Back in October of 2017, I wrote an article titled “From Dunkirk to Nagasaki: The Long War of Dr. Aidan MacCarthy,” about a hero of WWII who had one of the most incredible war-time experiences of any person who lived through the war. Dr. Aidan McCarthy was a native of Castletownbere, on the beautiful Beara peninsula in western County Cork.
His amazing wartime service took him from the beaches of Dunkirk through to the very end of the war in a Japanese prison camp. He survived when his ship was torpedoed coming home from Dunkirk. Home in the UK he survived entering a downed, burning British bomber in an ammunition dump while saving two of its crewmen. He lived through the Japanese invasion of Java and there became a POW. Over the next three and a half years he would endure a captivity that included several brutal beatings and broken bones along with psychological terror that most people today could barely imagine. He barely survived the sinking of a Japanese ship transporting him and other POWs back to Japan. And finally, he lived through one of the great horrors of WWII, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that ended it.
That brief summary obviously does no justice to his amazing service. That he returned home alive is something of a miracle. I would urge the reader to click on the link at the top of this article to read a more detailed history of Dr. MacCarthy’s service.
There is another very interesting post-war story about Dr. MacCarthy and his family that I did not have the room to include in the original article. It revolved around the Japanese officer’s sword that Dr. MacCarthy brought home with him when he returned. Though many allied soldiers brought home similar items as souvenirs, Aidan’s held much more significance.
Dr. MacCarthy’s daughters, Nicola (Niki) and Adrienne, grew up seeing this sword in their home, but not really knowing the full story behind it. Aidan’s wife, Kathleen, recalled that for years after the war Aiden would have what she called “ferocious” nightmares. So, she never pressed him about details of his time in Japanese POW camps, fearing it would only make his nightmares worse.
“My father had been a prisoner of war in Japan and had brought the sword home with him,” Niki says, “but he didn’t like to talk about that period in his life. It was only in the period leading up to his death 20 years ago (he passed away on October 11, 1995) that he would talk about it and we started to understand just what he had been through and what the significance of the sword was.”
Sitting at the foot of the Caha mountains, on Cork’s rugged Beara Peninsula, is the picturesque town of Castletownbere. There in the middle of town, you will find the bright red storefront of MacCarthy’s Bar & Grocery. It has been a town landmark for over 150 years, passed down from generation to generation of MacCarthy family. The family is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the town.
Forty years ago, the last uncle running the family bar died. Adrienne recalled, “My Dad said that we’d have to sell the place in Ireland, that there was no-one to take it over. I was finishing my nursing degree in London at the time and even at that young age, I realized how important this place was, so I said I’d qualify and come over for 6 months and try it out. And I never left.” It was certainly a great personal sacrifice for Adrienne, and an indication of how important the legacy of the bar was to the family.
For the last 40 years the bar has been run by Adrienne, later joined by Niki. There they proudly displayed the sword their father had brought home, along with his medals and crude metal bowl he had used in the POW camps. One day in 1999, documentary film producer Bob Jackson arrived at the bar with questions for the sisters about their hero father and the sword he brought home with him. He had heard a patron in his grandmother’s pub near Cork City relating the tale of Dr. MacCarthy’s wartime experience, and like nearly everyone who has heard about it, he was astounded. Jackson related the story to others for many years after that. Finally, in 2010, he and Gary Lennon began to work on a documentary of Dr. MacCarthy’s extraordinary life.
That included a search to discover exactly what Japanese officer had given Dr. MacCarthy the sword. It seemed a long shot at first. Kathleen recalled seeing a photo Aiden had brought home of the officer who given him the sword, but no one in the family could find it. Then, in July 2013, Niki found an old photo album in a suitcase they thought had only contained books. There in the album was the photo they had been searching for. On the back of the photo it said, “My dear friend Dr. MacCathy [SIC], this is with my parting gift to you on this day the arrival of peace, August 1945. Kusuno”
So, the family story that the sword was a gift, not something Dr. MacCarthy had taken, was confirmed and now they had a name. U.S. military records confirmed that 2nd Lieutenant Isao Kusumo had been assigned to the camp Dr. MacCarthy was in at the end of the war. Jackson quickly planned a trip to Japan. Niki agreed to go with him to attempt to bring a member of the MacCarthy family in contact with any members of the Kusuno family they could find.
In Nagasaki, on August 9th, the 68th anniversary of the bombing, Niki was able to stand in nearly the same spot where a bomb shelter had saved her father’s life. Later, during a ceremony in the city, she laid a wreath in honor of the victims, and of her father. It was wholly appropriate that he be so honored, for he had selflessly worked to treat many of the Japanese victims in the aftermath of that horrific bombing.
Many POWs, years and even decades later, never forgave the Japanese for the nearly inconceivable brutality they endured in the POW camps. But that day, while still enduring that brutality, Aidan was able to see the Japanese as fellow human beings who needed his help. With black rain falling, and many feeling they were witnessing the end of the world, he was faithful to his oath as a physician. Because of the publicity Jackson had generated in the local press and TV regarding their search members of the Kusumo family, many of the Japanese there that day would have known the story of Dr. MacCarthy’s service to the people of Nagasaki on that worst day in the history of their city as they watched Nikola lay that wreath.
The following day, while they were visiting the site of the POW camp where Dr. MacCarthy and Kusumo met, they got a call. Kusumo’s grandson had made contact. Several hours later, with the light fading for Jackson’s documentary film crew, the families Dr. MacCarthy and Lt. Kusumo, came together at Kusumo’s gravesite in Keisen. For the Kusumo family, Isao’s daughter, Mitzuko, and grandson Satoshi and granddaughter, Kaori, it was a story they had never heard from their father. Hearing it now, and seeing the photo of Isao and the inscription on the back, they realized that if not for the magnanimous actions of Dr. MacCarthy, none of them would be there. This meeting helped put the final touches on Jackson and Lennon’s documentary.“
In November 2014 “A Doctor’s Sword” premiered at the Cork Film Festival. Dr. MacCarthy was finally getting the recognition he deserved for his incredible war-time service against some of the most evil governments the world has ever seen. In 2016 Jackson published a book on Dr. MacCarthy’s life, also titled “A Doctor’s Sword.” In July 2017 a new medical facility at the RAF base at Honington, where he had entered a burning bomber to help save crew members, was named after Dr MacCarthy. Nicola and Adrienne were there and met Prince Harry, who was at a ceremony to honor their father.
“He was always a bit of a hero there anyway,’ Adrienne said. ‘It was a really a proud day for us and we feel deeply honored that this medical center is now named after our father.”
(Below: Adrienne MacCarthy in MacCarthy's bar with her father's medals and his POW bowl.)
A quote from Aidan MacCarthy late in his life probably tells us all we need to know about how any man could possibly endure all he did and not just live, but save many others along the way and not let the trauma of the experience destroy the rest of his life. When asked how he managed it, he said, "My Irish Catholic heritage, my family background, and lots and lots of luck. No. I was very, very lucky. I got skin cancer from the radiation of the atomic bomb and I got leukemia from being close to the bomb and I had 16 operations in my arm as a result of the beatings. Obviously, I had the stroke and brain hemorrhage. But apart from that, nothing really.” God save us from ever needing the “luck” to survive all the things he did.
In the years since the release of the documentary and the book, more people have come to MacCarthy’s bar in Castletownbere knowing the story of Dr. MacCathy’s life. This year I was one of them. My wife, Lindy, and I had passed through Castletownbere twice in the last decade before I knew his story and had never stopped in at MacCarthy’s. This year, while we were traveling with my cousin’s son, Shawn, and his wife, Karen, I told them I had to “make a stop” at a special place in town. I gave them the thumbnail sketch of who Dr. MacCathy was as we were walking to the bar.
My only expectation was to have a good look around and get a few photos and hopefully see the sword somewhere behind the bar. But while I was looking at some framed articles on the back wall, I heard Lindy ask the person behind the bar, “did you know Dr. MacCarthy,” and the reply, “He was my father.” It was Adrienne. She graciously brought out the famous sword, along with a small display case of her father’s many military awards and the metal pot he used during his years in Japanese POW camps.
(Left: Joe Gannon at MacCarthy's bar holding Dr. MacCarhy's sword.)
It was wonderful to see and physically touch these artifacts of Dr. MacCarthy’s war service, but the most exceptional part of the moment was having the chance to tell the daughter of this hero how much I admired what he had endured and accomplished in life. In closing my previous article on her father, I had said: The term "hero" is applied far too easily to many these days, but Joseph Aidan MacCarthy richly deserved it. That day I got the opportunity to repeat those sentiments in person to Dr. MacCarthy’s daughter. It is and will always remain, one of the most memorable moments I have enjoyed in Ireland.
A Doctor’s Sword (Video Extract)
“A Doctor's Sword: How an Irish Doctor Survived War, Capitivity and the Atomic Bomb” by Bob Jackson
“A Doctor's War” by Aidan MacCarthy
(Right: Post-war picture of POWs in Java.)
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