“The luckiest man in World War II” has died

Alistair Urquhart was dubbed ‘The Luckiest Man in World War II’ by the BBC when they made this documentary about his life.

Sadly, Mr. Urquhart died recently.  The Telegraph reports:

Alistair Urquhart, who has died aged 97, was a prisoner of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945, surviving both the infamous Death Railway and the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki; his memoir, The Forgotten Highlander, became a bestseller in 2009.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942, approximately 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war. Urquhart took part in a forced march of 18 miles to Selarang Barracks on the Changi peninsula, which became a vast PoW camp. On the way there, the road was lined with the heads of decapitated Chinese on spikes.

Seven months later, he was crammed with 30 others into one of a number of small steel containers used for transporting goods by rail. It was dark, airless and so hot that the steel sides burned any skin that came in contact with them.

After five days and nights, he set out with his companions on a six-day march of 30 miles. Prodded by bayonets and beaten with bamboo canes, they had to keep up a good pace through the jungle while avoiding venomous tree snakes dangling from the branches overhead.

On arrival at Kanyu Camp, on the River Kwai, Urquhart had contracted malaria and was covered in scabies and lice, but he had to help build the huts in which some 200 of his comrades were to live.

After the huts were completed, he started work on a section of the 260-mile-long Burma-Siam Railway, hacking through jungle, gouging out passes, spanning ravines, bridging rivers in one of the most inhospitable regions in the world – all on starvation rations. Many thousands of British, Australian, Dutch, American and Canadian prisoners would perish in the task.

Several of the overseers were selected for their brutality and sadism, and punishment took many forms. Cuts on feet and legs from poisonous plants, bad food or lack of hygiene were unavoidable and turned into ulcers which rotted flesh, muscle and tendons.

Urquhart, desperate to stop the rot that was devouring his legs, went to the doctor. He was advised to collect some maggots from the latrines and put these on the ulcers. The maggots nibbled away at the diseased flesh, new skin formed and the wounds healed.

He spent more than seven months splintering rock on a two-mile section known as Hellfire Pass that required five cuttings and seven bridges. On top of the cuttings, one of the guards relieved his boredom by rolling boulders down on to the prisoners toiling below. Out of sight of the guards, Urquhart sabotaged the bridge construction, sawing halfway through wooden bolts and  depositing termites in the joints of load-bearing timbers.

Urquhart received a bad beating for resisting the sexual advances of a Korean guard and was then made to stand to attention through two cold nights and a day under blazing sun. Whenever he lost consciousness, he had water thrown over him and was kicked back into life. Finally, he was squeezed into a semi-submerged cage and spent a week in a cramped hole in stifling heat.

When the monsoon arrived, the Kwai and its tributaries became loaded with cholera bacteria. Urquhart contracted the disease. He was isolated in the “death tent” and was the only survivor. He was then sent to Chungkai, a large hospital camp. Besides cholera, he had dysentery, beriberi and malaria and had lost the use of his legs.

He was examined by Colonel (Weary) Dunlop, an Australian doctor, who intervened with the Japanese constantly on behalf of his patients, at the risk of being executed, and has been credited with saving countless lives. After six months of treatment and rehabilitation, Urquhart was sent to the River Valley Road Camp in Singapore City.

In September 1944, together with 900 other British PoWs, Urquhart was herded aboard the cargo vessel Kachidoki Maru. He said afterwards that nothing that he had experienced in the camps had prepared him for the conditions on one of the Japanese “hellships”. Inside the hold, it was standing room only and there were no lavatory facilities. In the hot, dark, fetid atmosphere, men were driven mad by thirst. Cannibalism and even vampirism were not unknown.

Six days out of Singapore, the ship, part of a convoy, collided with an oil tanker which had been torpedoed and set on fire. There were no red crosses on the ship to indicate that PoWs were on board. That night, Kachidoki Maru was torpedoed by the American submarine Pampanito and sank within 15 minutes.

Water flooded the hold and Urquhart was washed over the side. The sea was thick with burning oil from other sinkings in the convoy. More than 240 of his comrades died that night. There were terrible scenes as men fought for a piece of driftwood that would support them. Urquhart found a one-man raft. By the fifth day, he was badly burned and unable to see. His eyes had been seared by the strength of the sun.

He was picked up, barely conscious, by a Japanese whaling ship and dropped off at Hainan Island. There, he and other prisoners who had survived the sinkings were paraded naked through the village. In mid-September he was taken by stretcher and lowered into the hold of another “hellship”.

Again the convoy was attacked by submarines, but after an 11-day voyage they reached Japan. Urquhart was put to work in a coal mine at Omuta. By that time he could hardly stand and scarcely knew his own name.

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 and that of many others.

His camp was 10 miles from Nagasaki, and when the atom bomb was dropped on the city, his shrunken frame was knocked sideways by the blast. For several days he and his comrades feared that the Japanese would massacre them to destroy the evidence of their atrocities, but on August 21 1945 the camp commander announced the end of the war and the British gradually took over.

There’s more at the link.

As the late General Patton reminded us, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”  We are diminished by their deaths when they finally leave us.



  1. I have to say, I suspect Mr. Urquhart probably didn't think he was lucky. If he'd been lucky he wouldn't have had all those things happen to him.

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