Aidan MacCarthy: a Tribute
by Geoff Ward
For Adrienne and Niki MacCarthy,
August 2015, on the 70th anniversary
of the end of World War II
A summer night in London, Nineteen Thirty-Nine.
Three young doctors end up at the Coconut Grove.
They’ve been arguing about it all evening –
Air force or navy? Toss the coin, they tell the girl.
RAF. World war befalls Aidan MacCarthy.
Escape from Dunkirk’s beaches, treating bullet wounds
On a tilted ship with a hole blown in the side.
Racing to a plane crashed and burning on the airfield,
He dragged the stricken crew out of the inferno,
And he wept for the lost youth of the pilot, killed.
Captive in Java, tiger balm and maggot soup,
A radio hidden inside a wooden leg,
An operation, tied down, no anaesthetic,
Malaria and sand-fly fever, the brutal fist,
The crazy commandant, sadist and drug addict.
A pitiful cargo east across typhoon seas.
As the lights of the Japanese mainland flickered,
Men sang ‘I’ll be with you in apple-blossom time’.
The ache of nostalgia as the last chorus rang.
It was just about then that the torpedo hit.
Below, Aidan in ghastly combat with a rat,
Avoided his neck being broken in the blast.
Others, asleep in their bunks, were not so lucky.
Spun to the oily swell among the bobbing dead,
In the unearthly glow of fire on the waters,
He swam to bind broken bones amid the wreckage.
Survivors picked up by a Japanese warship,
Just to be beaten senseless and thrown overboard.
He who had saved so many had to save himself.
Nothing for it but to jump back into the waves.
Rescued by a whaler bound for Nagasaki,
Eighty-two wretches cowered naked on the deck.
Made to sign his name in praise of the enemy,
He could hardly recognise his own handwriting,
He could hardly believe in his own existence.
‘Dearest Mum, Dad and all. I am now in Japan.
My health is excellent. Had a very good Christmas.
Were allowed visit church Christmas Day.
Hope you are well and happy, and see us all reunited soon.
Fondest love, Aidan.’
A postcard, censored, stamped and ruefully approved
Under the Japanese Imperial Army,
The typewriter’s letter ‘o’ oddly out of line,
As if defiantly coding the unheard moans
Of the scarecrow men in the squalor of the camps.
Scrabbling in the coal mines for snakes to catch and boil
For food. They were considered a delicacy.
Razor-blade surgery, gangrene and shaven heads,
Struck, slapped, every time he said his name, MacCarthy,
Proclaimed dead by the London Gazette, his pay stopped.
And one August morning the dead man looked skyward.
Eight vapour trails curving, three parachutes drifting.
The burst and the blinding flare, the sun-god’s disdain,
And after, the day turned to darkness, the black rain.
A mere flip of a coin had racked him to this hell.
And then there was second lieutenant Kusuno.
Tables turned now, men from the camp would have hanged him, But Aidan locked him up safe, threw away the key.
So, Kusuno’s gift, the sword of his ancestors,
For the healer, keen for peace, and for mankind’s sake.
Truly, what makes a hero? A courageous soul
That bears the bright ready flame of selfless honour,
Quiet compassion and an unshakeable faith –
Even when memories of home began to fade,
This son of the loved one could still be with his god.
Three years a prisoner and only thirty-two,
Home, but a brother slain by the last flying bomb,
And a mother soon to die of a broken heart,
And he who, time and time again, had outfaced death
On the cruel camber of conflict where worlds capsize.
The miracle man who came through against all odds,
Gazes steadfast still from the cover of a book.
To be alive a marvel, his great gifts – to love,
To breathe the air at a new day’s dawn, see a tree
In the golden stillness of a Beara sunset.
© Geoff Ward, 2015