American bands in New Zealand during WW2

All of my interest in the history of jazz in New Zealand began with a research project in my third year of University. I was trying think of something interesting when one of my teachers- Bernie Allen- suggested that I do something on the influence of the American troops that were stationed in New Zealand during World War Two. I vaguely knew that American troops had been stationed in Auckland and Wellington, but I had no idea that there were bands with them! That research project was also the starting point of my thesis research several years later, and in this post I share some of my continued research into that phenomenon, which is extracted from my thesis.

To give you some idea about how impact the American troops were had on New Zealand statistics from the period estimate that they (and all the support staff that came with them) added nearly 10% to the local population. Now in reality with a large proportion of our population off overseas fighting the Americans were essentially replacing close to that same number of people- mostly young men. As far as music is concerned this was the time that the swing craze really erupted in New Zealand. Swing had been popular before the war, but it became a true craze when all those handsome young American GIs, sailors and marines arrived (not to mention the pretty military support staff, Red Cross and military nurses).

The Bands

There were a number of official and unofficial bands within the American troops, in a variety of styles, including jazz. The jazz bands that were remembered the best by New Zealand jazz musicians and fans mostly appear to have been active locally later in the troops’ residence. These jazz bands were units within the larger divisional or unit band, and would have been expected to play all styles of music that were called for in all situations. This section will examine the best–known of these bands and what is known of their activities in Auckland and Wellington. I will also discuss the reactions from New Zealand jazz musicians and fans that listened to, and in some cases played with these bands.

It should be noted that the American armed forces segregation policies extended to the band units. While there were African–American band units within the wider divisions, these units were only rarely seen in New Zealand. The African–American bands performed at the African–American service clubs, but these bands would never play for the wider New Zealand audience at the big service dances, on radio, or for civic occasions.[1]

The information gathered by New Zealand historians about the bands with the United States forces in New Zealand appears to have been almost entirely second–hand or third–hand through post–war interviews with musicians and fans and resulting publications. Much of the information cited by historians appears to come from two people, pianist Jim Foley, and jazz fan Peter Sellers. While both had good knowledge of the American bands in New Zealand neither have been quoted as stating which band was with which unit. Because of this small pool of knowledge I have taken a prudent approach and not cited these gentlemen except where I could reasonably expect them to be correct, or where I was able to verify with other sources including official military records.

Marine Corps and Naval Bands

Although there is photographic evidence in various collections of Marine jazz bands performing in New Zealand, mostly in Wellington, little is known about their presence in either Wellington or Auckland. The 1st Marine Division band was not officially established during the period when the 1st Marines were based in Wellington between June and August 1942, nor is it known whether they had any unofficial bands during this time.

Units of the 2nd Marine Division were garrisoned in Wellington for a much longer period than the 1st Division. The 2nd Division resided in New Zealand between November 1942 and November 1943, and it is possible that the photographs with Marine jazz bands (mentioned above) are from the 2nd Division during this period. There is also evidence that various bands within the 2nd Division regularly broadcast on Wellington’s station 2ZB during 1942–1943, but I was unable to discover if they ever performed in cabarets or nightclubs in the city.[2]

It is known that the United States Naval Operating Base in New Zealand had bands within the units stationed there, and that these bands performed for various civic occasions, and on radio in both Auckland and Wellington.[3] Also, many of the American Naval vessels that visited New Zealand had bands that performed in various situations. However, I could not discover whether either Base or vessels bands had any swing bands within the units, and (if there was) whether they performed at civilian venues.

I made efforts to contact historians and archivists associated with the United States Marine Corps and Navy, in an attempt to discover which official unit bands were stationed, or visited New Zealand, and when. However I was unsuccessful in my efforts and have not been able to access this information.

United States Army Bands: The 290th Army Band

The 290th Army band that was in New Zealand during the Americans’ residency has long been touted in New Zealand history as being “a peacetime band in Boston.”[4] While there was indeed a 290th Army Band that was originally a band in Boston, the 290th Army band that was in New Zealand was not the same band.[5] United States Army records show that the 290th Army band that played here, while also from the state of Massachusetts, was originally the 101st Medical Regiment of the 26th Army Division. On the regiments’ arrival in Auckland 26 June 1943 (noted in the timeline at the start of this chapter), after they were evacuated at the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, it was reorganised and attached to the United States Air Force and Service Command. With this new attachment and reorganisation the 101st Medical Regiment and Band was redesignated as the 290th Army.[6]

Because of wartime censorship little is known about the venues or situations the 290th Army Band performed in, but it is known that they regularly played for service dances at the Auckland Town Hall and other venues as their substitute pianist was local jazzman Jim Foley.[7]Although the press was unable to comment on the band’s activities, the 290th Army became well known to the Auckland public through their regular performances on local radio, in particular the American Expeditionary Service Radio on 1ZM.[8] Contemporary comments about the band recalled them as being a hard swinging (extremely good) jazz band and making them very popular with local jazz musicians.[9]

The 290th Band was also one of the longest residing bands from the United States forces. Between the dances and their radio work this gave made them a significant presence on the Auckland jazz scene. When the band left New Zealand for deployment to New Caledonia on July 26 1944 the local jazz community considered it a great loss.[10]

Bands of the 43rd and 25th Army Divisions

These divisions need to be considered together as there is confusion surrounding the bands in these two divisions. The 43rd United States Army Infantry Division had two residences in New Zealand between 1942 and 1944. Nicknamed ‘Winged Victory’, this division possibly had the greatest connection with New Zealanders of all the units that passed through New Zealand. While their initial residence was several weeks of hard training before shipping out to Guadalcanal, their second residence from December 1943 to July 1944 gave the divisions’ bands ample opportunity to perform for both the armed forces and civilian population in Auckland.

According to historian Denys Bevan (whose information was gathered via jazz fan Peter Sellers, who possibly gathered his information from pianist Jim Foley) the 43rd had several jazz bands within their divisional band structure.[11] This is partially borne out in the United States Army records regarding the band as the 43rd Division incorporated the 103rd Regiment during the Solomon Islands campaign in 1943.[12] The bands’ names according to Bevan were the ‘Commandos of Swing’, ‘The Rhythmaires’, and the ‘Tropicats’.[13] This last band is where the confusion between bands and 43rd and 25th divisions is primarily centred

At approximately the same time that the 43rd returned to New Zealand, the 25th United States Army Infantry Division (from Hawaii), called ‘Tropic Lightning’ also arrived in Auckland. Although these divisions were deployed in the tropics their divisional nicknames were either unofficial and created before deployment, or official and earned in combat. The nicknames for both often referred to aspects of their home states, and to their divisional insignia. In the case of 25th division, their insignia was a lightning bolt superimposed on a taro leaf, representing their tropical, and Pacific origin.[14] Tropic Lightning was an ‘official designation’ as it had been mandated by the United States Army for their service (and the speed at which they completed their mission) at Guadalcanal in 1942.[15]

With the nickname of Tropic Lightning it has always seemed to me that the Tropicats might actually have belonged to the 25th Division rather than the 43rd (Winged Victory). As Bevan’s information is, at best, second hand, and other histories routinely mix the divisions and nicknames together, I have always wondered about the accuracy of the association of band names with divisions.

As mention above, the United States Army records do not record popular names of the bands and it is impossible to know with any certainty which band belonged where. These records also do not take into account any unofficial bands within the divisional band, or within the wider division. It is possible that all jazz bands that were known to Aucklanders from the 43rd and 25th Divisions were entirely unofficial. Further, given that the majority of information about these bands comes from one person–pianist, Jim Foley–and from one article–a profile of Foley’s career in Jukebox magazine–it is possible that there are inaccuracies in the records on which band was associated with which division.

Despite this caveat regarding the accuracy or otherwise of the names of bands in within the 43rd and 25th Divisions, the fact remains that all of the above mentioned bands were very popular among Aucklanders. The bands all played for military and civilian dances at venues such as the Civic Wintergarden and the Peter Pan Cabaret as well as at various forces camps and hospital/rehabilitation facilities.[16] The extent of their activities in Auckland is unknown. The United States Army did not record the bands’ individual activities, and as mentioned in connection with the 290th band, the local press had to be circumspect in their publication of band details.

I do not know how much interaction occurred between the Commandos of Swing, The Rhythmaires, the Tropicats and the local jazz community. It is known that many local musicians admired these bands and that the 290th, and Tropicats occasionally employed local musicians including pianist Jim Foley, and Australian singer, June Mendoza. According to Foley the Tropicats were one of the best of the United States forces bands that came to New Zealand, and he felt privileged to be able to play with them.[17]

New Zealand reactions to American forces jazz bands

When it first became apparent that there were jazz bands with the American forces jazz musicians and fans were reportedly extremely excited at the prospect of being able to hear them frequently. However as the majority of the bands’ live (as opposed to broadcasting) work was playing for service–only functions, the chances to hear these bands in person were fewer than the New Zealanders had hoped.[18] As mentioned above, local fans soon came up with several remedies for this situation, the most common of which was to stand outside the venues fire exits or near windows in an attempt to listen. Some took their attempts further, like Auckland trombonist Dale Alderton who reported that on one occasion he managed to sneak into the Auckland Town Hall before a service dance and hid in the choir loft for the evening.[19] Others managed to befriend band members and would be allowed to sit in with the band or listen from the side of the stage.[20]

When they did manage to hear American bands, such as the ones mentioned above, musicians report being astounded by the phenomenal volume of sound that these mostly un-amplified bands could produce. They were also impressed by the quality of sound that the bands could produce at that volume.[21] In addition to the sound of the bands local musicians were very impressed by the innovative arrangements that they used.

What appears to have most impressed local musicians was the American bands’ performance style and flair, the way they commanded the attention of the audience, and also their behaviour on the bandstand. Jim Foley reported that he was particularly impressed that when someone was soloing, the rest of the band would pay respectful attention to the soloist, something that was apparently not a regular occurrence in New Zealand bands.[22] Other musicians report being impressed by the choreography the bands used in various parts of their arrangements, such as section unison passages where sections would stand up to spotlight the passage.[23]

The few local musicians who were fortunate to play with the bands–such as Jim Foley, clarinettist Derek Heine, and singers Esme Stephens and June Mendoza–recall that the experience was a great education. An aspect that they particularly mentioned included the showmanship of how to present themselves both within a section and as a soloist. They also mentioned that it was a great experience to learn large amounts of what the Americans thought of as standard repertoire, which were not necessarily common to the New Zealand jazz repertoire.[24]

Friendships between the musicians from both cultures resulted in many theoretical and practical discussions and explorations of jazz. They also resulted in generous assistance in the attempts of acquiring new sheet music and recordings. Singer Pat McMinn recalled to historian Chris Bourke of striking up a friendship with an American saxophonist, Bob Kingsbury, who when hearing how hard it had become for New Zealand musicians to acquire new music during the war asked his mother to send McMinn regular packages of new music from the United States.[25] Incidences of generosity such as McMinn experienced may not have been very common, but Bourke records many other occurrences of musical exploration and generosity in rehearsing and performing with American bands, or having their arrangements and compositions rehearsed or performed.[26]


[1] Bourke, 125.

[2] Bevan, 356.

[3] Dale Alderton(2002), Johnny Williams (2003) interview with Aleisha Ward; Bevan, 183; White, 113.

[4] Bourke, 125; E.J. Wansburne ‘Jim Foley – Pianist’ Jukebox November 1946, 3.

[5] The ‘real’ 290th Army Band was deployed to Europe in 1942–1944 attached to the 75th Infantry Division: http://www.6thcorpscombatengineers.com/engforum/index.php?showtopic=4347

[6] US Army records 290th Army Band.

[7] E.J. Wansburne ‘Jim Foley – Pianist’, Jukebox, November 1946, 3.

[8] NZL,1ZM listings April-July 1944; Dale Alderton interview with Aleisha Ward (2002); Larry Dysart memoir DHJA.

[9] Dale Alderton interview with Aleisha Ward (2002); ‘ Play all night, sleep half the day,’ Auckland Star 13/1/1987 B1/4.

[10] US Army records 290th Band.

[11] Bevan, 127.

[12] US Army records 43rd Division/103rd Regiment.

[13] Bevan, 127.

[16] Bevan, 127.

[17] E.J. Wansburne ‘Jim Foley – Pianist’ Jukebox November 1946, 3.

[18] Dale Alderton (2002), Johnny Williams (2003), Jim Warren (2009) interview with Aleisha Ward.

[19] Dale Alderton interview with Aleisha Ward 2002.

[20] Bourke, 129.

[21] Bourke 129-130, Jukebox, Nov. 1946, 3.

[22] E.J. Wansburne ‘Jim Foley – Pianist’, Jukebox November 1946, 3.

[23] Dale Alderton interview with Aleisha Ward 2002.

[24] Bourke, 125, 129-130; also Dale Alderton (2002), Johnny Williams (2003), Jim Warren (2009) interviews with Aleisha Ward; Wansburne ‘Jim Foley’ Jukebox, November 1946, 3.

[25] Bourke,132-133.

[26] Ibid.

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2 comments

  1. Dennis Huggard · · Reply

    Do you have a copy of my New Zealand Series –
    Booket Number 15 – Artie Shaw in New Zealand – 1943. Would you like a copy? It is free.

    1. Hi Dennis,
      Yes I already have a copy- it’s been well used in my thesis and my latest article Artie Shaw in New Zealand at http://www.crj-online.org/v5/index.php

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