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George Hawkins

15 August, 2005

Honouring NZ's Pacific War dead

Speech by George Hawkins to veterans at the New Zealand War Cemetery in Bourail, New Caledonia.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the War in the Pacific, it is appropriate that we have gathered here in the final resting place of so many young New Zealanders who paid the ultimate price for the peace that we now enjoy.

The names and headstones of the young New Zealanders who are remembered here are those who met their fate both here in New Caledonia, and in the campaign that followed against the Japanese in the South Pacific.

The Pacific campaign was to be the first time New Zealanders had been involved in a war in such proximity to our own shores. It was also the first time that New Zealand’s own Navy and Air Force had served alongside their army comrades.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and their rapid advance through Asia and across the Pacific, our nation, for the first time, faced the prospect of an enemy invasion.

With most of our armed forces committed to the war in Europe, the burden of sending additional forces to the Pacific stretched New Zealand’s manpower and supply resources to the limit.

Despite these limitations, New Zealand was to make a major contribution to the Pacific Campaign, especially in the area around the Solomon Islands, which was to be the scene of some of the most bitter fighting of World War II.

Throughout the War, the bulk of the New Zealand Navy, Army and Air Force units in the Pacific served in this area.

The Navy was first to see action against the Japanese. HMNZS Leander and Achilles joined with ships of the U.S Navy in escorting desperately needed troops and supplies for the battle of Guadalcanal in late 1942. Both New Zealand ships were badly damaged during battles with the Japanese naval and air forces.

In their absence, it was left to the little ships of the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla to continue to fly the New Zealand ensign in the Pacific. The flotilla preformed a wide range of duties around the Solomons and particularly distinguished itself in several actions against enemy submarines.

In 1945 HMNZS Achilles returned to the action along with HMNZS Gambia to serve with the British Pacific fleet as the allies closed in on the Japanese home Islands. Gambia also had the distinction of representing the New Zealand Navy at the Japanese surrender ceremony in Tokyo harbour.

On the ground, New Zealand army units were involved in capturing enemy held territory as part of the allied island-hopping strategy. The Third Division under the commend of Major General Harold Barrowclough, was first sent here to New Caledonia for intensive training in jungle and amphibious warfare before beginning operations against Japanese-held Islands in the South West Pacific.

The Division was involved in several hard-fought, yet ultimately successful, landing operations that led to the capture of Vella Lavella, Mono Stirling, and Nissan Islands.

Despite these successes, a critical shortage of labour in New Zealand and the need to provide reinforcements to the forces serving in Italy, spelled the end of the Third Division’s war.

In the air, New Zealand made a major contribution in neutralising the threat posed by the Japanese in the South West Pacific. The first squadron arrived in New Caledonia in July 1942. Several months later 3 Squadron became the first Commonwealth unit to operate from the newly-captured base at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. They were to be the first of 24 Air Force Squadrons that would serve in the Pacific.

Their roles ranged from fighter patrols and escorts, bombing missions, close air support, reconnaissance and search and rescue. Operating from bases on Bougainville, New Georgia, Green Islands, Emirau, and Los Negros, one of their principal tasks was to harass and attack the Japanese forces based at Rabaul.

In over three years of combat operations, the Air Force shot down 100 enemy aircraft, destroyed several enemy submarines, dropped almost 20,000 tonnes of bombs on Japanese targets, and rescued many allied sailors and airmen from the sea.

Although New Zealand’s contribution to the overall allied victory in the Pacific was small, it was a major effort in proportion to our small population and limited resources.

Every New Zealander who served in the Pacific War faced many risks and endured many hardships. There was the ever present threat of Japanese attack or air raid; the unrelenting heat and humidity; the tropical storms; the mosquitoes; and the constant risk of Malaria and Dengue fever.

Despite these hardships and dangers, all the Services involved in the Pacific Campaign won high praise for their highly professional manner and dedication to duty.

I am honoured to be here to day in the presence of 80 New Zealand veterans of the Pacific Campaign. I realise that for many of you it is the first time that you have returned since you left, as young men, 60 years ago. You can all take tremendous pride in the knowledge that through your efforts and sacrifice, the Pacific has, for the most part, enjoyed peace and stability ever since.

We also remember too your comrades who will forever rest upon these friendly shores, and we remember those whose final resting place will never be known.

During the course of the Pacific Campaign, 578 young Service men and women died while in service in our Armed Forces. Many other New Zealanders died while serving with other allied naval and air forces.

They all made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. It is a debt that can never be repaid and it is one that we of future generations must never forget. We, who owe so much to their sacrifice, honour them today.

  • George Hawkins
  • Veterans' Affairs