Sunday 17 December 2017

Irish war hero and the secret of his sword

As a Japanese POW, Cork war hero Aidan MacCarthy defied death many times. Now a film unravels the origins of a mysterious sword he brought back with him

War hero: Dr Aidan McCarthy
War hero: Dr Aidan McCarthy

Hilary A White

The light shining off the blade is blinding. Niki MacCarthy holds it up to show me - a regal Japanese katana built to an ancient design that now calls Castletownbere home. "It's still sharp, believe me," she says.

If you were to wander into MacCarthy's Bar in that West Cork town, you'd find her or sister Adrienne pulling pints for time-killing Spanish fishermen or putting groceries sold in the front bar into a customer's bag. They'd happily tell you that, yes, this was the pub made world famous by Pete McCarthy's travel bestseller McCarthy's Bar.

And while I was waiting for my own pint to settle on a sunny if windswept afternoon, Niki began to tell me about how the beautiful weapon came to end up in that pub at the far south-western tip of this country, a world away from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Had she not handed me a copy of A Doctor's War, her father Aidan's memoir, I'd have left feeling the victim of conspiratorial spoofery. But what I found within that slim volume weeks later not only confirmed Niki's story but read like the screenplay of an Oscar winner.

Graduating in medicine from University College Cork in 1938, Aidan MacCarthy moved to England for work. Like many young men of his generation, active service meant adventure and travel, and it was a coin toss in a London club one night with two fellow Cork graduates that decided they would enrol with the RAF.

With the outbreak of WWII, Aidan was posted to France with the British Expeditionary Force. After a calm couple of months, the Germans began air raids, and Aidan had to lead a convoy of 15 hospital trucks through panzer-patrolled countryside. They finally reached Dunkirk, where they had to sit in a foxhole enduring two days and three nights of air attacks before escaping back to Britain.

Experiencing the 'Miracle of Dunkirk' would be enough on which to base a book. But it only accounts for a few paragraphs of A Doctor's War. MacCarthy's career in eluding death in far-flung climes had only just commenced.

By the time he returned to Castletownbere at the end of the War, MacCarthy had lost 50pc of his bodyweight and seen things most of us would not have the mental constitution to handle. Besides the daily cruelty of life in Japanese POW camps in south-east Asia, he was one of 38 (out of 980) to make it off a torpedoed boat carrying prisoners to Japan. He was then picked up by a Japanese destroyer only to leap overboard when the crew began beating Allied survivors and tossing them to the propellers. At last a whaling ship rescued them and took them to Nagasaki where they were very nearly taken back out to sea to be discarded, only for the whalers' protestations.

Life in the Nagasaki camp was a horror show of malnourishment, poor medical supplies, forced labour and beatings. They were, however, allowed to build a makeshift bomb shelter. On the morning of August 9, 1945, Aidan and his cohorts noticed two high-flying US B29 bombers and scrambled to the shelter.

"There then followed a blue flash," Aidan recalled in A Doctor's War, "accompanied by a very bright magnesium-type flare ... Then came a frighteningly loud but rather flat explosion which was followed by a blast of hot air … All this was followed by eerie silence."

When they finally emerged, MacCarthy and the others were met with a sight which had them thinking Judgement Day had come. The camp had "to all intents and purposes disappeared". The whole city was levelled. Mutilated bodies lay everywhere. Where sunlight had only minutes previously warmed their faces, now a midday twilight hung. The atom bomb's hypercentre had been a mere 800m away.

They fled and immediately began helping victims with whatever was to hand, only to be recaptured and put to work in a mine.

It was with Japan's official surrender on August 15 that Aidan took command of the camp and oversaw the delicate transition these men now had to make to freedom. It was around this time that the sword came to be in his possession, although he never mentions the particulars of its acquisition in his memoir.

This left a question mark for Niki and Adrienne. Aidan never spoke of his time under the Japanese (and for good reason). But their mother Kathleen, a Ballinasloe nurse whom Aidan married in 1948 on his return to Britain, knew of a lost photo that was linked to the blade, a photo that had travelled everywhere with Aidan and his family during years of movement around military bases in Europe.

This link forms the keystone of a new documentary by filmmakers Bob Jackson and Gary Lennon that has already wowed audiences at the Cork Film Festival and the Galway Film Fleadh. A Doctor's Sword is part investigative documentary, part personal journey for Niki, who travels to Japan in search of the katana's original owner.

"When she was alive, my mother always said there was a photo of this Japanese man with the sword," Niki tells me, "and for all our lives we'd never seen the photo. She died when we were still making the film. Bob used to be on to me daily asking had I found it, but I didn't know what I was looking for. Then we were due to go to Japan to meet a woman whose father was a camp doctor daddy was quite friendly with. But she took ill so we had to delay the trip, and it was during those couple of weeks when I suddenly found the photo. It was like winning the lotto because at last we had the name and the face to tie it all together."

She shows me a weathered, sepia-hued portrait of a Japanese official holding the exact sword. On the reverse is a message in Japanese characters. This man is 2nd Lieutenant Isao Kusuno, commandant of the final prison camp Aidan was interred at before liberation. A man who would have meted out many punishments.

But a Japanese official and his family sword are not easily parted and it was only when a professor of linguistics at Tokyo University translated the inscription that it became apparent that Aidan MacCarthy had come to be held in high regard by his former tormentor. The suspicion is Aidan protected Kusuno from violent retribution by the liberated inmates. The sword was a show of eternal gratitude.

A few well-placed ads in Japanese newspapers and they'd found living relatives of Lt Kusuno, 70 years later. "Meeting the family of Mr Kusuno was an extraordinary experience, and to be meeting the grandson at his grandfather's graveside was bizarre. You'd think it'd be a very unpleasant memory to be carting around with you, but the fact my father hung on to the photo as well as the sword says a lot."

As children, Niki and her sister moved about much with their serviceman father. He was a kind man, she says, always looking after others first and hosting officers of any rank at Christmas. He and Kathleen were interested in people and their stories, a quality Niki believes she and Adrienne inherited. The late Pete McCarthy would surely agree.

For all his altruism - be it seeing to fellow inmates in the camps or rescuing crash victims from a runway disaster in 1941 (for which he received the George Medal for Bravery) - it is his resilience that startles. How does one live through such things and go on to have a family and a glittering career as an Air Commodore?

"Because of the nature of his character," Niki replies. "He was this positive person with very strong ties to Ireland and to his career and profession. He basically took up where he left off after the war, and said 'the future is now', rather than dwelling on the past."

A trip to Dachau while in Germany still visibly haunts Niki, however. "That was a shocking experience," she says, wiping her eyes. "He took us so we'd see what had happened but it brought back bad memories. He was physically sick. He said it was the smell."

Niki moved to Castletownbere in 1991 after a car accident made her reassess life as a London sales executive. She ran a successful restaurant but now helps out in the bar that's been in her family since 1860. Twenty years after his death, Aidan is still spoken about, and on August 22 a plaque will be unveiled at the bar in his honour. A biopic is in the works. And if you ever find yourself in MacCarthy's, they will happily show you the sword. Its imperial detailing and finely forged blade are truly magnificent. But it is what it represents that cannot be valued: A trophy to humanity.

A Doctor's Sword is in cinemas August 7

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