Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Great Escape


The bombing of Nagasaki was one of the most horrific events in history, but it is possible that for at least one eyewitness - Cork native Dr Aidan MacCarthy – it saved his life.

A RAF medical officer, Dr Aidan MacCarthy had either the very best or the worst of luck throughout World War II. As a young doctor he survived Dunkirk and endured three years as a Prisoner of War (POW) during which he was beaten, starved, torpedoed, and nuked. Despite stumbling from one appalling situation to another, he managed to not only survive, but also to help those around him, in his capacity as a doctor, and as a fellow human being.

It was with a flip of a coin that Aidan, and two of his fellow graduates of Cork Medical School, decided to join the RAF medical branch in early1939 before the outbreak of war, and was assigned to Northern France. His heroic and hazardous adventure truly began in May 1940 when, retreating from the German advance, he led a convoy of 15 vehicles to Dunkirk where they were to be evacuated to the UK.

After three fearful days dug into foxhole on beaches devastated by enemy air attacks, they were rescued. Shortly after boarding the ferry, however, it was rocked by a loud explosion, leaving a gaping hole visible on the waterline. The Captain’s solution was to order most of the troops to the opposite side of the ship and thus tilted, with the hole clear of the water, they made safe but slow progress back to England.

On his return, Aidan was posted to RAF Honington in East Anglia as a senior medical officer, with the rank of Squadron Leader. It was here, on a dark night in May 1941, that he almost lost his life in a harrowing rescue effort. An inexperienced British pilot crash-landed his Wellington bomber while returning to base on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Aidan and members of an ambulance crew climbed into the flames of the burning plane, which was lying on a layer of bombs. They managed to drag the badly burned and injured aircrew to safety. The bombs did not explore – “only a heaven sent miracle had preserved us,” Aiden later remarked.

For his heroic part in this rescue, the young doctor was presented with the George Medal by King George VI at Buckingham Palace in November 1941. And the presentation was not without incident; Aidan and three comrades were kept waiting for a long period in a reception room at the palace while a large group of men and women received various decorations, however as the inevitable call of nature became more and more insistent, and they were not allowed to leave the room until summoned, they were obliged to raise the lower part of the window and secretly relieve themselves on the royal flowerbeds.

The next day Aidan was greeted with the news that he was to proceed to the War Office in London. There, he assigned as Senior Medical Officer to a special mission that was to help stem the Japanese invasion in Malaya. In March 1942, however, while en route, they were captured by the Japanese on the Island of Java.

Aidan was now a prisoner of the Japanese and for the next three years he experienced first-hand the horrific and often inhumane aspects of life as a POW. He recalled an incident during his initial internment in a prison camp in Java when he made the grave error of saluting a pet monkey of the Japanese Guards, who had gone for their mid-day meal at that time. This turned out to be a very unwise decision as he failed to notice one of the guards returning to the main door. He saw Aidan’s salute and rated it as a gross insult. He alerted his colleagues and a shrieking mob of them rained blows and kicks on him until he lapsed into semi-consciousness and his friends were eventually allowed to drag him away.

On another terrifying occasion, while tending to a dying airman in the dysentery hut, he did not notice the entry of a Japanese Guard, and therefore failed to give him the required salute. The encounter resulted in the Guard smashing his rifle butt onto Aidan’s right elbow, fracturing all the bones in the joint. He was transferred to a POW wing of a civilian hospital, where he was strapped to an operating table and surgery performed on his damaged elbow without anaesthetic. Aidan passed out from the pain but not before he saw “the butcher” proudly holding half the head of his radius aloft in his forceps.

Aidan and his fellow captives were moved around POW camps on a number of occasion, some more dreadful than others, but at Cycle Camp, where he was interred from 1942 to 1944, they experienced new terror - the Japanese Commandant, Lieutenant Sonne, a man that Aidan described as both addicted to drugs and sadism. At that stage, he admitted, “All I could do was pray for the strength to endure conditions that would have been hard enough to bear under a sane man, let alone a maniac.”

One day at Camp Cycle, which had nearly ten thousand POWs, Aidan remembered how “the gates opened, and through them stumbled a procession of scarecrows. They were emaciated, dirty and completely demoralised, and were led by their only sighted member. They presented a macabre sight as each rested a hand on the shoulder of the man in front. Their blindness was due to papillitis, brought on by prolonged vitamin deficiency.

“They numbered two hundred and fifty, and were all that was left of an original working party of a thousand who had been shipped off to a small island in the Amron Sea.” These men were just some of the many POWs who died slow and painful death during internment.

In April 1944, the Cork doctor was selected to become part of a work party on the Japanese mainland. He dreaded the long and dangerous sea journey but expected life in Japan itself to be a little better. He could not have been more wrong.

Their transport was a small cargo ship, fitted with wooden bunks like shelves, and was hard pressed to accommodate the 1200 prisoners of mixed nationalities. Following a six-week detour on the west side of Singapore, Aidan and the other men were put on board a large cargo ship which ran into a typhoon off the coast of Manila. During this frightening storm, the hatches to the cargo hold where the prisoners were crammed together, were bolted down, plunging the men into a heaving darkness while they “sweated, hoped and prayed” until finally, after what seemed like hours of torment, the hatches were opened. “We gazed at the placid blue skies, drinking in the wonderful fresh air,” said Aidan.

Their euphoria, however, was short lived when, after being transferred to another ship and with only hours remaining on their long, dangerous and uncomfortable journey, they were struck by a torpedo.

When the explosion occurred, Aidan was engaged in ghastly combat with a large rat. It had become entangled in a piece of mosquito netting that he had wrapped round his feet for the very purpose of keeping rats away. When the torpedo struck, it exploded right underneath them, blowing off the front length of the keel. As the engines were still turning at full revolutions, the ship buried its nose deeper and deeper into the ocean. The hatches on the holds below them and the wooden stairways to the deck were blown upwards. The lights went out and he called to the officers on the either side of him, then he realised that they were dead. It was later assumed that the explosion had a whiplash effect on the iron deck, and the vibration had fractured their necks. The fact that Aidan was sitting up struggling with the rat had saved his life.

As water cascaded into the hold, he made a dash for an inspection ladder and climbed deckwards, battling against the pressure of the seawater.

To his horror he felt a hand clasp his ankle. Spurred on by terror the Irishman managed to pull them both to the top of the ladder and, without looking to see who had followed him, shook his leg free and put as much distance as possible between him and the rapidly sinking ship.

While clinging to the wreckage, Aidan described how he saw the ship shudder and slide, continuing it’s nose-dive into the depths of the ocean. The propellers had stopped but some of those who had leapt overboard immediately after the explosion had become entangled in them and their remains were still glued to the blades in a gory mess.

Then, there began calls from the dark water as injured soldiers recognised the Irish doctor among their surviving comrades. In a most unusual sick parade, Aidan swam from one piece of wreckage to another, binding broken collar bones, roughly splinting broken arms and legs, using bits of rope and string and timber picked from the drifting flotsam.

Around dawn, the periscope of a submarine emerged close and all of the survivors prayed for deliverance, but it was not to be. The sub left shortly before two Japanese naval seaplanes flew overhead, dropping depth charges perilously close to the terrified survivors.

After twelve hours in the sea, they were delirious with relief to be picked up by a Japanese destroyer, only to be questioned, systematically beaten and thrown overboard by their ‘rescuers’. Those who had been beaten unconscious were sucked into the revolving screws of the destroyer, but Aidan and eighty-one other survivors elected to jump of their own volition and, after swimming back to an island of wreckage from their original ship, formed their own little armada.

They were picked up again - this time by a Japanese whaling boat and taken to Nagasaki. By then, Aidan admitted he had been through so much - had miraculously survived so much - he could hardly believe in his own existence.

The men were transferred to a POW Camp sited in the centre of an industrial area, where their days became an exhausting routine of hard labour, casual brutality, sickness and starvation. The strain must have been intolerable for some because Aidan recalled how two Dutch POWs committed suicide by biting their wrist arteries and bleeding to death.

As the most senior officer in the camp, the Cork doctor was responsible for the activities and welfare of his fellow prisoners – an arduous and nerve-wracking position to be in as, under a punishing Japanese regime, the leader was beaten each time offences were committed were subordinates, and therefore ensured a daily beating.

When it was discovered that there were 13 POWs in the camp from southern Ireland they were summoned to the office of the Commandant and harangued at length for joining forces with the British “to wage war against the Japanese people”, and were subjected to an old-fashioned beating from the Commandant himself.

As part of their work, the POWs were made to dig in the coalmines. Later on, they were made to dig air-raid shelters. In May 1945 the prisoners discovered that Germany had surrendered, and soon after they were given new work instructions. They were ordered to dig a pit about six feet deep and about twenty foot square. It did not take them long to realise they were digging their own graves.

August 9th, Aidan recalls, was bright and clear. During a ten-minute break the POWs spotted the American B29 Bombers. With alarm they watched the bombers change course and fly directly for Nagasaki. This manoeuvre was enough to send the prisoners wildly dashing for the air-raid shelters.

“To dig our own graves with a view to being shot by the Japanese was one thing, but to be killed by our own allies was far too galling,” said Aidan.

A couple of POWs, who chose to take cover outside the air-raid shelters, witnessed the blue flash and bright magnesium-type flare of the atomic bomb, which blinded them.

An eerie silence followed the frighteningly loud explosion.

When they emerged from the shelter a sight that halted them in their tracks greeted them. The camp had to all intents and purpose, disappeared. Bodies lay everywhere, some horribly mutilated by falling walls, girders and flying glass. Those people still on their feet ran round in circles, hands pressed to their blinded eyes or holding the flesh that hung in tatters from their faces or arms.

“Most frightening of all was the lack of sunlight - in contrast to the bright August sunshine that they had left a few minutes earlier, he said they was now a kind of twilight. We all genuinely thought, for some time, that this was the end of the world,”
 Aidan reflected.

Instinctively he turned and ran. Others followed. They crossed a river and headed for the foothills to the north of the valley. On the way they were physically sickened by an endless stream of burnt, bleeding, flesh-torn, stumbling people. The whole atmosphere was permeated with blind terror. As the most senior officer, it was Aidan’s duty to take charge, organise the men, and assist, where possible, in treating the wounded.

Aidan’s harrowing account of those charnel days helping in “hospital” caves or with mass cremations, of black rain and horrendous injuries, are documented with crystal recall in his memoirs: A Doctor’s War (Collins Press). In Nagasaki, the total number of deaths from the atomic bomb was 73,884 people, with another 25,000 dying in the years to follow.

Before they finally departed in September 1945, the men had to submit themselves to a variety of tests, including having a Geiger counter passed over their body. It was with immense relief that Aidan learned his tests were clear.

Shortly after, he cruised back to the UK on board the “Queen Mary” and continued to serve in the medical branch of the RAF until 1969, when he was awarded an OBE for his prisoner of war work and was appointed to command the RAF central medical establishment in London.

There were to be two more miracles in Aidan’s life. He and his wife, Kathleen, had been told they would never have children because of the radiation he was exposed to in Nagasaki, but they did. They had two, Adrienne and Nikki. When he died in 1995 at the age of 82, it was said that Dr Aidan MacCarthy had “celebrated every day of his life”.

Far from fine dining:

As recently captured POWs, Aiden and his fellow detainees were now experiencing real hunger for the first time in their lives. The food supplied was appalling. Their meals consisted of dirty unwashed rice mixed with millet or sometimes sweet potatoes, often half rotten, and cabbage tops.

The rice station, because of its unwashed state, was heavily infested with rice weevils. These little fiends floated to the surface when the rice was cooked. They were then creamed off and boiled separately to produce maggot soup, which, after straining, was served to the sick as a form of protein addition.

Dirty rice produced another unpleasant product besides maggots, for instance it also contained earthworm eggs, Aidan recalled, and those “often hatched out in our stomach, and on two occasions in the lungs of POWs”. From the stomach the hatched worm proceeded up the passage from the stomach to the throat and crawled into the nose or mouth. “I have seen a man playing bridge ask to be excused for a moment, remove a worm from his nose or mouth and then return to the table. Nobody took any undue notice.”

Roll call:

In the POW camps, Aidan had to answer his name at roll calls. To the Japanese ear 'MacCarthy' and 'MacArthur' were indistinguishable. The Japanese assumed that MacCarthy must be a close blood relative of the hated American commander. Therefore whenever the unfortunate doctor answered his name he was struck on the forehead. Years later, when he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour, Aidan was certain that his war time experience of being hit on the head, regularly and repeatedly, was the cause of it all.

As he began to recover from the operation to remove the tumour, he recounted his strange war experiences to his doctors, and how by faith alone he had survived. With their encouragement, Aidan wrote his memoirs, chronicling a tale of raw courage, suffering, confinement, valour and pure survival.


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