ONE MAN'S VIEW: CHAPTER SIX

6 New Zealand

We arrived in the harbor at Wellington, New Zealand, on February 6th, 1943. We then boarded a train to our camp located about thirty miles out of town at McKay's Crossing, Paekakariki. The camp consisted of four-man huts. There was just room for two cots lengthwise on either side, a door at one end, and a window at the other. A small, coal-burning stove stood between the cots, and a single bare light bulb dangled overhead. We thought these were fantastic accommodations.

Our sea bags were waiting for us and we dug out our 'greens,' the wool dress uniform. We did not have long to wait for liberty. Paekakariki and the other small towns in the area did not offer much, so we caught the train to Wellington. I disembarked from the train and started through the station, eagerly looking forward to my first liberty since leaving the States. My attention was attracted by two very pretty girls approaching, one a blonde and the other a redhead. The blonde especially caught my eye and I made my move. I found her name was Peggy Seerup and the other girl was her sister, Pat. They were at the station because Peggy was catching a train to her home in Ohura, a small town that she said was about 250 miles north. They did not have much time, but we did go into a nearby milk bar and had a soda. The girls then left and I continued on my way.

Liberty in New Zealand could not have been better. The people were very friendly and we all spoke English, although sometimes an interpreter was almost needed, especially with the slang expressions. The New Zealanders were extremely grateful to us for stopping the Japanese advance because they knew they were on the list of places to be overrun, and most of their soldiers were fighting Germans in North Africa. Money also went a long way. For example, our favorite meal was steak and eggs, which cost one shilling, six-pence; or in our money, twenty-five cents. Almost everything else was comparable. Four of us went together and rented a hotel room downtown on a permanent basis. We rarely had overnight liberty, but we did have liberty every day and this gave us a place to get together or take a break.

Shortly after arrival we had payday, the first we had experienced in seven months. The normal procedure for this was that we lined up alphabetically in company formation, then one at a time stepped before the company commander, announced our name and stood at attention. The battalion paymaster would check the record and state how much pay we had coming. He would then count out that amount and pass it to the company commander, who in turn counted it out again to the man receiving it. All the while we remained at attention, which wasn't bad as it usually didn't take too long. In this case, however, before they got to "S" for Skinner, they ran out of money except for one dollar bills. Although our pay was just fifty dollars a month, when seven months' worth was slowly counted out twice in one dollar bills, it made one realize how exhausting standing at attention can be. As soon as I got my money I went to a bank in Wellington and had six months' worth sent home to my folks, who put it into an account for me.

On February 19th I got a ten-day furlough. I spent the first two or three days enjoying myself in Wellington and getting some good out of our hotel room. I then decided this was a wonderful opportunity to see some of a foreign country. I had no idea where to go when I suddenly remembered the blonde I had met when I first arrived. I recalled she lived 250 miles away and that sounded just right, so I walked straight to the train station and bought a ticket for Ohura.

Figure 35. Peggy in 1943.

The train traveled up the west coast of North Island making frequent stops at every small town. I met a New Zealand soldier on the train who had been seriously wounded in North Africa. We exchanged war stories and he took a small ivory elephant from a cord around his neck and gave it to me. He said that was his lucky talisman and it had kept him alive through North Africa. He said he did not need it any longer as he would not be going overseas again, and he wanted me to have it so I, too, would be able to return to my home. Not only did I carry it through the rest of the war, but all these years later, I still have it.

The conductor stopped by and told us everyone was very interested in the two of us, as there had been no other Solomon Island veteran in the part of the country we were traveling through, and the New Zealand soldier was one of the first of their men to return. There was always a small crowd at every station where we stopped, and the conductor asked if we would go to the rear platform of the train and make a short speech at each stop. By day's end the two of us had repeated our speech quite a number of times.

Figure 36. The good luck ivory elephant.

I had to change trains at Stratford, and when I found it would be midnight before reaching Ohura, I decided to spend the night in Stratford. I bid my soldier friend goodby, departed the train, and looked for somewhere to eat. Absolutely everybody I met on the sidewalk stopped me and wanted to talk, so it took quite awhile to travel two blocks until I found a restaurant. I had a good meal and waited for the bill, which never came. Finally, I went to the cashier and told her I had not received a bill and wished to leave. She replied, "Oh, there is no charge. You are our guest, but would you mind signing our guest book?" I was beginning to see how a celebrity lived, but the biggest surprise was yet to come.

As I stepped outside, I saw the local Salvation Army band on the sidewalk. As soon as I appeared they played the Marine's Hymn! I knew then the town was mine. I crossed the street to a hotel and was not surprised at all when the manager insisted he carry my bag and informed me there was no charge for their best room.

In the morning I caught the train to Ohura, and upon arriving in this little town I inquired where I could find Peggy's address. You can imagine her surprise when a Marine she had met for only a few minutes a couple of weeks earlier suddenly appeared unannounced on her doorstep. She was very gracious and her family could not have been any nicer. I spent the rest of my furlough there until having to return to camp. I did see her one other time when I made a fast trip to Ohura on a three-day pass.

Back at camp we started doing some training, but it was still mostly rest and recreation which included going to Wellington almost every night. I had met another very nice girl there and I dated her exclusively for the rest of my stay in New Zealand. She had a brother who was overseas in the New Zealand Army and she lived with her parents in the Miramar suburb of Wellington. Her parents made me very welcome and treated me as if I were one of the family. I would usually pick her up when she got off work and our date would end when I took her home by tram. I would then return to the train station about 10:30 pm in order to catch the Paekakariki train back to my camp where we had to be checked in by midnight.

Figure 37. 1st Platoon, K Company in New Zealand. Len is third from left, middle row.

About this time we had some promotions announced, the first since I had joined the regiment in the States. I have always been amazed at how some branches of the service had so many promotions. The Fleet Marine Force, I am sure, had less than anyone. I was promoted to Private First Class a little more than one year after joining the Corps. This was considered as good and as fast as could be expected.

I was concerned about having an attack of malaria. Shortly after landing in the Solomons, members of the battalion started coming down with this disease. By the time we left, most of the fellows had experienced attacks two or three times. It seemed the longer it took to get it the worse the person was hit. Within a week or two after our arrival in New Zealand, I was the only man left in our entire battalion who had yet to experience it. I figured that when it hit me it was really going to be something. In the first part of the war, malaria was a bigger enemy than the Japanese and sent more men to the hospital. During our entire stay in New Zealand a large number of men was always in the hospital at Silverstream recovering from recurring seizures. I never did get it. A doctor told me about one person in a thousand is born immune.

As we were without a platoon leader at this time, Lieutenant Fred Riggs was temporarily transferred from another platoon in K Company and assigned as commanding officer of the first platoon. Lt. Riggs, who appears in the center of the front row in Figure 37, was also a veteran of the Solomons Campaign and had been injured by a bomb on Guadalcanal, but had now recovered. He had a special interest in scouting and would go out in the hills above our camp and lay out a compass course which would consist of several legs before reaching his position. I was supposed to determine where he was hiding and locate him before he could see me. As the hills were quite barren this was a challenge, but I enjoyed the exercises and got fairly good at them. Shortly after I left New Zealand, Lt. Riggs was again transferred, this time to H & S Battery of the 10th Marines, where he served throughout Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian.

Sixty-two and a half years later I received a phone call from Brian Reilly of Woodstock, Illinois. He identified himself as being married to Judith, the daughter of Lt. Riggs. Brian had been searching Google for information relating to Gavutu and had found my story. He added that now retired Major Riggs and his wife lived with them and was downstairs at that time. Subsequently, Fred Riggs corresponded with me.

By June 8th our training schedule had intensified and we went aboard the troopship George Climber for practice landings on the coast near Paekakariki. This ship was manned by a Coast Guard crew who were mostly inexperienced. We made a night landing, utilizing landing craft that had a ramp that dropped in front so we no longer had to climb out over the side, which exposed us more to enemy fire. The surf was fairly high, and as soon as the landing craft beached, the coxswain dropped the ramp and out we went. By that time the next swell arrived, which picked up the boat and moved it several feet further ashore. The fellows on our boat all escaped injury, but several men were hurt or killed that night by being crushed as the boat moved ahead. This would not have happened with an experienced coxswain, as he would have waited for the next swell and would have gunned the motor at the same time in order to get as close into the beach as possible, which would have stabilized the craft.

The landings were called off, and in the morning we searched the beach to be sure we retrieved all the bodies. On June 22nd we repeated the process, but with a daylight landing this time and a lot more instructions to the coxswains. After landing we marched back to camp.

Figure 38. Leonard in New Zealand a few days after his 19th birthday.

During late afternoon on July 9th, the Company was assembled and the first sergeant read off the names of fifteen men who were to report to the company commander. This was unusual procedure and often meant bad news. We gathered in his office and he stood scowling at us for a bit, then said we were on a list to go stateside, leaving early in the morning. He then asked if anyone did not want to go, and you could have heard a pin drop. He then grinned and said, "I can see none of you are too patriotic," and dismissed us.

This surprise was completely unexpected. There was almost always scuttlebutt going around that we were going home, but this time there had been none. It turned out that we would be getting replacements the next day and the captain had been told to take the fifteen men he had who were in the worst physical condition and send them home. I was probably never in better physical shape in my life than I was in New Zealand, but it happened that only fifteen of the original Company were on duty and available to leave immediately; the other remaining original members being in the hospital in Silverstream because of malaria attacks.

Early the next morning we boarded the USS Rochambeau in Wellington harbor. This was a French passenger ship that was confiscated by the U.S. when war broke out. The French crew was given the option of signing into the U.S. Navy for the duration of the war. We were really a polyglot bunch. There were no organized units aboard, just small groups from Army and Marine units, a contingent of British soldiers, a few Free French and Dutch troops, and even some prisoners of war.

As we sailed out of the harbor, the song "Now is the Hour" was played over the ship's loudspeaker system. This is a very popular New Zealand song as it was originally sung by the Maoris, the Polynesians who were the local inhabitants when the islands were first discovered by European explorers. The Marines aboard, who were leaving the land they had grown to love, were very touched. Even though we were headed home, there was probably not a dry eye among them. I know that I stood by the rail for a long time watching Wellington fall behind and out of sight. The following day the ship sustained the worst rolling I ever experienced. I have never been so seasick in my life. When I was able to eat, the food was horrible. We were fed only twice a day. Breakfast was rice and dinner was rice and jello. We were told someone was needed to work in the galley, and I volunteered in the hope of finding something better. Did I ever luck out. The captain had his own personal chef and I was assigned to wash dishes for him. I never knew how one chef could dirty so many dishes to prepare a meal, but the captain sure ate good. Naturally, the chef ate the same food, and there was always plenty left over for me.

The ship had obviously really deteriorated since it had been placed in service. It had a large rock garden on deck, but the flowers had been removed and the whole garden painted navy gray. We steamed in a straight line, which was frightening as always before we zigzagged so as to be a more difficult target for submarines. One time we broke down and just drifted for most of the day. Much later I was to find out that on its outward trip the Rochambeau had carried a Lt. John F. Kennedy, delivering him to Tulagi where he was to operate a PT boat. The name would not have meant anything to me at the time should I have heard it. A few years later, however, I did have the opportunity to meet him when I was assigned as his personal security officer when he spent the day in Salem campaigning for the Democratic nomination as President of the United States.

After a rather uneventful eighteen days we reached the States, landing at San Diego.

New Zealand will always hold a special place in my heart and 1 have returned there twice with Joyce. During our second trip, on Christmas Day 1984, we visited the site of my old camp. We had been staying with a long-time friend and she drove us there. The name of the old friend? Peggy. Yes, in all the intervening years the blonde whom I met on my first liberty has remained a close friend. She has been to see us twice and we have visited her the same number of times. Although Peggy is now deceased, she had a son and two daughters of whom we are very fond.

Figure 39. Marie on her first visit to us in 1971.

One daughter, Marie, came to see us in 1971 and became especially close. We then went to England about four years later to see her. Peggy made a trip there at the same time so we were all together. We started calling Marie our adopted daughter. She subsequently married Paul Reid and they established a family consisting of four daughters we now call our adopted family. We could not love them more if they were actually our own, but sadly Marie has now passed on and we must do without her.

Figure 40. Joyce and Peggy in her hometown of Napier.

At that time there was just a simple marker showing the location of the camp, but it has since been replaced by a larger memorial. Photos of the current memorial were taken by Marie and Dave Kenchington, sister and brother-in-law of Paul, who live in nearby Paraparaumu.

After leaving our camp site at Paekakariki in 1984, we stayed with Marie, Paul and family. They were then all living back in New Zealand and their home was just a few miles from my old camp site.

Figure 41. Memorial showing the location of the camp at Paekakariki, used by both the First and Second Marine Divisions in 1942 and 1943. Click on the photo for more details.

Figure 42. The shoulder patch worn by the Second Marine Division. Note the stars of the Southern Cross which became part of the shoulder patches of both the First and Second Divisions.

We later visited them a couple of times in Australia as they lived there for several years. When their oldest daughter, Anna-Marie, turned sixteen, her present was to come to the U.S. and spend a month with us. She has also since returned to visit. Marie, Paul and the rest of the girls, Elizabeth, Jessica, and Bridget, have also been to visit, with Paul having last returned by himself in May of 2008. On my last visit to them in Brisbane, I was accompanied by our son Craig and his wife Linda, so the friendship is passed on to succeeding generations. Our families have become very close, and all from such a casual encounter many years ago.

Because of the interest in the relationships that developed between the Marines and New Zealanders, at least three books have been written on this subject since 2000. The books are: A String of Pearls and Follow Me Back in Time, by Joan Ellis, and New Zealand in the Pacific War, by Bruce M. Petty. I have been honored to have had my story told in the latter two books. For those of you that may wish more information on these publications, refer to the last chapter in this story titled "About the Author".

I will always be grateful for my stay in New Zealand and from my friendly encounters with all their people. Those remembrances, and the many letters that I received throughout the rest of the war from both girls I had dated, gave me the strength to meet the challenges that were yet to come.

Last Modified: 09/14/2017
One Man's View by Leonard E. Skinner (2001)