Joan Ellis with Bob and Bill Strickland and Marines training at Pohakuloa Training Area stop at the plaque honoring the 2nd Am Trac Battalion that trained for amphibious landings at Camp Drewes.
Joan Ellis at Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site with Marines on Hawaii Island for exercises at the Pohakuloa Training Area. (COURTESY PHOTO BY KATHY PAINTON| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Jim Browne, past commandant of the Camp Tarawa Detachment, presents Joan Ellis with a 2nd and 5th Marine Division T-shirt at a Marine Corps monthly meeting. (COURTESY PHOTO BY KATHY PAINTON| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Joan Ellis with Dr. Momi Naughton, coordinator of the Heritage Center at the NHERC. (COURTESY PHOTO BY KATHY PAINTON| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Joan Ellis at the Camp Tarawa monument in Waimea. (COURTESY PHOTO BY KATHY PAINTON| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Joan Ellis poses with Bob McElroy and Lt. Col. Eric Schwedo after a tour of the Pohakuloa Training Area. (COURTESY PHOTO BY KATHY PAINTON| SPECIAL TO NHN)
For New Zealand author Joan Ellis, her time with the men of the 2nd Marine Division in 1942 made a lifelong impact. The Marines were stationed in New Zealand from 1942 to 1943, before they left the country in November 1943 to fight in the three-day battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.
“I was just a young teenager at that time, when my family met many of the young Marines,” Ellis said in an email to North Hawaii News, “and I made many friends among them.”
Ellis said that “like all war-time experiences,” time passed and life continued for her and others in her town. But Ellis never forgot the men and their sacrifice in the Battle of Tarawa. She wrote two books to honor them called “A String of Pearls,” and “Follow Me Back in Time.”
Last year, residents from the New Zealand town where the 2nd Division Marines were stationed celebrated 70 years since their arrival in the country.
“A group of us had formed a trust two years prior to honor those men who graced our shores and whose presence was responsible for providing this country and its residents with an element of security,” Ellis said. “Consequently, thousands of friendships were formed (in 1943). Many marriages took place, and to this day the surviving veterans still consider our country to be their very own special place. They called it Valhalla, ‘Heaven,’ and claimed it as their own.”
For Ellis, the story of the men of 2nd Marine Division was completed in December, when she visited Hawaii Island to see where the Marines went after leaving New Zealand for Tarawa. She spent 10 days in Waimea hosted by Kathy Painton, public affairs officer of the Camp Tarawa #1255 Detachment Marine Corps League.
“It was an amazing and emotional journey for me, as after the Marines left this country, due to wartime precautions, little was known about the continued experiences of the guys,” Ellis said.
Following the Battle of Tarawa, more than 55,000 with the 2nd and 5th Marine Divisions were stationed, from 1943 to 1945, in Camp Tarawa, made up of three camps in Pohakuloa Training area, Camp Drewes in Waimea, and Hapuna Beach and the northwestern coast. After their stay at Camp Tarawa in Waimea, the 2nd Division Marines participated in the invasions of Saipan-Tinian and Iwo Jima, where 5,145 died, and 18,029 were wounded in action.
Ellis said that during her visit to Waimea in December, Painton “tirelessly” showed her “every place where the 2nd Division Marines would have been based, where they recuperated, spent their recreation periods, and trained for further battles in Saipan and Tinian,” including Parker Ranch and Pohakuloa Training Area.
“I had no idea I would be so emotional about coming there until I was shown the docks in Hilo where they would have landed in December ‘43,” Ellis said. “War weary, grief stricken for their thousands of buddies who had been killed in those 72 hours of battle in Tarawa, never having had time to grieve for them there.
“I heard stories while there (in Hilo) about locals seeing them marching through the streets still wearing the blood and mud-stained clothes they had fought in,” Ellis said.
Ellis said that during her Waimea visit, she imagined the young Marines spending time in the homes and recreation places here, just as they’d done in her hometown in New Zealand months before the Battle of Tarawa began.
“Remember, many of those Marines were just teenagers, as was I and thousands of other young New Zealand girls who were starved of male company due to war in other places in the world,” she said.
Ellis said she hopes to keep alive the history of the 2nd Marine Division by writing what she calls her “closure to that era.” She said she hopes to write a final book on the men of their time on Hawaii Island.
Ellis is now seeking the help of North Hawaii residents who may have befriended members of the U.S. Marines of the 2nd Division.
“I feel there is a need for me to now add my impressions of how it was for the men who arrived in Hawaii from Tarawa and feel there must still be locals there who would remember the arrival of those men 70 years ago, December 1943,” Ellis said. “I have already met one man who remembers them marching through the streets, so there must be many young and old who will recall those days.”
She said that as she did her research here, she was able to gather artifacts, souvenirs and memorabilia.
“I am interested in stories from young and old inhabitants who are willing to share their memories with me in order that this important section of history be preserved for posterity,” Ellis said.
She said she hopes her book will be a compilation of stories sent by veterans and residents, as is her other two books on New Zealand.
“This is of great historical value to that World War II period and little has been recorded,” Ellis said.