CAMP HASNEN, Okinawa -- --
Rolling hills, lush vegetation, and the soothing sound of crashing waves: it’s not heaven on Earth, its New Zealand.
Many U.S. Marines look forward to deploying to the island nation of New Zealand for its amazing landscape and scenery, but the fascinating military history of the South-Pacific nation is lost on most.
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. John W. Black, one of the few Marines stationed there, is an exception. Unusual circumstances have given him a rare opportunity to pass on the history of the U.S. Marine Corps and New Zealand Defense Force.
“As a Marine, I think it’s extremely important for us to remember and honor the Marines who served before us and to build upon their legacy,” said Black, a U.S. Marine working at the U.S. Embassy. “One of my favorite Maori proverbs is … ‘A fern frond dies, but another frond rises to take its place. When a warrior passes, another warrior will rise to take his place.’”
Black’s interest in New Zealand began when he visited the country in 2012. At the time, he was serving as part of a small U.S. military delegation to the island during preparation for New Zealand’s celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Marines’ arrival there. During the celebration, he saw photos and maps of various sites established during World War II, including the place where the Marines’ first landed in New Zealand, the location of 1st Marine Division’s living quarters and more.
Black began to study the collection, peeling back layers of history as he referenced the locations on the map.
More than 400,000 American military personnel passed through New Zealand, from 1941-1945. There, they recuperated from injuries, recovered from disease, and staged the island-hopping campaigns of Guadalcanal, Bougainville and Tarawa.
“New Zealand’s extremely significant to Marine Corps history because it provided an advance base from which the U.S. could project power into the Southwest Pacific,” said Black, from Stockton, California. “If the Marine Corps and Navy would have failed at Guadalcanal, the Pacific Island Hopping campaign would have been detrimentally affected for several years. If the Marine Corps failed at Tarawa, our amphibious doctrine would have suffered a critical blow.”
In addition to World War II, the U.S. and New Zealand have fought together in virtually every major U.S. military conflict since the turn of the 20th century: World War I, Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan.
Last month, Black took Sgt. Maj. Vincent C. Santiago, the sergeant major of 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, on a tour of historic World War II sites in New Zealand.
“I was walking on hallowed ground,” said Santiago, from Merizo, Guam. “It had the same feeling as walking on the grounds of Gettysburg. The people who walked this ground set the path we follow. I was proud -- proud to be a Marine.”
According to Black, New Zealand preserves these landmarks to remember the social history and friendship between NZDF “Kiwis” and Americans during World War II.
Today, the United States and New Zealand continue to be allies. Since both nations signed the Wellington Declaration in 2010, they have participated in hundreds of security cooperation activities globally.
As the Marine Corps and NZDF promote peace and security in the Pacific today, seasoned Marines like Black and Santiago use the past as a guide.
“Those Marines who have gone before us are looking down on us and knowing that we are … stepping were they have stepped,” said Santiago. “We’re continually carrying the torch, and not only representing this Marine Corps, but everything we believe in: our values, our ethos and the reason why we fight.”