A liv­ing his­tory les­son

Sam Phipps meets the For­got­ten High­lander who ensures chil­dren re­mem­ber the past

The Herald - - SOCIETY -

‘BOYS and girls, for three and a half years I never had a wash,” Alis­tair Urquhart tells a packed au­di­ence of P6 and P7 chil­dren who are 80 years his ju­nior. “Maybe the boys think that’s great. I don’t think the girls do.” Laugh­ter breaks out in the school hall but this is a rare mo­ment of lev­ity in a tale of hor­rific tor­ment and re­mark­able sur­vival. For 65 years Mr Urquhart kept quiet about his ex­pe­ri­ences in Ja­panese cap­tiv­ity dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, even to his own fam­ily, but the ret­i­cence is over.

His aim is nowa­days is twofold: to pay tribute to the tens of thou­sands of fel­low prisoners and slave labour­ers who did not share his ex­tra­or­di­nary luck, and to of­fer a les­son in per­se­ver­ance to younger gen­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing chil­dren such as these at View­lands Pri­mary in Perth.

First came his book, The For­got­ten High­lander, a grip­ping and har­row­ing ac­count not only of his time on the Death Rail­way, build­ing the no­to­ri­ous Bridge over the River Kwai amid tor­ture, star­va­tion, bru­tal­ity and disease, but also of gov­ern­ment in­dif­fer­ence on the men’s re­turn to Bri­tain in 1945.

Mr Urquhart, just 20 when he was sent to Sin­ga­pore with the Gor­don High­landers in 1940, also sur­vived the tor­pe­do­ing of a so-called hell­ship, and floated alone on a raft for days be­fore be­ing re­cap­tured. From his last prison camp, 10 miles from Na­gasaki, he saw a US plane fly over­head, and a few min­utes af­ter­wards he felt a gale-force blast of hot air. “I didn’t know at the time it was an atomic bomb,” he tells the pupils.

Since the suc­cess of his mem­oir, pub­lished last year, Mr Urquhart has given dozens of talks through­out the UK, in­clud­ing in li­braries and schools. There is some­thing of the old mu­sic hall about his en­trance at View­lands, a wave and a grin, then he walks with a stick to take his seat fac­ing the au­di­ence.

Pupils, teach­ers and par­ents are rapt as he talks – steadily, co­her­ently, with­out self-pity but some­times with an edge of anger – about those dis­tant days. He goes from his call-up in Aberdeen in Septem­ber 1939 to the sham­bolic fall of Sin­ga­pore, where a deca­dent Bri­tish of­fi­cer class con­trib­uted to de­feat, and then de­scribes the nu­mer­ous suf­fer­ings in­flicted by the Ja­panese.

“I was part of a draft of 600 men who were told we were go­ing to a hol­i­day camp. We were taken to Sin­ga­pore rail­way sta­tion and put into steel-sided trucks. They were so hot you could not put your hands on the side.

“We were herded tightly to­gether, the doors were closed and we had a five-day jour­ney, with a few stops for half a cup of rice and half a cup of boiled wa­ter. Men were suf­fer­ing from malaria, dysen­tery, all sorts of dis­eases.”

A 30-mile march at night through dense jun­gle fol­lowed. Those that fell by the way­side were left to die. “It turned out we were go­ing to build a rail­way be­tween Thai­land and Burma. Of­ten the tem­per­a­ture was 120 in the shade and we had to work like slaves.”

Some 90,000 Asian labour­ers and d 16,000 Al­lied prisoners of war died on the e Death Rail­way. Mr Urquhart worked on the in­fa­mous Hell­fire Pass, with the most ba­sic tools.

Among the many ail­ments were e trop­i­cal ul­cers. Some in the school au­di­ence, ce, adults and chil­dren alike, wince as s Mr Urquhart de­scribes the treat­ment. “Cap­tain Mathieson, the med­i­cal of­fi­cer, said: ‘Just go down to the la­trines and pick up some mag­gots, put them on your ul­cer and let them eat away the rot­ten flesh’.

“Even to this day I can still feel them nib­bling away but at least you knew that while they were busy, they were do­ing good for you. But for other dis­eases you just had to hang on, carry on as you could.”

Mr Urquhart, pre­vi­ously a so­cia­ble young man, de­cided early on not to make friends with any­body. “If you lose a friend in those con­di­tions, it is the most har­row­ing sight you can ever imag­ine and I wasn’t pre­pared to go through that again.

“Ev­ery morn­ing I had to psy­che my­self up to get through that day only, not the next day. The Ja­panese were bru­tal in their pun­ish­ments – if you died there were plenty more to take your place. It is be­lieved one man died for ev­ery sleeper laid on that rail­way. I reckon it’s far more than that.”

He was once forced to spend seven or eight days in the “black hole”, a caged area too small to stand, sit up­right or kneel, and with­out food or wa­ter. Ab­surd though it sounds, he was lucky. “Nor­mally they’d be in there for a month and never get out alive.”

When he was put into the hold of a rust­ing “hell­ship”, the Kachi­doki Maru, with hun­dreds of other men, he feared the Ja­panese were go­ing to scut­tle the ves­sel. In­stead, af­ter six days of a voy­age whose full hor­ror he con­veys bril­liantly in The For­got­ten High­lander, it was tor­pe­doed by the Amer­i­cans, who were un­aware of its hu­man cargo.

“I de­cided again I would not go on a raft with any of the other men be­cause I felt the only way I was go­ing to sur­vive was on my own. You had to keep your­self awake, other­wise you’d slide off and the sharks would have a hey­day.”

So out there in the South China Sea he did a stock­tak­ing of the plumber’s mer­chants where he had worked in Aberdeen. That took all day. Sev­eral days and men­tal chal­lenges later, he was picked up by a Ja­panese whaler. Then, via 11 days on an­other hell­ship, it was off to a coalmine and fur­ther slav­ery.

Af­ter Na­gasaki and lib­er­a­tion by the US, Urquhart was handed a cake of soap, “the best present I’d had in three and a half years. Then we were de­loused and deev­ery­thing.” He weighed 5st 12lb, down from 9st 7lb at the start of the war.

Fi­nally ar­riv­ing at Southamp­ton from New York in late 1945, the men were shocked by the lack of any re­cep­tion. “There was no-one to wel­come us what­so­ever.”

It even took the in­ter­ven­tion of Prince Charles, who read the book and met Mr Urquhart at Bal­moral this year, to se­cure him a med­i­cal pen­sion of £92.82 a week, back­dated to last Oc­to­ber.

THE boys and girls ask a flurry of ques­tions. “When the bomb fell and you felt the heat, did you feel the ground move as well?” No, but it al­most knocked him off his feet. “At what point do you think you were at your worst?” The sink­ing of the ship was when he thought he was most likely to die. “But you never give up.”

One boy asks: “What “Wh was the best part of World War Two?” It might seem an odd ques­tion but Mr Urquhart gives an in­for­ma­tive in­for­ma­tiv an­swer. “Well, ob­vi­ously get­ting home. But the best part was get­ting back my san­ity re­ally. I mean, dur­ing durin that three and a half years I was vir­tu­ally on au­topi­lot, au­top in other words I had the mind­set of sur­vive, sur­vive.” Mr Urquhart Ur went on to marry, have two chil­dren child and be­came man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of a plumb­ing sup­plies busi­ness. A wid­ower wid since he was 75, he still pur­sues pur his life­long pas­sion of bal ball­room dancing and is an ac­tive mem­ber me of the Far East Pris­oner of War W As­so­ci­a­tion (FEPOW).

“I find that chil­dren, are the best au­di­ence,” a he says. “Be­cause they lis­ten l so well and they ask good ques­tions.” q

Eve­lyn Brock­bank, the head­teacher, h says the talk has been “phe­nom­e­nal” and will stim­u­late in­ter­est in his­tory. “What he said is real his­tory – it hap­pened h to this man, to thou­sands t of men. It’s not just some­thing s you see in a film or read in i a book. It’s been poignant, it’s been b hum­bling.” The For­got­ten High­lander is pub­lished by Aba­cus, £7.99

FACT, NOT FIC­TION: Alis­tair Urquhart (be­low) lived the hor­rors por­trayed in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

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