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‘War baby’ finally meets her family

This Tauranga woman made a surprising discovery following her parents romance during WWII.

At the end of World War II, an 18-year-old Tera Tuhakaraina stood on the beach in Aitutaki, Cook Islands, tearfully waving her love goodbye.

After a year-long romance with visiting American soldier Nick Marconi, the troops were suddenly shipped back to the US after the war. She would never see him again.

It was then, standing on the beach, that it dawned on Tera she might be pregnant.

“Yes, I’m a war baby,” laughs 71-year-old Maria Akuhata, the daughter that came to be from Tera and Nick’s relationship.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the threat of Japanese invasion in the South Pacific saw some two million US troops sent Down Under, setting up bases in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

Many of the servicemen were stationed at the base for a year or more and started relationships with local women – relationships which led to the births of thousands of children who never knew their fathers.

At the time, the US military carefully managed the liaisons, preventing any marriages and organised the departure of the soldiers.

However, Professor Judith Bennett and Associate Professor Angela Wahalla from the University of Otago decided to delve into the lives of these children, and attempt to link up long-lost relatives. The stories have been published in the book Mothers’ Darlings of the South Pacific.

One of those children was Maria, who agreed to be interviewed for the book in 2011. Having lived her life accepting she would most likely never learn about her father, she was shocked to find the researchers had made progress.

Growing up in the Cook Islands gave Maria a happy childhood, she says. But her mum moved to New Zealand when Maria was four to provide a better life for her family.

“I was raised by my grandfather and the whole family. I was the blonde one on the island – I stood out the most,” she laughs.

“She was a hard worker, my mum. She would send back 10 shillings to my grandfather to make sure we were all right.”

Maria joined her mum in New Zealand when she was 11 and has built a wonderful life in Tauranga with her two children, Dean and Tina, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Mother and daughter had often spoken of Nick. Tera told Maria everything she knew – which wasn’t much.

“I think she always had a soft spot for him. But in those days, Aitutaki and America were so far away from each other, there was no way they could have contacted each other.

“My daughter and I even attempted to find him in the 1980s, but you didn’t have internet back then, so we had no leads,” she says.

Maria’s mother and father.

Not long after the interview, the researchers called.

“They said, ‘We’ve found them. You have three sisters.’ All of a sudden, tears came into my eyes. I was quite emotional,” she recalls.

Her father, sadly, had passed away in 1985.

Tera was unsure at first, not wanting to trample on anyone’s toes.

“But I said I would really like to see what he looked like. I’d never seen a photo of him and Mum often said my son looked like Nick,” says Maria.

“I told her, ‘If they don’t accept me, I’ll just walk away’.”

As luck would have it, Maria’s sisters were open to being contacted and after much discussion with her dear mum, she decided to take the plunge. So began the emails back and forth, full of probing questions and photographs of each other.

“I showed my mum the photos and she thought it was me. I said, ‘No, Mum, those are Nick’s girls.’ We looked that alike!

“Then on Christmas in 2012, I had a box arrive from America with a note that it was not to be opened until December 25.

Maria and her half-sisters (clockwise from top right) Lisa, Carolyn and Denise.

“I went to midnight mass, then I came home and poured a glass of bubbles. I sat down and opened up the box. There was a photo of him there in a frame and I cried and cried. That was the first time I set eyes on him and I looked just like him. I couldn’t sleep until 3am!”

Determined to keep in contact, Maria enlisted the help of her nephew to “get one of those iPad things” so she could use Facebook to keep in touch with the family she had discovered.

But electronic communication wasn’t enough. In 2014, Maria and daughter Tina jumped on a plane to New Jersey. It was a face-to-face meeting a whole lifetime in the making.

“They were waiting at the airport and we were so excited, we missed picking up our bags!” Maria laughs when she thinks back on the big moment.

When the Weekly contacts Maria’s sisters, Carolyn Marconi Andersen (69), Denise Marconi Leitch (64) and Lisa Dudek (58), they radiate the warmth and graciousness she’s spoken so fondly of, openly sharing their stories of meeting her.

“It was very emotional!” says Denise. “I felt like a long-lost family member had returned. There was an instant connection. One look and you knew you were in the presence of a Marconi. She looks so much like grandmom Marconi.”

Maria’s eldest sister Carolyn echoes the sentiment.

“As soon as I saw her, I saw family.

“The resemblance between Maria and our grandmother is uncanny. There are seven girl grandchildren, eight including Maria, in the Marconi family and Maria looks the most like our grandmother.

“I am so glad Maria was able to find us. We had our history and our blood relationships, but Maria had an empty space.

“I’m glad we were able to fill it for her,” says Carolyn.

Denise says she wished her dad was alive to meet the daughter he never knew.

“We had a wonderful time when Maria was here. She fit into our family. I think he would have accepted her, and would like to know he had grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

The trip was an adventure for Maria who discovered so much about her father.

“I learned that he was a kind man and a good Catholic. He worked as a butcher and would always deliver meat to the nuns. They said he used to speak of his island princess who he called Baby.

“We visited his grave when we were there and I took some island beads, which I put around his tombstone,” tells Maria.

“I spoke to him in my native language, introducing myself.”

She and her newly discovered sisters hope to see each other again, with Carolyn, Denise and Lisa planning a trip to New Zealand in the next few years.

It was like the sisters had known each other forever, Maria says smiling.

Sadly, Tera (90) passed away on October 4, 2016.

“I’m so lucky she managed to share this discovery with me in her lifetime,” says Maria, admitting she misses her mum terribly.

“I’m a proud Aitutaki girl. But I think it’s healing for myself to be able to know who I am and where I come from.”

Word: Ciara Pratt

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