Engaged again after 70 years

22:36, Jun 27 2012
ROMANCE REKINDLED: After 70 years Richard Tracy from Dayton, Ohio, and Norma Milford of Snells Beach are once again engaged.

The rekindling of a World War II romance in Warkworth comes just as New Zealand recognises the arrival of United States forces here 70 years ago.

Former Marine Richard Tracy, 93, returned to New Zealand last weekend to resume an engagement with Snells Beach resident Norma Milford, 89, that he broke off while fighting in the Pacific in 1943.

He was a 23-year-old from Franklin, Ohio, when he and his comrades found two bodies of Australian and Japanese soldiers that had been lying in New Guinea's undergrowth for a year. It stopped him in his tracks.

Many of his friends had been killed or badly wounded, prompting Richard to believe he might be killed and never found. That helped him make a decision he hoped would be a kindness.

He wrote to Norma, the 19-year-old fiancee he'd left behind in Palmerston North, and ended their relationship.

"It just wasn't fair to be involved with someone when there was a war on. I didn't want her to wait in case I ended up all shot up or was lost in action," he says.


Richard had been with the 1st Marine Corps Division, the first US servicemen to arrive in the country at Wellington in June 1942.

The division was based in camps at Paekakariki and only stayed a few weeks before the battle at Guadalcanal. Richard was among the few ordered to stay behind.

He met Norma after he went along with a friend to make up numbers with a young woman from Palmerston North whose own fiance was away fighting. When that young man arrived home unexpectedly, Norma took her place. Love blossomed for Richard and Norma after the second date. Then Norma got meningitis, missing a date with Richard and ending up in Wellington Hospital.

"I was put in the ward for the dying," she says. "My mother managed to get word to Richard just as he was about to board a ship to Australia."

Norma eventually started seeing Maurice Milford, a New Zealand army man she and Richard had double dated with several times. They married and had three children. Maurice died in 1997.

Richard suffered a broken leg during a beach landing on Peleliu (Palau) when a fellow marine landed on him as they jumped out of their Amtrac landing boat.

"He saved my life. When I fell, the guy who took over my kit, which had a mortar base plate and binoculars, was shot dead by a Japanese sniper."

Richard was invalided from the war after time in a field hospital and then a hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia.

The former printer returned to his trade and married a nurse – also named Norma.

They had five children and spent 64 years together.

But contact with his former fiancee didn't end completely. Norma's daughter Robyn Anne Milford, training to be a doctor, did her elective training at Cleveland in Ohio in 1971. She arranged to meet Richard and his family for a few hours.

Richard and his wife were in New Zealand in 1989 on holiday and spent an evening with them.

February 22, 2011, is now etched into New Zealanders' consciousness as the day 185 people lost their lives in the Christchurch earthquake.

It is also the day Norma received a call from her Catholic parish asking her if she had ever been engaged to an American marine.

Richard, now a widower, had been showing a friend old photographs and reminiscing. His friend was intrigued by the story behind the "pretty little girl" from New Zealand in a photograph and contacted the New Zealand church to see if she could track Norma who is Catholic.

"The moment I heard her voice I knew I wanted to see her again," Richard says. He arrived in New Zealand last Saturday.

The two have reunited and their engagement is back on, 70 years after they first met.

Background information

Though we've come to appreciate our isolation at the bottom of the Pacific in recent years, at the height of the Second World War when Japan entered the war by bombing the US navy base at Pearl Harbour, in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, we were shocked to find it put us in real jeopardy.

The Allied forces fighting in Europe also suddenly found they now had an aggressor on the opposite side of the globe to contend with.

Here in New Zealand and Australia, with a big chunk of our young men off fighting in Europe, a wolf had turned up and found the back door open.

Of the wars we had been involved with as a nation, for the first time our own island nation with its long, hard to defend coastline, was under threat.

Just over two months after the Pearl Harbour attack Japanese bombs rained down on Darwin.

Though it was later found Japan hadn't developed plans at that stage to invade either country, rather to cut us off, people were  fearful this was the intent, and around 43,000 New Zealanders signed up as territorial's - our home guard.

Questions were raised over bringing home the New Zealand division fighting in the Mediterranean, but with the Japanese now present in the Indian Ocean through which the troops would have to pass, stationing US forces in New Zealand was seen a safer option. The first six months of 1942 saw a desperate attempt by US and other Allied forces to gear up and stop the spread of Japanese forces in the Pacific.

The friendly US invasion of New Zealand began in June 1942, with the arrival of the 1st Marine Corps Division and eventually saw 80,000 men stationed here over two years in camps, mainly around Wellington and Auckland. US women - mainly nurses - were also based here.

Camp huts were frantically built, mostly by New Zealand women, along with stores depots and hospitals with clubs set up close to camps where the young men could unwind.

The US forces stationed here successfully fought with some allied forces at Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida in the Solomon Islands to stop the Japanese forces, including from finishing an airfield there to interfere with supply and communication routes between New Zealand, Australia and the US. They then headed off  before heading onto other campaigns across the Pacific.

Warkworth was home to 5000 men in camps throughout the district, spread from the artillery range at Tapora to the Kaipara hills, Whangateau Domain where beach invasions were practiced on Omaha beach, Pakiri Beach, Matakana, Wookcocks Rd, the American hospital on View Rd, Kaipara Flats and many more.

Army and marine  Leg 1 personnel outnumbered the local population three to one.

The two and four man huts they slept in may have been drafty and cold in winter but the locals welcomed them warmly into their homes.

Whenuapai airbase saw American planes coming and going. Though it wasn't reported at the time, a Flying Fortress bomber crashed after take off there, killing all 11 crew members.

While the Marines and army personnel were welcomed generally with open arms there were still some tensions. Men in the New Zealand defence forces had been fighting over seas for three years and were battle weary. There was some resentment the Americans were at home with their women folk. Men still at home found it hard to compete with these well spoken, smartly dressed young men, who often earned considerably more than they did. The phrase `over paid, over sexed, over here' was just as popular in New Zealand as in Britain.

What was seen as overt racism by some Americans, particularly from the southern states, also caused friction with some Maori and Pakeha.

Many friendships and romances flourished and eventually around 1300 New Zealand women headed to the US as war brides. Unintended pregnancies also occurred, with some New Zealand servicemen returning home to pregnant wives and girlfriends.

In his book The Yanks are Coming, Harry Bioletti, a former teacher at Mahurangi College, puts the number of illegitimate births in New Zealand in 1939 at 1120. By 1944 this had risen to 1999 and would have included the offspring of both American and New Zealand servicemen.

The number of babies fathered by American personnel is unknown as father's names weren't necessary on the birth certificate of illegitimate babies.

But the men also made friendships that lasted many years after the war. US forces' arrival gave the local economy a much needed shot in the arm, especially following a couple of years of rationing to provide food and petrol for the war effort.
Downtown Auckland and Wellington became hotspots for night entertainment.
This saw the rise of servicemen's clubs close to the camps and night spots with swing bands and jitterbugging a plenty. The cabaret at the downstairs Wintergarden at the Civic Theatre on Queen St in central Auckland became wildly popular, as did the diminutive dancer Freda Stark who danced on stage to entertain US personnel, clothed only in gold paint and a g-string.

In an irony Freda, a clerk born in Opotiki, was gay, as was her dancer husband Harold. Harold later owned a house on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula and Freda was often a visitor. Freda became an icon of the times, as well as for Auckland's gay community.

Rodney Times