It was Thanksgiving Day 1993 at my daughter Debbie’s home in Northwood, England. The mince pie was finished and her husband, Lieutenant Commander Don Blake, who was assigned to British Intelligence (MI-6), said we were invited next door to have a few brandies at the home of Aidan MacCarthy, a retired air commodore (brigadier general).
Aidan and his wife, Kathleen, were wonderful hosts. Aidan, in his 70s, had the hint of a perpetual smile on his Gaelic face. He stoked the fire and made sure everyone’s glass was never empty.
We chatted about England and of course about Ireland, where he was born. He had a summer place in West Cork on Bantry Bay. He did not talk about the war. It was only later that I learned what he had been through in World War II. His is a tale of raw courage, suffering, confinement, valor and pure survival. It’s almost unbelievable. Here is his story.
After graduating from Cork Medical School in 1938, MacCarthy, unable to obtain a medical appointment in Ireland because of local professional nepotism, headed to Wales, then to London, to work in dispensaries. Disillusioned with private practice, he met two other doctors who had qualified with him in Ireland. The three sat in a garden in Leicester Square debating the pros and cons of medical careers in one of the British armed services. Their argument continued throughout a night of West End bar hopping and ended in the Coconut Grove nightclub. There, in the early hours, one of the hostesses flipped a coin to decide between the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The RAF won.
When war was declared on Germany in September 1939, Flight Lt. MacCarthy was shipped with his squadron to northern France. Their planes were a mixture of wooden-prop Hawker Hurricane and biplane Gloster Gladiator fighters, and Blenheim and Lysander bombers. In May 1940 the Germans began their drive through the Belgian and Dutch lowlands. Soon to be overrun, the British and French armies started a hurried retreat. MacCarthy’s convoy of 15 vehicles headed toward Amiens, constantly strafed by German fighters and dive-bombed by Junkers Ju-87 Stukas. They were diverted toward Boulogne as German panzers raced to cut them off. Crowds of refugees hindered MacCarthy’s convoy. He watched helplessly as men, women and children were mowed down or blown to bits by attacking planes.
As the convoy neared Calais, orders were given to make haste to Dunkirk. The strafing and bombing continued, and the German tank divisions closed to within a mile of the convoy. MacCarthy and his medical corpsmen were issued rifles and told to dig foxholes and prepare for a siege. Confusion reigned, and MacCarthy made his way to town to look for a headquarters and some information. He found the town a burning shambles. Thousands of French and British troops wandered around in a daze. On the third day, with food, water and nerves running short, MacCarthy and his group, together with regular army troops, were herded onto a ferry that pulled quickly away from the jetty. When the ferry was a mile out in the channel, a torpedo ripped into the vessel, causing numerous casualties. MacCarthy and his colleagues converted the dining room into a makeshift operating theater, using tables that were fixed to the floor. There was a gaping hole at the waterline, and the captain ordered most of the troops to move to the other side of the ship. Thus tilted, the ferry somehow made its way to England.
Following evacuation from France, MacCarthy was posted to RAF Honington in East Anglia as senior medical officer, with the rank of squadron leader (major). In August 1940 the Luftwaffe hit the air base, causing great damage and numerous casualties. MacCarthy again operated day in and day out.
In May 1941 MacCarthy almost lost his life, an event that he remembers in grim detail. On a dark night a British bomber was returning from a raid on Germany. The inexperienced pilot radioed that the red and green alert on his instrument panel indicated that his landing gear was locked in the up position. The fire brigade swung into action, and MacCarthy rushed toward the nearest ambulance. The situation was further complicated by a German fighter on the bomber’s tail, and the pilot was warned not to use landing lights in his descent. The bomber came over the boundary fence too fast, its starboard wing clipped the ground and the ship cartwheeled. The cockpit was nearly obliterated, and instantly everything was a mass of flame. MacCarthy and the ambulance crew raced into the burning wreckage, which was lying on a bomb dump. Fearing an explosion at any moment, they dragged out the badly burned aircrew. The pilot was clearly dead, and as MacCarthy described it, “I wept for his inexperience and his mistakes and his lost youth. The bombs did not explode, and when we staggered clear, we knew that only a heaven-sent miracle had preserved us.”
For his valor in the rescue, MacCarthy was awarded the George Medal, presented by His Majesty, King George VI, at Buckingham Palace in November 1941. On the eve of the presentation, MacCarthy’s commanding officer had made him responsible for three bomber pilots who were being awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses the same day. His orders were explicit. Get them to the palace—sober—properly dressed and on time. Following a very hectic evening of West End bar hopping, MacCarthy managed to get his contingent dressed and to the palace on time—and “we were all reasonably sober,” he recalled.
Orders now came from the Air Ministry to ship MacCarthy’s wing to North Africa to operate with the Free French. The wing included Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes, their goal to clear the Pantelleria Channel between Malta and Alexandria. They set sail aboard the transport Warwick Castle in a convoy, then left the convoy to make a dash for Gibraltar. But the ship was rerouted to South Africa. After spending a week at Cape Town, they joined another convoy and were told to sail to Singapore with all speed to help stem the Japanese invasion of Malaya.
As MacCarthy’s convoy approached the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, news of the Japanese shelling of Singapore caused it to be diverted to Batavia, on Java. There they unloaded and reassembled the Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Remotely distant from the war zone, they stretched their legs, drank cold beer and discovered that most of the Dutch spoke English. The only peril was an occasional stray tiger. But then MacCarthy’s unit was ordered to move again. This time they flew to Palembang, in eastern Sumatra, where 30 Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed A-28 Hudson bombers were waiting. The elation was short-lived; Japanese soldiers were parachuting into the jungle that surrounded the airfield.
When the Japanese attacked, the Dutch blew up the airfield’s petroleum tanks and supporting piers, and MacCarthy, with many of his group wounded, retreated on a jungle road 280 miles south to Oosthaven, on the Sunda Strait. There were no signposts, but plenty of monkeys, tigers and crocodiles for company. At Oosthaven chaos reigned, with more fires, clouds of black smoke and burning oil storage tanks. Three small KLM ferry boats evacuated MacCarthy’s group across the straits to Java. By then there were 10,000 Allied troops on Java, but they were underarmed and lacked skill in handling their weaponry. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a radio broadcast, urged the men to hold out for as long as possible.
The Japanese invasion of Java took place in four separate landings, meeting with minimal opposition from the Dutch and American defenders. The Americans included a Texas field artillery battalion and survivors of a ship that had been sunk by Japanese bombers. MacCarthy and his men again beat a hasty retreat into the mountains. Dysentery and malaria weakened their ranks. The end was soon to come. MacCarthy recalled: “On the fifth day, as the sun climbed into the azure sky, the Japanese suddenly appeared on our rear flank. Soon they were walking among us, without a shot being fired. It seemed more like a dream than reality.”
It was March 1942, and 4,000 English and Australian defenders were marched down the mountain and across the plains. In the tropical heat they were herded onto packed trains, ending up at a captured Dutch airfield. The Japanese guards were battle-hardened, well-disciplined front-line troops. MacCarthy was impressed by their lack of animosity. But that soon changed. The front-line troops were replaced by more brutal guards. MacCarthy soon learned that the strictest code of Asian culture was the concept of “face” and “loss of face.” “Face” now began to dominate the captors’ attitude toward their prisoners. If the commandant lost his temper, he slapped the sergeant. The sergeant slapped the nearest corporal, the corporal the private. The private kicked the nearest Korean. The Korean punched the POW. This system saved “face” all the way down the line.
MacCarthy and his troops were now divided into work crews and put to work laying a runway on the grass airstrip. Some days later, the Japanese ordered all members of the aircrew to line up and fill out a detailed questionnaire on aircrew training. The senior British officer, a wing commander pilot, refused to allow these forms to be completed. He was taken to the guardroom and beaten. An assembly was sounded, he was paraded in front of the POWs and they then witnessed his death by firing squad. It was a brutal augury of things to come.
One day while MacCarthy and his work group were toiling at the airfield, a Japanese light bomber landed for fuel, taxiing close to where MacCarthy was working. While awaiting fuel, the pilot, who looked tall for a Japanese, stood nearby smoking a cigarette. The plane resembled an RAF Blenheim light bomber. One of the prisoners, an RAF Blenheim pilot, casually suggested that the four of them jump the Japanese pilot, hijack the plane and make a dash for Australia. Just as they were about to carry out the plan, the Japanese pilot turned toward them, patted his holstered service revolver and in perfect English with a pronounced American accent said, “Forget it.” He climbed back into his plane and taxied away. They could only surmise that he was a nisei–born in the United States–who had returned to fight for the emperor.
Next the captives were marched to a railroad and again herded into closed trains. After a horrendous 16-hour journey they arrived at Soerabaja, on eastern Java, and MacCarthy stayed there for several months. Once he saluted one of a guard’s pet monkeys. The guard took this as a gross insult and, joined by six others, beat MacCarthy into insensibility. Then the guards allowed his friends to drag him away.
The food supply was appalling, mainly dirty, unwashed rice with millet, and sometimes half-rotten sweet potatoes. The rice was heavily infested with weevils. These “little friends” floated to the surface when the rice was cooked. They were then creamed off and boiled separately to produce “maggot soup”–at least it was a form of protein. The complete absence of taste in their food made them improvise with orange skins. Flying foxes, bats, lizards and rats were caught, cooked and dried, and men chewed on the leatherlike result for days.
Mixed with the British and Australian POWs were native Indonesians. MacCarthy was suspicious of their loyalty to the Allies, but his suspicions died when he saw an Indonesian POW paraded in front of the prisoners for some infraction. He was beaten, his head was shaved, and he was buried up to his neck and left at the mercy of the tropical sun, flies and mosquitoes. MacCarthy watched, unable to do anything. It took the Indonesian three days to die.
As time wore on, each day was filled with greater misery. The men were now dying of dysentery. They had no control of their bowels or bladders. There was little medicine. At one point MacCarthy was in the process of attending to a dying airman. All he could do was pray for him and wonder if the dying man was able to find strength in faith as he died. “I remembered the devoutness of my own upbringing, our village priest, and myself as a child serving before the altar,” MacCarthy recalled. Once again he thanked God for the faith that sustained him under these appalling conditions.
While administering to that airman, MacCarthy failed to salute a nearby guard. As the guard rushed toward him screaming, his rifle butt raised, MacCarthy tried to explain in a hurried mixture of Japanese, Malay and English. It did no good; the guard smashed his rifle into MacCarthy’s right elbow, shattering every bone in the joint. The repair of the shattered elbow was done without anesthesia by a Japanese medical student. MacCarthy fainted during the procedure. When he came to, he saw the “butcher” proudly holding half of the head of his radius in his forceps.
Now the lack of drugs was taking its toll on the POWs. Innumerable diseases surfaced—pulmonary tuberculosis, anemia, beri beri, cancer and kidney diseases, as well as dysentery. Many died slowly and painfully. Morale was at rock bottom.
Again the group was moved, this time in closed, semi-dark wagons, the doors bolted shut. A 22-hour journey began, and acute claustrophobia set in. MacCarthy prayed to himself, “Lord, let us survive the night.” Not all did. Several died during the trip, and in the stifling heat their bodies quickly began to decompose.
The new POW camp at Bandung, on Java, was a slight improvement. But now cases of leprosy broke out and malaria was rife. Oddly, a new disease cropped up–alcoholism. MacCarthy, who had worked at his uncle’s still back in Ireland, was able to manufacture alcohol from whatever fruit or vegetable was available–decayed sweet potatoes, rice, bananas. The fruit was sliced, and unrefined sugar added, along with some yeast and local beans. This mixture was poured into water, mixed, allowed to stand for 10 days, strained and distilled in a makeshift still. The resulting liquor was 90 proof. Bottled, corked and allowed to stand for two weeks, it was a potent brew, causing almighty hangovers. MacCarthy was able to bootleg his “white lightning” to guards, who looked the other way and gave him much-needed medical supplies.
At this camp the POWs were allowed to stage amateur dramatics, hold bridge tournaments and participate in discussions and debates. The activities at Bandung were similar to European POW camps. But after six months, the group was moved again, by train and wagon. Arriving in Batavia, the POWs were pushed, beaten and herded into a former Dutch army camp that had a terrifying reputation. “This is a hard place,” said the Japanese commandant, “and you will be treated hard. Any breach of discipline will be punished by a beating. Any attempt to escape will be punished by death.”
One day as the camp gate opened, in stumbled a procession of 250 scarecrows—Dutch prisoners, emaciated, dirty, completely demoralized and blind. It was a macabre sight, each rested a hand on the shoulder of the man in front. They were led by their only sighted member. Their blindness was due to papillitis brought on by a prolonged vitamin deficiency.
There were now 10,000 prisoners in the camp. After several months, the camp was split. MacCarthy was marched off to Tan Jon Priok, Batavia’s seaport. Then 1,200 Dutch, British and American POWs were crowded onto a cargo ship, sleeping five or six deep on wooden bunks in the ship’s hold. Again, many of the POWs died and could not be removed and thrown overboard until nightfall. Diarrhea was rampant, and the atmosphere was one continuous stench. The hatches were routinely slammed down when air raid or submarine alarms sounded. The prisoners sat terrified in the steaming darkness, expecting a torpedo to strike at any moment. As their convoy steamed up Formosa Strait, it was attacked by American bombers. By the time they reached the Ryukyu Islands, all the accompanying Japanese destroyers had been sunk. On the final night of the voyage, the Japanese mainland twinkled into view. The guards and crew sang and drank themselves into a stupor, some sharing their booze with the prisoners. MacCarthy and his group joined in the singing. At least for now they were safe. “We sang all the wartime songs that were made so popular by Vera Lynn,” MacCarthy recalled, “and before being ordered to bed down, for a finale we sang ‘[I’ll Be With You In] Apple Blossom Time.’ Then the torpedo struck.”
The torpedo exploded directly underneath MacCarthy, blowing off the ship’s keel. The lights went out, and the ship began to sink. MacCarthy grabbed a life jacket and scrambled to the deck. The ship was nose-diving into the ocean with its stern tilting higher and higher. As the vessel made its death plunge, MacCarthy jumped, expecting to be sucked down after it. “Fortunately, nothing happened,” he later wrote in his journal, “and I realized that I was not going to die just yet. I began to pray, thanking God for making me a veteran survivor, and asking His help for strength to survive again.” He grasped a small island of wreckage floating by. Cries and screams sounded all around him. He could hear them above the crackle of flames from a burning tanker nearby that had also been hit. “And all the while,” he recalled, “the stars shone placidly down on the carnage below them.”
As dawn approached, he could make out floating bodies. They were women and children who had been evacuated from the Philippines, their ship torpedoed about the same time as his. He looked down into the face of one child, staring into its sightless eyes, seeing its mouth forever fixed in an eternal scream.
The temperature of the sea was moderate. Nevertheless, everyone clinging to bits of wreckage became saturated with sea water, and their skins turned a shriveled gray. They prayed for rescue, even a Japanese rescue. “We were merely human flotsam on a dawn-stirred sea,” MacCarthy remembered, “dumbly bobbing up and down, all thought merging into one silent, despairing cry for help.” Finally, after 12 agonizing hours in the sea, about 20 of the group were picked up by a Japanese destroyer. Thinking the navy would be more humane, they were rudely surprised when they were systematically beaten up and thrown overboard. Some who had been beaten unconscious were sucked into the revolving screws of the destroyer and disappeared in a red whirlpool. Those surviving secured pieces of wreckage and tried to swim to the Cheju Do Islands, some 18 miles distant. A passing fishing boat picked up their little armada of despair and then steamed into Nagasaki.
In all, 82 survivors stood naked on the dock. They were marched through the streets of Nagasaki, carrying some of their fellow survivors on makeshift litters, others hobbling on sticks. A small sense of elation came over them. Even as they shambled along with the crowds jeering at them, they took it calmly. Some of the Aussies gave a “V” sign. “Obviously dangerous,” noted MacCarthy, “but we had been through so much we were all a little insane.”
In Nagasaki the POWs were consigned to hard labor, working in coal pits in the surrounding hills, and on a Japanese aircraft carrier under construction in the harbor. A bell rang each morning at 5 a.m. The prisoners were paraded and counted, then at 5:30 they were given mixed rice pap and marched off to the coal fields. At 5:30 p.m., they were marched back to camp. If anyone received a bad report from the guards or from a civilian foreman, that prisoner was beaten on the head with bamboo sticks. Bedtime was at 9 p.m. and then came the ritual of delousing. “Our routine was reminiscent of a Tractarian picture of Hell,” recalled MacCarthy, “and we knew when we slept that quite soon it would begin all over again.”
MacCarthy and his fellow POWs had now been in captivity for two and a half years. Morale was almost nonexistent. They were considerably debilitated and found each day a battle for survival. Lethargic, even unmindful of beatings, the men faced each day with declining energy. Many hardly spoke. They had lost the will to live. It was spring of 1945, and if they could hope to survive the summer, they had no illusions of living through the winter that would follow. Unless something dramatic happened, they would all die.
In the summer of 1945, American air raids increased. MacCarthy picked up remarks from indiscreet Korean guards that Iwo Jima had fallen and that a ferocious battle raged on Okinawa. The POWs were terrified of being killed by American bombs and were relieved when the authorities said they could dig air raid shelters. After work in the mines, they dug trenches 5 feet deep and 3 feet wide, which they covered with light concrete.
When a POW died, he was cremated. The ashes were placed in an urn with the man’s name, rank and serial number. Every two weeks the urns were collected from POW camps in the area and stored in a crypt of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki. As MacCarthy placed one of the urns near the altar, a red oil lamp was burning together with the votive candles. MacCarthy and the other POWs knelt and said a rosary in English and in Dutch.
The prisoners were ordered to dig again, this time a pit 6 feet deep and 20 feet square. While they dug, civilian carpenters began erecting a long wooden platform about 15 feet from the hole. It did not take the POWs long to figure out that they were digging their own grave. The platform was intended as a machine gun mount.
On August 6, 1945, a flight of 50 American bombers raided Nagasaki. Dive bombers destroyed the aircraft carrier some of the POWs had been working on. The prisoners were kept hard at work the next few days cleaning up the rubble.
On August 9, MacCarthy remembered, the day began bright and clear. High above, he saw eight vapor trails—two four-engine bombers heading south. Then the planes turned back toward Nagasaki. MacCarthy and his men scrambled for their air raid shelter. Several POWs did not bother to go into the pit and kept gazing at the vapor trails. One shouted down to MacCarthy that three small parachutes had been dropped. Then followed a blue atomic flash, accompanied by a bright, magnesium-type flare. Next came a deafening explosion, followed by a blast of hot air that shuddered through ventilation slits in the concrete. An eerie silence followed. After an interminable interval, an Australian stuck his head up, looked around and ducked back in, his face a sheet of white.
The POWs scrambled to the exits, then halted in their tracks. The camp had disappeared, the wooden huts carbonized to ashes. Bodies were everywhere. The brick guardroom had collapsed. They could see clear up the length of the valley, where previously factories and buildings had formed a screen. Left behind was a crazy forest of corrugated sheets clinging to twisted girders. Just outside the prison gate there had been a tall building of the Mitsubishi company, where 500 young women had worked. “Where the building had been hit,” MacCarthy remembered, “they had been catapulted out, spread as a human carpet up to a distance of nearly a thousand feet, giving the impression of a nightmare doll factory. The majority lay as if asleep, unmarked and unburnt, still in their trouser suits, and seeming as though they were waiting to be replaced on a massive shelf.” Most frightening was the lack of sunlight. It was a kind of twilight. MacCarthy genuinely thought it was the end of the world.
MacCarthy and the other surviving prisoners turned and made for the foothills north of the valley. En route they were sickened by an endless stream of burned, bleeding, flesh-torn, stumbling people, many unable to rise from where they had fallen. The whole atmosphere was permeated by blind terror, and the macabre twilight was illuminated by numerous fires, the crackle of which mixed with the screams of the injured and dying. Thousands of people scrambled, pushed, shoved and crawled across the shattered landscape, seeking safety.
MacCarthy and the survivors feared the Japanese locals would tear them apart. MacCarthy said he was a doctor and at once started administering to the burned and the dying. He splinted broken bones, using native fernlike leaves to ease the pain. “I seriously wondered,” said MacCarthy, “whether we had finally arrived at Judgment Day—an angry God was devastating the Japanese for their sins, and mistakenly including us in the holocaust.”
MacCarthy and his group were rounded up by the Kampeti, or secret police, and marched back to what was left of the camp. The POWs who had remained on the surface had been incinerated. Others were now blind. For the next five days MacCarthy’s group was marched from a new camp down into the center of the valley, where they assisted in cremating victims. Bodies were laid on piles of wood, sprayed with oil and set afire.
On the morning of August 15, MacCarthy awoke to find the camp deserted. The guards reappeared two hours later, dressed in their best uniforms. The commandant emerged from his office also in full dress. At noon there was a blast of martial music, followed by the voice of the emperor. All bowed low as he announced the surrender.
As a major, MacCarthy was the ranking officer among the prisoners, and he called a conference of the senior men of each nationality. They decided to visit the commandant at once. They rang the assembly bell and gathered all of the POWs into the compound. In a voice faltering with emotion, MacCarthy announced the great news. “We cried, hugged each other, dropped to our knees and thanked God.” MacCarthy accepted the commandant’s sword and placed him in a guardroom cell for his own protection. A number of POWs had been all set to hang him immediately. The prisoners, though, were still in danger. There were no American troops in Japan, and they were at the mercy of the population. MacCarthy issued daily security bulletins. No one was to leave camp unless in armed groups, and there was to be no drinking of local saki. On the second day of freedom, American soldiers parachuted into Nagasaki. They instructed MacCarthy to paint POW signs on the roofs of the buildings. Next, food, medicine and clothing were airdropped. MacCarthy found it hard to believe that the brutality, the beatings and starvings were over and that the recent holocaust was real, not a nightmare. Survival had been against all possible odds.
After medical examinations and debriefing, the former prisoners were shipped to Manila and placed on an American troopship. “Unfortunately,” MacCarthy said, “and unlike the British navy, the troopship was dry.” But he quickly remedied that, making friends with a butcher who slit open a side of beef, saying, “What have we here?” A bottle of bourbon appeared. They sailed east to Hawaii, then San Francisco, followed by a five-day train journey across Canada, and finally a voyage home on Queen Mary.
In retrospect, despite the appalling treatment and his own suffering, MacCarthy felt little bitterness toward the Japanese. Their totally different culture and religion made them so alien that he could not regard their actions as immoral. Everything his own world stood for had been turned on its head during his imprisonment. In his book A Doctor’s War, MacCarthy summed it up most poignantly: “The long years of our ordeal and the short, glorious months of our rehabilitation were over. Now, with some reluctance, we faced life again.
“But I faced life with a very different attitude. For a considerable period I had lived from one day to the next, rejoicing in the fact that I was surviving in the short term. Now I was able to plan in the long term. Even now I thank God for the miracle of being alive. I also thank God for the villagers who prayed for me and produced such a wonderfully strong battery of prayer. But the greatest gift I have had is the appreciation of life around me. To be able to love my wife and children, to breathe the air, to see a tree in the golden stillness of a Cork evening, to take a glass of Irish whiskey, to see my children grow up, to fish in the grey-green waters of my favorite river—and to see the dawn come up on a new day.”
Aidan MacCarthy, 83, died at his Northwood home on October 11, 1995, and is buried in West Cork, Ireland. He was having a brandy and listening to his own voice on a taped BBC broadcast at the time of his death.