Born in Castletownbere, West Cork in 1913, Aidan MacCarthy graduated in medicine from University College Cork before travelling to London in 1938 in search of adventure and work – a year before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. He joined the RAF on the first day of the conflict before being captured by the Japanese in 1944 and forced to work as a slave for Mitsubishi. The intrepid Irishman was evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940 and was in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in August 1945. The facility named in Dr MacCarthy’s honour is located at RAF Honington in Suffolk, where in May 1941 the then 28-year-old rescued the crew of a crashed RAF bomber. He was later awarded the George Medal for bravery after entering the burning plane and dragging the crew to safety.
Dr MacCarthy’s daughters Nicola and Adrienne attended the ceremony accompanied by Bob Jackson, the author of A Doctor’s Sword – the bestseller which has reignited interest in the Irishman’s exceptional life. The medical centre which will bear his name will be decorated with photographs and display boards as a memorial to his incredible World War II story. MacCarthy’s, located in pretty Castletownbere on the Beara Peninsula has been welcoming tourists and locals alike for years and its striking facade features on the dust jacket of Pete McCarthy’s celebrated travel book, MacCarthy’s Bar. It is here that you will find Niki and Adrienne MacCarthy – and a magnificent ceremonial sword from Japan that helped lead the sisters on a hunt to uncover their father’s astonishing wartime story.
“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 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.” Dr Aidan MacCarthy’s wartime experience is the subject of a striking documentary, A Doctor’s Sword, which saw Niki journey to Japan to get a sense of what her father had been through and to see if she could find any relations of the man who gave her father the sword.
Aidan MacCarthy was born in Castletownbere in 1913 and despite spending the majority of his adult life in the UK, he never lost his Cork accent. He studied at the private Clongowes Wood College in Dublin, a time that charged a life-long love of rugby. In fact, he won a coveted Munster trophy with UCC’s rugby team when studying medicine there in the early 1930s. He found it difficult to get work as a doctor in the Ireland of the 1930’s and was forced to emigrate to, first Wales, and then England, in order to make a living. When the Second World War broke out, he, like many Irishmen at the time, felt compelled to join the Allies in their war against Germany. After a night out in Soho, the doctor and two of his Irish friends joined the Royal Air Force (RAF), in his capacity as a medic, and would soon witness at first hand the horrors of conflict on continental Europe.
Among those horrors was the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, the massive rescue operation undertaken amid constant aerial bombardment. Dr MacCarthy spent three days sheltering from the attacks before rescue, but a kilometre out to sea, the vessel was torpedoed with numerous casualties. Somehow, the badly damaged ship it made it back to England with Aidan tending to the sick in a makeshift operating theatre. Traumatic as that was, it would be nothing compared to his experiences in the Far East.
Posted to Singapore when the Japanese started bombing the then British colony, RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes were sent and Aidan arrived shortly before the city-state fell to the Japanese. He was among thousands of soldiers who were rounded up and sent to a PoW camp in the nearby island of Java. A Doctor’s Sword makes it clear that he suffered a torrid time, with beatings and psychological torture routinely dished out. Summary executions took place frequently and even those who tended to be left alone had to subsist on severe food rations. Aidan’s training as a doctor would be put to good use, albeit in an improvisational capacity considering the spartan surrounds of the camp. He devised diets to help combat dysentery and malaria and he smuggled yeast cultures hidden in rice balls to use as a protein drink to help the sick.
With Japan’s war effort necessitating slave labour in its factories, PoWs were shipped to mainland Japan from Java and elsewhere, and in April 1944, Aidan MacCarthy found himself on a ship with 980 other prisoners. For the second time in his life, he sustained a torpedo attack – and survived. The direct hit from a US battleship meant all but 40-odd PoWs were killed. Aidan’s luck appeared to be intact when he was picked up by a Japanese destroyer after 24-hours clinging to the ship’s debris. But when the crew discovered it was PoWs they had picked up, and not Japanese crewmen, they started beating them and throwing them overboard. Aidan had no choice but to jump off the deck and take his chances in the sea. He was rescued by a whaling craft and brought to Nagasaki where he was immediately interned in a PoW camp. Once more, he suffered horrendous beatings that would later require extensive surgery but his psychological fortitude was immense.
Despite enduring four years of starvation, disease, slave labour and beatings as a prisoner of the Japanese, Dr MacCarthy still retained his humanity, forgiving his captors and assisting in the relief effort following the atomic bomb attack. When Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, he saved his Japanese POW camp commandant from being executed by fellow POWs intent on revenge. To the Japanese ear ‘MacCarthy’ and ‘MacArthur’ were indistinguishable. The Japanese assumed that MacCarthy must be a close blood relative of the American commander. Therefore, whenever MacCarthy answered his name, he was struck on the forehead. This may have contributed to his developing a brain clot in later life.
He was in charge of a working party in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped on that city on 9 August 1945. The prisoners had previously been warned, by secret radio, to take cover at a particular time of day without being given any further details. When the war ended, when some Australian ex-prisoners were attempting to lynch their Japanese captors, MacCarthy locked the Japanese guards in a cell and threw the key into the sea. The commandant was so taken by Dr MacCarthy’s mercifulness that he gifted the Irishman the highest honour possible – his ancestral samurai sword.
Aidan, on retiring from the RAF, continued to work as a doctor for many years. “Going on this journey has given me an appreciation of what a remarkable, resilient man he was, and also made me think of the bravery of so many Irish men who fought for the British in the war but who have been forgotten.” He was the senior Allied serviceman in Japan at the Japanese surrender. Japan presented its surrender, initially, to him before General MacArthur and his party arrived in Tokyo Bay several days after the end of the war.
— UCC Ireland (@UCC) August 24, 2016
Returning to Ireland, Aidan weighed just over seven stones having left Cork seven years before weighing 14 stones. After several months recuperating in Castletownbere, he returned to the RAF and continued an illustrious career in charge of hospitals and military facilities in France, Germany, Austria, UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, achieving the rank of Air Commodore. In 1948, he married Kathleen, whose family was from Co Galway. He received an OBE for his medical work as a doctor and, after retiring from the RAF, lived in London with his family, and worked there as a civilian medical practitioner until he was 80. MacCarthy later practiced medicine in southern England. In 1979 he published an account of his wartime ordeal, titled A Doctor’s War. He died in Northwood, London on 11 October 1995 and was returned to Castletownbere where he is buried.
Nicola and Adrienne brought the sword from their home in Castletownbere in Co. Cork to RAF Honington for the naming ceremony on Thursday, July 20.
Air Commodore Joseph Aidan MacCarthy OBE, GM (1914–1995) Irish doctor of the Royal Air Force who showed great courage, resourcefulness and humanity during his capture by the Japanese during the Second World War
The amazing story of a true Irish war hero
Posted by The Irish Post on Wednesday, 26 July 2017