DEREK Holyoake has been pushing his luck for most of his 87 and a half years.
He’s pushed it through the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, the Atlantic - just about everywhere.
He’s still pushing it every Wednesday when he jumps on his red Vespa GTS 300 to go joyriding around the countryside with mates.
That’s all gravy.
It was back in late 1941 and 1942 off the shores of Malaysia when Holyoake needed his luck most, and it held. Just.
Holyoake had enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy as a 16-year-old in 1940, and in the early years of the Second World War he found himself aboard the HMAS Hobart, an ordinary seaman working as part of the turret gun crew manning a six-inch cannon and trying to shoot down Japanese aircraft.
It was during a period military historians now call the Malayan Campaign, and it ended with the fall of Singapore after only 68 days of intense fighting.
On February 15, 1942, Allied forces laid down their arms and Singapore fell silent.
More than 15,000 Australian soldiers were taken as prisoners of war, ending up in squalid POW camps like the notorious Changi prison.
That was 70 years ago now, and Holyoake flew to Singapore with five other Australian veterans last month to commemorate the anniversary.
The tour was organised by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and included visits to Gemas and Parit Sulong in Malaysia, and Changi and Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.
It was an emotional tour, Holyoake said, but one he was proud to be a part of.
‘‘The ceremony that affected me the most was the one at Kranji," he said.
"There were all the widows and relatives of Australian soldiers who died as POWs. It was very moving.
‘‘I was the only Navy bod in the group that went over, and the only one who hadn’t been a prisoner of war. It’s just remarkable really.’’
Through an extraordinary set of circumstances, Holyoake and many of his crew mates aboard the Hobart escaped the Malaya Campaign relatively unscathed.
A Japanese air raid that struck while the ship was refuelling at the Dutch port of Tandjong Priok on February 25 prevented the Hobart from rejoining with the Australian fleet, and meeting almost certain destruction in the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea.
Later that year when the remnants of the Australian fleet were heading for home, the Hobart was ordered to turn around and pick up Australian POWs from the Sumatran coast.
That saved the crew from sailing into the jaws of Admiral Kondo’s marauding fleet of cruisers, which sank some 40 allied ships as they returned to Australia.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though.
He witnessed some horrific things during that period. He watched fellow crew members die horrific deaths.
The bombing raids from the Japanese were endless.
‘‘On one occasion we got attacked all day long, somehow with no direct hits. Plenty of near misses though. Over 600 bombs were dropped on us that day,’’ he said.
‘‘The HMAS Exeter was also nearby, and at one point they issued orders to rescue the survivors from the Hobart, because they were sure we were gone.’’
There were other times when he watched American fighters limp home from battle, only to crash land on the decks of their own aircraft carriers.
‘It was very sad to see,’’ he said.
‘‘In the end it was just through good fortune and good ship handling by our captain that we avoided being sunk.’’
And there was the time the Hobart was torpedoed by a Japanese sub.
Again Holyoake lived to tell the tale.
Fresh off the plane from Singapore, he cherished being back home with his wife Valda.
The couple live by the banks of the Queanbeyan River, and Holyoake keeps himself busy by working on his radios, riding his beloved Vespa and volunteering at the Australian War Memorial.
‘‘It keeps my mind active, and instead of sitting at home and wondering what might have happened, I get out and do things. It’s the best way,’’ he said.