A Doctors War memoir a truly wonderful
Operating on the principle that one should never pass a
bar that has your name on it, Pete McCarthy discovered 'MacCarthys'
bar in Castletownbere, wrote an international bestseller
of the same name, and encouraged the publican to have her
father's wartime memoir re-published.
The memoir, A Doctors War, was written
by Dr. Aidan MacCarthy, who served as an RAF medical officer
in France during World War 11, was interned by the Japanese
in Java, and was literally saved by the dropping of the
atomic bomb in Nagasaki.
In his introduction to the book, which was first published
by The Collins Press, Pete McCarthy describes it a
truly wonderful read.
He said: Dr MacCarthys extraordinary account
of his adventures from Dunkirk to Nagasaki and eventual
rescue on board the Queen Mary, might be dismissed
as far fetched if it were found in a Hollywood script...
but the knowledge that it is one mans true story is
Pete McCarthy was a close friend of the MacCarthy family,
having discovered the bar in April, 1999 while researching
his award winning book. By chance, he arrived on the day
that the publican, Adrienne MacCarthy, was celebrating her
birthday - a bash he described as a genuinely life-enhancing
On that occasion, Adrienne gave him a copy of her fathers
book and the following night, in an austere poem at a hostel
in a Buddhist monastery, Pete began, - with no real expectation
- to read, only to find that he could not put it down.
Dr. MacCarthys prose style is deceptively simple.
Its spare, direct, and pacey- similar in tone to Ronald
Dahls wartime memoirs - But the events themselves
are so dramatic that A Doctors War needed
Returning to MacCarthy s the next day for a
freshener, Pete told Adrienne that he believed her
fathers story deserved a wider audience and was eminently
worthy of re-publication.
The news that it was to be republished pleased Pete McCarthy
almost as much as it did the MacCarthy family, Unfortunately,
he did not live to see the day, but one of his last acts
of friendship was to write the foreword.
The epic begins with a prologue by Dr. MacCarthy, who explained
how being diagnosed with a benign brain tumour - which was
a direct result of being struck on the head, regularly and
repeatedly, while he was a prisoner of war- prompted his
decision to write the memoir.
His extraordinary narrative begins with a brief outline
of his family and the fact that he was one of ten children,
five boys and five girls was born to a gentle- retiring,
deeply religious mother and a rather more extrovert father
who owned a number of grocery shops-cum-bars, some farms
and other property in and around Berehaven.
In 1939, one year after he qualified as a doctor in Cork,
he moved to England and Wales, where medical works was plentiful,
particularly in the armed services, but after working for
a time in shilling surgeries, he realised he
was just drifting.
A meeting with two doctors- who had qualified with him in
Ireland - let to a long conversation and something of a
trawl through the West End bars, ending up in a late session
at the Coconut Grove Night Club, where on the flip of a
coin they decided to join the RAF.
They were, in fact part of the last Short Service Commission
entry into the RAF medical branch before the outbreak of
war and were assigned to Northern France.
In describing the German advance in May 1940, Dr MacCarthy
tells how thousands of people evacuating their homes and
neighbourhoods rushed - panic stricken - towards the south,
creating an almost total blockage of the roads, as well
as a severe food shortage.
He said the speed of the German advance, as well as a slew
of contradictory orders, left him and his unit feeling life
useless pawns moved about a vast cheeseboard.
To say there were a number of anxious moments en route would
be putting it mildly. At one stage, a dispatch rider came
roaring back with the news that they were running west and
that it was only a mile or two south of their position.
The intention was to fly home from Boulogne, but when they
got there, they were give new instructions to proceed to
Dunkirk. En route, the fleeting French and the troops provided
target practice for a German diver bomber who would sweep
inland, machine gunning and bombing the crowded roads.
At Dunkirk, Dr MacCarthy admitted that they were appaled
by the apparent lack of organisation and discipline. However,
he said military discipline was later established and the
organisation of the retreat became a credit to the British
Although there was more in store for Dr MacCarthy, the journey
back to the UK was not without incident. The vessel, which
had previously been on the Larne-Stranraer ferry service,
was struck shortly after they boarded and a gaping hole
was visible on the waterline.
The captains response was to order most of the troops
to move over to the opposite side of ship, and thus titled,
with the hole clear of the water, they made safe, but slow,
progress back to England.
On his return, Dr MacCarthy was posted to RAF Honington
in East Anglia as a senior medical officer, with the rank
of Squadron Leader. It was here, in May of 1941 that he
almost lost his life as he, and the ambulance crew, climbed
into a burning plane and dragged the badly burned and injured
aircrew to safety.
For this, he was awarded the George Medal. He was presented
with the medal by King George VI at Buckingham Palace in
November 1941. The presentation was not without incident-
to find out what exactly, turn to page thirty-seven!
The following day, Dr MacCarthy received a message that
he was to report to the War Office in London. There, he
was given instructions to join a special mission as the
units senior medical officer.
The plan was they they would operate with the Free French
in North Africa, but that operation was cancelled and they
were re-directed to Cape Town, where they were then told
to sail to Singapore with all speed to help stem the Japanese
invasion of Malaya.
After receiving news of the Japanese shelling of Singapore,
they were diverted to the port of Batavia in Java, where,
once again, they were ordered to move on and were flown
to Palembang in Sumatra.
Following an attack by the Japanese, the group was forced
to make a rather frantic retreat and, as a result, were
ultimately evacuated to Java on three small ferryboats.
However, in March 1942, they were out manoeuvred by the
Japanese and carted by goods train to their first in a series
of POW camps.
While interned by the Japanese in Java. Dr MacCarthy helped
his fellow prisoners with incredible ingenuity in appaling
conditions. The food was also appaling and consisted of
dirty, unwashed rice mixed with millet or sometimes sweet
potatoes, which were often half rotten, and cabbage tops.
The rice was served in the form of pap, like watery rice
pudding, and ladled with the kind of precision that would
have shamed a computer. The rice ration, because of its
unwashed state, was heavy infested in rice weevils, which
was creamed off and boiled separately to produce moggot
This, believe it or not, was strained and served to to the
sick as a form of protein supplement. Now, for the first
time in their lives, he said the troops were experience
real hunger and soon, they would experience all manner of
illnesses borne of deficiency.
One such illness was beri beri; a disease which produced
a variety of symptoms, the commonest being an acute burning
sensation in the feet and scrotum combined with severe leg
cramps and leg muscle wastage, which ultimately led to the
heart being enlarged on one side, with resulting breathlessness.
The vitamin deficiency also caused an inflammation of the
ends of the optic nerves in the eye resulting in papilitis
- a gradual loss of vision, which if untreated, would lead
to permanent blindness.
After being interned at Bandung camp, the POWs were moved
to Cycle camp. Here, from 1942 to 1944, they experienced
new terror- the Japanese Commandant, Lieutenant Sonne, a
man that Dr MacCarthy described as both an addict and a
At that stage, Dr MacCarthy 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
One day at Camp Cycle, which had nearly ten thousand POWs,
Dr MacCarthy recalled 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. He said these men were just some of the many
POWs who died slow and painful death during internment.
In April 1944, Dr MacCarthy was selected to become part
of work party on the Japanese mainland. En route he was
taken to a camp on the west side of Singapore, in River
Valley Road, for six weeks.
Back at Singapore docks, he and the other men were put on
board a large cargo ship which ran into a typhoon out of
Manila. During the typhoon, Dr MacCarthy said the hatches
were bolted down and the men - who were left in plunging,
heaving darkness - sweated, hoped and prayed.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of torment, he said
the hatches were opened and they drank in the wonderful
fresh air. Their euphoria, however, was short lived when,
after being transferred to another ship, they were struck
by a torpedo.
At the time of the explosion, Dr MacCarthy said he had been
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, he said, it exploded right underneath
them, blowing off the front length of the keel. Ad the engines
were still turning a full revolutions, the ship buried its
nose deeper and deeper into the ocean.
He describes how the hatches on the holds below them and
the wooden stairways to the deck, were blown upwards. The
lights went out and Dr MacCarthy called to the officers
on the either side of him - amazed that the noise of the
explosion had not woken them.
Quickly he realised they 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
Dr MacCarthy was sitting up struggling with the rat had
saved his life.
Facing a torrent of seawater, Dr MacCarthy admitted that
his first reaction was one of hopelessness, but he soon
recovered his wits and a made a dash for an inspection ladder,
but to his horror he felt a hand grab his ankle.
Spurred on by terror, he said he 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, Dr MacCarthy described how
he saw the ship shudder and slide. He said it was a macabre
sight,lit by fires raging and the sole remaining oil tanker.
Meanwhile as part of a most unusual sick parade, he 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 sea planes flew overhead.
After twelve hours in the sea, they were picked up by a
Japanese destroyer and huddled in the forward deck where
they were questioned, beaten and summarily thrown overboard.
Those who had been beaten unconscious were sucked into the
revolving screws of the destroyer, but Dr MacCarthy and
eighty-one other suriviors had jumped off the destroyer
of their own accord and , after swimming back to the island
of wreckage, formed their own little armada.
They were picked up again- this time by a Japanese whaling
boat and taken to Nagasaki. By then, Dr MacCarthy admitted
he had been through so much he hardly believed in his own
existence. The strain must have been hard to endure because
he recalled how POWs committed suicide by biting their wrist
arteries and bleeding to death.
As the most senior officer in the camp, Dr MacCarthy was
responsible for the activities and welfare of his fellow
prisoners. Under a punishing Japanese regime - where the
leader is punished alongside his subordinates, usually at
Tenko - it was an arduous and nerve-wrecking position to
As part of their work, the POWs were made to dig in the
coalmines. Later on, they were made to dig air-raid shelters.
However, late in the summer of 1945 they were given new
instructions. They were ordered to dig a pit about six feet
deep and about twenty foot square.
Dr MacCarthy said it did not take them long to realise they
were digging their own graves, but they were saved, on August
6, 1945, when a flight of American planes flew over Nagasaki
and bombed the city.
A couple of POWs, who had not bothered to go into the air-raid
shelters, witnessed the blue flash and bright magnesium-type
flare of the atomic bomb. It was the last thing they saw,
because the explosion blinded them.
Dr MacCartys eyewitness account of the bombing of
Nagasko is harrowing. When they came out of the shelter,
he said the camp had to all intense and purposed disappeared.
Bodies lay everywhere, some hottibly mutilated .. there
were outbreaks of fire in all directions .. loud explosions.....the
flapping of live electric cables as they fused
The gas mains had also exploded and those people still on
the feet ran round in circles, hands pressed to their blinded
eyes or holding the flesh that hung in tatters from their
faces or arms.
The bombing resulted in the death of 35,000 people and the
city itself was almost razed to the ground. Dr MacCarthy
describes this saying: We could suddenly see right
up the length of the valley, where previsouly the factories
and buildings had formed a screen. Left behind was a crazy
forest of discoloured corrugated sheets clinging to twisted
But 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.
But even that was not the end. As the most senior officer,
it was Dr MacCarthys duty to take charge, organise
the men, and assist, where possible, in treating the wounded.
Before they finally departed in September 1945, the men
had to submit themselves to a variety of tests, including
having a Geigner counter passed over their body. It was
with immense relief that Dr MacCarthy learned his tests
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 Dr MacCarthys
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
When he died, in 1995, at the age of 82, it was said that
Dr MacCarthy had celebrated every day of his life.
Courtesy of the Southern Star
July 16th 2005
By Jackie Keogh