Nearly two years ago, I reviewed The Forgotten Highlander, a World War II POW survival narrative by Alistair Urquhart. I expected the book to receive much more attention than it did, and I’m at a loss to explain why the book dropped out of sight in the U.S.
To encourage history-minded readers to give the book another look, I’m republishing my review, which originally appeared in theMinneapolis Star Tribune. Despite the reservations I expressed about The Forgotten Highlander, I find that I fondly remember it.
We all have moments when we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Alistair Urquhart, a Scotsman who served in the Pacific Theater of World War II, experienced a stretch of unfortunate geographic placement that staggers the imagination.
He was stationed in Singapore in 1942 when the British stronghold fell to Japanese forces. As a prisoner of war, he landed in notorious camps where starving and enslaved workers built the Death Railway through Malaysia and Thailand (including the famed Bridge on the River Kwai) in deplorable conditions. Barely surviving, Urquhart then fought for his life among hundreds of frantic prisoners in the crowded and airless hold of the Kachidoki Maru, a “hellship” bound for Japan that sank after a torpedo attack by a U.S. submarine. Enduring sharks, thirst and exposure after days in the ocean, he was picked up by Japanese fishermen and completed his unlucky journey, ending up in Nagasaki in time for the atomic attack that destroyed the city.
Now a nonagenarian living in Dundee, Scotland, Urquhart waited to publish his wartime memoir The Forgotten Highlander until most of his family had died, sparing them his “unsettling tales of unimaginable torments.” Despite the passage of 65 years since his liberation from imprisonment, he still feels angry and scarred. “My business with Japan is unfinished, however, and will remain so until the Japanese government fully accepts its guilt and tells its people what was done in their name,” he writes in the opening pages.
With that introduction, a reader may expect from Urquhart a bitter memoir roiling with fury. But that’s not what he delivers. In restrained language, The Forgotten Highlander casts Urquhart’s story at an unusual psychological distance, one that captures gruesome details yet keeps his emotions concealed. Maybe this restraint is habitual. Clearly a loner, he writes that he consciously determined during his ordeal to ensure his own survival by remaining detached from the hardships of his fellow prisoners.
Urquhart grabs our attention with unforgettable stories of horrible beatings, maggots that cleaned ulcers on his foot (“The sensation was of tingling, unearthly yet not altogether unpleasant”), the solitary confinement of “black holes” that the Japanese designed to prevent standing or reclining, food fouled by lice and bed bugs, and the despair of overworked men descending into insanity. Urquhart himself, though, remains elusive. He writes little of his psychological struggles, and it’s hard to know what to make of a man who finds no solace in contact with his comrades yet credits the intimacy of ballroom dancing with rehabilitating him upon his return home.
What do we want from the bearers of dark tales of endurance? Hope, rebirth, magnanimity? Urquhart’s character is too indistinct to fulfill such expectations. Yet there’s a memorable story in the incredible circumstances of his survival despite what he leaves untold.