Obituary: Andy Coogan, athlete, Japanese POW camp survivor and inspirational figure

editorial image
Share this article
1
Have your say

Andrew Coogan BEM, athlete and Japanese POW camp survivor. Born: 1 April, 1917, Glasgow. Died: 20 March, 2017, Carnoustie, aged 99.

Andy Coogan, who died on Monday a few days short of his 100th birthday, might have become an Olympic champion, had the Second World War not intervened. As it was, having survived barbaric treatment as a Japanese prisoner of war, he continued not only as a middle-distance runner to be reckoned with, but tirelessly promoted running in his adopted area of Tayside.

He became an inspiration for many – not least for his great nephew Sir Chris Hoy, multiple Olympic cycling champion, who nominated him to carry the Olympic torch through the streets of Dundee.

A painter and decorator who grew up in the Gorbals Irish community, he was giving his peers a run for their money well into old age. At the Senior World Veteran Games in Melbourne in 1989 he won a bronze for Britain in the relay, despite a stomach bug. At 75 he won a gold medal in the Commonwealth Vets 800m, and at 82 scooped the M80 200 metres at the Veterans Championships at Meadowbank.

Among those he coached through the Tayside Amateur Athletic Club he established were Commonwealth Games runners Doris Tyndall and Barbara Lyall. In 1989 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his contribution to sport.

Andy Coogan was born in Springburn on 1 April, 1917 – “All Fools’ Day”, as he liked to point out, the oldest of seven children (five of whom survived to adulthood). Hard times forced the family to move to the Gorbals, and it was after he’d been pursued for playing football in the street that a constable suggested to his mother that Andy should join the famed Maryhill Harriers. The policeman then presented her with a tenner he had won from his exhausted colleague, having bet him that he couldn’t catch Coogan.

Andy would look back on his days with the Harriers as among the happiest of his life. He was encouraged by runners such as Duncan Wright and Donald McNab Robertson and developed as a promising mile and half-miler. In 1938 he won the Police Mile at 
Hampden. When the Second World War broke out, the 21-year-old was called up for the Lanarkshire Yeomanry. In 1940, while stationed at Redford Barracks in Edinburgh, he was invited to compete in the Rangers Mile at Ibrox, running against the world champion, Sidney Wooderson. He sneaked out of barracks and came second to the fastest man in the world.

The Glasgow Herald, however, carried a photograph of him leading the field. He was court-marshalled, although sympathetically given what turned out to be a cushy ten days’ “jankers”.

There was nothing cushy about what followed. The Lanarkshire Yeomanry were among the 80,000 British and Commonwealth troops who surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore in February1942. The three and a half years of hell that ensued are described vividly in Coogan’s memoir, Tomorrow You Die, co-written with journalist Graham Ogilvy. Force-marched to Changi jail, he met Fr Richard Kennedy, a Jesuit priest who would become an important friend. In October 1942 they were crammed into the hold of a “hell ship” for Taiwan, to slave in the fetid depths of the Kinkasaki copper mine.

Beatings were routine, Coogan soon had dysentery and was consigned to the “death hut”, where Kennedy nursed him, urging him: “Come on Andy. A lap to go...”

He endured mock execution and was twice ordered to dig his own grave. There were also flashes of humanity. A guard found Andy’s newspaper cutting of the Wooderson race. Also a runner, he recognised the world champion and was astonished to discover that it was Andy, by then an emaciated figure, running with him. After Coogan was subjected to yet another beating, this guard brought him ointment for his wounds.

February 1945 saw them shipped to Japan and a coal mine near Nagasaki. On 9 of August they emerged to observe strangely coloured clouds. The second atomic bomb had been dropped. Japan capitulated.

After a circuitous return via Okinawa, Pearl Harbor and Canada, Coogan arrived at Glasgow Central wearing a Canadian uniform and bloated by steroids doctors had given him. Neither his mother nor brother recognised him.

He was suffering from horrific nightmares and doctors suggested he get back into running. He was still receiving hospital treatment when he met his wife-to-be, Myra, at a dance and they married in 1947, settling in Carnoustie, where their children, Andy Junior, Christine and Jean grew up.

He described himself, in Tomorrow You Die, as “one of the lucky ones. I was raised the right way, brought up with stories, music and humour in a loving family and among the good people of the Gorbals. My mates at Maryhill Harriers instilled a love of running and helped me rebuild my life. I was fortunate to meet my wife Myra and have a family of my own. But above all it was the close-knit camaraderie and support of my fellow prisoners that saved my life.”

Sir Chris Hoy nominated his great-uncle to carry the Olympic torch in 2012, and in an emotional moment during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years later, Andy passed him the Queen’s baton.

“Andy could easily have achieved what I have,” Hoy said, “but it was taken away from him. He has never shown any resentment. Instead, he devoted his life to coaching others.”

He is survived by his children and grandchildren. He was the last surviving Scottish veteran from his regiment, and Campbell Thomson, of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry Group, calls him “one of the most amazing men I have ever known. Despite all that had been inflicted upon him, he had no bitterness against the Japanese people.”

As Andy put it, “You can forgive, but you can’t forget.” A keen member of Carnoustie Golf Club, he was once asked to caddie for the Japanese ambassador, who was impressed to have his clubs counted out to him in Japanese. The height of diplomatic discretion, Andy replied simply that he’d been in Japan for his holidays.

JIM GILCHRIST

Back to the top of the page