The Irishman who watched the atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki and survived

RAF medical centre in Suffolk to be named after Cork native Dr Aidan MacCarthy

Dr Aidan MacCarthy listening to  a radio during the second World War

Dr Aidan MacCarthy listening to a radio during the second World War

 

Few Irish people will live a more remarkable life than Dr Aidan MacCarthy. The Castletownbere, Co Cork, native, who served as a doctor with the British royal air force (RAF), witnessed an atomic bomb drop, survived after being on a Japanese prison ship torpedoed by the US, and avoided filling a grave he was ordered to dig for himself.

MacCarthy is to be honoured this Thursday when Britain’s Prince Harry formally renames a RAF facility as the MacCarthy Medical Centre at Honington air base in Suffolk, England.

As an RAF doctor he was evacuated from Dunkirk, France, in 1940, and a year later was awarded the highest award for bravery for non-combatant personnel. This came after he rescued the crew of an aircraft which had crashed at the end of the runway at Honington.

Aidan MacCarthy with fellow POW officersin Nagasaki
Aidan MacCarthy with fellow POW officersin Nagasaki

“Somehow we managed to drag the badly burnt and injured aircrew to safety, but there was nothing we could do for the pilot,” MacCarthy wrote in A Doctor’s War, his account of his wartime experiences, published in 1979.

“He was very clearly dead, and I wept for his inexperience and his mistakes and for his lost youth. Still the bombs did not explode, and when we finally staggered clear we knew that only a heaven-sent miracle had preserved us.”

Before the war was out MacCarthy would find himself needing other miracles as that incident was only the start of his war.

A year later he was sent to north Africa and then to the Far East, where was captured by the Japanese at Java. His prison ship was torpedoed by the Americans, and he spent 24 hours in the water before being rescued by another prison ship which took him to the Japanese mainland.

Dig their graves

He ended up in Nagasaki as a prisoner of war. Soon after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Japanese ordered MacCarthy and the other prisoners to dig their own graves.

“We dug on incredulously, our feelings numbed. To dig one’s own grave is an extraordinary sensation. A sense of deja vu seems almost to overtake one,” he wrote. “I had a fantasy glimpse of my own shot-up corpse lying in the watery mud.”

View from the Nagasaki Medical School and Hospital, looking southeast across the devastation caused by the US atomic bombing on August 9th, 1945. Photograph: US Army/Getty Images
View from the Nagasaki Medical School and Hospital, looking southeast across the devastation caused by the US atomic bombing on August 9th, 1945. Photograph: US Army/Getty Images

The second and last atomic bomb drop may have saved his life.

The men were congregating outside their huts at 10.40am on August 9th, 1945. “There then followed a blue flash, accompanied by a very bright magnesium-type flare which blinded them. Then came a frighteningly loud but rather flat explosion which was followed by a blast of hot air,” he remembered.

“Some of this could be felt even by us as it came through the shelter openings, which were very rarely closed owing to the poor ventilation.”

Not knowing what had happened the giant mushroom cloud which blocked out the sun frightened them most. “We all genuinely thought, for some time, that this was the end of the world.”

He was called upon as a doctor to tend to the dead and dying and managed to survive the war.

Documentary

MacCarthy died in 1995 in London, and is buried in Castletownbere. His life has been the subject of a successful documentary, A Doctor’s Sword, and a book of the same name by author Bob Jackson.

MacCarthy’s daughters Adrienne and Niki will be in Suffolk for the dedication of the medical centre. They run MacCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere.

Niki said the MacCarthy family were “absolutely thrilled” at the honour of having an RAF medical centre named after their father.

Dr Aidan Mac Carthy shortly before he died.
Dr Aidan Mac Carthy shortly before he died.

“He was very proud to be Irish, but he didn’t feel he was an Irishmen in the forces in the second World War. He was just doing what he was trained to do. There were tens of thousands of other Irishmen just like him.”

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