The guns of Te Atatu
For Pakeha New Zealanders in the first half of the twentieth century, there was also something worryingly inconsistent about the Japanese. On the one hand, they were a non-European, 'inferior' people, whose poor hygiene and ferocious sexual appetites might imperil civilisation. On the other hand, the Japanese could not, like the Chinese or the Polynesians, be dismissed as a technologically 'backward' race. Japan's industrial revolution in the early decades of the twentieth century and its swift conquest of much of Southeast Asia and Oceania in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbour upset key premises of the Eurocentric worldview which Pakeha New Zealanders held dear.
The very absence of a Japanese minority within New Zealand society made the Empire of the Rising Sun seem a more extreme threat. During both the First and Second World Wars, New Zealanders were able to expiate some of the guilt they felt for defeats on faraway battlefields by attacking shops run by men with German accents and names, and by throwing whole families of Huns into an internment camp on Somes Island. Some of the enemy, at least, could be seen to be less than fearsome. The Japanese, by contrast, remained an unknown quantity on the home front during the Second World War. As their armies advanced from one country to another, overwhelming supposedly impregnable forts like Singapore, rumours of their ruthlessness and invincibility spread through Australasia.
By 1942 the Japanese were bombing Darwin and sending submarines into Sydney harbour, and yet New Zealand's best soldiers were fighting and dying in the Mediterranean. In the rural areas of the North Island, expecially, men were rushing to sign up to the Home Guard and drill with broomstick rifles at improvised bases. Women wrote angry letters to newspapers, demanding the right to fight and die alongside the men. This epistle was published in the Dominion in February 1942, and republished in Nancy Taylor's history of the war effort at home:
There are hundreds of women living alone, carrying on farm work, business, etc., who have gladly dug their own slit trench; some are first class shots, but their only weapon of defence against paratroops is the wood axe...Give the women weapons, they can fight. The Japanese will never have the chance to take the women and children alive. The disorientation caused by Japan's victories was reflected in the sudden emergence of the Awake New Zealand movement in 1942. At a series of mass meetings which began in the Waikato and spread throughout provincial New Zealand, farmers, housewives, and small businessmen condemned the betrayal of the war effort by lazy Wellington bureaucrats, self-interested industrialists, disloyal trade unions, and conscientious objectors. Invoking the examples of Cromwell's New Model Army and the Yugoslav partisans defying Hitler, the movement's leaders demanded he confiscation of all property that could aid the war effort and the conversion of all industry to arms production. Awake New Zealand was an exercise in group therapy, not a political movement - by convincing themselves that New Zealand could defeat the Japanese alone, if only the nation pulled together and defeated its internal enemies, Pakeha New Zealanders attempted to banish the spectre of Japanese racial superiority from their minds.
New Zealand's vulnerability was emphasised in the middle of 1942, when a float plane launched from a Japanese submarine flew low over Auckland taking photos of the city. In a mischevious faux-documentary poem, Kendrick Smithyman imagined the reaction to the lone invader:
Ships in port and ack-ack batteries
argued about him. Eventually, hotheads won,
they phoned in to report a Japanese float plane,
requested permission to open fire. Denied.
More telephoning, site to battery, battery to regiment,
regiment to Area to Combined HQ to Wellington.
On Tuesday Wellington ordered "Shoot Mr Nakamura
out of our skies."
In fact, Auckland lacked a single anti-aircraft gun in the middle of 1942. The passage of the float plane helped convince the government to step up its preparations for the defence of the country against invasion, and soon thousands of guns were being distributed to the Home Guard, bomb shelters were being dug in the towns, harbour entrances were being strewn with submarine nets and seeded with mines, and huge guns were being aimed at the empty sky. A crack group of veteran possum hunters and deer trackers were formed into a secret army called the Guide Platoons, and instructed to wage guerrilla warfare from a string of well-resourced hideouts deep in the hinterland of the North and South Islands.
By the end of the war, New Zealand was suffering from an extreme shortage of housing - for years, almost all building materials had been given over to preparations for an invasion which never occurred. But these meticulous and desperate preparations were seldom mentioned in the postwar decades. Gun emplacements became overgrown, tunnel complexes were allowed to leak and cave, and the locations of the Guide Platoons' bush redoubts were lost. When an Auckland businessman proposed the commercial use of the labyrinth of bomb shelters and tunnels under Albert Park in the early nineties, there was at first widespread scepticism about the very existence of the underground complex. In recent years, archaeologists and military historians have 'discovered' tank traps and other anti-invasion infrastructure in areas like Kawhia and the Waitakeres, where regenerating forests and landslides hid the work of the Home Guard for decades. The deep pits and brick walls might almost have been the remains of some ancient, inscrutable civilisation.
The neglect of the material legacy of the preparations for Japanese invasion reflects the desire to forget a trauma. For Pakeha New Zealanders, the advance of the Japanese through the Pacific represented the first challenge to their control of New Zealand since the conclusion of the Land Wars in the early 1870s. It was a threat which seemed to appear from nowhere, and which disappeared quickly enough to be dismissed as a passing nightmare. Now, sixty-seven years after a Japanese float plane buzzed over Auckland, Waitakere City Council has acted to preserve the remains of the five gun emplacements that were built on the Te Atatu peninsula in 1943 and 1944. The guns were serviced and operated by a force of scores of men, and were part of a network that covered the skies of Auckland; in the years after the war, though, they were quickly forgotten. By the late fifties, when the new northwest motorway had brought hundreds of commuters out to live on Te Atatu peninsula, the guns had been removed, and the emplacements and storage rooms had been overwhelmed by squadrons of blackberry bushes.
Over the past decade, developers of varying degrees of scrupulousness have supplemented the traditional working class suburb of Te Atatu with an upmarket neighbourhood of pretentious but leaky houses that that face across the water toward the Sky Tower. The gun emplacements were rediscovered during this construction work, and have been incorporated into the coastal reserve that runs alongside the peninsula's newest and most expensive homes. Each emplacement has been fenced off, to keep out the pot smokers and grafitti artists, and a large sign has been erected giving the history of the site. The preservation of the Te Atatu gun emplacements reflects the enthusiasm of property developers and their friends on the City Council for the 'character' that acknowledged history can give to an area. On the shoreline beyond the emplacements exotic flora are being purged, and the few kanuka and cabbage trees left over from the farms that once covered the peninsula are being carefully tended. The developers have even departed from their custom of giving new streets French and Italian names, and called the strip of tar that runs beside the old emplacements Gunner Drive. A little history, they hope, is good for business. Their grandfathers may not be so eager to remember.