This article appeared in the April 1986 The Battalion Remembers II booklet.
Memorable Years on the Coast
To visit the East Coast at any time is a great adventure and a wonderful experience. To live there through the war years was especially memorable for me. Sir Apirana Ngata was held in high regard, his mana very high. So, too, were the Bennett, Kohere, Reedy and other great family heads. All their young men were urged and encouraged to join what became the famous C Company of the Maori Battalion. Many of them went, eagerly, innocently, freely.
At home, as the war continued we avidly followed the broadcast news and endlessly discussed the latest war stories. We met to learn about the origins of Fascism and Communism and the differences between them. What is Democracy? But mostly we asked - "Where are our Boys?" Maps were displayed and marked with flags to show slow progress. Strange foreign names suddenly became familiar household words even to the children. Scarcely a family was untouched by the war.
Fathers, sons, uncles and cousins - all were involved to a greater or lesser degree. The outside world pressed in on us. The Coast could never return to its previous isolation. The age of innocence and the luxury of exclusiveness was going fast.
During this time, I lived and worked in several schools in widely separated areas. Almost all able bodied men, young and not so young, were absent on war duty or in essential occupations in the cities. Women and children managed the home farms, ran the necessary transport and storekeeping. They coped with problems as they arose and they never complained. Indeed they took much pride in newly acquired skills and their added responsibilities.
Rationing may have been severe in the big towns, but it was never a problem for us. We grew our own food and shared any surplus with our neighbours. We churned our own butter, pressed our cheese and killed our own meat when necessary. We made our own clothes and/or exchanged with friends. It seems to me we were very caring of one another all we East Coasters at that time. No one went hungry or lacked clothing or adequate shelter.
One settlement in particular I remember with great affection. There was no road access, two rivers to ford and a seaweed strewn beach to negotiate before I reached home right there on the beach far up the Coast. We collected seaweed for agar, or other processing. We gathered seed from certain tall grasses; it was used to extract ergot for medical purposes. Horse and buggy, horse and pikau were our only transport. We all walked wherever we had to go. Every Sunday everyone gathered on the marae. First some form of Church Service was held. No matter the denomination of the preacher, or even with none we met together to worship some way. Preparations for a communal feast followed. Some dived for kina, huge crayfish and other seafoods were brought fresh from the sea. Others peeled potatoes, kumara, or busied themselves with kangapiro or puha. Finally everyone sat down to enjoy a very fine meal, probably the best of the whole week; it certainly was for me. We might finish up with great chunks of watermelon and steaming mugs of billy-tea.
Then came the korero for the men and the clean up for the women. Later the men had Home Guard drill which was taken very seriously even though their guns, at first, were mere wooden staves. The children ran about playing their own games, dancing and singing. We women knitted balaclavas using our own homespun wool. It seems to me we knitted hundreds of them. We never knew where they went - we just went on knitting. Perhaps they really were useful at Cassino?
Whenever any of our boys came home on final leave there would be a hui. If the bad telegram came - we feared the arrival of any telegram in those days - then a tangi would follow. Much comfort and support were freely offered. No-one stood alone. We were bound to one another in our hopes and fears, in our joys and sorrows.
Daily life went on - simple necessary chores to be done. Our loving duty to satisfy the needs of those too young or too old to take care of themselves. We had to tend the animals and the garden which helped to support us. And we all thrived in this healthy life. The district nurse was our most frequent and most welcome visitor. We never saw a doctor during those years but our nurse was a tower of strength in any crisis. She eased our pain and relieved our stress. She brought good news and the latest mail came in with her.
There was time to play too. Weddings and births must still be celebrated. Picnics and parties , even the occasional dance took place. But the sinister threat of death hovered near, every day of the week. Who would return soon? Who might never come back? And the men who came back were very changed from the boys who went away so blithely. Perhaps the men found their womenfolk al so very different from the girls they left behind ... War changes everyone, those who stay almost as much as those who go.
Life was a new challenge to everyone on the East Coast when the war was won and the peace hardly begun.