As billion-dollar plans to build Transmission Gully proceed, John Bishop looks at persistent stories that US Marines were willing to do the job for nothing.
The idea that a northern highway through Transmission Gully could have been built for free 70 years ago by United States Marines is a persistent but untrue piece of urban folklore. Popularly it is believed that the marines offered to build the road to help move troops and equipment from their Paekakariki base to the port of Wellington during, or after, World War II.
But no-one around at the time can recall such an offer and there are no official records that set out the offer or its terms. However, the belief that the offer was made is strong and often repeated as fact. For example, Miles Erwin writes in the 2006 winter issue of Heritage, the I magazine of the Historic Places Trust:
“In 1942, the encamped Americans offered to build the gully route for free. While the offer would have saved years of bureaucratic wrangling…the government just didn’t see the need for it.”
I fIrst came across the claim when I was researching an article on the history of the various alternative northern routes out of Wellington. I knew about the so-called offer from the marines.
Before simply repeating the claim, I decided to seek some authentication and details about what was actually proposed. I found no evidence of the offer ever being made.
Historian Michael Bassett, who has written a biography of wartime prime minister Peter Fraser and a history of the Department of Internal Affairs, says he found no reference to such an offer in any of the papers. The former commissioner of works, Bob Norman, who was a cadet in the Department of Public Works in the early part of World War II, says he has never “encountered anyone who has ever said that [he knew of the offer].”
In 2012, a consultants’ report prepared for the planning hearing which granted consent for Transmission Gully says, “there is a persistent ‘urban myth’ (which the New Zealand Transport
Agency is unable to confIrm or debunk) that the US army offered to build an inland route during or soon after World War II. The NZTA does not have records of any of these early considerations of an inland route.”
Certainly, discussions of inland routes dated back at least to 1919, when the Evening Post reported-on MP WH Field introducing a delegation from the Hutt County Council to the then public works minister Sir William Fraser.
The delegation wanted improvements to the Paekakariki Hill Road, then the main route out bfWellington. It said the road was dangerous compared with a coastal route via Plimmerton and Paremata. Mr Field sought an entirely
new inland road.
Hardly surprisingly, the wartime newspapers are silent on the highway matter.
In any event, Mr Norman adds, if true, the marines would probably have built a military track.”They wouldn’t have built the kind of highway we are now talking about. There would have been limited earthworks and bailey bridges, just enough to move military equipment around.”
So if there are no New Zealand memories or records, let’s try the marines themselves.
I contacted Paul J Weber, the deputy director of the history division at the Marine Corps University ill Quantico, Virginia. He replied that the 1st Marine Division Marines hit the Wellington area in May 1942 then left for Guadalcanal in mid July. The 2nd division arrived in force in November 1942, leaving in late October 1943 for Tarawa. “So not a lot of time to get a
proposal like that from the idea stage to construction even in wartime.
“We have nothing here at history division on the offer. Any official records covering that period would have been retired to the National Archives and Records Administration up in Washington DC.”
Helpfully he offered to get a search done, and later he responded, “My specialist up at the National Archives could fInd nothing”.
Proving a negative is logically hard, but it certainly seems safe to conclude that there was no offer made. Perhaps the real mystery is how the rumour that there was one started, and why it has persisted for so long.