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The man who refused to die

By Allan Little
Today programme

They came to think of themselves as the forgotten army - the men who endured years of suffering in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps during World War II.

Yet many of the survivors, when they came back, never spoke of what they had seen and suffered. Now, one survivor of the camps has broken his 65-year silence.

Alistair Urquhart, then a 22-year-old Gordon Highlander from Aberdeen, became a prisoner of war without firing a shot.

This is a story of almost unimaginable suffering. The POWs were transported deep into Thailand on rice trucks that were more like steel coffins.


Alistair Urquhart describes the horrific journey into Thailand

He, with hundreds of others, was marched through the jungle to a prison camp. Many died from dehydration and exhaustion on the long march.

They were then put to work on the building of a railway. It involved cutting a path through a sheer stone cliff face the men came to call Hellfire Pass.


Inside 'the black hole'

The men survived on a few handfuls of rice a day. Many succumbed to disease - cholera, beriberi, tropical ulcers. Their weight fell to five or six stone. Beatings were routine.

In the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwei the men whistle Colonel Bogie and the officers valiantly defy their Japanese guards.

Alistair Urquhart says it was not so. The film sanitises the depths to which the men sank on the building of the infamous railway bridge.

For years he went barefoot and naked except for a simple loin cloth. After another death march through the jungle, Alastair Urquhart was taken back to Singapore and, with 400 other men, loaded into the hold of a cargo ship.

There was standing room only. It was airless, fetid, the heat baking. Many died here too.


Surviving the cargo hold

The ship did sink, torpedoed at sea by an US submarine.


'I went up like a champagne cork'

He spent five days and night alone on a barge. By the time he was picked up by a Japanese whaling ship, he was dehydrated, hallucinating and close to death.

He ended up in a camp in mainland Japan. He was there when the war ended. But his prison camp was a few miles from the city of Nagasaki.

The blast of hot air from the bomb that fell on August 9th knocked him off his feet. Within days he was on his way home.

He arrived in Aberdeen in November. For years he'd dreamt of being re-united with his family. When, finally, he was, they scarcely recognised each other.

Those who returned came home to a country that did not understand what they had endured, and which, for the most part, did not want to know.

Like many of his generation, Alistair Urquhart didn't speak about his experience for 60 years. His wife died after 46 years of marriage without knowing any of it.

I am breaking my silence now, he writes in his book, to bear witness. I am a lucky man, but I am also an angry man, and my business with Japan is unfinished.

Germany has atoned. Young Germans know of their nation's dreadful crimes. But young Japanese are taught nothing of their nation's guilt.

Alistair Urquhart's book, The Forgotten Highlander: One Man's Incredible Story Of Survival During The War In The Far East, is published by Little, Brown.

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