Book review: A Doctor’s Sword

Truth is really stranger than fiction in the life of Dr Aidan MacCarthy and Bob Jackson’s account, while scrupulous on detail, doesn’t get bogged down with it, writes Eoghan O’Sullivan.

Book review: A Doctor’s Sword

Bob Jackson

The Collins Press, €22.99

PERHAPS the most remarkable part of Dr Aidan MacCarthy’s life story was his decision to return to Japan for a holiday, retracing the same route there that he had taken eight years previously. Except this time it was of his own volition.

Born in Castletownbere in deepest West Cork, he joined the RAF the day after the Second World War was declared.

He earned the George Medal, the highest award for bravery that a non-combat officer can earn in the armed forces, for rescuing the crew of a bomber that crash-landed at an RAF base in 1941.

He was captured by the Japanese in Java in February 1942, being ferried around various prisoner-of-war camps in Japan for more than three years, halving in weight, from 14-and-a-half stone to seven stone, due to starvation and malnutrition.

He had survived the Miracle at Dunkirk at the beginning of the war, and the ‘Fat Man’ atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, just a mile from his camp, that ended the war.

And on the day the Japanese surrendered, he was gifted an ancestral sword by his camp commandant for sparing his life from POWs intent on revenge.

And yet it is the fact that MacCarthy returned on holiday to Japan in the 1950s, with his wife, that left me astounded.

“The fact that he was able to return to the people and the culture that only a few years previously had inflicted such suffering on him and his comrades is hard to fathom,” writes Bob Jackson in this meticulous account of the life, times, trials, and tribulations of a man whose name should have long been ringing around every pub in Ireland, not just the MacCarthy family pub in Castletownbere.

Rather than suffering any nightmares or panic attacks on returning to the country where he was subjected to so much torture, MacCarthy and his wife Kathleen, “became friendly with a local doctor who acted as their guide and showed them around”.

“It is, quite simply, the best story I have ever heard,” writes Jackson in the epilogue to A Doctor’s Sword.

A lecturer at the Institute of Technology, Tralee, Jackson does justice to this extraordinary man. His relative anonymity here he puts down to political factors: the Troubles, the taboo that MacCarthy was an Irish person serving with British forces.

And also, MacCarthy, as is made clear time and time again down through his years, was a modest man: He wrote a memoir in 1979, A Doctor’s War, that offers what Jackson says is an “engrossing account of his story, in his own words. The problem is that he often uses so few words to describe his experiences”.

MacCarthy was born in Castletownbere on March 19, 1913. His father, Denis Florence, was soon reaping the benefits of the shipping industry brought to the area by the First World War.

Aidan was a troublemaker — at the age of eight he stormed out of the house and challenged his father to come out and fight him like a man. His trouble-making ways continue at school in Dublin, though he soon settled at Clongowes.

At University College Cork, where he was studying to become a doctor, he excelled at swimming (the regatta in his home town was an obsession for life) and rugby, sporting talents delaying his graduation. With general practice a closed shop in this country due to nepotism, MacCarthy moved to the UK.

Out one night with a fellow classmate from UCC, they essentially decided they would volunteer for the armed forces but were unsure whether to opt for the RAF or the navy. They asked a waitress to flip a coin — the air force it was.

As Jackson is wont to point out, it was a fateful decision that would have both catastrophic yet rewarding consequences. They joined the RAF the next day, September 4, 1939.

Whereas the documentary of the same name, released last year and nominated for an Irish Film and Television Academy award, focuses on Aidan’s daughter, Nicole, trying to find a needle in a haystack in the form of the Japanese soldier who gave her father his ancestral sword almost 70 years previous, this book focuses on the MacCarthy’s feats and crimes inflicted on him.

There are so many coincidences that if they were included in a Hollywood movie one would call it unrealistic.

Having been captured, the vessel in which he was shipped to Japan from Java was torpedoed.

It took MacCarthy, standing up having been awakened by a wriggling rat that had become entangled in his mosquito netting, a moment to realise why his fellow sleeping passengers were not panicking — the tremors of the attack had snapped their necks.

Later, during his eventual return to Ireland, he goes by Pearl Harbor where two of the US Navy battleships had been sunk by the Japanese. MacCarthy remembered them stationed at Castletownbere during the First World War as part of the Bantry Bay Squadron.

His father would have done regular business with the crews of these huge ships and their custom helped pay for the upper floor of the MacCarthy family home.

Jackson says that it was MacCarthy’s medical training and personality which allowed him to survive his years in prison camps. It was also his good humour which saw him, with all the guards on their midday meal, salute a monkey sitting on a perch.

A returning guard saw the gesture as a grave insult, called the others, and they attacked “as a screaming mob”, for 10 long minutes.

As for his medical training, with a lack of resources to treat fellow prisoners, he creamed off maggots (rich in protein, don’t you know) that had infested the rice and boiled them to make ‘maggot soup’ to supplement the diets of the weakest prisoners. He also used shaving cream to treat eye infections.

Peppered throughout the book are images of MacCarthy and his family, as well as notes from his prisoner-of-war camp diary, which was only discovered last year.

One entry showcases his strength of spirit: “Was admitted to hospital on the 28th November 1944 with swollen testicles, it is the unluckiest year of my life since being in his camp I have been in and out of hospital but I am now feeling a bit better.”

A Doctor’s Sword is a fascinating, engrossing, educational read. It is to Jackson’s credit that though he is scrupulous with his details, he doesn’t get bogged down in them.

Also a producer on the documentary, Jackson has finally done credit to a true Irish — and British — hero; indeed next February, RAF Honington, where MacCarthy served during the war, will name a new medical facility after him.

In one last, posthumous coincidence, at the local Cametringane Hotel following his burial, having suffered a stroke on October 11, 1995, the radio was airing a recent interview with MacCarthy.

“Asked what had given him the strength to survive his experiences, MacCarthy replied that it was a combination of ‘my Irish Catholic heritage, my family background, my Jesuit training in Clongowes, and lots and lots of luck’.”

With that the mourners stood and applauded.

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