So Much To Think About
Good evening, Peter.
Hello, boy. What have you been up to today?
Kathi and I went to Devonport. We visited the Navy Museum at Torpedo Bay. Kathi’s father was on the corvette ‘Tui’. They helped sink a Japanese submarine up near the Solomons. And we saw an exhibit that mentioned your brother’s ship, the Gambia.
What was that all about?
It wasn’t much, just the Christmas Day menu for 1944. Quite artistic. A couple of elephants and a palm tree. A festive menu.
Plum pudding? Did they have plum pudding?
I didn’t notice.
Surely they had plum pudding?
I’ll need to go back and check. What I did find out the other day was that Gambia fired the last shots of World War 2 at the Japanese mainland. Then, as the Japanese Government was broadcasting its surrender, a lone bomber attacked a British aircraft carrier nearby the Gambia. The Jap plane got shot down and bits of wreckage landed on Fred’s ship.
I remember about that sort of thing. Fred told me about having suicide pilots shooting at them. Kamikaze they were called. One way flights. I asked Fred how they coped with those attacks, because those planes came in willy-nilly, from any and every direction, and not just to be firing their guns — the whole thing was a bomb — a flying bomb.
Fred said, ‘Oh, we had good gunners, good gunnery officers — they never failed to shoot the other fellow down, before they got to us.’
I’m glad I didn’t have to face that sort of thing.
There’s one little tidbit of a thought I had recently, in the last couple of days in fact, and strangely enough it has a bearing on what we’re talking about. I was casting my mind back and remembering the rifle-range your dad and I used to practise at. I think I told you about the place — down near the Manawatu River — where they had targets set up. That’s where Bill showed his skill — he really got into it. A steady eye. He had the ability to concentrate. Good eyesight. Fast reactions.
Well I was just thinking, and it came to me only the other day, that if Bill and I had been in a war when we were shooting, it would have been a far different thing. I was wondering what it would have been like if someone had been shooting back at us.
Our bullets, when we were practising, went whizzing through the target, and into the clay bank. You could see the dirt fly off, but it was all pretty safe. So it was all okay. No danger. But if it had been wartime, the other bugger would have been shooting back at us! Bill and I were just playing, but our brother Fred, out there on the Gambia, well he was facing the real thing. It was serious. Japanese suicide bombers.
The Japanese threat was very real. I was only 6 and I was scared.
It was a difficult time. Old Phil, even at his age of 86, he took it very seriously. He was the complete ‘loyal citizen’ and he took great pride in it all. He joined up, in the Home Guard. The Home Guard tried to be prepared, so there were regular night-time drills — twice a week. The idea was that if we were raided, the Home Guard would help the army. There were anti-aircraft balloons — all sorts of things. Check points. Patrols. And Old Phil took it very seriously, and was very glad to be still able to function, in spite of his age. He wanted to contribute.
It got to be a bit of a nobility thing, he was almost regal about it. Quite proud. I heard tell that one of the leaders, a commander no doubt, had once said, ‘Lads, don’t you worry about the Japs. We’ve got old Leyland here. He’s on our side.’
Old Phil would practise with them, getting familiar with the weapons. They’d dismantle them, put them back together, oil them — all that stuff.
I did that at high school, 10 years later, 1950s. ‘Close your eyes boys — pretend it’s night-time. Now strip down this bren-gun, and put it back together without opening your eyes.’
There was still a war scare going on even then. A new one. The Cold War. Communism.
I got a bit carried away, and joined the Air Training Corps. I went to a holiday course at Ohakea and came back as Flight-Sergeant Leyland. My friend Euan Peraux and I planned join up and become fighter pilots. But one day, at church, Sister Thomas took me aside. ‘John, could you really pull the trigger and KILL SOMEONE?’
How did you feel about that?
I was all conflicted, and the whole church thing came to bear on me, so I gave up on the fighter pilot idea and joined McKenzies Department Stores as a Trainee Manager.
Were you glad you did that?
Yes, particularly when I heard that my school friend, ‘Kiwi Peraux’, had joined the RAF and was killed in a midair crash when he was flying for the Red Arrows — the acrobatic team. Perhaps that could have been me.
Well, I too had lots of queries in my mind. Fred was off to war like a shot, and your dad signed up for the Air Force after a while, but I found myself objecting to the idea. It was very difficult. Then I had a label put on me — Conscientious Objector. It was a disgrace. It didn’t go down well.
What did Old Phil think of your stand?
Old Phil was the opposite of me. He was into the war thing — as a duty — so he didn’t like my objections — he didn’t like it at all — but he didn’t make a fuss about it. He wasn’t a quarrelsome bloke, but he had firm views.
Interesting. Phil’s son Alfred (the one who went to the Boer War) opted out of war service during World War 1. He was on the list of people who ‘defaulted’ on military obligations for moral or political reasons.
Do you know what the consequences were in those days?
Alfred lost his civil rights for 10 years, and wasn’t allowed to vote. But he retained his membership of the Ulster Lodge, and they were rabid Royalists. He’d have been an interesting chap to talk to.
Sometimes in life it’s hard to know what’s the right thing to do — or what’s the right thing to think.
Doesn’t wisdom come with age?
Well, I do quite a bit of thinking, and it was just today that I thought to myself, here you are at your age, using two walking sticks, and that system’s been working out quite well. But the authorities, they took it on themselves to supply me with a walking frame, a sort of gadget with wheels, and some bits sticking up for a bloke to hang on to.
Do you get some exercise, using the two-stick-method?
Yes. I wander out to the mailbox. I sometimes get things in the mail. It all helps, and the weather’s not bad. Now, some people ask me, ‘Peter, why don’t you use that darned gadget they gave you?’ So I’ve been giving it some thought. And I wondered to myself, perhaps I should give the contraption a bit more of a go. But on the other hand, the two sticks are quite okay.
You don’t want to do anything precipitate, do you?
No, you don’t want to rush that sort of thing. You’ve got to think it through.