About 1,500 hundred New Zealand women married American Servicemen during WWII, says University of Otago’s Associate Professor Angela Wanhalla. With the latest of a string of illustrious research grants, she looks at the less-considered questions of this war time history – divorce, adoption, legitimacy, shame, the women who were married then abandoned, and the women who weren’t considered white enough to get married at all.
What did being white have to do with anything?
My research on New Zealand’s war brides originates with a collaborative Marsden-funded project with my colleague in history Judy Bennett and Jacqui Leckie in Anthropology, called Mothers’ Darlings. In that project we investigated the social impacts of US servicemen on Indigenous societies in the South Pacific Command, focussing on the fate of the children fathered by American men with Indigenous women, and, as part of that, we were interested in the extent to which interracial marriages were possible. When American Servicemen went overseas they brought American laws with them, including laws preventing interracial marriage in the United States. If a woman did manage to marry her American partner, she still faced other barriers. Women had to meet the nationality requirement of being 51 percent or more white in order to be given a visa by consular officials so that they could gain entry to the United States. I’ve seen the US consular records for posts in Fiji and New Zealand and these show clear instances where consular officials suspected someone of not being 51 percent or more white so investigated their whakapapa to determine ‘blood quantum’. These could be very intimate, quite invasive investigations into family history.
Many women who associated with US servicemen encountered some hostility to their relationships, sometimes from family, from New Zealand men, and from the US military. What’s notable in narratives is a strong sense of codes being breached, with relationships often perceived as immoral, especially if you had a child as a result, or you were a married woman who had an affair. War brought chaos into everyone’s lives, and these women’s experiences must be seen in that context.
Were there many children?
From our research for the Mothers’ Darlings project, we suspect there were about 4,000 children born to American Servicemen in the South Pacific Command. That project examined experiences in a range of societies: Tonga, Samoa, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Bora Bora, Fiji, and there is a book coming out with the University of Hawaii Press in April (and with Otago University Press in June) that traces the patterns in each island society. We used a mix of archival research alongside oral histories with the now adult children, who spoke of their experiences of growing up as a war child and the shame associated with questions surrounding their fathers, often attached to illegitimacy.
Overall, the project team were able to interview about 100 people. It has been a privilege to meet with and hear their stories. It’s been quite an emotional project to be involved with because one of the major things that has emerged out of it is seeing how the war shadows their lives. Many people contacted us in the hope we could assist them to find their American father, so we have been doing our best to advise people how to access relevant records. Others got involved because they’d found their families and they wanted to tell that story. Unfortunately, locating US servicemen is difficult. In New Zealand, for instance, there was no requirement to put the father’s name on the birth certificate form if the child was born out of wedlock. Some children might only suspect they are the child of an American Serviceman or, in some cases we’ve looked at, children were told later by a relative. Some might only have a name. Some are luckier and know that their fathers were with the marines, for example, or have a year and place of birth, making them easier to trace. Most have only a name, or just a nickname.
Have you found much information on New Zealand war brides?
About 1,500 women in New Zealand married American Servicemen, but what we don’t know is how many went to the United States. I’m interested in tracing the experience and impact of international marriage during wartime. One of the challenges of doing an international project is that the archives are located in many places, and a lot of the newspapers aren’t digitized, so material is not easily accessible. It would be much harder, particularly as a humanities scholar, to get to these places without the Rutherford and Marsden Funds. This support is vitally important to be able to do this work so we can understand how New Zealand fits in with the rest of the world and demonstrate the global reach and significance of New Zealand history.
Are there any New Zealand war brides still alive?
They are a group that are quite elderly now but I have spoken to some New Zealand war brides, and was able to meet up with some in the United States. This generation is passing away, so it’s a timely project, and especially important to collect oral history, to gain access to those experiences that don’t usually make it into the archives or into the history books. I’m interested in what the experience was like for these women – who might go to the United States on a long sea voyage, to meet someone they’ve only known for a few months. Or those women in New Zealand who got letters from a lawyer claiming that their husband wanted to divorce, and had to figure out whether being divorced in the United States meant they were also divorced in New Zealand. Or whether it meant their child could be taken away. I’m kind of in awe of some of these women, because they had to negotiate these complex legal systems and face difficult situations that had enormous emotional and material impacts for them.
Can you tell us about some of the situations New Zealand war brides in America found themselves in?
Some war brides were not necessarily accepted by their new American relatives, whereas others were completely embraced. Others who went to the United States were then abandoned by their husbands after several months and had to figure out how to get back to New Zealand with very little money. There is one story in the records about a woman whose husband went to live with someone else in the California, leaving her with his parents who didn’t like her and wouldn’t provide her with any support. After doing her best to manage with her in-laws, she couldn’t cope any longer and wrote letters to her New Zealand family and to the Government asking for help to get back to New Zealand. There are other cases where women arrived in the US only to find their husband had divorced them. In cases of divorce where there was a child involved, women were faced with fighting for custody. There are really difficult stories to be told. However, many women also had wonderful lives with their families in the United States.
These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.