Ena Ryan talks to Jack Perkins about wartime Wellington of the 1940s. As battles raged and casualties mounted, those left behind to keep the home fires burning waged their own war against uncertainty, grief and wartime conditions.
Ena was raised in Kelburn in an upper middle-class family. She says New Zealand was very isolated at the time of World War II and the war in Europe seemed very far away, although the BBC was broadcast every evening.
In August 1939 she went on a skiing holiday, staying at The Chateau and describes life for the wealthy guests - the possibility of imminent war was not discussed at all. She arrived home to hear Neville Chamberlain on the radio announcing Britain - and therefore New Zealand - was at war.
She describes the excitement of young men at the prospect of going to war once recruiting opened a week later, especially those who had been badly affected by the Depression and had low self-esteem due to the lack of work.
She describes going to clubs to dance with soldiers of the 22nd Battalion before they departed - she was 31, so not young, but her father still disapproved. She met a group of men who had very little money, so she invited them to stay at her home when they weren’t in Trentham Camp. She says they felt the war could last for 10 years and she says it changed her opinion of men and she began to value them more highly.
When France fell they realised how serious the situation was. The staff at The Correspondence School where she worked were told to work overtime and had to prepare the ballot for single men for conscription, which were based on the men's Social Security forms.
Her friend who was serving with the Army Supply Corps (A.S.C.) was killed by an Italian bomb dropped at Solum. In 1941 her friends in the 22nd Battalion sailed for Egypt in early 1941 and she became involved in canteen work.
She recalls hearing about the casualties of the Crete and Greece campaigns and then Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. She read a small paragraph in a newspaper saying American currency would be accepted in New Zealand, which was the first hint that American soldiers might be coming. She talks about teaching air raid drill to children at Miramar School, and a scare when it was rumoured that Japanese submarines were in Cook Strait. It was thought the Japanese would land at the mouth of Karori Stream and the Home Guard were preparing to go out and meet them.
In June 1942, the U.S. Marines arrived. She says many brought beads with them as they seemed to think the women in New Zealand would be wearing hula skirts and feathers. She says she was staggered at how young they were and within two or three weeks they were landing in Solomon Islands with terrific slaughter.
She describes reaction to the Marines and the young women of Wellington "flying into each other’s arms". She thinks New Zealanders could have been more welcoming to the young Americans. She describes the American military police who had great powers and could be very violent to their men. Wellington seemed to become an American town and an 'army of prostitutes' arrived from Sydney, headed by a woman named Freda.
She got married in 1945 and realised the war was over when they saw the news of the bombing of Hiroshima. The men who came home were changed from the boys who went away - she describes the changes in them.