A little Kiwi girl’s memories of World War II

Soldiers leaning out of a train as they depart to serve in World War II. The train is covered in graffiti including New Zealand place names and phrases

On Anzac Day I cast my mind back a long way to the end of World War II. I was a little girl but have many memories. My dear mother was always amazed at how much a small girl had remembered, but we were surrounded by talk of the war, a real fear of the war and the effects of the war… grief over lost family and friends, fear that my Daddy could be sent away, fear of attack, the number of American soldiers in our midst, severe lack of money and severe rationing of food.

I was fortunate that my father was not sent away. He was the right age, very fit and healthy, but anyone with children went to the end of the waiting list. He went to training camp in case he was needed but was one of the fortunate ones. It is heartbreaking to think of all our young fit men, in their prime, who were sent away to unbelievably awful conditions with a high risk of being badly injured, disfigured or slaughtered.

I mentioned fear of the war. It was real. I recall windows being covered with dark-coloured blankets every night, known as a ‘blackout’ because enemy planes were doing reconnaissance flights over our country at night. We came that close to being physically involved!

United States troops and brass band march down Queen Street, Auckland, New Zealand 1942, Photograph by National News, courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (PAColl-8163-33).

My memory of the American soldiers in our country is positive because they were good company, laughed a lot and were, apparently, very popular with the young women in our country because they came carrying gifts, lots of gifts. I was told years later that they introduced nylon stockings to our young women and that made them very, very popular indeed! I had an aunt who took ‘looking after’ these gorgeous young men very seriously… whatever ‘looking after’ meant! I was far too young to understand. I can remember asking my parents, “Why do the Americans smell funny?”?? something they couldn’t understand. We realised, years later, that it was the smell of beer; a smell that wasn’t familiar to me but they always seemed to have copious quantities of small bottles, which weren’t known in this country at the time.

Severe lack of money was a major problem as we were a small country with a small income and, apparently, most of our money was going towards the massive cost of supporting Britain. My paternal grandfather had a building business but a general shortage of money meant no work for him with ongoing effects. The upside was that he built a new home for my parents just to keep some of his men in work. I was told years later that we had Pinex walls in the house because of the almost total shortage of normal building materials.

The lack of money in day-to-day life was severe: most children wore hand-knitted jerseys with pants and skirts made from adults’ cast-offs and there was no money for toys. Food was very basic, mainly because of the food rationing, which continued for several years after the war. Every family member had a ration book and every book entitled one to a limited amount of food products. I recall that sugar was one of the items because New Zealand imported it and, I think, butter because we exported it.

It must have been extremely difficult to put a decent meal on the table in those days. Most people had a family member with a farm for a meat supply and, of course, everyone had a vegetable garden. Tough times, with no government handouts, but we had strong families, discipline, good basic 3Rs education and we learned survival skills. Above all, we children knew no other lifestyle so we just ‘got on with it’. In hindsight, I believe we learned what is important in life.

To conclude, one of my strong memories was always a little Polish girl who came to stay with our family near the end of the war. As many will be aware, in 1944 a boatload of over 700 Polish children was brought to New Zealand to escape total extermination in their own country. A settlement centre was being organised in Pahiatua, in Wairarapa, for the children to be housed and educated until the war was over when they would be returned to their country. The organisers asked for New Zealand families to billet the children for a time while they got the base ready. My mother offered to help so a little girl aged about seven came to stay… strange country, strange language and strange (but caring) people.

I have a memory of trying to teach her some words… this is butter, this is bread. I look back and think how frightening! Her name always stayed with me. Thankfully, it wasn’t a long Polish name and I often wondered what happened to her. About five years ago I decided to try to find her. I rang the Polish centre in Howick, asked if they could help find her and by the end of the day they were able to give me her phone number. Fabulous!? I flew to Wellington a couple of weeks later, had a lovely reunion, met some of her family and had a wonderful catch-up. I found out that her mother had died and her father was involved in the war effort. She and her two older sisters had been put into an orphanage, so they were among those chosen to travel to safety. When the war was over their father travelled to New Zealand to find them. They weren’t, obviously, returned to Poland as their country had been demolished and there was nothing to go back to. All those children grew up here and have been excellent citizens of New Zealand. My friend married one of the Polish boys and they have happily raised a family of five lovely Kiwi children.

I sent a copy of this post to an 88-year-old friend, who looks and acts much younger, as I thought she would enjoy my memories. Below is her response. I found it interesting that, as school children, they were training for a possible Japanese invasion:Quote:

[…] that was amazing, you really took me back.

I was nine at the outbreak of war in September, we were on our way to the Wellington Exhibition. Because of the war it spoilt it for the exhibition; not the attendance they expected.

I was going to a little school just out of Urenui, Taranaki and we used to visit nearby farms to collect ergot from rye grass. This was sent to the Red Cross who would send it to areas overseas that needed it in order to aid soldiers of war. The ergot was believed to stop bleeding.

1942 we came to Auckland and lived in Westmere and then Herne Bay. I went to Bayfield School and we would have practice runs across Jervois Rd to our playground where trenches had been dug. We would have to hop in trenches and we had string around our necks with a piece of cork on it. Don’t know what that was for; perhaps to stop us screaming! We were preparing for a Japanese invasion.

My sister was three and a half years older than me. She had an American boy friend who wanted to marry her. Couldn’t have been the right one, or America was a long way from home!

I was 15 and at the time going to Auckland Girls Grammar. We went mad and pranced around the grounds; the war had ended and we got a HOLIDAY.
When I was working word soon got round when nylons were in the shops!
You always had to make sure you had your seams straight when you put them on. End of quote.

by The Blonde