navy between 1941 and 1945, but many Māori women also provided a valuable contribution to the armed services.
Unfortunately, there is no detailed data available on how many Māori women enlisted as the armed services did not collect ethnicity or iwi data. One goal of our Marsden-funded project, Te Hau Kāinga: The Histories and Legacies of the Māori Home Front during the Second World War, is to identify the extent to which Māori women participated in war service at home. My (Stacey) history honours dissertation has contributed to this dimension of the project by focusing on the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and aimed to bring wāhine Māori into the limelight.
Women were ‘manpowered’ into essential work to meet the demand of wartime industrial and food production, especially after Japan entered the war in late 1941. Women’s mobilisation also included service in the military. The Army, Air Force, and Navy all opened their recruitment to women, forming distinct auxiliary forces. In 1942, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and Women’s Royal New Zealand Navy Service (WRNZNS) were formed. But the first auxiliary to be established was the WAAF in January 1941. Each of the services worked closely with the Women’s War Service Auxiliary (WWSA) organisation to recruit women and manage their placement. Established in 1940, the WWSA co-ordinated the women’s war effort on a national basis through its district committees. By 1942, 75,000 women had registered with the WWSA.
Living in a society where the social contract of marriage was assumed, where wives and daughters were expected to leave employment to take care of returned servicemen, and where the Prime Minister was reluctant to let women into the military because he did not want to see New Zealand women in trousers (among other concerns), the opportunities that World War II provided women were unprecedented. Understandably, women reacted to their opportunity to join the WAAF with great enthusiasm. Between 1941 and 1945, over 4,700 women had enlisted in this force. Although formed later, by 1942 the combined numbers of the WAAC and WRNZNS surpassed those of the WAAF.
The WAAF employed women for strictly non-combat roles. Though some women were granted the opportunity to leave New Zealand and join the war effort in the Pacific, the vast majority of women completed their military service on home shores. These women lived on Air Force stations just as the men did, although they were provided slightly more ‘home comforts’ (such as private showers and fewer roommates in the barracks); they ate in mess halls, were (eventually) granted military ranks, a military uniform, and some women received service medals.
Women moved into “men’s jobs” but only for the duration of the war, as was the case with the armed services too. Many WAAFs worked as mess hands, cooks, and clerks, but their roles were not limited to apparently ‘feminine’ duties. Women drove heavy trucks and carried out mechanical repairs themselves. Others repaired the parachutes that pilots relied upon for their lives. Still others worked directly on the planes – repairing their wings, instruments, and making sure they were air-ready.
Māori women enthusiastically enlisted in the WAAF. Many of the early recruits came from Tokomaru Bay, where an active Māori Women’s War Service Auxiliary operated. Who were these women, though? Why did they join? How did they experience military service?
Identifying Māori women in the WAAF is difficult. The WAAF did not record the ethnicity of recruits, and therefore the only feasible way for researchers to determine the ethnicity of a WAAF is to hope to identify her name in Māori electoral rolls. So far, we have identified at least 186 Māori women who served in the Air Force but it is difficult to say for certain how many more there were. The WAAC on the other hand, cribbed their enlistment forms directly from the Army which did record information about ethnicity. So far, we have been able to identify 90 wāhine Māori who enlisted for service with the WAAC. As for the Navy, ethnicity was not recorded at enlistment, thus erasing Māori women’s presence in the WRNZNS.
Most of the 186 Māori women we have identified were posted to the Levin, Ohakea, Rotorua, Whenuapai, and Rongotai bases. Smaller numbers were based at Tauranga, Blenheim, Hamilton and Gisborne. These women came from across the country with Northland, the East Coast, Poverty Bay and the Bay of Plenty well-represented. A handful of Kāi Tahu women from the South Island joined the WAAF, as did at least one woman from the Chatham Islands.
These women enlisted for a range of reasons. Patriotism expressed through volunteerism and service was an important dimension of enlistment. The renumeration was not too bad either, and it meant escaping less attractive work in food prodution or in factories. Others joined for adventure, often alongside friends, or because they had whānau in the forces or a family tradition of military service. Esther Karatau’s brother, Eruera, served with the RAF. She joined the WAAF in 1941. Siblings Kenneth and Ethel Tuapawa were stationed at Ohakea, while the Paenga sisters; Heni, Keeni and Noi and their brother, all joined the Air Force but were spread across three stations: Ohakea, Mangaroa, and Nelson.
Just as brothers joined up together so did sisters and it was not uncommon for siblings to join the same service. Three Bryers sisters from Rawene joined the services. Lulu joined the Air Force with her sister. Catherine ‘had phoned one morning from Kohukohu where she worked in the butcher’s shop for the same employer as I did. She had seen an advertisement calling for women to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and intended to apply, so I decided to do the same. We had to travel to Whangarei for interviews on the same day, and being sisters we went before the Air Board together.’1 Eventually they worked together as clerks at Whenuapai. Another sister, Alice, joined the Navy, but transferred to the WAAC after the women’s naval unit was disbanded.2
Explaining the Numbers
The 186 Māori women in the WAAF translates to 3.95% of the total number of women who enlisted in the Air Force between 1941 and 1945. Although there are likely to be some Māori women yet to be identified, how do we explain the low number of recruits?
First, entry into the services was not necessarily equal because of the nature of women’s wartime employment. When applicants registered with the local WWSA District Committee, their form was referred to the District Manpower Officer who decided whether an applicant could be released to serve in the forces. Recruitment of Māori women into the services was handled differently. As Māori were volunteers for both the armed forces and for wartime employment, manpower officers were required to liaise with tribal committees of the Māori War Effort Organisation over applications and also employment matters. This relationship was tense because consultation did not always take place, resulting in women being compulsorily directed into work and often away from their home community.
When the formation of the auxiliaries were being discussed there was some concern expressed that women’s recuitment into the forces would have an impact upon industrial mobilisation. Many female recuits came from offices and shops, but Māori women were more likely to be working in manufacturing or food production, critical areas of the war effort. This influenced how many could enlist because those already employed in those areas were less likely to be released for service in the Air Force, Army or Navy.
Entry to the services also required a certain level of education, although this depended upon the nature of employment in the service. The WAAF, for instance, preferred two years of secondary schooling. This meant that Māori applicants often came from Māori girls’ boarding schools like Queen Victoria at Auckland, Hukarere at Napier, and Te Waipounamu Girls’ College. Educational level influenced access to the services and also employment in a specific trade.
Initially there were limited trades open to women in the services, but these widened through the war, especially for women in the WAAF. Occupations were diverse. Janie Pēwhairangi was a wireless operator at Levin. Catherine and Lulu Bryers were accounts clerks. Ulva Bradshaw trained at the Electrical and Wireless School. A group of four Māori women were employed as aircraft hands at Whenuapai. A few trained as cooks and assistant cooks, but the majority worked in kitchens, mess halls, or were allocated general duties.
Many enjoyed their time in the WAAF. They enjoyed the camaradarie, and had plenty of leisure time, especially to play sport. At Ohakea, six Māori women formed a choir, creating compositions and giving performances, including on radio (you can listen to them here). Some women gained training they may not have had the opportunity to access under normal circumstances. Roma’s daughter explained that her mother wanted to experience the world outside her home town and so applied to join the WAAF. The orderly life appealed as did the many opportunities to play sport. In the air force she was introduced to softball and eventually represented New Zealand. Like all new recruits she started out as a mess hand, but trained to become a dental assistant working in that role at a series of stations3.
For most Māori women, their time in the WAAF rarely lasted beyond the war itself. Discharge records identify a range of reasons for leaving: to get married, to take up care responsibilities at home, to look after children, to manage family farms, pregnancy, or release to essential industry. Others went back to their pre-war careers, such as teachers and served their people in Māori schools. Anne Delamere, who served with the WAAF from 1942 to 1947, became a Māori welfare officer, a leading figure in the Māori Women’s Welfare League and a highly respected community leader. Hera Parata married broadcaster, musician, and composer Wiremu Kerekere. They were prominent cultural leaders at Gisborne with the Waihīrere Māori Club.
A few stayed in the forces. Catherine Bryers, who was among the first wave of enlistments to the WAAF, served into the 1960s and was honoured with several medals for her service, and a posting as a Warrant Officer (the highest rank a woman could obtain at that point in time). Wigram Air Force station named the women’s barracks after her, and along with Ethel Tuapawa, Catherine was one of two Māori women selected from the WAAF to attend the Victory Parade in London to mark the end of the war in 1946. Both women were proud, wrote Catherine, ‘to be representing the many members of our race who had served with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.’4 Her story, among many others, indicates that though Māori are largely invisible in the records, they were not excluded from service life in the WAAF.
The WAAF provided women from around New Zealand with unprecedented opportunities, gave them the chance to spread their wings and reach for stars otherwise largely inaccessible to them. The Māori experience of this opportunity needs considerably further study, but we hope that this article shines a little bit of light on what has been, to date, an almost invisible history.
Acknowledgements: thanks to Simon Moody for enabling access to the Air Force Museum of New Zealand archives; to Lachy Paterson, Ross Webb, Rosemary Anderson, Sarah Christie, Lea Doughty, and Alice Taylor for their research contributions; to Sarah Johnston for alerting us to the recordings of the Ohakea Māori WAAF choir; and the Online Cenotaph – Auckland War Memorial Museum team for their generosity in support of the Te Hau Kāinga project.
Wāhine Māori in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force
Online Cenotaph has identified around 120 Wāhine Māori who served with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs), you can find their records below a list of those who served can be found here and below. If you are able to identify any Wāhine Māori air women, please feel free to contact us here.
|Bennett||Eileen Tui||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W4750||
|Paenga||Heni||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W5175||
|Paenga||Keeni Puti||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W5016||
|Paenga||Noi||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W4930||
|Pewhairangi||Janie||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W3238||
|Alden||June Hinemoa||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W5524||
|Apatu||Kura||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W1693||
|Barrett||Faye Amelia Rauriki||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W3009||
|Bragg||Helen Joan Te Koara||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W2618||
|Brooking||Dulcie Marowaiorangi Mareroa||Air Force||World War II, 1939-1945||W4696||
Stacey Fraser, 'Through Adversity to the Stars' Air Force Museum.
Angela Wanhalla, 'Māori Women in the armed forces.' Te Hau Kāinga. Accompaying Public History Podcast can be found here.
Aroha Harris, 'Māori Mobilisation: Wartime, Peacetime, Covid-19 time.' Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
Sophie Coombe 'High Fliers: Snapshots of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force' Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
 Lulu in Lauris Edmond (ed), Women in Wartime, pp.177-178.
 Joan M. Leaf, Sons of Te Ramaroa, pp.228-231.
 Lynette Bradham in Tuāhine: Sisters of Porangahau edited by M. Sciascia and H. Pedersen, pp.38-9.
 Catherine in Edmond (ed), Women in Wartime, p.186.
Cite this article
Stacey Fraser and Angela Wanhalla.
An Invisible History: Wāhine Māori in the Air Force during World War II. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 11 January 2021. Updated: 14 January 2021.