Obituary: Alistair Urquhart, soldier who survived '˜Death Railway' and Nagasaki atomic bomb detonation

Alistair Urquhart, soldier, businessman, author. Born: 8 September 1919, Newtonhill. Died: 7 October 2016, Dundee, aged 97.

Gordon Highlander Alistair Urquhart
Gordon Highlander Alistair Urquhart

Alistair Urquhart was a Gordon Highlander, who aged 22 was captured by the Japanese in Singapore without firing a shot. What followed was a story of almost unimaginable suffering, stoicism, mental fortitude and endurance; he survived the ruthless regime that the Japanese Imperial Army imposed upon Allied PoWs working on the Burma-Siam Railway, the so-called Death Railway, survived being torpedoed while aboard the brutal Japanese “hellships” and the Nagasaki atomic bomb detonation.

He was one of the forgotten army, the men who endured years of suffering in Japanese PoW camps and after more than 60 years he broke his silence with his memoir, The Forgotten Highlander, in 2010.

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Born in 1919 in Newtonhill, Aberdeenshire, Urquhart was the son of a teacher. He attended Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon College where he excelled. However, his family fell on hard times and he left aged 14 to work for a plumbers’ merchant and electrical wholesaler.

Weeks after the outbreak of war in September 1939, Urquhart was conscripted into the Gordon Highlanders and, by Christmas, armed with a 1907 rifle, he found himself at Fort Canning in Singapore.

When Singapore, nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East”, fell on 15 February 1942 with the capture of approximately 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops, adding to 50,000 captured weeks before, PM Winston Churchill called it “largest capitulation” in British military history.

While being force-marched 18 miles to Selarang Barracks on the Changi peninsula, which became a vast PoW camp, Urquhart saw the road lined with the heads of decapitated Chinese on spikes. A few months later the PoWs were transported for five days with little food or water, deep into Thailand, crushed into dark, airless rice trucks that were more like steel coffins.

They were then forced through the jungle on a 30-mile march while being prodded by bayonets, beaten with bamboo canes and avoiding deadly tree snakes and mosquitoes. After six days they arrived at Konyu Camp on the River Kwai; Urquhart had contracted malaria, but he had to help build the huts in which his comrades were to live. It was then on to the Burma-Siam Railway.

The Japanese were forced to start the 258-mile line between Bangkok and Rangoon in June 1942, because their sea supply routes were vulnerable to Allied attacks. In the year it took to complete, half the conscripted 180,000 Asian workers and more than 13,000 of the 60,000 Allied prisoners died.

Urquhart had got cuts on his feet and legs from poisonous plants; this, coupled with poor food and lack of hygiene turned the cuts into ulcers which rotted flesh, muscle and tendons. Desperate to stop the rot, he went to the doctor, who advised him to collect maggots from the latrines and put them on the ulcers. The maggots nibbled at the diseased flesh, new skin formed and the wounds healed.

He spent seven months working in what became known as “Hellfire Pass”, that required five cuttings and seven bridges and where men were forced to cut through solid rock using nothing more than hand tools and dynamite. Some, including Urquhart, sabotaged the bridge construction, sawing halfway through wooden bolts and depositing termites in joints of load-bearing timbers.

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Working up to 16 hours a day in a loincloth and barefooted, the men survived on a few handfuls of rice a day. Many succumbed.

In the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai the men whistle Colonel Bogie and the officers valiantly defy their guards, but Urquhart said: “It was not so. The film sanitises the depths to which the men sank.”

Once, after resisting the sexual advances of a Japanese guard, Urquhart was tortured by being forced to hold a heavy weight above his head for 24 hours by a Lt Usuki, whom he dubbed the “Black Prince”. He was then locked into one of the tiny cages called “black holes” which were covered with corrugated iron and baked whoever was crushed inside. He survived seven days.

With the monsoon, Urquhart contracted cholera. He was isolated in the “death tent” and was the only survivor. Besides cholera, he had dysentery, beriberi and malaria and had lost the use of his legs. After six months of treatment and rehabilitation in a hospital camp, he was sent to the River Valley Road Camp in Singapore City.

In September 1944, together with 900 other British PoWs, Urquhart was herded aboard cargo ships dubbed “hellships”, destined for Japan. In the hold, it was standing room only with no toilet facilities and men were driven mad by thirst. His ship was torpedoed by the American submarine Pampanito, which had no way of knowing PoWs were aboard as the vessel carried no red crosses; it sank in 15 minutes, killing more than 240 of his comrades.

Urquhart drifted for five days on the ocean in a raft, until, badly burned and unable to see, he was picked up by a Japanese whaler. He was deposited on Hainan Island where, along with other survivors, he was paraded naked through the village. Soon after, he found himself on another “hellship”. 11 days later he reached Japan and was put to work in a coal mine 10 miles from Nagasaki. By this time he scarcely knew his own name.

Fortunately, Dr Mathieson, a Scot serving in the RAMC, persuaded the Japanese to move Urquhart to the camp hospital, where he worked as an orderly. The doctor’s courage, dedication and skill saved Urquhart’s life.

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On 9 August 1945, the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki by an American bomber. He recalled: “I heard a plane, and I looked up. And it was quite clearly an American plane. No opposition. And it just droned over and away.”

Minutes later, Urquhart was blown off his feet by a blast of hot air. Japan surrendered six days later. Liberated by the Americans, he weighed under six stone. He was taken to San Francisco before returning to Aberdeen where he discovered none of his cards from the camps had arrived; his family believed him dead.

Although under-nourished, suffering from claustrophobia and nightmares, in early 1946, he went before an Army medical board, where, he wrote in his memoir, he had to declare himself A1 fit in order to be demobilised. Consequently, he did not receive a disability pension.

Urquhart eventually returned to Lawson Turnbull, where his job had been kept open and his passion for ballroom dancing helped him to reintegrate into society.

Later he worked for the Manchester Slate Company until 1963, before returning to Scotland. After settling at Broughty Ferry, he worked for Stewart Robertson plumbers’ merchants, in Dundee, and was the managing director until his retirement in 1981.

In 2010, Prince Charles invited him to the Balmoral Estate where he was aghast to hear that Urquhart had been denied a pension. After a visit from the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, Urquhart was found to be 60 per cent disabled due to a shocking catalogue of conditions acquired in captivity. Weeks later, he received a letter telling him he would be granted a pension of £92.82 a week.

Urquhart gave talks about his experiences at schools and colleges and hoped the younger generation would read his book and take away one simple message, “To forget that big word ‘can’t’ – ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’”

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He remained active in the church and a fundraiser for Forthill Community Centre, while enjoying sports; he was arranging tea dances until well into his nineties.

He married Mary Milne, in 1946, who he nursed for the last 12 years of her life. She died in 1993 and he is survived by their daughter and son.