“The Forgotten Highlander” (2010) by Alistair Urquhart is a war memoir recounting the incredible World War II story of survival in the Pacific as a prisoner of war. Born in Scotland, Alistair was drafted into the army during WWII and shipped to the British outpost of Singapore. The Japanese soon invaded the colony and the British soldiers became prisoners of war (POWs). As a POW, Alistair was forced into slave labor on the notorious “Death Railway”, working up to 18 hours a day and while being fed only one cup of rice a day.
He worked barefoot with barely any clothes and suffered from malaria, dysentery, and tropical ulcers (Google at your own discretion). He often worked seven days a week from dawn to dusk and experienced several beatings and even a sexual advancement from a guard–that he fought off.
Miraculously, Alistair survived 750 days of labor in the jungle. He was then put on a Japanese “hell ship” that was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine. Adrift on a small raft, he spent five days alone out on the open seas. He was picked up by a Japanese ship and sent to work in a coal mine. That mine was located near Nagasaki, Japan (Yes, this is a true story). When the atomic bomb was dropped, Alistair could feel the hot wind from the explosion. A few days later, the U.S. military arrived and freed Alistair along with the other prisoners.
On the ship home, Alistair showered for the first time in three and a half years and weighed himself. He lost 53 pounds and was a living skeleton at 82 pounds, but he was alive and glad to finally go home.
1) Survival Depends on Willpower
In the death camp, life for prisoners was unbelievably horrific. POWs worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. They were given only a cup of water and cup of rice as their meal for the entire day. The rice often contained maggots, lice, flies or other insects. However, it was all that was given.
Prisoners constantly got sick and contracted malaria, ringworm, tropical ulcers, and other diseases. In this horrible state, it’s not surprising that many people gave up on life. With no end in sight, many wished for a bullet to their head to end their suffering.
Alistair’s will to live meant doing anything that would increase his chances of survival. This meant putting maggots on his legs to eat the dead flesh caused by an ulcer to prevent it from becoming fatal. Although it may sound disgusting, the tactic worked and Alistair’s wounds healed within a few days.
2) Take Life One Day At A Time
Life at times can be extremely difficult. For Alistair, this meant long hours of physical labor with almost no food. Similarly, for the average person, it means long hours of office work with little time to eat. Everyone experiences a period of life in which every day seems to be torture.
When such a time comes, it’s best to take life one day at a time. Focus on the present moment, and identify what needs to be done. For Alistair, he was so focused on staying alive, this meant eating whatever food possible, even when he got a cup of rice with flies and weevils inside.
Don’t worry about next week or three months down the road, just focus on getting through today. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.
3) Be Grateful For What You Have
As POWs, prisoners were feed last and not given any options. This usually resulted in a daily cup of plain rice or rice balls. Each plain rice every day, day after day, week after week is absolutely mind-numbing.
Yet this is the scenario Alistair found himself in. However, one of his friends managed to get his hands on an egg. Such a small discovery, made Alistair and his friends dance with excitement as this egg tasted better than any other.
It’s moments like these that should remind people to be grateful for everything they have. Even if you live in a tiny apartment and have a shower without hot water, at least you aren’t sharing a room with twenty men and with no shower at all. This lesson is quite similar to a quote nine from Marcus Aurelius’ book “The Emperor’s Handbook.”
This book is an incredible tale of the human spirit and what man is capable of doing when pushed to his limits. It’s also a sad story because readers learn about the evil things people are capable of doing. On a lighter note, the story does teach readers to be grateful for what they have in their lives, even if it’s not much. It always shows that tough times don’t last, but tough people do.
I found this book to be very similar to “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Both were prisoners of war and suffered horrendously during their imprisonment. However, both men were mentally strong and managed to survive to tell their story.
Both books are great, but if I could only recommend one, I’d have to go with Viktor Frankl’s book since as a psychiatrist, he’s able to talk about his journey in scientific terms and dive deeper into why people can be both good and evil. Nonetheless, if you are looking for a war memoir that will keep you hooked on every page, “The Forgotten Highlander” is worth reading.
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
If you’re interested in getting the book, click here or on the image below!
- Book: “The Forgotten Highlander” by Alistair Urquhart
- Pages: 320
- For: People who want to know about the conditions POW faced during WWII
- Lesson: Learn about the incredible journey of survival from one of the worst POW scenarios possible
You can also watch a documentary about Alistair Urquhart here.