Wartime derring-do by an Irish doctor whose exploits put Indiana Jones in the shade
Damian Corless on the extraordinary story of a Co Cork medic who treated wounded soldiers during Second World War on a ferry commandeered from Larne-Stranraer route
You could not make this up. A Doctor's Sword is the story of a Corkman who went to hell and back during the Second World War and survived to tell an inspirational story. And it all rested on the toss of a coin.
Born in Castletownbere in 1913, Aidan MacCarthy graduated in medicine in 1938 and set off for London in search of adventure. War was looming and, on the day that Germany invaded Poland, he and a couple of friends decided to join up. But would it be the RAF or the Navy? According to author Bob Jackson: "They ended up in a nightclub in the early hours of the morning. Eventually, they asked one of the hostesses to toss a coin and it came down on the side of the Royal Air Force. The outcome of this simple coin toss would reverberate through the rest of his life."
One of those outcomes was to discover that in the murk of war, you can end up getting shot by both sides. Having been evacuated from the strands of Dunkirk, MacCarthy set up a surgery on a ferry borrowed from the Larne to Stranraer service. "As he began treating wounds, he was surprised to find British .303 bullets from Lee-Enfield rifles in many of the wounded. This confirmed that British troops on the beaches of Dunkirk had fired on their own soldiers and airmen, either in panic, out of jealousy, or possibly rage at the fact that they themselves were not being evacuated."
MacCarthy had signed up for adventure and the adventure was only beginning. Typically self-effacing, he described his award of the George Medal as a slice of "good luck". The medal is the highest award for bravery given to non-combatant personnel. An RAF aircraft crash-landed close to MacCarthy's base, piling into a mess of barbed wire on top of a minefield.
The troops, charged with rescuing the crew, baulked at the challenge and kept their distance. German aircraft were strafing the site with fire. However: "Without hesitating, MacCarthy and the driver of the fire tender climbed into the burning aircraft without asbestos suits and started pulling out the crew trapped inside. They managed to pull three of the crew out, but the bullets, incendiaries and flares were beginning to ignite. In spite of this, they climbed back in and attempted to rescue the pilot."
Aidan MacCarthy's proven courage was pushed to the extreme after he ended up a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese in Java. In the words of the author: "MacCarthy focused on healing. Even though he was surrounded by death, (he) saved countless lives and allowed many others to die with some dignity and solace. Food was a constant concern. Because the rice was unwashed, it was infested with maggots.
"These conditions provided an unlikely source of protein as the maggots floated to the surface when the rice was cooked. They were creamed off, collected and boiled separately to produce maggot soup, which supplemented the diets of the weakest prisoners."
Things went from bad to worse for the doctor from Cork. With their war effort beginning to fail badly, the Japanese started to conscript slave labour for their factories. Aidan MacCarthy was one of many thousands shipped to the Japanese mainland and, in April 1944, he found himself on a ship with 980 fellow prisoners. The ship was torpedoed by a US vessel and MacCarthy was one of just 40 survivors.
After clinging to the wreckage for 24 hours, the POWs were picked up by a Japanese ship. The rescuers were less than pleased to discover that they had saved a bunch of foreigners and they began to beat the men.
With his impending death a sure thing, Aidan literally jumped ship and took his chances with the deep blue sea. He was plucked from the waves by a Japanese whaling ship and brought to Nagasaki where he resumed his station in a POW camp. The beatings he endured there were horrific.
As the Japanese war effort became more and more bogged down, they hatched a plot to execute their prisoners of war, lest they become a force within. Then, as MacCarthy and his fellows contemplated their grisly end, the US dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki. Freed amid the chaos, the Corkman's instinct was to help.
In the words of the author: "As MacCarthy and the rest of the prisoners crawled up the slopes of the mountains, they grew worried as to how the traumatised locals would receive them. Would they blame them for the destruction and take revenge? But the people they met were even more frightened than they were.
"When MacCarthy told them he was an isha, or doctor, they were welcomed into caves and tunnels. He set to work immediately, splinting and tying up broken bones."
MacCarthy was returned to captivity, but not for long. On the day that Japan surrendered, he addressed his fellow POWs with the good news.
While they were full of the joys of release, they were also in the mood for a hanging. They wanted to lynch the boss of the camp, Lieutenant Kusuno.
Somehow, MacCarthy prevented this rough justice. In the words of the author: "The Australian prisoners were determined to hang him. Although Kusuno received a beating, MacCarthy locked him in a cell for his safety. He decided it was outside his power to condemn any man to death." The camp commandant presented the Irishman with his sword.
When he enlisted in 1939, Aidan MacCarthy weighed 14 stone. He emerged from his ordeals in 1945 half that weight. His true life adventures, his bravery, and his determination to do the right thing, put celluloid heroes like Indiana Jones in the shade.
- A Doctor's Sword, Bob Jackson, Collins Press, £19.99