A Doctor’s Sword: from Dunkirk to Nagasaki

Dunkirk Nagasaki doctor sword MacCarthy
Aidan MacCarthy

The remarkable tale of the Irish RAF doctor who survived years of captivity at the hands of the Japanese…and forgave them

Seven years after the end of the Second World War, Dr Aidan MacCarthy and his wife, Kathleen, took a holiday to Japan, writes Adam Shaw.

The country had just emerged from the post-war Allied occupation and was in the early stages of securing its economic miracle. This, in addition to the general fascination surrounding a land boasting such a unique culture and history, made it seem like a perfect destination for the couple. MacCarthy’s relationship with Japan, however, was far from perfect.

As a member of the RAF, he had been captured in Indonesia by Japanese forces and was forced to endure four years of brutal captivity. He spent a year working as a slave at the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works and, despite his desire to use his medical training to treat his fellow POWs, was regularly denied access to adequate supplies. When he left Ireland in 1939, he weighed 14 stone. Upon his return six years later, he was just seven stone.

Dunkirk Nagasaki doctor sword MacCarthy
Aidan MacCarthy

“The conditions they had to endure were appalling and the number of deadly diseases killed off thousands,” says Bob Jackson, producer of a documentary about MacCarthy.

“There was a lot of suffering – there were 36,000 Allied POWs taken back to work in heavy industry to support their enemy’s war effort.

“And he was so frustrated because he was deprived of medicines that were readily available during his time in the camps.”

Despite this frustration, despite this pain and suffering, MacCarthy was able to use as much knowledge as possible to help his comrades. For example, he created a protein-rich maggot soup to aid the recovery of those who were ill, smuggled yeast in balls of rice to other camps and treated eye infections with shaving cream. What’s more, upon the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945, he insisted that those who had been imprisoned did not embark on a brutal revenge mission.

“He was an incredibly humane and forgiving individual. Immediately after the Japanese surrendered, his reaction was to warn other prisoners that any acts of retribution against the local population would be punishable by death.

“He was also one of the first onhand to treat civilians affected by the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and, aside from never allowing a Mitsubishi to be parked in his driveway, he didn’t hold a grudge against his captors.”

These insights into his character explain why he was so ready to revisit the place he must have associated with terrible affliction, just seven years after gaining his freedom.

Dunkirk Nagasaki doctor sword MacCarthy
Aidan laying wreath at Cenotaph

“You’d think it would be the last place he’d want to visit, but it demonstrates how magnanimous he was in his approach to things.

“And they had a great time, apparently. They met up with a local doctor who showed them around and took them to Kyoto.”

After hearing more and more about MacCarthy’s life, Bob decided to take his own trip to Japan, basing it around another act of mercy from the heroic doctor. He visited a pub in Castletownbere, Co. Cork, where he spoke to MacCarthy’s daughter, Adrienne. She told him more about her father’s career and showed him a samurai sword given as a gift for sparing his life when other POWs were baying for blood.

“My mind was blown – she told me about how they would test the sharpness of the blade on cherry blossom and how, often, the ashes of the owner’s ancestors were placed in the handle.

Big break

“It was so surreal seeing this old sword on a bar counter in west Cork but it got me thinking that it would be great to reunite the Japanese family with the sword and, at the same time, find out the full details and tell the story of Aidan MacCarthy.”

Dunkirk Nagasaki doctor sword MacCarthy

Armed with little more than the knowledge that there was a photograph, somewhere, of the officer who gave up his sword, Bob and the MacCarthy family set off on their mission. Another of MacCarthy’s daughters, Niki, spent hours sifting through the papers and files collected by her parents but it was a stroke of luck which led to a big break. A rogue photo album tumbled out of an old box and not only did it contain the elusive picture, it offered up a whole host of treasures.

“This book was filled with photographs from the war, including those of the camps, and lots of original, handwritten documents.

“There were MacCarthy’s first orders following the surrender and his advice to those who were with him. And of course there was the main thing we’d been looking for, a picture of the supposed officer with an inscription on the back saying ‘Kusuno’.”

The team headed to Japan and got in touch with a couple of newspapers to see if they could help locate a member of the Kusuno family. A day after the 68th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki, a man claiming to be Kusuno’s grandson phoned in.

Dunkirk Nagasaki doctor sword MacCarthy
Nagasaki bomb

“To be given a sword as a gift by a Japanese officer was pretty much unheard of. This search to reunite the family with it gives MacCarthy’s story a nice, contemporary angle.”

It is a remarkable story, though probably unsurprising given the remarkable life lived by its protagonist. Acts of courage and survival are commonplace – he managed to live through two events which bookended the war, the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Nagasaki bombing. He was one of 35 POWs out of 1,000 who survived the sinking of the ship they were being transported on to work in the heavy industry factories. Even before his duty took him eastwards, he was willing to put his life on the line, earning the George Medal for gallantry at the RAF base in Honington.

“In 1941, he and another member of the ground crew managed to save people from a plane which had crash landed upon returning from a bombing raid.

“Burning, it landed on an ammunitions dump but the pair of them went in and managed to pull people out from the flames.

Dunkirk Nagasaki doctor sword MacCarthy
Medals left to right; OBE, George Medal, 1939-1945 Star, Pacific Star, War Medal 1939-45, Knight’s Cross of the Order of St. Sylvester

“He was awarded the George Medal, the highest possible noncombat award for bravery in the British Armed Forces.”

In true fashion, he was humble when asked about his actions and took the line that he was just doing what he felt he had to do. He is to be honoured further in the summer when at least part of the new hospital built at RAF Honington will be named after him.

There are hundreds of amazing stories from the Second World War, detailing acts of incredible heroism and sheer audacity. Some have gone on to receive lots of attention, while others are confined to the knowledge of close family and friends. MacCarthy’s story is unique – the Irish doctor who left his homeland due to a lack of work and ended up serving in the British Air Force.

He remarkably survived a series of torturous events, culminating in the second atomic bomb on 9 August 1945. But he wasn’t one to blow his own trumpet, or destroy those of others, choosing reconciliation rather than hatred. Now his story has taken a different turn, through his daughter’s journey to find the family of the officer who gifted his ancestral sword as a symbolic gesture of immense gratitude.

“Adrienne told me to read this article which was pinned on the wall in MacCarthy’s Bar. As soon as I’d finished, I said to my friend who was with me that he had to come and read it too.

“It really, really stuck with me, and now we’ve got this documentary, which will hopefully allow others to find out more about this incredible man.”

A Doctor’s Sword is now available to view on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime.

• A paperback edition of a biography detailing MacCarthy’s life is available in Ireland via www.collinspress.ie. It will be available in the UK from 22 May.

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