Of love and war: Marriage across the ‘colour line’ in the South Pacific

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, Angela Wanhalla explores the emotional and legal complexities of marriages between South Pacific women and their American lovers during World War II.

Parade Through Auckland, New Zealand, 1943. Julian C. Smith Collection (COLL/202), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. Image via Marine Corps History Division.
Parade Through Auckland, New Zealand, 1943. Julian C. Smith Collection (COLL/202), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. Image via Marine Corps History Division.

Mihipeka Edwards bore witness to the excitement and emotional turmoil generated by thousands of American Marines stationed in Wellington, New Zealand during 1943. These “beautiful specimens of manhood” were “charming, polished and reckless” and “make you feel cherished,” recalled Mihipeka. They brought glamour to the city as well as the promise of romance for local women.

Between 1942 and 1945, over two million servicemen occupied the southern Pacific theatre, the majority of them Americans in service with the Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force.

Not knowing what the future held, couples entered relationships: some were fleeting, but others were enduring, with at least 1600 American servicemen marrying their New Zealand sweetheart.

In honour of Valentine’s Day, this post explores some of the emotional and legal complexities of wartime marriages, especially for couples that challenged American social and legal codes related to race.

The Mothers’ Darlings Project

In 2010, a three-year interdisciplinary research project funded by a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Grant set out to trace the social impacts of the American presence in the South Pacific Command Area.

Known as the Mothers’ Darlings Project, the research team were interested in uncovering the various intimate relationships forged during wartime between indigenous women and US servicemen stationed in the South Pacific, as well as the fate of any children left behind.

Through a major oral history project, our main focus was to illuminate the narratives and experiences of children fathered by servicemen.

The results of that project have been published as an edited collection, Mothers’ Darlings of the South Pacific (2016), while three individual stories feature on a Maori Television documentary, “Born of Conflict: Children of the Pacific War” (2014). A gallery of images can be viewed online at Radio New Zealand. An interview with Arthur Beren tells of his experiences as the son of a US Army soldier stationed in the Cook Islands.

Marriage across the ‘colour line’

The Mothers’ Darlings project began with the expectation that there would be few examples of legal marriages that crossed the ‘colour line’. As we knew from research on other theatres of war, such marriages were rare.

But archival research in US consular files and marriage records revealed a different story. We were stunned to discover that at least 50 indigenous women from the South Pacific Command Area married their American lover. My current book project, Of Love and War: Pacific Brides of World War IItraces the fortunes of these women as well as the around 1800 war brides from the southern Pacific.

An American serviceman and a Maori woman enjoy a regatta on the Waikato River, March 1943. Image via Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
An American serviceman and a Maori woman enjoy a regatta on the Waikato River, March 1943. Image via Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Sexual encounters in the South Pacific Command Area were diverse. These encounters encompassed commercial sex and casual relationships, or co-habitation that lasted as long as the serviceman was stationed in a locality, while others built emotionally intense and serious bonds.

Military authorities were willing to accept some relationships, but the prospect of anything more permanent was discouraged. In order to marry, a serviceman was required to obtain permission from his commanding officer. By 1942, military command could refer to the US War Department’s marriage regulation when making their decision, which required they take into consideration the marriage laws of the servicemen’s home state as well as race-based immigration and nationality laws. As such, any legal marriages that threatened state anti-miscegenation laws or challenged US immigration entry requirements were opposed.

This marriage policy was applied in the South Pacific Command, but US consular records from New Zealand and Suva show that interracial couples did indeed marry despite the military’s marriage directives. Sympathetic commanding officers sometimes gave their official endorsement to couples. At times, government directives to refuse to marry a couple unless the serviceman could produce evidence of having obtained permission were ignored. Couples also formalised their relationships in other ways, such as marrying according to local custom.

Of the 50 couples, most married in New Zealand and involved Maori women or those of mixed ancestry. Included amongst them were: a woman of Indian ancestry, a young woman from Niue, one from Samoa, and several women from the Cook Islands, who had been brought to the country under a government scheme to work as domestic servants in the homes of wealthy New Zealanders. Rosemary Anderson has written compellingly about the experiences of these young women in New Zealand. Marriages also took place in Samoa, Fiji and Tonga.

Love and marriage in the Postwar United States?

After World War II, the United States welcomed thousands of war brides from across Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand onto its shores under the provisions of the War Brides Act 1945 and the GI Fiancée’s Act 1946. As a special migrant category, war brides were not subject to the immigration quotas set under US federal immigration law, and their entry into the country was expedited as part of a post-war family reunification policy. Not all war brides were equal though.

Interracial couples faced difficulties reuniting post-war. Women could be refused entry to the United States if they did not meet requirements under the Nationality Act 1940, which limited eligibility for naturalisation to “white persons, persons of African nativity or descent, and descendants of the races indigenous to the Western Hemisphere.” Across the South Pacific Command there was widespread uncertainty over whether the region was in the Western Hemisphere and whether ‘Polynesians’ were racially admissible, a situation first brought to the attention of US officials by the case of Patricia and Henry. Described as “the first definite opinion on the applicability” of the Nationality Act 1940 to those of Polynesian ancestry, their case set an important precedent, which the US consulates in Noumea, Sydney, and Suva were obliged to apply to future applicants.

A view of Wellington, New Zealand, in 1947. Image via U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation.
A view of Wellington, New Zealand, in 1947. Image via U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Normally it was up to consular officials to determine eligibility for entry, and they used the requirements set out under the 1940 act as their guide. Patricia’s case went all the way to the US State and Justice Departments, who turned to experts in racial science in an effort to gain a definitive answer concerning the racial ancestry of Maori. As the Suva Consulate Records of January 1945 reveal, consular officials in New Zealand were advised that “Maoris are Polynesians” who were therefore “not considered to be descendants of races indigenous to the Western Hemisphere within the meaning of Section 303 of the Nationality Act of 1940.” With two Maori parents, Patricia did not belong to an approved ‘race’ under the Nationality Act, so her visa was retracted. As a result of this decision, New Zealand and the islands in the South Pacific were found to not be located in the Western Hemisphere. In July 1946, eighteen months after Patricia and Henry were informed of their fate, section 303 of the Nationality Act 1940 was amended. “Western Hemisphere” was replaced by “North or South America or adjacent islands.”

Testifying to their determination to be together, Patricia and Henry found a way to reunite. Unable to enter the United States, they lived between New Zealand and Canada. It appears the couple and their family never lived in the United States, even after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act 1952, which abolished racial restrictions and expedited entry for relatives of US citizens.

For the US military command, wartime intimate relationships were regarded as an inevitable outcome of the mobilisation of large numbers of young men to overseas territories for months or years at a time, but for couples like Patricia and Henry, wartime mobilisation changed the course of their lives.

Naval Operating Forces files held at the National Archives and Records Administration reveal how war heightened emotions and encouraged individuals to dwell on their future. During war, marriage was understood to be, in the words of one couple, “taking their chances on the future,” but the “future is, after all, very uncertain.” Visions of the fragility of life inspired fervent declarations of love. Sergeant Edward Motley (USMC) wrote passionately about Miss Wilson who had “developed an undying love and friendship for each other.” In October 1942, 21-year-old Corporal Arthur Dooley (USMCR) sought permission to marry 19-year-old Ellen on the basis that “I have known Miss Clegg for a period of three months, during which time I have come to love her, so deeply and to such an extent, that I desire, more than anything in this world, to make her my wife.”

Unlike Sergeant Motley and Corporal Dooley, marriage brought Patricia and Henry face-to-face with US military bureaucracy and the blunt materialities of US racial ideology. Intimate relations were thus of major significance during the war – to the young couples, their extended families, and to the military who sought to find ways to govern them. With an estimated 1800 war marriages across the South Pacific Command, war was life changing for thousands.


aAngela Wanhalla is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History, University of Otago, where she also co-directs the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture with Tony Ballantyne. Angela researches the relationship between race, intimacy and colonialism. Her current project, Marriage, Past and Present, supported by a Royal Society of New Zealand Rutherford Discovery Grant (2014-19), investigates the politics of intimacy in New Zealand.

Follow Angela on Twitter @AWanhalla.

Copyright remains with individual authors who grant VIDA holding a perpetual, world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce and promote content. For permission to re-publish any VIDA blog post, in whole or in part, please contact the managing editors at auswhn@gmail.com.au

This entry was posted in Issue blogs. Bookmark the permalink.