As Alistair Urquhart floats on a flimsy cork raft in the middle of the South China Sea, one would think that his mind is focused on death – a sweet release from the years of torture and privation that he’s suffered. Indeed, the list of his travails reads more like something from the Book of Job than a 20th-century warzone – but, amazingly, Urquhart isn’t wishing for death. In fact, he’s counting off the stock list of the Scottish warehouse that he worked in as a teenager. After all, he’s trying to keep himself awake, and, most importantly, alive.
Before all of this, however, Urquhart, who counted ballroom dancing among his hobbies, was just an ordinary young Scotsman. So after being conscripted into the 2nd Gordon Highlanders – a British infantry battalion – at the beginning of World War II, the young soldier was probably relieved to be stationed in the relative safety of Singapore. Indeed, Urquhart spent much of his time dancing with Chinese girls and competing in ballroom competitions.
But Urquhart – and indeed the British Empire itself – was in for a rude awakening. Yes, in 1942 the Japanese army seized Singapore in what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the “worst disaster” in the country’s military history. But how were the British supposed to resist when soldiers like Urquhart were issued with hopelessly outdated 1907 rifles?
So, unable to withstand the Japanese onslaught, the British command surrendered in an attempt to save local lives. But it was no use: when Urquhart and his fellow soldiers were marched to a prisoner-of-war (PoW) camp, they passed the severed heads of 50,000 Chinese civilians impaled on pikes. It was a harrowing sign of the hellish saga that Urquhart was about to endure.
After all, Japan had experienced a whirlwind of nationalism in the years before the war, much like the situation in Nazi Germany. In fact, it had ambitions to rule the entire Far East, so the fall of Singapore – and a victory at the expense of the British Empire – was seen as a major coup.
The nation’s militarism further fostered a belief that surrender was contemptible, so white-flag-waving British PoWs like Urquhart were treated appallingly. Indeed, he and his comrades were taken from their prison camp to Thailand in rice trucks. Then, on arrival, they were swiftly sent on a grueling death march to another camp.
Inevitably, exhaustion and chronic thirst killed many on the way, but no mercy was shown to those who did make it. In fact, the surviving PoWs were to start work on a 258-mile railroad into neighboring Burma – a job that involved quarrying through a cliff face nicknamed Hellfire Pass. Around 16,000 PoWs and 100,000 natives died during the project.
Urquhart wasn’t one of them, but that didn’t necessarily mean that he was one of the lucky ones. After all, battery and torture were commonplace. Some PoWs, for example, were forced to drink large quantities of water with barbed wire tied around their midriffs. Urquhart, meanwhile, was tortured for a whole day and night by an officer known as the “Black Prince” after he spurned one guard’s inappropriate advances.
Urquhart was also later locked away in a “black hole,” a tiny cage that prevented the prisoner from kneeling, lying down or standing. The Scottish prisoner suffered this ordeal, with the tropical sun beating down upon his ever-weakening body, for a whole week.
Perhaps inevitably, after seeing his friends die, Urquhart insulated himself from the horror around him by retreating into a fantasy world of songs and ballroom dances. However, the camp wasn’t totally void of kind-heartedness. When Urquhart came down with a tropical ulcer, for instance, a medical officer recommended using maggots to clean the infected flesh. At other times, PoWs staged plays and concerts.
But after a hellish time working on the railroad, Urquhart and other survivors were sent on another death march through the jungle. They were then stuffed into a cargo boat destined for the Japanese mainland and denied sustenance. Some, almost unbelievably, resorted to drinking their deceased comrades’ blood.
The ship, however, never made it to Japan. In fact, it went down after being torpedoed by an American submarine. Miraculously, though, Urquhart survived. Clinging to his flimsy cork raft, he floated in the sea for five days, staying awake only by recounting his old stock list from work.
But what was Urquhart’s real savior from this watery purgatory? The sweet embrace of death? Actually, it was the last thing he would have wanted to encounter – a Japanese whaling vessel. Alas, its crew took Urquhart, who was hallucinating and on death’s door, back to the Japanese mainland.
On arrival, Urquhart was put to work in a coal mine. The previous years of slavery and torture had taken their toll, and this new form of backbreaking labor was almost the end of him. But fate had one more twist in store for the young Scotsman. After all, his latest work camp was located just a few miles from a city whose name is indelibly imprinted on Japan’s collective memory: Nagasaki.
On August 9, 1945, a blast of hot air threw the emaciated Urquhart to the ground; the Bockscar bomber had just dropped its payload on Nagasaki. This, along with the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima, effectively ended the war in the Far East. Days later, Urquhart was making the long, and much longed for, journey home to Scotland.
So in November 1945, three months after the bombs were dropped, Urquhart arrived home in Aberdeen. His family, showering him with love and support, barely recognized him. It was his psychological scars, however, that ran deepest – Urquhart felt unable to talk about what he’d endured, and his relatives’ efforts to help were met with anger and hostility.
“I used to go straight out in the morning and walk for miles and miles and come back late the following morning,” he told The Scotsman in 2010. Urquhart suffered mood swings and bouts of illness until, one night, after some particularly intense night terrors, he awoke with his hands around his wife’s throat.
Urquhart’s psychological trauma was likely exacerbated by the British government’s insistence that PoWs shouldn’t talk about their wartime experiences. And so Urquhart bottled it all up; his wife, to whom he’d been married for almost half a century, went to the grave knowing nothing of what had happened to him.
It wasn’t until recently, in fact, that Urquhart shared his incredible story with anyone. Over half a century had passed when he started writing a memoir of his experiences, and in 2010 The Forgotten Highlander: My Incredible Story of Survival During the War in the Far East was published.
Through writing the book, and perhaps because of society’s increased awareness of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, it may be that Urquhart’s travails have been partially alleviated. These days, the nonagenarian finds peace in his beloved ballroom dancing. He has never forgiven the Japanese, however, and argues that the country has yet to fully atone for its wartime atrocities.
Nevertheless, his story serves as a stark reminder of man’s capacity for evil, but Urquhart hopes his memoir will help people “forget that big word called ‘can’t.’” He told The Scotsman, “I hear it so often, and it makes me squirm because they never even try. They wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in a Japanese prison camp.”