The Dominion Post
Soldier’s war work turned into a career
Aservant to his country, a gentleman, and in his later years jokingly ‘‘a grumpy old bastard’’. The tributes to Flying Officer Douglas Haswell Vahry SN 391204, who has died aged 103, were heartfelt at his funeral in Taupo¯ .
Born in January 1916 in the midst of the struggle between Allied and Central Powers, Doug went to school in Auckland, then to Elam Art School before taking a job at Chandler and Co as a junior artist – in the days when a lot of shop decorations, signs and graphic art for packaging were still done by hand.
This career was interrupted at the age of 23 when he decided to enlist. His granddaughter Julia Vahry says he signed up because his dad was a German (the original German name Wahry had been changed to Vahry on arrival in New Zealand) and his mother was getting ridiculed.
He enlisted with the RNZAF in November 1939 and was later commissioned in 1942/43 into Administration and Special Duties (Photographic) at the Wigram Photographic Section.
While in Christchurch he
married Patricia Dougal and their first of five children was born the day before he was deployed into the Pacific theatre and the campaign against the Japanese.
Vahry served in the Pacific from February to October 1945, in the Solomon Islands and specifically the Guadalcanal theatre, conducting offensive photographic and intelligence operations – taking pictures of the aftermath of the fierce battles between the Japanese and Allied (often American) forces.
At one point he was taken to meet US General Douglas MacArthur to talk to him about the Japanese occupation of the island of New Britain. When Operation Cartwheel was finally successful and the major Japanese base at Rabaul fell, more than 100,000 Japanese troops surrendered.
Many had been living in tunnels and caves and it fell to Vahry to clear these of equipment and document the warrens they had occupied.
‘‘He said it was appalling,’’ his son Paul says. ‘‘They were full of corpses that had starved to death.’’
In such terrible conditions one historical account says: ‘‘Doug picked up amoebic dysentery, which earned him the nickname Jet Propulsion! After around 10 weeks at Rabaul Doug was flown back to Bougainville in a Catalina with two Kiwis and two ex-POW priests. They flew through a storm so bad the two priests were kneeling in the aircraft praying ...’’
After the war and demobilisation, Doug and Patricia settled in Auckland. He worked for a number of established commercial photography firms until he had built up enough contacts to start his own in Parnell in 1965 – Vahry Photography, which operated for 30 years.
Sons Peter and Paul both worked in the firm – calling him
DH, says Peter, as it seemed odd referring to him as ‘‘dad’’ at work.
A keen fisherman, it was perhaps inevitable that years of visiting Taupo¯ for the trout would eventually result in him buying a bach at Rainbow Point in the late 1970s.
To the age-old question, ‘‘What’s the secret of such a long life?’’– his answer was: ‘‘Just keep breathing in and out.’’
His family say he had a dogged self-belief once he set his mind on something. His ‘‘I’m going to do it’’ became in later years ‘‘I’m not going to die’’.
His entrepreneurial spirit was revealed at his funeral with the story of one of his ventures to make money during the war. He persuaded his barrack mate, a doctor, to accompany him on a trip behind enemy lines to purchase bows and arrows from the local tribesmen for resale as souvenirs to the American troops.
He was perhaps too gentlemanly for this Milo Minderbinder-style profiteering, as he admitted later he made very little on the deal – but ‘‘it was a hell of an adventure’’.
For his services to New Zealand, Flying Officer Vahry was awarded the 1939-45 Star, The Pacific Star, The War Medal 1939/45 and the New Zealand War Service Medal.
Douglas Haswell Vahry is survived by his five children, 20 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren. – By Chris Marshall