Almanac People: Alistair Urquhart a life worth commemorating

There are some people whose lives are packed with acts of such unutterable horror it is difficult to even imagine how they survived the experiences.


Alistair Urquhart belonged in that category. During the Second World War, he was dragged so often through the wringer that it’s almost impossible for those of us, spared such travails, to comprehend the strength and perseverance which he possessed.


The Scot finally departed this earth on Friday, October 7, at the grand old age of 97, and he managed to live his Biblical span of three-score and ten years with the same determination to accentuate the positives which stamped him out as a genuine nonpareil.


But what a litany of grief surrounded this fellow after he was conscripted to the Gordon Highlanders at the age of 20 to fight in the second great global conflict of the 20th century.


His first misfortune was to be despatched to Japan, where the hostilities were as brutal, unforgiving and visceral as witnessed anywhere in the last century.


Alistair witnessed the atrocities first hand. He had no option after being captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in February, 1942 and being sent on a route march to a jungle camp, where everyday madness prevailed.


He and his colleagues, many of them stick-thin and constantly exhausted, were forced into building a railway. Many of us have seem “Bridge over the River Kwai” and that film evoked some of the ghastly crimes perpetrated in the Far East.


There was sweltering heat, severe beatings, grisly punishments for any misdemeanour and a descent into a world which none of the soldiers could remotely have imagined.


And, as Alistair later recalled, it sapped the most redoubtable of spirits.


He said: “They would give us a cup of rice in the morning – about the size of a small tea cup – and one to take with us when we went to work on the railway.


“But, by the time you got to thinking about lunch, the rice had fermented. The conditions were as bad as they could possibly be.


“It couldn’t have been any worse. There were continual punishment beatings. For anything serious, they made you go out in the sun and stand there, holding a huge rock above your head – if it fell, you were beaten again. It never stopped.”


The torment continued mercilessly for more than two years. But Alistair’s private hell wasn’t finished, not by a long shot, when he was eventually transported on a Japanese ship, carrying 900 men, in 1944.


The vessel was pursued by the Americans and, soon enough, it was sunk by one of their submarines. Once again, Alistair stared death in the face. One more, although he scratched his head in providing any real explanation, he was spared, though not before enduring scenes which never left him.


As he subsequently recalled: “A US sub attacked us and the ship just shuddered. Then suddenly, I popped up like a champagne cork into thick, oily water.


“I could hear men screaming, talking to their wives, calling out for their children, singing hymns.


“Even to this day, I can’t listen to “Abide with Me”.


He was at the point where instincts kick in, even when rational thinking has departed. But, for the next five days, he had nothing to eat, and found himself floating on a raft without any idea as to the destination. At any moment, he could have perished.


And eventually, when he was picked up by a passing vessel, there was a  grim irony in the fact it happened to be a Japanese whaling vessel. Rather like Ahab and Moby Dick, he was back in the belly of the beast.


If that had been the end of his problems, it would still be a terrible saga. But it wasn’t. On the contrary, Alistair was taken to work in an open-cast mine, where he was ordered to toil at all hours and in a permanent fug of blackness.


Oh, and his new posting just happened to be in the city of Nagasaki.


And, months after arriving there, he was blown off his feet and exposed to the nuclear fallout from the second atomic bomb which was unleashed on the Japanese after the initial destruction of Hiroshima. To a large extent, as he subsequently related, the miracle was that he survived all these tragedies.


Yet, this fellow was blessed with infinite reserves of resilience and the old-fashioned maxim: Don’t let the bastards grind you down! They didn’t, they couldn’t and Alistair shared his peripatetic reminiscences in a book entitled “The Forgotten Highlander”, which conveyed his “remarkable story of survival during the  war in the Far East.”


As you might imagine, it’s not big on laughs or levity. And yet, one of the remarkable aspects of this fellow’s personality was how he managed to deal logically with whatever obstacles were placed in his path.


Once he was back home in Scotland, he didn’t want to fight. Instead, and this is a heartwarming postscript, he preferred to dance and became famous in Broughty Ferry (just outside Dundee), for tripping the light fantastic and relishing every twist and turn.


He had seen the worst of human existence. But it didn’t dent his faith in people’s goodness, particularly when he was on the dance floor with his partner Helen Scroggie.


No wonder that he died, surrounded by his loving family, with no regrets, nor complaints. Alistair Urquhart regarded himself as one of the lucky ones who came back from the war and was granted the opportunity to live a full life, where so many others were buried in foreign graves or pits.


It’s an inspiring example of how some people have an infinite capacity to persevere in the grimmest of circumstances.

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