By Mariangela Mazzei
Beaten, tortured, starved, enslaved, racked with tropical diseases, nearly drowned and brushed by an atomic bomb, Alistair Urquhart never should have survived.
But after years of silence, Urquhart tells of his triumph over death as a Japanese Prisoner of War in his book, “The Forgotten Highlander.” Released in the United Kingdom last spring and in the United States and Canada last fall, Urquhart’s book unveils the gripping tales and unimaginable conditions endured by thousands of soldiers, many of whom were killed at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army.
“There are no words in the English dictionary that satisfactorily explain how you felt in all these particular instances,” Urquhart said. “And that was the most difficult part of writing the book, to find the words that would explain to people who had never envisioned anything like this.”
Mere days after World War II broke out in September 1939, a young Urquhart was drafted as a soldier with the Gordon Highlanders of Scotland. He said he was sure he was the fittest man to ever join the army, thanks to his great love of sports and exercise.
“I was very fit, mentally and physically, and that, really, is part and parcel of the future,” Urquhart said. “Because to withstand what happened later, you had to be physically fit, mentally fit.”
Following six weeks of training in Aberdeen, Scotland, they were sent to Singapore and captured shortly thereafter by the Japanese. After three months’ captivity in Singapore, Urquhart was sent with about 600 men to Thailand, being fed only a handful of boiled rice and some boiled water per day.
“That was the diet for every day for 3 1/2 years as prisoners,” Urquhart said.
Once in Thailand, the POWs were forced to begin construction on the Death Railway, stretching approximately 415 kilometers through jungle and rock faces they were required to cut through with hammers and explosives. Urquhart said the soldiers received no special treatment; rather, they were treated as slaves.
“Conditions were unbelievable,” Urquhart said. “By that time, we were barefooted. We had no clothes … just a loincloth. We were riddled with disease: malaria, dysentery, beriberi, cholera. I survived cholera, one of the very few who did. We were working on this railway … every day. There were no rest days. And if you were ill, they took you out on a stretcher to break rocks with a hammer, lying there on a stretcher.”
After 750 days of working on the railway and the bridge over the River Kwai, and having recovered from beriberi, Urquhart was packed onto the Kachidoki Maru, a ship bound for Japan. Subsequently torpedoed by an American submarine, many people aboard were killed. One of the sole survivors of the attack, he spent five days alone, drifting in the shark-infested waters of the South China Sea. Close to death, Urquhart was recaptured by the Japanese and taken to a Japanese camp 12 miles from Nagasaki. After the Americans dropped the atomic bomb, Urquhart said he found himself a free man.
“The American Navy came into the camp, took us to Nagasaki, and what an amazing sight,” Urquhart said. “They had erected showers on the east side. I hadn’t had a wash in 3 1/2 years, and it’s amazing the reception that gets. We got a bar of soap and entered the showers. Now that was the finest thing that ever happened to me then, because I was filthy, stinking dirty.”
The war was over. The Americans took the survivors to Manila, Philippines, where they were treated in the hospital for two weeks. After sailing to Hawaii, the soldiers landed in San Francisco for a four-week recovery period. Ready to return home, Urquhart said he traveled to New York, boarded the Queen Mary and arrived in South Hampton on Nov. 18, 1945. There was no fanfare greeting him as he stepped off of the boat, nor was there much of a welcome when he arrived back in
Aberdeen, aside from his family. But this “Forgotten Highlander” was glad to be home.
In his book, Urquhart acknowledges how blessed his life has been.
“I have not allowed my life to be blighted by bitterness,” Urquhart said. “I have lived a long life and continue to live it to the fullest. I enjoyed a long marriage to my wife and I have been fortunate to have a family and to enjoy their success.”
At 91 years of age, Urquhart said one of his saving graces is ballroom dancing, especially the slow foxtrot.
“Dancing is one thing that has helped me,” Urquhart said. “When I am dancing, I am absolutely lost in the music. I don’t even have to think about what the next steps were to be. That has been a savior, both before and after my experiences.”
Many years after the passing of his wife, Mary, Urquhart said he found companionship with Helen Scroggie, 77, his dance partner of more than two years.
“It’s mostly our life at the moment,” Scroggie said.
“The Forgotten Highlander” sold tens of thousands of copies within the first few months of its release in the U.K. and was a No. 1 bestseller for all of Britain and Scotland for weeks. Yet, despite its success, Urquhart said he hopes his book will be a means of encouragement for those who are struggling.
“If they read the book, they should find inspiration,” Urquhart said. “In other words, no matter how difficult things are, never, ever give up. Never think, ‘I can’t do this.’ I never use the word can’t. A lot of people say, ‘I can’t do this,’ because they never try. And, if you’re in that situation, you’ve got to try. You don’t know what you can do.”
Notwithstanding his incomprehensible suffering and years of after-effects, Urquhart’s book is proof that ordinary men can do extraordinary things; that with the right attitude, no trial is insurmountable.
“Life is worth living and no matter what it throws at you it is important to keep your eyes on the prize of the happiness that will come,” Urquhart said in the introduction of his book. “Even when the Death Railway reduced us to little more than animals, humanity in the shape of our saintly medical officers triumphed over barbarism. Remember, while it always seems darkest before the dawn, perseverance pays off and the good times will return.”