The day Doug dodged a bomb

Last week The Weekend Sun met Doug Attrill – a 93-year-old with a war story  –  how his ship got bombed, how a skirmish with a Japanese submarine contributed to the downfall of the notorious commander of the Japanese fleet, the man who masterminded Pearl Harbour.

Doug’s story continues with an aerial attack on the HMNZS Moa, the corvette he served on.

“A week later they got us.” The history books tell us it was “a force of Japanese Aichi D3A dive bombers from an aircraft carrier”. Doug, the man who was there, says: “No”. “I saw it, it was one low-flying bomber.”

He also distinctly remembers seeing the 550lb bomb tumble from the sky, plough through the captain’s captain and detonate in the bowels of the ship. “It was a helluva noise, enough to frighten the tripe out of you.”

The explosion broke the Moa’s back, it listed sharply and sank by the bow within four minutes. Doug was out of there, but not on a fast camel. It wasn’t his time. “We were connected by hoses to an American oil barge – the Erskine M.Phelps at Tulago Harbour in the Solomons – and if that went up we would be lucky to get out of it.”

Doug went overboard and swam for it. “Any swim felt like a long way to me.”

Five ratings, five mates of Doug, died that day. “What will be will be – I have told you this before.”

There’s that prickliness again. Or it’s a cover for some deep lingering sadness.

“I knew those blokes well – we lived, laughed and fought together.”

And if Doug’s war was hotting up, the heat was on, on the homefront too.

“I was disgusted,” says wife Audrey. Doug’s navy stamps, the brotherhood branding, the tattoos on his arms. “Plymouth, England,” he says. “We all got them.” Audrey harrumphs. There’s the dagger and the snake, and the kiwi. Blue smudges that have lost definition with the years, but not the sentiment. “In loving memory of my dear Mum” is tattooed somewhere else.

There’s another one on his leg and while out of sight, it’s not out of mind.

“It’s the ugliest tattoo you have ever seen,” says Audrey. “It’s a picture of a girl and she didn’t have her dress on that day,” explains Doug. A wee bit of the devil lurks in this man.

Doug Attrill, the upstanding bank officer, fighter of fascism and tyranny, defender of freedom and rights, tattooed with what we presume is a naked lady. Who would have thought? Audrey hated the tats but loved the man. They were married at Ohakune.

That was May 1, 1944, and 70 years later accounts for the congratulatory note from the Pope on their living room wall. “…prayers for the happiness of a Christian life together…” it says.

“It’s more conclusive proof I am tolerable,” says Doug.

After dodging the worst Hitler and Hirohito could throw at him, Doug got on. And he also got around. Taranaki Education Board in charge of bus services, assistant town clerk Te Awamutu, town clerk Woodville – the youngest in New Zealand at the time – secretary/treasurer of the King Country Electric Power Board and secretary/treasurer of Waikato Valley Authority. Eight years here, 10 years there, 18 years somewhere else.

In fact the longest time he’s spent at one thing is the 30 years he’s been in retirement. “Thirty years,” he says, nodding his head in disbelief.

Must have something to do with the petrol he runs on – the vegetable juice he keeps in the fridge.

“I keep all of the water from the vegetables we cook and I drink a glass of it every day.” He shrugs. “Who knows?” He says he forgets things but gushes dates, places, names. And his hair. There’s follicle envy going on here. Ninety-three, just about 94 and a full head of wavy brown hair. No, not one grey one.

So the day the fast camel does arrive, Doug Attrill’s locks will be flowing in the wind. And he will take what comes.

This Anzac Day, April 25, ‘The Last Post’ will sound out across the land as the country stops and remembers. “Lest we forget.” And one of those memorial services will happen around the flag pole at the Carmel Country Estate Retirement Village mid-morning. More than 100 residents, family and friends will gather.