As we approach Memorial Day and having just observed ANZAC Day in New Zealand we would do well to remember:
The number of Americans visiting New Zealand now stands at about 212,000 a year. Most of these tourists arrive by air and find New Zealand a beautiful country with friendly and welcoming people. These figures have grown dramatically with the development of relatively inexpensive air travel. There was another time, however, when these same shores swelled with almost equal numbers from the USA, only in those days the journey was made by ship.
An ever-declining number of people, both American and Kiwi, will remember a time, many years ago, when the number of Americans here averaged 50,000 at any one time and a total of 100,000 came in two years. It was 1942 to 1944 when war in the pacific raged.
Nor were they tourists, they were U.S. Soldiers, Marines and Sailors. They came before boarding ships and sailing off to war or for a brief respite before returning to another battle. It was a time that would change the lives of both Americans and many of the New Zealanders.
In the short time that the Americans were here they saw, and may even have been responsible for the introduction and flourishing of nightclubs, florists, dry cleaners and milk bars. To say the Americans made an impact is an understatement. New Zealand's population at the time was around one million and a large percentage of the men were in the service. In 1942, New Zealand troops were fighting the same war in another part of the world including the Battle of El Alamein.
It was a time of great uncertainty and relationships blossomed literally, over night. Events were happening so quickly they were overwhelming everyone, there was little time. For the Soldiers, Marines and Sailors the time was all too short before they loaded onto ships and sailed off for unknown destinations.
About 1,500 New Zealand girls married Americans during those years. Some of those brides stayed here and waited for their loved ones to return. Some, like my Wife's Mother, got on a ship themselves and sailed off into their own future in America. Neither the military men nor their loving families, both here and in the U.S., knew what lay ahead.
They knew all too well that the fighting men were heading off for dangerous places with strange sounding names. Most of the Americans had never heard of the places they were going, they didn't know their future lay in Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Bouganville, Tarawa and Kwajalein. So many were lost, so many families broken apart after such a short time together. There were more dangers ahead, Saipan, Guam, Tinian and onward toward Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
All of this time, the families waited, fearing every phone call, every car that pulled up outside, every knock on the door. Children were born who would possibly never know their father. As was ever the case, the families came to know the meaning of the phrase; "They also serve who only sit and wait."
Eventually the war came to an end. The men who survived returned to New Zealand or the United States to rejoin their loved ones. They took up their tools and began the task of rebuilding the country and their lives. For them, the scars remained, both physical and emotional. But, all too many did not return.
This was a story of sacrifice, not of just those brave men and women of that time and place, but also one repeated throughout our history. The place names change; instead of Guadalcanal or Normandy it might be Inchon. Tarawa could be Saigon and Iwo Jima could be Fallujah or Kabul.
The accounts of the people involved never change though. The men and women of the military face the same dangers and uncertainties as they always have. Whether it is in times of war, peace, police action or something in between, they don't know when they may face danger or death. They serve without knowing what the future has in store for them. They are the people who offer themselves and their future in service of their country. They are veterans of the military and they are the families who still wait and worry and share the burden.
When we honor these people on Memorial Day, we honor them all and especially; we honor those that gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Their dreams, hopes, fears and sacrifices are all the same, no matter where or when they served. They did it for us.
We must never lose sight of the fact that from the very beginning, these days have been set aside to remember those who have sacrificed their very being in the service of their country.
The Men and Women of the Armed Forces
All Gave Some, Some Gave All
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