South Pacific romance – Love letters sustain WWII couple

At 20 Pfc. Hudson Turner from Greenwich, Conn. has his sights set on his future wife, Betty, whom he married in New Zealand shortly after World War II. Photo provided

His story could have been a page out of “South Pacific,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical set in the Solomon Islands during World War II.

Hudson Turner Jr. of Englewood, Fla. went to war at 17 and returned four and a half years later with the Purple Heart, three Bronze Stars, the Asiatic-Pacific Medal, the American Theater Medal — and a bride.

Betty, his wife, was an island girl just like Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein envisioned in their play more than half a century ago. But she wasn’t Polynesian, she was a “Kiwi Girl,” the name given to girls from Auckland, New Zealand.

It was 1940 when the teenager from Greenwich, Conn., shipped out. The 43rd Infantry Division was going for a year’s training at Fort Blanding, Fla. National Guardsmen from the unit included men from Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut; the group was one of the first outfits to arrive at Blanding in North Florida. The other unit was the 31st National Guard Division, comprised of southern boys.

Just weeks before Hudson and the other citizen soldiers from Greenwich were to be discharged, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Both the 43rd and the 31st divisions were federalized. Hudson marched off to war. He wouldn’t return home until late 1943.

“Most of the fellows I went overseas with were all from Greenwich,” Hudson said. “That made it a lot easier for all of us because we knew each other.”

It was Oct. 1, 1942, when Hudson and his outfit were put aboard ships in San Francisco Bay on their way to Guadalcanal, where Allied troops first went on the offensive in the Pacific war.

“Halfway across the Pacific, one of the other ships in our group carrying most of our equipment hit a mine and sank. Without equipment, we were diverted to Auckland, New Zealand,” he said.

If it hadn’t been for the fortunes of war — the loss of the U.S. ship — Hudson would never have met Betty and their lives for the past 60 years would have been much different. Once his ship pulled into port, it didn’t take the 19-year-old GI long to find the cute 17-year-old New Zealand lass.

“The first week after I arrived in Auckland, I was put on guard duty. I was guarding a warehouse and Betty was working in an office above the warehouse,” he said. “She was at the window and I yelled to her. She agreed to meet me at the side door when she got off work.”

“All I could see from a distance was that he was blonde and had nice white teeth,” Betty recalled. “The Yanks all had the same line, you know. They told me I was beautiful, and I knew damn well I wasn’t.”

She was pretty enough to capture the young soldier’s heart. Eventually, Betty took her new boyfriend home to mother. He survived the encounter. The romance was on, war or no war.

“I had Christmas dinner with Betty and her family and then I was gone,” Hudson recalled. “I didn’t see her again for more than three years.”

A lifetime later, the old soldier still remembers how well the New Zealanders treated the American soldiers.

“They wined and dined us and took us into their hearts,” he said. “They were wonderful to us.”

New Zealanders had a good reason to like the “Yanks.” Their island was close enough to enemy lines in early 1943 to face the perils of war. Japanese reconnaissance planes flew daily missions overhead. The people of the country had to endure blackouts at night during the war years.

Hudson and the 43rd Division were part of the second wave at Guadalcanal in early 1943. This was the first major battle in the Solomons, where American forces defeated the Japanese defenders. The primary reason for the attack was the enemy airstrip on the island, renamed Henderson Field by the Americans after they took it.

“When I landed on Guadalcanal, the Japanese were still trying to retake the airstrip from us. They tried unsuccessfully to reland troops on the island,” Hudson explained.

It was about this time that Allied forces broke the back of the Japanese Imperial Navy at the Battle of the Coral Sea. When it was over, much of the emperor’s combined air-sea punch had been blunted. Scores of Japanese fighter planes and many of the enemy’s capital fighting ships had been sent to the bottom of the sea by Allied forces.

“Once we secured Guadalcanal, the 43rd moved up through ‘The Slot’ (the main channel) separating the Solomon Islands,” Hudson said. “We moved on to the Russell Islands, 40 miles northwest of Guadalcanal. It had another airfield we wanted.

“We had (John F. Kennedy) and PT 109 just off the tip of the island, and ‘Pappy’ Boyington and the misfits from his ‘Black Sheep Squadron.’ He was flying P-47s (fighter planes) out of Guadalcanal, Rendova and Munda.”

Then it was on to Rendova in the Solomons. It was totally the 43rd’s show. The division was assigned to take the island, which it did. Like Guadalcanal and the Russell islands, Rendova also had a field the Allied forces wanted to control.

“The Japanese threw everything they had at us. But they couldn’t retake Rendova Island,” Hudson said.

It was on a trip back to Guadalcanal aboard a Higgins boat — a plywood landing craft — to pick up more ammunition that Hudson’s war in the Pacific came to an end.

“Off in the distance, the Japanese were raking the hell out of one of our ships that were taking on wounded. When they got through bombing them, they came after us. We were out in the middle of ‘The Slot,’ headed for Guadalcanal.

“A Zero (fighter) dove on our Higgins boat, but he was out of ammunition or I wouldn’t be here today,” Hudson said. “He dropped an anti-personnel bomb off our stern. Part of the shrapnel from the explosion hit me in the arm.

“It shattered the bone in my left arm. I lost consciousness after I was hit. I didn’t wake up until hours later. I was in a foxhole on an island with a corpsman who was giving me morphine for the pain,” he said.

Two days later he was on the operating table in a field hospital on Guadalcanal. He went from there to New Caledonia to recuperate.

Hudson’s injuries were serious enough that he was put aboard a hospital ship headed for San Francisco.

“On the way back to Frisco, our ship was sideswiped by another ship in the middle of the Pacific at midnight under a full moon. No one was hurt, but both ships were dented in the collision,” he said.

Hudson became a patient at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. In 1942 it had been converted into a veterans hospital. Formerly owned by the Cincinnati & Ohio Railroad, the 650-room, five-star hotel and 7,000 accompanying acres were condemned and purchased by the federal government under the War Powers Act. Uncle Sam paid $3.3 million for the property — a steal. The Greenbrier became a 2,000-bed, world-class VA hospital. The grounds of the once-luxurious resort hotel were maintained by Italian and German POWs during the war.

“I remained at the Greenbrier until I opened my mouth,” Hudson said as he smiled. “I told the colonel I hadn’t gotten my 30-day furlough I was entitled to after being injured and sent back to the States.

“He told me, ‘I’ll take care of that. I’m going to send you back to duty.’ I was sent to Little Rock, Ark., on my way back to the front.

“When I arrived in Little Rock I told the officer in charge what happened to me. He gave me my 30 days leave and I went home on furlough for the first time in almost four and a half years.”

When he reached Greenwich, Hudson was a celebrity. His picture appeared on the front page of the local daily paper. The information under a smiling picture of the 21-year-old soldier explained he had been “wounded in action on July 20, in the South Pacific.”

“When I got home, the newspaper reporters wouldn’t leave me alone,” he said. “They wanted to know what happened to the other members of my unit from Greenwich.”

On Hudson’s return to Arkansas and the Army, he went before a medical board. Because of his war wounds, he was honorably discharged from the service in March 1944.

Sitting at a dining room table in their Englewood home with his wife at his elbow, Hudson winked.

“Of course she’ll disagree with me,” he said. “But anyone who would write me 300 letters during the war was making a plea to come get her.”

That could be, but Betty wasn’t 21. Even if she had been, the mores of the time dictated she obtain her mother’s permission before getting married.

Her mother’s condition: “If he wants you, tell him to come back out here and get you.”

“Yanks were forever telling New Zealand girls they were coming back to marry them.  Famous last words,” Betty recalled with a smile.

This was one Yank who meant what he said. Hudson and an Army pal from the 43rd Division were trying to make it back to Auckland to rejoin the girls they left behind late in ’45. They got a break.

The two former servicemen spotted an article in a San Francisco newspaper that was the answer to their prayers. The Matson Steamship Co. was offering a special deal to veterans who wanted to retrieve their foreign brides-to-be.

In order for a veteran to cash in, the company required he have a letter from his girl saying she would marry him. He also needed $500 in his pocket. If he met those requirements, he would receive an around-the-world trip aboard the company’s liner, the “Monterrey,” for $250.

Hudson and his friend boarded what may have been the first “Love Boat” on their way to New Zealand. There were 50 or 60 other former servicemen aboard ship heading halfway around the world to claim their sweethearts, he recalled more than five decades later.

“When he got off the ship in New Zealand, he was wearing a suit. I’d never seen him in a suit before,” Betty said. “He looked pretty good to me.”

Her mother was with her at the pier to greet the Connecticut Yankee when the “Monterrey” docked.

“She knew a good person when she saw me,” he said of his long-departed mother-in-law. “She took a liking to me.”

They were married on March 9, 1946, in Auckland. Shortly after their wedding, the young couple sailed for the States.

Winston Churchill once said “The English and Americans are a people divided by a common language.” Betty found England’s wartime prime minister to be correct. It was a cultural shock for a 20-year-old Auckland woman to end up in the northeastern United States almost overnight.

Looking back over the decades, Betty observed, “The people in America have been very kind to me.”

The couple have four children — three daughters and a son. For 33 years, Hudson was a Sears appliance repairman. He retired 17 years ago.

As Hudson sat at his dining room table with scrapbooks chronicling his life history before him, the 79-year-old said, “If I had my life to live over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.”

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, April 16, 2001 and is republished with permission.

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