Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Forgotten Highlander | Alistair Urquart

How much can humans endure? This is a book which should be compulsory reading for everyone over 12. Alistair Urquart is a Scottish lad, from the Highlands, he gets called up and goes to war. I heard of him being interviewed on Radio New Zealand on the 27th of July and was astounded by him as a person. He's over 90 years old and has been telling his story to as many as he can in schools and international interviews, so that what he went though with thousands of others won't be forgotten.

After basic training they were shipped to Singapore through the Suez Canal. For most men it was the first time overseas and it seemed like a huge adventure. Urquart often comments on how young they were and how naive. There is a sense that these lads were a small cog in a very big war machine.
Singapore fell to the Japanese, and Urquart was taken prisoner. After a few months in Selarang Barracks prison camp he was shipped to Hellfire Pass. The Burma Railway was being built at huge human cost well beyond anything the Allies were aware of. They built a bridge over the River Kwai (and it was nothing like the movie!) The abuse of the POW's by the Japanese is hard to imagine. Physically exhausted, starved and beaten they worked for months on end breaking rock and cutting a path through the jungle.It is unbearable, but Urquart survived.

As the war turned against the Japanese they took POWs by ship back to Japan. As luck would have it, Urquart's ship was torpedoed and sunk. He survived on wreckage for a week or so and was picked up by a second Japanese ship. Other soldiers were fortunate enough to be picked up by American ships and news got out of what they had suffered in the POW camps of the jungle.

Urquart was deposited in the prison camp close to the city of Nagasaki...One day when he was out in the camp doing work outside he felt a strong blast of hot air. The men were mystified. Then they were rescued by American soldiers and on their way to the waiting ships they were covered in fine dust that seemed to be everywhere...The Bomb made history.

The mental and emotional scars that soldiers came home with are humanely described and he is a remarkable man to have survived. He marries and has children and goes on to have a remarkable life.
One of the things which has motivated him to tell his story after sixty years of silence is Japan's denial of what went on in the building of the railway and the part they played in WWII. He is appalled and is fighting the denials which are an insult to the thousands of British, Australia and Canadian men who lived and died in utter horror.

I highly recommend this book as an encouraging and up lifting read; the resilience of the human spirit, the discovery of strength and faith.
The Forgotten Highlander: My Incredible Story of Survival During the War in the Far East
Buy from Fishpond.co.nz

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