The invisible hand, Margot Schwass

The Occupiers: New Zealand Veterans Remember Post-war Japan 
Alison Parr
Penguin Books, $45.00,
ISBN 9780143567240

In Love and War: Kiwi Soldiers’ Romantic Encounters in Wartime Italy 
Susan Jacobs
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143567554

I detoured into these two books while halfway through Antony Beevor’s panoramic history The Second World War. The contrast could not have been more striking. For Beevor, the world at war is a chessboard across which armies advance and retreat, a lattice of continents and oceans bisected by fronts and supply lines. His narrative is necessarily brisk: in the space of a single sentence battalions perish, cities fall, entire nations are obliterated. Pursuing comprehensive coverage, he chooses completeness over colour, breadth over depth, the strategy of generals over the experiences of individuals.

In their accounts of New Zealanders in two important theatres of war, the concerns of Alison Parr and Susan Jacobs are very different. Here, war is fine-grained, localised and intensely personal. It is a brew of nuanced and varied human experiences: excitement, terror, boredom, comradeship, suffering. It is the preserve of ordinary men and women, whether combatants or civilians, as much as military strategists and politicians. This is true of all wars, but particularly of WWII, the first in which as many civilians died as soldiers.

The Occupiers is the latest book to emerge from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s oral history programme, which has recorded the wartime memories of over 150 New Zealanders; it follows Parr’s Home: Civilian New Zealanders Remember the Second World War (2010).

It is, in many senses, more a history of peace-making than of war. Soon after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, New Zealand servicemen and women were dispatched to join the Allied occupying force. Their role was to demilitarise, democratise and help repair what was in all respects a broken country. The first troops travelled to Japan directly from Italy, but the bulk of “J Force” were volunteers who signed up in New Zealand – a mix of ex-soldiers who found civilian life less than satisfying, and others who felt they had missed out on the “adventure” of wartime service. Eventually, 12,000 New Zealanders would serve in J Force, the last returning home in 1948.

At the heart of The Occupiers are the stories of 17 men and women interviewed by Parr and her team. Most were based in the rural prefecture of Yamaguchi, described by one young arrival from Italy as “the arse end of Japan” (later arrivals, who enjoyed better living conditions than the first wave, were more charitable). Their tasks varied according to their skills and local needs. In addition to soldiers, the interviewees include an army photographer, nurses, a Japanese-speaking interrogator, a butcher, airmen and typists. Some patrolled the countryside for weapons caches, some provided hospitality for soldiers on leave, others helped to oversee Japan’s first post-war elections (where, to their astonishment, women were voting for the first time).

All the New Zealanders were young and, typical of their generation, few had left home before. They knew virtually nothing of Japan or its people, and what they did know was based largely on wartime propaganda. As one nurse described: “My parents were frightened for me … because during the war the Japanese came very, very, very, very close [to New Zealand] and my father would have shot us or poisoned us … rather than have Japanese raping us or whatever.”

A soldier remembered the prevailing perception of a “slant-eyed, yellow, bandy-legged, little bespectacled people who were very cruel”. Once in Japan, their fears of Japanese brutality and any desire for revenge gave way to bafflement at the sheer strangeness of Japanese culture – the mystifying rituals of public bathing, the near-medieval farming methods, the subservience of women. Despite instructions to keep the local population at arm’s length, many got to know Japanese workmates and neighbours well and “found that they weren’t horrible at all …. The people that we saw were very much like us.” Few New Zealanders encountered antagonism, unlike their American counterparts.

Most veterans speak of their time in Japan as a positive experience (although the lack of official recognition until 1995 understandably rankles). It offered a unique chance to expand their horizons beyond the provincialism and drab uniformity of 1940s New Zealand. For many, it was a period of personal growth that shaped their subsequent lives, whether by clarifying personal ambitions, awakening an abiding interest in other cultures, or instilling an abhorrence for nuclear war (nearly all the New Zealanders passed through Hiroshima en route to Yamaguchi and were haunted by its “indescribable desolation”: among them was Hone Tuwhare who recalled his visit in “No Ordinary Sun”).

As one soldier said: “It opened my eyes to the world outside of New Zealand for the first time and made me think about how other people lived … and not perhaps be quite so dogmatic that we’re always right.”

As with all the books produced by Parr and her team, The Occupiers reminds us of the strengths of oral history in the hands of a skilled practitioner. At its very best, oral history is intense and immediate, wholly personal but also imaginatively accessible. The writer’s hand must be invisible: nothing must come between the reader and the seemingly unmediated voice of the subject. This is the case here. The J Force veterans may not have experienced the life-and-death struggles of others, but their stories of coming to maturity in a devastated and uniquely challenging environment are compelling.

Susan Jacobs’s In Love and War deals with some little-known aspects of New Zealand’s involvement in the Italian Campaign. From September 1943, 16,000 Kiwi servicemen fought their way up through Italy, reaching Trieste just as Germany surrendered. It was a brutal campaign in which over 300,000 Allied troops were killed, and more than a million Italians died or were wounded as the Allies, the Germans, partisans and numerous local factions fought for their country.

Throughout, the New Zealanders lived in proximity to Italian civilians. They came to empathise with their hardships, they learned their language, they fed their children, they drank in their culture: “Men who had never ventured from their small towns in remote rural provinces found themselves transported … across the Mediterranean to Italy – countries they had only seen on schoolroom maps.”

Inevitably, they had romantic and sexual encounters with Italian women. In some cases, they married them. Jacobs explores the complexities of these liaisons with sympathy and insight, noting that war and love are not the polar opposites we might imagine: given the right conditions, “both … can nurture, incite and inflame the other”. In Italy, this led not only to romance, but also to venereal disease. Among the Allies, the rate of sickness from VD was greater than the battle casualty rate, and by the last year of the war, the New Zealanders’ infection rate was among the highest of all the Allied forces. Official attempts to curb skyrocketing infections via military brothels and lurid advertising campaigns were largely unsuccessful.

But Jacobs’s real interest is in the more lasting relationships that developed between New Zealand men and Italian women. Many of the latter, especially in rural areas, lived sheltered lives tightly circumscribed by family and church; relationships could develop only slowly and under watchful eyes. By contrast, some Kiwi soldiers stationed in the cities encountered highly educated, cosmopolitan women from privileged backgrounds and were dazzled by their sophistication.

Some relationships did not survive long, but those that did were a headache for the military authorities. Even while the war was in progress, soldiers were applying to marry their Italian girlfriends; when it finished, there was a flood of applications to take home brides or fiancées. The Defence Force tried erecting bureaucratic barriers to such marriages – in part reflecting New Zealand’s official immigration policy, which overwhelmingly favoured those from solid Anglo-Saxon stock – but ultimately caved in.

The second half of Jacobs’s book tells the stories of several New Zealand men and Italian women who made their lives together in this country, as well as one Italian woman’s search for the New Zealand father she never met. While these chapters are sometimes disappointingly stilted in their narration – they would benefit from more direct quotation and the raw immediacy of oral history – the experiences of the women are universally moving. The wrench of leaving close and loving families for an unknown life on the other side of the world; the shock of seeing barely-remembered husbands out of uniform for the first time; the ignorance and bigotry of resentful mothers-in-law – all are common themes. “I cried for ten years,” says one woman matter-of-factly. Plainly, war’s reverberations continue long after the march of armies has ended.


Margot Schwass is a Wellington writer, editor and tutor, whose uncle fought in the Italian Campaign.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
Search the archive
Search by category