New book chronicles life of Irish doctor who survived Nagasaki

Aidan MacCarthy went from west Cork to Dunkirk and later a Japanese POW

It has already been the subject of a film documentary but then RAF doctor Aidan MacCarthy led such a life less ordinary that it’s hardly surprising that it has now been chronicled in book form.

Written by Bob Jackson, A Doctor's Sword - How an Irish Doctor Survived War, Captivity and the Atomic Bomb, traces MacCarthy's journey from growing up in Castletownbere in west Cork to his experiences in Dunkirk and Nagasaki in World War II.

MacCarthy was born in 1913 and graduated with a medical degree at UCC before travelling to London in search of work in 1938.

When World War II broke out, he joined the RAF and he was with British forces at Dunkirk where he spent three days enduring German bombardment before he was evacuated with thousands of others back to Britain, surviving a torpedoing of his ship, to continue the fight against Nazism.


Dramatic as MacCarthy's experience in the war in Europe was, it paled beside what he was to experience in Asia where he was taken prisoner by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore and found himself being torpedoed while a POW on a Japanese ship en route from Java to Japan.

But even that paled when, working as a POW in the Mitsubishi Steel & Arms Works in Nagasaki, he took shelter in a shed on August 9th 1945, and emerged to discover that the US had dropped a second nuclear bomb on the city reducing it to rubble and killing up to 80,000 people.

"There then followed a blue flash 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 an eerie silence," wrote MacCarthy in his own memoir, A Doctor's War.

Jackson, who first heard about MacCarthy over 16 years ago when working in a bar in Cork city where an RAF veteran mentioned a West Cork doctor who survived Nagasaki, believes MacCarthy, who died in 1995, was naturally inclined to play down his own bravery.

“I read Aidan’s memoir, which is a fascinating and engrossing account of his story but because of his genuine, self-effacing, modesty - it’s often short on detail. Yet his character comes through more in what he does not say.

"I wasn't surprised that, in the devastating aftermath of the atomic bomb, he was the first non-Japanese doctor to assist civilians," said Jackson, a lecturer in Creative Media in Tralee who produced Gary Lennon's 2015 film documentary about MacCarthy also entitled A Doctor's Sword.

The title of both film and book relates to the Samurai sword given to MacCarthy by Japanese POW camp commandant, 2nd Lieutenant Isao Kusuno after MacCarthy saved his life by locking him a shed when POWs at the camp wanted to kill him following Japan's surrender on August 15th 1945.

Jackson travelled with MacCarthy’s daughter Nicola to find Kusano’s family and they met his descendants at a cemetery in Kyushu Island where they met Kusano’s grandson who credited his existence to MacCarthy’s act of selflessness in saving his grandfather’s life.

“I wanted to know more about that sword - especially since there was a possibility the ashes of the officer’s ancestors were embedded in the handle and Kusano also gave him a photograph inscribed with the words : ‘To my friend Dr MacCarthy, I give you this sword as a token of our friendship’.”

The encounter and the story of the sword is detailed in A Doctor's Sword, which is published by the Collins Press and which was officially launched at MacCarthy's Bar in Castletownbere at the weekend at a launch is co-hosted by Beara Historical Society as part of Heritage Week 2016.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times