WELLINGTON, New Zealand – U.S. servicemen, veterans and a Marine band are visiting their New Zealand counterparts over the coming weeks as part of an effort by the two countries to forge closer military ties, a quarter-century after a rift developed when New Zealand banned nuclear warships from its shores.
The nuclear ban remains but the mood has gradually thawed since New Zealand first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2003.
On Monday, Memorial Day in the U.S., several hundred people attended the unveiling of a new memorial at Paekakariki to commemorate 10 American servicemen who died at the town's beach when a landing craft capsized during training exercises in June 1943.
That event and others were intended to showcase the strengthening military ties on the 70th anniversary of U.S. Marines and other servicemen being stationed in New Zealand during World War II.
Frank Zalot, an 87-year-old former U.S. Navy signalman who was aboard the vessel when the accident happened, said the capsizing was covered up as part of the wartime propaganda effort. Zalot, of Hadley, Massachusetts, said it was only in recent years, as the truth came out about the incident, that he stopped having nightmares about it.
Changes to New Zealand's military relationship with the U.S. go beyond commemorations, though New Zealand warships are still banned from U.S. ports and vice versa.
Last month, for the first time since the nuclear ban, U.S. troops took part in a training exercise on New Zealand soil. And next month, New Zealand will participate in the maritime exercise RIMPAC, near Hawaii, for the first time in a quarter-century.
"I think everybody has just decided it's more important to look at where we want to go together rather than to allow us to be held captive to the past," said Marie Damour, the Charge D'Affairs with the U.S. Embassy.
Lt. Gen. Rhys Jones, the chief of New Zealand's Defence Force, said he is gratified to see the fruition of many years of diplomatic efforts. He said he was just starting out in the military when the relationship first soured — but that the mood was more on edge back then because of the Cold War.
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