By 1942, Robert “Jock” McLaren had already escaped from a prison camp in Singapore, fought for weeks with local guerrillas, been betrayed to the Japanese by a double-crossing comrade, and been interned in a high-security prison camp in Borneo. Books have been written about less. But McLaren was just getting started.
McLaren had been a teenage cavalryman during the First World War, before immigrating to Australia and settling down to a quiet life in Queensland. When the Second World War broke out, the middle-aged veterinarian was one of the first to sign up. Captured by the Japanese after the Fall of Malaya, McLaren staged his first breakout from Singapore’s notorious Changi prison.
His recapture didn’t dent his determination to escape. The move to Borneo just meant he was that much closer to home. He quickly teamed up with someone as determined to escape as he was—a local Chinese man known as Johnny Funk, who had been brutally tortured by the Japanese.
Together, Jock and Johnny broke out of prison and trekked to the coast. They then island-hopped for 430 kilometers (270 mi) across the Pacific in ahollowed-out log, fighting running battles with the Japanese along the way, before landing safely on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Unfortunately, the island had already fallen to the Japanese. And McLaren had developed appendicitis.
Hunted by the Japanese and with no way to reach a doctor, McLaren had to make a desperate decision. He had a mirror, a sharp pocketknife, some jungle fibers to stitch the wound, and absolutely no anesthetic. He was going to have to take the appendix out himself.
The operation took four and a half hours. Years later, when receiving the Military Cross, McLaren was asked about the operation. His answer was predictably laconic. “It was hell,” he said, “but I came through all right.”
Two days after the surgery, McLaren was on his feet fleeing the Japanese again. He spent the rest of the war as a guerrilla in the Philippines, most of it in command of an old whaling boat called The Bastard. He packed the boat full of mortars and machine guns and used it to sail into heavily guarded Japanese ports, spray bullets everywhere, and then run for it before anyone could work out what was going on. Despite a huge reward, he was never caught, possibly because everyone was terrified of the notorious rebel leader known to leave severed appendixes in his wake.