The men who fought in World War II are called “The Greatest Generation” for a reason. While many young people today seem to be constantly “triggered” and offended by a torrent of imagined offenses, those who lived through the 1940s knew true hardship, but pushed through with an incredible resolve.
Alistair Urquhart was one of those men. The Scotsman’s story could easily fill an entire textbook on adversity and perseverance at a level that would make a millennial wilt … and his experiences show how life can unexpectedly change in the blink of an eye for both good and bad.
Urquhart is perhaps best remembered as an author who recounted his experience as a prisoner of war who was just 10 miles from Nagasaki, Japan, when the second atomic bomb was dropped. He credits that strike with saving his life — but there was an entire string of death-defying incidents that led up to that moment.
“Alistair Urquhart’s story began when Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942,” BBC News reported. “Serving with the Gordon Highlanders’ Second Battalion he had arrived there just weeks earlier as the Allies strengthened the island fortress against the expected invasion.”
As the fearsome Japanese forces swept into Singapore, they took thousands of Allied troops prisoner, including Urquhart. First, the captured men endured days of deadly, unsanitary conditions while some 16,000 people were held in a camp designed to accommodate less than a thousand. Then the Japanese decided to move the prisoners, and true hell began.
“Then they were forced to march about 100 miles, hacking their way through virgin jungle,” BBC explained. “There was a particular danger for the column of men who were at the mercy of brutal guards, many of whom were Korean troops conquered by the Japanese.”
Beatings and inhumane treatment were common. Even when the men managed to reach their destination, there was no mercy in sight. Their captors intended to use the Allied prisoners as slave labor to cut passageways through rocky terrain.
“Mr. Urquhart’s detail was put to work in what became known as ‘Hellfire Pass’, where men were forced to fashion a cutting through solid rock using nothing more than hand tools and dynamite,” said the British news service.
“You can imagine how hard that is in 120 degrees heat,” Urquhart recalled. “By this time, you had hardly any clothes left; you certainly haven’t anything left on your feet. So you’re knocking down rock and you’re having to walk on it.”
Not hundreds, not thousands, but over 10,000 Allied prisoners of war died while being forced to construct the “Hellfire Pass” railway. Urquhart survived, but his luck hadn’t yet changed.
Once again, the Japanese moved the prisoners. This time, they loaded the men onto ships for a journey to Japan. That’s when Urquhart’s own allies accidentally opened fire.
American naval vessels, which didn’t know there were allied prisoners aboard the Japanese ships, fired torpedoes at the convoy. Miraculously, the stout Scotsman survived, but found himself in yet another living hell.
“You had to swim through oily water that was burning,” he explained. “That was the grimmest time I had for a long time, hearing men who couldn’t swim, calling for their wives, and knowing what was happening.”
Urquhart drifted for days in a small raft, before finally being rescued — if you can call it that — and taken to a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
The camp was just 10 miles outside of the ill-fated city of Nagasaki.
“I heard a plane, and I looked up. And it was quite clearly an American plane. No opposition,” the veteran recalled about Aug. 9, 1945. “And it just droned over and away. Minutes later, I was just blown across the pathway — a big gust, which I thought was wind, hot air. But this was the bomb going off.”
He was blown off his feet by the air blast — but incredibly, one of the most destructive moments in human history marked the beginning of salvation for Urquhart.
According to the veteran, he and his fellow prisoners of war were just days away from being executed by the Japanese.
“There had been a directive from the Japanese Army that if the Americans put one foot on Japanese soil, the whole of the people who had been taken prisoner had to be massacred on 12 August,” he explained.
“When was the bomb dropped? August 9. Thank God. And here I am.”
Nine days later, the empire of Japan formally surrendered and the Second World War was over. Urquhart returned to the United Kingdom, raised a family, and wrote a book about his amazing and sobering experiences.
In 2016, the veteran died the ripe old age of 97. Time had done what even an atomic bomb could not do: Stop Alistair Urquhart.
The “next generation” could learn a lot from “The Greatest Generation” — and the story of an Allied soldier who kept pushing forward despite staggering odds wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Please like and share this story on Facebook and Twitter if you found this story fascinating!
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.