Southerners at War
Its wartime production in munitions exceeded that of cars and it was women who made the bombs to fuel New Zealand's war effort at the Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Wellington. JARED MORGAN talks to an Invercargill couple manpowered to work there.
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Theirs is a wartime romance with a twist. Like thousands of couples before, and since, Richard "Dick" and Mary King met at work.
Their eyes first locked on a bus bound for the Ford Motor Company of New Zealand's assembly plant at Seaview, Lower Hutt, in 1943.
And the couple's love was forged over engine grease and gunpowder.
At that time the factory was the site of a crucial part of New Zealand's contribution to World War 2.
Second only to the sheer volume of men and women sent to the battlefields of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific, was the need for munitions.
For most of the early years of the war New Zealand was hopelessly short of munitions.
The reluctance of the Labour Government to prepare, as war clouds descended over Europe, was accentuated from 1938 by a shortage of funds.
From 1938, it was becoming difficult to find munitions suppliers in the United Kingdom, as producers there became preoccupied with orders from their own government.
The rapidly expanding Australian productive capacity filled a few gaps, but there was the pressure of its own war effort, leaving little over for a neighbouring country.
Some early help came from the United States, which, until Pearl Harbor, had adopted a policy of isolationism but saw a war that it hadn't planned on being a part of as a cash cow.
New Zealand manufacturers were forced to fill the breach and managed to provide a substantial portion but the country remained dependent on overseas sources.
Less than five years after being founded in 1936, Ford's Seaview plant had dedicated some production to munitions.
It was smart business.
The 1930s and 1940s were a time of survival with the Depression, excess stock of new product, and then no new vehicles available during the war years.
Staffing the plant after many of its men had gone to war was an issue leading to the recruitment of men and women from throughout New Zealand.
There was little option, Mary says.
"It was go or be thrown in jail."
Dick, an automotive engineer, was plucked from Invercargill and sent to the factory to work on flathead V8s, boring V8 blocks and fitting valves.
He was turned down for military service after being certified as unfit or "grade two", he says.
"I was manpowered to the factory in 1942 Peter Fraser was PM." Mary arrived in 1943 after being shoulder-tapped in Christchurch.
Her role, along with 500 other women, was on a production line known as the powder room, packing explosives into grenades and mortars.
The work was mundane, she says.
"You got a bit bored I wasn't ever happy about it."
The women had to shower at the end of their shift to wash off any residue.
"Careless talk costs lives" was a catchphrase of the era designed to stop people inadvertently giving useful information to spies and similarly she had to keep mum about the nature of her work at the factory.
"You couldn't talk about it, you had to be very quiet," she says.
Similarly the policy at the factory was not to ask questions.
"They didn't tell much and you didn't ask questions."
Production figures from Ford, released after the war was won, lay the company's wartime production bare.
The factory had produced only 10,423 vehicles, but on the other hand had assembled and filled 5,720,532 hand grenades and 1,205,400 2-inch and 3-inch mortar bombs.
The couple's romance provided a diversion from the daily grind in the factory; they have been married 67 years.
- © Fairfax NZ News