Susanna (Susi) Williams
When we talk about World War 2, we usually tell the stories of people, but I would like to highlight the role of Silverstream Hospital in saving soldiers’ lives and connecting New Zealanders with Americans at a time when New Zealanders felt very vulnerable to the threat of invasion by the Japanese. Japanese military successes in early 1942, especially the fall of Singapore, had made the possibility of an invasion of New Zealand very real. In this context the presence of two Marine divisions was welcomed by the New Zealand government. With the Marines here, New Zealand would be safer, our own soldiers could stay in North Africa, and New Zealand could be a base for American operations against Japanese-occupied Islands in the South Pacific.
The New Zealand government had begun construction of Silverstream Hospital, situated about 15 miles north of Wellington, in 1941, with the intention that it would serve the large concentration of New Zealand troops at nearby Trentham Military Camp. In May 1942, however, as construction was nearing completion, the decision was made to increase its size and hand it over to the recently arrived US Navy instead. US Navy Mobile Hospital No. 6 occupied the Silverstream site from August 1942 until April 1944. The Americans used the hospital to treat malaria victims and the wounded from the War in the Pacific, and also sick soldiers from the First Marine Division who were camped around the greater Wellington area. Approximately 20,000 patients were treated there between 1942 and 1944.
At its peak the hospital was able to accommodate 1,600 patients. The nurses were American. The Nurses Home was heavily guarded with barbed wire. Accommodation was racially segregated, with ‘coloured’ staff living on the flats below the main hospital. Water reservoirs and steam boilers were built. To help ease the pressure on Silverstream hospital, part of the grandstand at Trentham Racecourse was occupied by the Marine Corps in March 1943. An additional sixteen two-man huts and four stores buildings were also erected onsite. The buildings might not have been fancy but there was good food and good equipment. The cockroaches at US Navy Mobile Hospital No 6 were notorious. Big and black and definitely an import, they were said to have come either with the Americans in the crates of medical equipment, or from the Pacific Islands.
Eleanor Roosevelt came to New Zealand at the invitation of New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, in 1943. Roosevelt, wearing the grey uniform of the American Red Cross, visited Silverstream Hospital on the 29th August 1943. Her visit was reported in The Evening Post on the 30th August 1943, with a quote from her daily diary:
Started out at 9.15am and visited an American Naval Base hospital. It is called Silverstream and is on high ground overlooking a stream and surrounded by hills. A few wounded men are there but the majority are cases of malaria. We went first to the chapel and attended the 10 am service… I could not help thinking that these men, many of them scarcely more than boys in years but back from experiences in Guadalcanal and other islands which have made them old before their time, must wonder whether an era of love will really rule the world.”
Mrs Roosevelt commented that she had been served mussel soup and delicious whitebait:
smaller than any [she] had ever seen at home”.
Many of the marines had cerebral malaria. Quinine, which the men sometimes spat out because it was so bitter, was used to treat them. Symptoms seemed to be exacerbated by alcohol and excitement so they often had relapses when out on the town.
They were YOUNG! One boy was only fifteen. In 1943 sixteen-year-old Don Adams (AKA Maxwell Smart), part of the landing force at Guadalcanal, arrived in Wellington in a coma, his body swollen and racked by violent spasms. He spent five weeks in Silverstream Hospital fighting for his life. He attributed his miraculous recovery to the power of prayer.
In later years former Marines sometimes visited Silverstream. They would be crying. They often sat in the Chapel to recover. The Marines who came to the Wellington region are still remembered in an annual service at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington where the flag of the Marines proudly hangs. There is also a memorial to them at MacKay’s Crossing near Paekakariki.
After the hospital was no longer needed, Wellington Hospital Board again took it over. Later Silverstream hospital became a conference centre, and some of the original buildings are still in use today.
Susi Williams (MB ChB (NZ), DCH (London), OSt.J) was Medical Superintendent of Silverstream Hospital, New Zealand, from 1982 until the hospital closed in 1989. A graduate of Otago University, Susi spent several postgraduate years in England. She worked as a GP in Upper Hutt with her father Dr. Georg Lemchen and husband Dr. Hugh Williams until 1977 when she began work at Silverstream Hospital, doing Geriatric and Rehabilitation clinical work. That was followed by similar work at Hutt and Kenepuru Hospitals until retirement in 1994. Since then there has been time to pursue other interests including travel, researching family and medical history and working as a volunteer at the Holocaust Centre of NZ.
This article is part of a presentation given by Dr Williams to the Medical Historical Society, Wellington. It was prepared for Corpus with the help of Lynn Jenner.
- William Bayly’s history of Silverstream Hospital, written in 1989. Limited edition private printing 300 copies, published in 1991. Authorised by the Wellington Area Health Board.
- Duncan Stout’s Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific, Historical Publications Branch, 1958, Wellington. Part of: The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945 (available online)
- Brief Encounter, by Jock Phillips with Ellen Ellis.
- A String of Pearls, by Joan Ellis. Stories of the American Marines and New Zealand Women Remembering World War 11 Published 2006
- Personal communication from Dr J.V. Cable, Senior Physician at Wellington Hospital Board and later Dr Williams’ colleague at Silverstream hospital.