Re-Published “A Doctor’s War” memoir ‘ a truly wonderful read’

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 Doctor’s 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 MacCarthy’s 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 man’s true story is quite astonishing”.
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 experience”.

On that occasion, Adrienne gave him a copy of her father’s 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. MacCarthy’s prose style is deceptively simple. It’s spare, direct, and pacey- similar in tone to Ronald Dahl’s wartime memoirs - But the events themselves are so dramatic that “ A Doctor’s War” needed no embellishment.

Returning to MacCarthy ‘s the next day for “a freshener”, Pete told Adrienne that he believed her father’s 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 services.

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 captain’s 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 unit’s 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 soup.

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 sadist.

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 a maniac.”

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 be in.

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 MacCarty’s 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 and flared.

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 girders.

“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 MacCarthy’s 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 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 Dr MacCarthy’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 MacCarthy had “celebrated every day of his life”.

Courtesy of the Southern Star
July 16th 2005
By Jackie Keogh