Man whose incredible story of surviving as Japanese prisoner of war became bestseller, dies at 97
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Alistair Urquhart who has died aged 97, was a prisoner of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945, surviving both the infamous Death Railway and the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki; his memoir, The Forgotten Highlander, became a bestseller in 2009.
When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942, approximately 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war. Urquhart took part in a forced march of 28 kilometres to Selarang Barracks on the Changi peninsula, which became a vast PoW camp. On the way there, the road was lined with the heads of decapitated Chinese on spikes.
Seven months later, he was crammed with 30 others into one of a number of small steel containers used for transporting goods by rail. It was dark, airless and so hot that the steel sides burned any skin that came in contact with them.
After five days and nights, he set out with his companions on a six-day march of almost 50 kilometres. Prodded by bayonets and beaten with bamboo canes, they had to keep up a good pace through the jungle while avoiding venomous tree snakes dangling from the branches overhead.
On arrival at Kanyu Camp, on the River Kwai, Urquhart had contracted malaria and was covered in scabies and lice, but he had to help build the huts in which some 200 of his comrades were to live.
After the huts were completed, he started work on a section of the 420-kilometre-long Burma-Siam Railway, hacking through jungle, gouging out passes, spanning ravines, bridging rivers in one of the most inhospitable regions in the world — all on starvation rations. Many thousands of British, Australian, Dutch, American and Canadian prisoners would perish in the task.
Several of the overseers were selected for their brutality and sadism, and punishment took many forms. Cuts on feet and legs from poisonous plants, bad food or lack of hygiene were unavoidable and turned into ulcers which rotted flesh, muscle and tendons.
Several of the overseers were selected for their brutality and sadism, and punishment took many forms
Urquhart, desperate to stop the rot that was devouring his legs, went to the doctor. He was advised to collect some maggots from the latrines and put these on the ulcers. The maggots nibbled away at the diseased flesh, new skin formed and the wounds healed.
He spent more than seven months splintering rock on a four-kilometre section known as Hellfire Pass that required five cuttings and seven bridges. On top of the cuttings, one of the guards relieved his boredom by rolling boulders down on to the prisoners toiling below. Out of sight of the guards, Urquhart sabotaged the bridge construction, sawing halfway through wooden bolts and depositing termites in the joints of load-bearing timbers.
Urquhart received a bad beating for resisting the sexual advances of a Korean guard and was then made to stand to attention through two cold nights and a day under blazing sun. Whenever he lost consciousness, he had water thrown over him and was kicked back into life. Finally, he was squeezed into a semi-submerged cage and spent a week in a cramped hole in stifling heat.
When the monsoon arrived, the Kwai and its tributaries became loaded with cholera bacteria. Urquhart contracted the disease. He was isolated in the “death tent” and was the only survivor. He was then sent to Chungkai, a large hospital camp. Besides cholera, he had dysentery, beriberi and malaria and had lost the use of his legs.
He was examined by Colonel (Weary) Dunlop, an Australian doctor, who intervened with the Japanese constantly on behalf of his patients, at the risk of being executed, and has been credited with saving countless lives. After six months of treatment and rehabilitation, Urquhart was sent to the River Valley Road Camp in Singapore City.
In September 1944, together with 900 other British PoWs, Urquhart was herded aboard the cargo vessel Kachidoki Maru. He said afterwards that nothing that he had experienced in the camps had prepared him for the conditions on one of the Japanese “hellships.” Inside the hold, it was standing room only and there were no lavatory facilities. In the hot, dark, fetid atmosphere, men were driven mad by thirst. Cannibalism and even vampirism were not unknown.
Six days out of Singapore, the ship, part of a convoy, collided with an oil tanker which had been torpedoed and set on fire. There were no red crosses on the ship to indicate that PoWs were on board. That night, Kachidoki Maru was torpedoed by the American submarine Pampanito and sank within 15 minutes.
Six days out of Singapore, the ship, part of a convoy, collided with an oil tanker which had been torpedoed and set on fire
Water flooded the hold and Urquhart was washed over the side. The sea was thick with burning oil from other sinkings in the convoy. More than 240 of his comrades died that night. There were terrible scenes as men fought for a piece of driftwood that would support them. Urquhart found a one-man raft. By the fifth day, he was badly burned and unable to see. His eyes had been seared by the strength of the sun.
He was picked up, barely conscious, by a Japanese whaling ship and dropped off at Hainan Island. There, he and other prisoners who had survived the sinkings were paraded naked through the village. In mid-September he was taken by stretcher and lowered into the hold of another “hellship.”
Again the convoy was attacked by submarines, but after an 11-day voyage they reached Japan. Urquhart was put to work in a coal mine at Omuta. By that time he could hardly stand and scarcely knew his own name.
Dr. Mathieson, a Scot serving in the RAMC, persuaded the Japanese to move Urquhart to the camp hospital, where he worked as an orderly. The doctor’s courage, dedication and skill saved Urquhart’s life and that of many others.
His camp was 15 kilometres from Nagasaki, and when the atom bomb was dropped on the city, his shrunken frame was knocked sideways by the blast. For several days he and his comrades feared that the Japanese would massacre them to destroy the evidence of their atrocities, but on August 21 1945 the camp commander announced the end of the war and the British gradually took over.
The son of a teacher, Alistair Kynoch Urquhart was born on September 8 1919 at Newtonhill, Aberdeenshire. He went to school at Robert Gordon College, Aberdeen, where he won prizes for academic work and sports. His family fell on hard times and he left aged 14 to work for Lawson Turnbull, plumbers’ merchants and electrical wholesalers.
In 1939 he joined the Gordon Highlanders and accompanied the 2nd Bn to Singapore. He was issued with a rifle manufactured in 1907 and completed his basic training. He was angered by the attitude of many of the rubber planters, mining company managers and government officials, who treated the soldiers with contempt. Their arrogance, frivolity and ineptitude, he believed, made defeat inevitable.
After his liberation by the Americans, his weight had dropped from 135 lbs to 82 lbs. He had been a prisoner for 1,332 days. He spent a period of recuperation in San Francisco and returned to Aberdeen on November 18. None of the cards that he had written from the camps had arrived. His parents believed that he was dead.
He had a very difficult time adjusting to his new life. He was undernourished, suffered from claustrophobia and had recurrent nightmares. Early in 1946, he went before an Army medical board. In his memoirs he claimed that he had to declare himself A1 fit in order to be demobilized. As a result he did not receive a disability pension.
He had a very difficult time adjusting to his new life
He returned to Lawson Turnbull, where his job had been kept open for him and his passion for ballroom dancing helped him to reintegrate into society. He worked for the Manchester Slate Company until 1963 and then moved back up to Scotland. After settling at Broughty Ferry, he worked for Stewart Robertson, plumbers’ merchants, in Dundee, and was the managing director until his retirement in 1981.
He was an active supporter of his church and an enthusiastic fundraiser for the Forthill Community Centre. He enjoyed football, swimming, rugby, cricket, tennis, athletics and gymnastics. Later in life he took up fishing, painting, golf, bowling and snooker — and was arranging tea dances until he was well into his nineties.
His autobiography, The Forgotten Highlander, topped the non-fiction bestseller lists. In it he expressed anger at Japan’s failure to acknowledge its share of the blame for the war crimes committed by its armed services. The money raised went to the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen.
Urquhart received numerous “Hero of the Year” awards between 2007 and 2011. The Prince of Wales, Colonel-in-Chief of the Gordon Highlanders, met him on several occasions and a portrait of him that he commissioned hangs in Clarence House.
Alistair Urquhart married, in 1946, Mary Milne, whom he nursed for the last 12 years of her life. She died in 1993 and he is survived by their son and daughter.
Alistair Urquhart, born September 8 1919, died October 7 2016