Aidan MacCarthy crouched low in the air raid shelter he and the other prisoners of war had dug themselves. They had seen two American B-29 bombers flying toward the city of Nagasaki before they went into the shelter. A few POWs had stayed outside, though, wanting to see bombs fall on the Japanese for a bit of retribution for the three long years of pain and suffering many had endured in Japan’s ruthless POW camps. It was a mistake they would not live to regret. The men in the shelter heard someone outside say they could see three small parachutes. That seemed odd to MacCarthy, but he and the others knew nothing about the bomb that hit Hiroshima three days earlier. He was expecting at any moment to hear the familiar “thump-thump-thump” of multiple bombs exploding as they had heard during U.S. bombing raids recently. It was just a few minutes after 11 a.m.
Suddenly the shelter was lit up by a brilliant blue flash. MacCarthy heard what he recalled was a “frighteningly loud, but rather flat explosion which was followed by a blast of hot air.” It was the flash and sound of the largest manmade explosion in history to that date; 50 percent bigger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The blast, about one mile from their bomb shelter, echoed against the hills around the city, making it sound like two explosions. Moments later, an eerie silence enveloped them. As MacCarthy and the other prisoners crawled out of the shelter into an artificial dusk, the sight that greeted them convinced some of them that the world must be ending.
As a boy growing up in Castletownbere, on the beautiful Beara peninsula in western County Cork, young Adian MacCarthy certainly never envisioned crawling out of a hole into a lunar landscape in a city halfway around the world. The MacCarthy family owned a well-known and respected pub and grocery on the square in the center of town. Joseph Aidan MacCarthy was born on March 9, 1913. Growing up near the ocean, young Joseph Aidan, who would come to be known as Aidan, became a very strong swimmer, a skill that would one day help save his life.
Aidan was a good but rather recalcitrant student. In 1931, he began medical studies at University College Cork. He got his medical certificate in January 1939. His prospects were very limited in Ireland, however, and so the 25 year-old set off for London, just as the winds of war in Europe were rising.
He got a low-paying job in a “shilling surgery,” which treated the poorest people in the city. Shortly after the war started in September, Aidan was out drinking with two other young Irish doctors when they all decided to join either the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy. The RAF won in a coin toss, one he might have wished to do over had he been able to see into the future. After several months of boring duty at a southern England RAF base during the so called “phony war” period, he recalled that he was actually looking forward to shipping out to Europe. Like many young men, he wanted adventure, but he would soon have far more of it than he could have imagined.
He shortly got his wish and was posted as Senior Medical Officer to No. 14 Group in Northern France in December, he was given only a vague idea where the group was. When he got to France, no one there could tell him. After two weeks searching, he found them in Arras and found himself also doctoring many locals as well as RAF airmen, including delivering a number of babies.
When the German “blitzkrieg” ended the “phony war” in May 1940, the allies’ front quickly fell apart. MacCarthy and his group were soon on the run for the coast, where they were told they would all fly out from an airfield near Boulogne. Amazingly, he found himself in charge of the column of the medical staff and ground crews. The roads were choked with terrified French civilians. At one point, a scout warned them that a German Panzer column was on a road parallel to theirs. If MacCarthy had been aware of later events, he might have stopped and waited to be captured. They arrived in Boulogne too late to fly out and continued on toward Dunkirk. Stuka dive bombers attacked the crowded escape road on the coast over and over until it become impassable, and MacCarthy had his men abandon their vehicles.
They walked into Dunkirk two days later and found it a “burning shambles” filled with thousands of dazed British and French troops. The only instructions he was given was to have his men dig individual foxholes on the beach to protect against the constant Luftwaffe bombing and strafing and wait. He recalled "some were singing, some praying, but all were terrified."
They waited for three days, but then were given priority ahead of the infantry soldiers for evacuation, probably because the government recognized that the Luftwaffe would be the main threat to Great Britain in the coming months. Once again, given his future fate, this was mixed blessing, at best, for Aidan.
They got onto a former civilian ferry boat and began the trip across the Channel, but had only gotten about two miles when a German U-boat put a torpedo in their side. It was Aidan’s first, but not last such experience. The ferry's captain ordered everyone to the side away from the gaping hole to lift it above the water line, while Aidan was below treating injured from the blast. Miraculously, aided by calm seas, the listing ferry managed to stay afloat all the way to England. Thus MacCarthy became one of the 338,000 men rescued in the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”
After some weeks to recover from the trauma of the desperate retreat from France, MacCarthy was assigned to the Wellington bomber base at Honington on the Norfolk / Suffolk border in July. There he would never be near combat, but he would see the appalling results of aerial combat on the bomber crews. Flak and the large-caliber rounds and cannon shells of German fighters would tear up human bodies in the most horrific ways. During his year there, he would first become acquainted with the effects of extreme stress on the human psyche, as well, having to diagnose many crewman and pilots with combat fatigue.
In May 1941, MacCarthy was forced to demonstrate his courage in a way few RAF doctors ever did. When an inexperienced pilot crashed his Wellington (right) into a bomb dump near the runway, most of the rescue team fled, fearing it would explode. MacCarthy and Captain John Gray ran into the flaming bomber and were able to save three of the crew and were both burned in a failed attempt to save the pilot, barely escaping before the bombs in the dump began exploding. “Only a heaven-sent miracle had preserved us,” MacCarthy recalled. Both of them were awarded the George Medal for this rescue, the highest medal awarded for non-combat personnel, with MacCarthy being the awardee from the Irish Free State.
On December 8, 1941, MacCarthy set sail with a convoy as Senior Medical Officer of a 266 Wing, a fighter squadron of Spitfires and Hurricanes that was headed for the Mediterranean to participate in the resistance to Rommel. The day before, however, was the day that “will live in infamy,” when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an event that would have a profound impact on the lives of MacCarthy and the rest of his unit. The Japanese had also attacked Hong Kong and Singapore, going to war with Great Britain, and MacCarthy’s convoy was rerouted to the Pacific. It was the beginning of a nearly four-year nightmare journey that few people have ever endured before, or hopefully ever will in the future.
Their original destination was Singapore, “The Pearl of the Orient,” but before they could get there it was clear it would fall, so they were diverted to Java and then to an airfield outside of Palembang in Sumatra. The Japanese wanted both for their oil. MacCarthy’s first encounter with the enemy would be a rather bizarre one.
(Left: Japanese troops celebrating the conquest of Java.)
On February 13th the base was assaulted by Japanese paratroopers. Fighting erupted around the airfield as this small force of Japanese tried to capture the field. When several RAF personnel were wounded, MacCarthy loaded them into an ambulance for what he must have known was a highly dangerous trip to the hospital in town. They quickly ran into several Japanese who stopped them. MacCarthy got out pointed at his Red Cross armband and said “isha” (doctor), the only word of Japanese he knew. They looked at him, looked at the wounded in the ambulance, and incredibly they waved them on. If this gave MacCarthy the impression that the Japanese might follow some gentlemanly rules of war, he would very soon be disabused of that notion.
Indonesian soldiers of the Dutch army were able to totally defeat this first Japanese attack, likely killing those “gentlemen” who released MacCarthy. The main Japanese invasion followed shortly, however, and overwhelmed the small allied force there. MacCathy and his RAF group managed to get evacuated to Java, but Java suffered the same fate. A small part of the allied force there, including MacCarthy, tried to move into the mountains and continue the resistance, but in early March they were surrounded and captured.
MacCarthy then began what would be a nearly three and a half years of unspeakable horrors as a prisoner of the Japanese. What he and the others would survive was unimaginable to most people today, but it didn’t start out that way. They were first held at a former Dutch airfield at Tasikmalaya and guarded by soldiers of a combat unit. They were not brutal to the prisoners, who were even allowed to buy food from merchants at the fence.
This would prove a vital moment in their long captivity, for they were able to buy some pure yeast, which some chemists among the POWs developed into yeast cultures. Those vitamin B rich cultures would continue to be grown and shared to supplement their meager diets for years. This relatively mild captivity lulled them into a false sense of security, but it would not last long. The Japanese considered it dishonorable to surrender rather than die, and thus looked down on the allied prisoners and saw them as the lowest of the low.
(Right: The execution of Sgt. Leonard George (Len) Siffleet an Australian commando who was beheaded in New Guinea. Many POWs were beheaded, but this famous photo is the only known picture of one about to happen.)
Shortly, the combat troop guards were replaced by men assigned to be guards. They were either Japanese who couldn’t make the grade as combat soldiers, or Koreans who had been conscripted and were barely more than prisoners themselves. All minor infractions of “respect” to the guards resulted in vicious beatings. When the Japanese demanded that all RAF personnel complete a form detailing their training, the senior officer, Wing Commander Edward Steedman ordered his men to refuse. He was promptly put against the wall and shot in front of the assembled prisoners. The men then filled them out, being sure to include incorrect information.
No longer able to trade with people outside, their diet deteriorated and their health with it. As time went on, any living creature that came into the camp, be it squirrel, lizard, or rat was hunted as a source of protein. Another source became the maggots that infested the putrid rice they were issued. They would float to the top of the water used to boil the rice, and be made into “maggot soup.” That demonstrated the desperation that set in during their slow starvation.
(Left: Some POWS who did slave labor on the infamous Thailand to Burma railway.)
At the same time the Japanese began making the POWs work for them outside the camp, which further diminished their health. It was a violation of the Geneva Convention to force labor from POWs. The Japanese had never ratified the treaty, but had pledged to observe it. They would violate it every day until the end of the war. Terrible nutrition and exhausting work made the POWs susceptible to all manner of ailments in this tropical environment.
For a doctor like MacCarthy, it was terribly frustrating to know what was wrong with a patient, and to know how to cure it, and yet not have the means. The Japanese would never provide them with any of the drugs needed to cure any of the numerous tropical diseases that would plague them, especially as POWs got weaker. For over three years, MacCarthy would watch men sicken and die of easily curable diseases and conditions, but he tirelessly worked to try to help them to the end of the war.
After a few months in the first camp, they were moved to a camp in Surabaja in east Java. Every move they made was always accompanied by relentless beating by their guards for real and imagined “violations.” While at this camp MacCarthy witnessed one of the worst atrocities of his time as a captive. An Indonesian prisoner was caught speaking to a civilian near the fence, about his sick wife as it turned out. It made no difference.
The Japanese decided to make an example of him. His head was shaved and he was buried neck deep in the ground in the blazing sun in the middle of the courtyard, and given no food or water. The POWs were forced to walk by him numerous times to watch his face swell from sunburn and insects bites for two days before he mercifully died.
(Right: Chinese being buried alive by Japanese soldiers in Nanking, China)
One day at the new camp, MacCarthy endured a savage beating for jokingly saluting a pet monkey belonging to the guards. He was semi-conscious by the time they allowed other prisoners to drag him away. In October 1942, while attempting to help a dying patient, he forgot to bow to a guard who entered the infirmary. Not bowing always got a POW a beating of some kind. This time the guard slammed his rifle but into MacCarthy’s right elbow, shattering it. Though the Japanese did allow the injury to be treated, they had a young intern use him for “practice.” He butchered the job, which was done with no anesthesia on the screaming, strapped down MacCarthy. His elbow would never fully recover.
In March 1943, they were moved to a new camp, mainly by rail. These railway trips always agonizing, with POWs packed tightly into the cars like sardines. MacCarthy recalled that several prisoners prayed out loud for God to let them survive this journey. This was a 400-mile trip to Bandung and in each car several POWs died during the trip. It was so hot in the cars that the bodies began to decompose before they arrived in Bandung.
Once in the camp, however, conditions were better than the previous camp, partly because it was in a mountainous area with a better climate. Also the work that was done outside the camp was in a railway yard, and the prisoners working there were able to steal small amounts of food nearly every day to supplement their starvation diet. The viciousness of the guards was no different, still they would remember the nine months there as one of the better times of their captivity. In January 1944 that respite came to an end. They were once again packed into railway car and shipped off, this time to a camp in Batavia (which is now Jakarta).
At this camp they were introduced to their new camp commandant, Lieutenant Kenichi Sonie (left), whom McCarthy described as a “drug-addicted maniac.” One of his favorite entertainments was sending a truck load of warm, aromatic bread through the camp of starving prisoners. Many would hopefully follow it around each time, highly amusing him, knowing they would never be given any. A Dutch prisoner recalled Sonie once personally ripping out a POW's hair, a few tufts at a time, when he didn’t want to have his head shaved. Another time he had two young prisoners who tried to escape tied to barbwire fence and bayonetted to death. It was one of the most barbaric camps MacCarthy was in, but luckily he was not there for long. The rather benign looking Sonie was executed for war crimes after the war.
One day 250 new, emaciated prisoners were marched into the camp, and MacCarthy soon found nearly all of them were blind from B-12 deficiency, something his group had avoided thanks to their yeast cultures. Some of them regained their eye sight with the help of MacCarthy and the other prisoners, providing them better food, but many would never see again.
The Japanese homeland was running out of workers and soon began shipping POWs back there as slaves, in the same way conquerors had been doing for centuries. In May 1944, MacCarthy and others from his camp were loaded on a freighter for the trip to Japan. He believed he would not have survived much longer in Java, but he would barely make it to Japan alive.
The final leg of their journey was aboard the Tamahoku Maru (below) out of Formosa (now Taiwan). They were put below in a rat-infested hold that had last carried horses and mules. Combined with sick men vomiting and suffering from diarrhea, the stench was nearly unbearable. The convoys they had been in since Java had lost ships to both bombing and submarine attacks. Allied forces had no way of knowing any Japanese merchant ship was carrying POWs, who could do nothing but cower in terror in the dark, putrid hold, praying they would not be hit.
On night of the June 24th, some of the crew let them know they would reach their destination of Kure Harbor in Hiroshima the next day. The POWs were elated at the prospect of surviving and getting out of the reeking hold and into fresh air. They felt like they had beaten the odds again, and even began singing in celebration. Out in the pitch blackness of the Pacific, however, they were being stalked by one of the deadliest American submarines of World War II, the USS Tang. It was running on the surface and skippered by one of U.S. Navy’s highest-scoring submarine commanders:Richard “Killer” O’Kane. The over-confident Japanese crew had even switched on the ships' lights, presenting O’Kane with an easy target. He launched three torpedoes at the lead freighter in the convoy: the Tamahoku Maru.
Just before midnight, MacCarthy was awakened by a rat that had tangled in the mosquito netting around his feet. Suddenly, a violent explosion lifted him in the air and slammed him back down once, and then again a second time. Luckily the force blew the locked hatches open; unluckily, it also destroyed the wooden ladders up to them. He yelled to the officers lying near him, but they were all dead. He later surmised the sleeping men had their necks snapped by force of the explosion and that the rat had saved him from the same fate.
The ship was rapidly sinking. For a few moments he felt that this time, finally, the odds were stacked, too, against him. Then he remembered that a metal inspection ladder was nearby. He started up it and felt a hand grasp his ankle. He continued on, dragging the man with him to the deck. He dove in the sea without ever looking back to see who it was. Terrified that the sinking ship would suck him under the waves, he did his best swimming competition sprint away from it. He found some floating wreckage and clung to it. O’Kane (right) had been busy; there were other burning ships all around.
Soon, MacCarthy found the oil-covered water around him was full of dead bodies and injured POWs. He was horrified to find some of the bodies were Japanese women and children who had been returning home from Formosa on one of the other ships. Even in these appalling conditions, MacCarthy’s Hippocratic Oath was not forgotten. As other POWs floated closer on bits of debris, many moaning in pain, he swam to them, improvising splits and slings. During the night, they found one of the more pitiless of their Korean guards still alive. After three years of bowing and scraping and being brutalized by these inhumane thugs, it’s little wonder that two Australian POWs beat him to death. By morning, MacCarthy described the survivors as "human flotsam in the dawn-stirred sea."
Around noon the next day, they were picked up by a Japanese destroyer. They thought they were saved. But they were so covered with oil the Japanese didn’t realize they were POWs. Once they did, they began beating them and tossing them overboard. MacCarthy and several others jumped before they were beaten. They were 18 miles from the mainland as their agonizing ordeal continued. Miraculously, several Japanese whaling ships came along and picked them up and brought them into Nagasaki. MacCarthy had cheated death again. Only 212 of the 772 POWs on the ship survived.
(Left: Some POW survivors from a later sinking of a Japanese ship.)
They were sent to Camp Fukuoka 14B, at the Mitsubishi Steel & Arms Works in Nagasaki. They were now essentially slaves of Mitsubishi. After years of these totally inhuman conditions, suicides were now common. Two Indonesian POWs at the camp committed suicide by gnawing open the veins in their wrists.
They were put to work, from dawn to dusk, welding plates to a new aircraft carrier. Each night when they got back to camp, any complaints about the work of any POW by their supervisors at the shipyard resulted, as always, in beatings. MacCarthy and 12 others were also given a beating by the camp commandant when he discovered they were from the Irish Republic. They were “very bad people” for helping the Americans and British oppress Japan, he said. MacCarthy also was beaten several times after giving his name, because it sounded like “MacArthur,” the American general, whom the Japanese hated.
Even in their horrendous situation, the POWs found a way to resist. They began plunging hot rivets into cold water before hammering them into place, which would weaken the metal. A few months after they arrived, all the senior line officers were removed to camps in Manchuria, and MacCarthy found himself in command of all the POWs at the camp. The Japanese held the POW commander partially responsible for any prisoner offense, causing him to have numerous beatings there.
(Right: The Mitsubishi shipyard in Nagasaki.)
MacCarthy never stopped being a doctor to the men. When they were given shaving cream and ordered to shave their heads to fight the lice that infested them, he discovered it contained chemicals that could help relieve the tropical ulcers many suffered from. And incredibly, he even performed operations on several POWs. Using instruments they manufactured in secret in the bronze propeller factory where they had moved in October, he managed to operate on two men and drain lung abscesses, curing them. And being the closest thing they had to a dentist, he sometimes had to crudely yank out teeth with a pair of pliers as several men held the patient down.
As 1944 ended, MacCarthy found himself bedridden with beriberi. “I will never forget 1944,” he wrote in a journal he was keeping, “it was the worst year of my life.” Indeed, few people have ever endured worse years, but 1945 would bring a trial beyond his imagination. When he tried to recall his home in Castletownbere that Christmas, something that had given him solace during his captivity, he found he could no longer visualize it. He began to wonder if he, like so many other POWs, was losing his mind.
In late spring, the POWs were moved to work in a nearby coal mine, where they were happy to find lots of snakes to bolster their food supply. That summer they had the prisoners dig a huge trench at the camp. MacCarthy speculated that the Japanese, whom even the POWs now knew were losing the war, intended to kill all their POWs sometimes soon. Post-war documents showed he was right, and that date had been set for August 22nd. MacCarthy visualized his own bullet-riddled body lying in the mud at the bottom of the pit.
After the capture of Iwo Jima in the spring of 1945, the Americans began to systematically destroy Japanese cities with fire bombings. Nagasaki, however, was never bombed heavily until August 1st, in a raid that included carrier-based dive bombers, letting the POWs know the American forces were close. As it turned out, Nagasaki had been spared so far because the Americans wanted to use the port when they invaded. On August 9th, that would change. Nagasaki hadn’t been the primary target that day, it was Kokura, but it was obscured by clouds. Major Charles Sweeney made the decision to head to Nagasaki.
MacCarthy and the other prisoners crawled out of their bomb shelter and looked around after that fireball had flashed like a million flash-bulbs. They then entered a surreal world of utter devastation. What they were seeing was beyond any possible comprehension in their knowledge of conventional bombs. Midday had become dusk, the sun obstructed by a city turned into dust and launched into the air. MacCarthy’s instinct told him they should get out of the area. There were fires everywhere they looked; flames were shooting up out of gas mains, and broken water pipes were spewing geysers of water into the air. Dead bodies, charred black bodies, and parts of bodies were scattered all over the place. Some of the living were blind and some had flesh hanging off their bodies. It was "Dante’s Inferno" come to life. The Japanese would later call it “The Unforgettable Fire.”
They headed toward the nearby mountains along with thousands of the surviving Japanese. MacCarthy tried to help some of the injured he saw, but there just too many. When rain began to fall from the debris cloud, it was black, spreading even more terror among the survivors. When they reached the caves above the city where people were sheltering, he helped splint many broken bones, but there was little he could do for the many severely burned.
In the following days, MacCarthy became one of the first Western doctors to observe the effects of radiation from an atom bomb on humans. Any of the POWs who had been out of the bomb shelter and hadn’t died instantly died within a few days of radiation poisoning.
There was nowhere for the POWs to run to, and they were soon collected by the Kenpeitai, the secret police, and split up into various nearby POW camps, since theirs had been obliterated. He was sent to Camp 26 in Keisen. On August 15th MacCarthy and the other POWs found out that a radio address they had heard from the Emperor had announced Japan’s unconditional surrender. By some miracle, a number of them, in fact, he had survived the war. He and the other survivors cried and hugged and some got down on their knees and thanked God. Some of them wanted to kill the camp commandant, Lt. Isao Kusuno, after the guards walked away from the camp, but MacCarthy stopped them this time. The lieutenant gave MacCarthy his sword in gratitude.
(Right: Lt. Isao Kusuno with the sword he gave MacCarthy.)
In mid-September, MacCarthy sailed away from Nagasaki for the long journey home. Their first stop was Okinawa. While there, he was drinking at a U.S. Navy club with a submarine captain who had also survived captivity in Japan. It was Richard O’Kane, who had sunk the ship MacCarthy was on. Aidan recalled that when O'Kane found out he had killed hundreds of POWs that night, he got extremely drunk. MacCarthy's trip home led across the Pacific and through Canada. It was not until November 18th that they arrived in England on the Queen Mary.
He arrived back on Irish soil on November 24th. His family barely recognized him. He had weighed 200 lbs. the last time they saw him. He now weigh about 100 lbs. Later studies showed that 80% of former prisoners of the Japanese suffered some form of mental problems, and had a very high suicide rate. MacCarthy suffered nightmares, but managed to cope better than most. He decided to stay in the RAF.
(Left: MacCarthy's bar in Castletownbere.)
In 1948, MacCarthy was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his medical services to his fellow POWs, and he married Kathleen Wall from Ballinamore Bridge, County Galway. They would have two daughters and a very happy married life, but once in a while Aidan would suffer nightmares that Kathleen described as “ferocious.” He also suffered “fits” for a time from a benign brain tumor that was successfully removed. He was sure it was a result of the multitude of beatings he received in the POW camps.
MacCarthy retired from the RAF in 1971 with the rank of Air Commodore, the highest rank for noncombat officers. In 1979 his memoir of his astonishing wartime experiences, modestly titled “A Doctor’s War,” was published. He had spoken very little of his captivity since the war. He wife and family were stunned to learn the horrendous details of his experiences. Aidan didn’t fully retire from medicine until he was 80. He passed away on October 11, 1995, in London and was buried back home in Castletownbere.
(Right: Aidan MacCarthy in his later years with Lt. Kusuno's sword.)
In July 2017 the medical center at Honington RAF base, where MacCarthy had helped save those bomber crew members in 1941, was named after him. That’s a great legacy, and most men never would have done anything more heroic, but it barely scratches the surface of the courage, tenacity and dedication to his Hippocratic Oath that MacCarthy demonstrated -- in the most extreme conditions. He was interviewed by RTE radio shortly before his death and with his family's permission, it was broadcast on the day he was buried. The mourners listened to it at the Cametringane Hotel after the burial. Few men have ever gotten the last word at their own funeral, but he did. When he was asked at the end of it how he had managed to survive, he credited, "my Irish Catholic heritage, my family background, my Jesuit training in Clongowes, and lots of lots of luck." In the hotel, the mourners got to their feet and applauded.
From the beaches of Dunkirk; to entering a burning plane to save crewmen, to the inhuman misery of Java’s POW camps, to the oily waters near a torpedoed freighter off the coast of Japan, to the atomic wasteland of Nagasaki, he displayed a will to survive and to help his fellow man that few have ever matched. The term "hero" is applied far too easily to many these days, but Joseph Aidan MacCarthy richly deserved it.
“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.)
'In Harm’s Way': America’s Greatest Submarine Commander (The story of Richard O'Kane)
Seventy Years After World War II, Mitsubishi Finally Apologizes for forcing 900 American POWs into its horrific Japanese labor camps
Prince Harry to Honour Cork War Hero Who Was Evacuated From Dunkirk and survived atomic bomb drop