On 3 September 1939 New Zealand declared its involvement in a war that had begun in Europe. New Zealand was one of the first countries to join the war, for economic and security concerns, as well as a sense of loyalty. In Picton an emergency committee was set up and the town farewelled the First Echelon on 29 December.
Picton and Sounds men would have fought in North Africa, Crete, Italy and, later, against the Japanese in the Pacific. Some, like Corporal Colin Knight, joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force and were honoured. A number of Picton men were honoured on 1 March 1940 during a public reception for the Marlborough boys in the Merchant Navy serving on HMSAchilles. They had taken part in the Battle of the River Plate, where HMS Achilles forced the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee to retreat into Montevideo. Later the ship was scuttled by the Germans to avoid capture.
The USA entered the war on 7 May 1941, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Following this, United States military personnel were based in Wellington. There were no American military camps in the South Island, but in Queen Charlotte Sound the Americans built a convalescent base at Kahikatea Bay, 11 kilometres from Picton by boat. It was never used. Later, the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) occupied the bay as a recreation camp (for burned and disfigured airmen), but it may never have been used. Another recreation camp was at West Bay.*
When Japan entered the war in 1941, the army erected defences on the Picton Foreshore in case of invasion, and the area used by the navy and army, including the bathing sheds, was cordoned off. Colonel Gerald Lyon MC, ED, RNZA (who lived in Picton when retired), was responsible for the installation of all South Island coastal defences. Between February and December 1942 the military built Defence Structures in Queen Charlotte Sound, amongst them one at Blumine Island and two in Tory Channel. From June to October an anti-submarine signal station was built at Long Island. Test rounds from guns were fired from these defence structures on 25 February 1943. Some of these fortifications still stand and can be seen around Queen Charlotte Sound.
An extensive survey of Queen Charlotte Sound and Tory Channel was carried out by the Navy in the launch HMNZS Elaine in 1942-43. This survey was part of the Navy’s plans to install underwater defence structures. The intention of the defence system was not to repel invasion, but to deny shelter to enemy vessels and to provide a secure fleet anchorage. A chain of radar stations was established around New Zealand and this included Stephens Island and Cape Campbell.
The Union Steamship Company’s interisland ferry SS Tamahine worked as a troop ship during the war, carrying army personnel and supplies between the North and South Island. Thousands of troops were stationed in the Marlborough district during the war years. The Marlborough Branch of New Zealand Historic Places Trust plans to erect replica ‘hut ends’ in the Wairau Valley to commemorate these camps. On 9 May 1945 Victory in Europe (V.E.) Day was celebrated in Picton (8 May in Europe). Japan surrendered in August after the bombing by the USA of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the allies then celebrated Victory over Japan (V.J.) Day. The days of rationing, of sending food parcels and worrying about loved ones fighting overseas, and concern with enemy invasion were over. Women had worked in the war effort while the men were away fighting, and this meant an adjustment for many families on the soldier’s return.
During the war years a Rehabilitation Board was set up in Picton to find work for men returning permanently from war, and a list of projects was drawn up. Also in the 1940s the Salvation Army was contracted to run a ‘Red Shield Hostel’, a Services’ hostel, for the duration of the war. In 1942, the ‘All Services Club’ bought the property from the Marlborough Provincial Patriotic Council for this purpose. The house, built around 1904 as a Presbyterian Manse was situated on section 3 Dublin Street on the Picton Lagoon foreshore (on the north-eastern boundary of where the Yacht Club Hotel now stands). In 1924 it was moved to Wellington Street and later became ‘Rawhiti Guest House’.
Soon after World War II ended the organisation that had been known as the Returned Soldiers Association changed its name to the Returned Services Association (RSA). The Picton Branch of the Marlborough RSA began on 29 September 1931 holding meetings in numerous venues, including the Literary Institute (Public Library), and Forester’s Hall (now owned by the Picton Drama Club). On 1 September 1945, the Picton Branch of the RSA purchased the Services hostel and it became the clubrooms for the RSA and Club, and is still in use today.
The names of the 12 men ‘of Picton and Queen Charlotte Sound who gave their lives for King and country in World War II 1939-1945′, were added to the memorial arch in London Quay** and the plaque was dedicated on Anzac Day 1949. The names were also recorded on a plaque on the provincial memorial in Seymour Square, Blenheim. In 1946 plans were drawn up for a returned servicemen’s lawn cemetery as part of the Picton Cemetery.
There is also a War Memorial on the Queen Charlotte Track at Portage Saddle. This site overlooks Torea Moua Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound and Portage in Kenepuru Sound. It was chosen by Sounds people as a fitting place to build a monument in honour of those Marlborough Sounds servicemen who gave their lives in World War I. The Sounds War Memorial was dedicated and unveiled in 1925. The inscription reads: ‘To Commemorate the Sounds Men who fell in the Great War 1914-1918′, (21 names). Another eight names were added and a platform built around the memorial after World War II.
Another war memorial in a different form was also created. A decision was made to reclaim the upper reaches of the Picton Lagoon for a recreation ground in 1950. A ‘Queen Carnival’ [November 1950-April 1951] was held to raise funds. The War Memorial gates were erected in 1954 on Waikawa Road at the entrance to the reserve and they were unveiled and dedicated on 8 December 1956. The inscription on the gates reads:
LHS: ‘Erected by the citizens of Picton and District in the year 1954′
RHS: ‘In memory of those who laid down their lives in World War II 1939-1945′
An historic scow A.S.Echo, now sited on the hard at Shelly Beach, Picton, took part in World War II. From 1942-1944 on active war service in the Pacific she carried the United States flag, the Stars and Stripes. She was based at Port Vila in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), transporting supplies to the ‘Coast Watchers’. These were American and ANZAC servicemen based on Pacific atolls to report on Japanese ships and aircraft in the area. Reports of enemy activity were radioed back to Vila. It is thought she travelled from the Hebrides as far north as the Solomon Islands and the Papua New Guinea area.
Echo was ideal for the work because with her shallow draught she was able to motor up onto the beach at each island and deliver food, arms, spare parts for radios, personnel and mail. Echo also rescued American air crews whose planes had been forced down. They were sheltered by Islanders until Echo could collect them and take them to safety. Echo carried Oerlikon light anti-aircraft cannons, rifles and pistols and survived the war possibly because of her non-warlike appearance. According to an American serviceman the use of the scow Echo was unorthodox, ‘a vessel under sail, for service in the Navy taking its orders from the Army’.
In 1944 Echo returned to Marlborough where she received a great welcome home and continued the Blenheim to Wellington cargo service. A film, ‘The Wackiest Ship in the Army’, based on Echo’s wartime exploits and starring Jack Lemmon and Ricky Nelson, was released in 1960. The Eckford family who owned the Echo could not afford to relinquish the ship when approached by Columbia Pictures, the film’s producer. The company needed her to continue the Blenheim to Wellington service, so another ship was used.
With the advent of the roll-on roll-off ferry Aramoana, in 1962, the competition for freight on the Cook Strait run increased. The Eckford’s eventually withdrew the Echo from service and she made her last trip on 21 August 1965.
*A.C. Manning later purchased the Kahikatea Bay camp for use by organisations and groups for conferences. Today it operates as Kiwi Ranch Christian holiday camp. The inlet is named Kahikatea Bay but the head of the bay where the camp is sited is commonly referred to as Curious Cove
**Also on the Picton War Memorial are plaques to commemorate those who fought in other wars: Korea (1950-53), Malaya, (1952-60) Borneo (1965-66), and South Vietnam (1964-72), and the inscription reads: ‘Lest we forget’.
This article is written by Julie Kennedy with the support of the Picton Museum