Soldiers everywhere have varied backgrounds, but maybe more so during World War I and World War II, as well as wars in which there was a draft. Robert Kerr “Jock” McLaren was a veterinarian by trade, but during his service with the Second Australian Imperial Force, he also became a feared guerrilla fighter who ran missions against the Japanese. I suppose that, while a veterinarian doesn’t work on humans, possessing certain skills would be important in certain situations. McLaren spent countless hours, days, and weeks in the jungles, and after one such assignment, his medical skills suddenly became urgently needed…on himself. McLaren found himself faced with surgery on himself, or certain death. So, in order to save his own life, McLaren set about to remove his own appendix…in the jungle, with a pen knife, two spoons, and coconut fibers.
McLaren was just a teenager during World War I, when he served with the 51st (Highland) Division of the British Army. Because he was so young then, it’s unlikely that he saw combat on the Western Front. Nevertheless, his name is found on the rolls from his division’s time in France in 1918. That made people wonder if he participated in fighting during the Spring Offensive. Following the war, McLaren returned to Scotland and completed training to become a veterinarian. He then moved to Queensland, Australia, where he worked as a veterinary officer in Bundaberg.
When World War II began, McLaren volunteered for the Second Australian Imperial Force. McLaren, 39 years old at the time, was assigned to the 2/10th Australian Field Workshops, 8th Australian Division and stationed in Singapore. McLaren spent time in a POW camp and escaped along with two other soldiers. After being tortured and faced with a firing squad, the trio were ultimately returned to their cells. McLaren, along with 1,000 British and Australian soldiers, was later transferred to Borneo and held at the Sandakan camp. He made plans to escape again, this time with a Chinese POW named Johnny Funk. The escape took the men to the large Philippine Island of Mindanao, where they joined the resistance led by American Reserve Officer, Lt. Col. Wendell Fertig. He was later given the chance to return to Australia, but chose to remain a guerrilla.
It was during his time as a guerrilla that McLaren’s appendicitis attack occurred. During one patrol as a guerrilla, McLaren developed a severe case of appendicitis. He knew enough to know that he was going to have to treat himself, or he would die. So, he performed surgery with just a penknife and two spoons. He stitched the incision with coconut fibers. When asked about the act years later, he said, “It was hell, but I came through alright.” A modest remark for such a remarkable act…in the middle of a Philippine jungle in 1944, without any anesthetic and with only the use of a mirror to see. The operation took 4½ hours. Still, as he said he came through it alright, and he would not be that last person to do surgery on themselves. Nevertheless…remarkable.
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