Author Unravels Her Spy Dad's Life, One Secret Mission At A Time | WYPR

Author Unravels Her Spy Dad's Life, One Secret Mission At A Time

Mar 8, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 7:19 pm

Keggie Carew's father, Tom Carew, was once known as "Lawrence of Burma" and "the Mad Irishman," and in her new book, Dadland, we find out why:

Carew's father was part of the Jedburghs, an elite British unit established during World War II. Carew had heard stories about her father's war years, but she was never sure how much to believe until she went to a Jedburgh reunion with him. There, she learned that they were trained in everything from setting mines and neutralizing booby traps to silent killing and night parachuting.

Carew's book combines espionage and war stories with reflections on parent-child relationships. But writing it wasn't so straightforward: Carew started her project just as her father was losing his memory to dementia.

"It was a parallel journey," she says. "As my dad was losing his memory, I had set the task of retrieving it. But it was as his life was sort of going out of the station [and] I was chasing the train in the other direction."


Interview Highlights

On how much she knew about her dad's past when she was growing up

I knew he was called "Lawrence of Burma" and "The Mad Irishman" because we had these newspaper reports from India from 1945 and, you know, I used to take them to school and show people. And I knew he parachuted out of planes into the jungle, and I knew he was a spy in Burma. But when I really found out, the truth was so much more outrageous and he was in a so much more, kind of, crucial part of history. When the Burmese guerrillas were trying to get their independence ... from the Japanese and he was working with Aung San Suu Kyi's father, who was later assassinated. Oh, it was so brilliant. It was much better than I thought.

On the Jedburghs

They were a very elite unit of the Special Operations Executive, which was a very secret thing that was dreamt up between — well, actually it was the first collaboration between the American and the British secret services. And these were guys that they trained up to drop behind enemy lines in very small teams of three — they were American, British and French. And they had a radio operator in two offices and they would be dropped behind the lines and they would raise resistance to be as much a thorn in the enemy's side as they could possibly do. You know, blow up bridges and sabotage, you know, the Germans first in France and then later on the Japanese in Burma. ...

They were really valuable because they were so trained. They just couldn't, you know, put themselves in very dangerous situations because they needed to be there to blow up the next train and sort everybody out. I think their motto was "Surprise, kill and vanish." And their survival was very, very important, on the top of the list. So they had an incredibly good survival rate.

On seeing her elderly dad's Jedburgh training kick in at the theater

So we take him to The Lion King and we get up to the top of the steps, and on the top step, dad trips and he starts rolling, falling all the way down the stairs. Bump, bump, bump, bump, all the way down to the bottom. Everybody in the theater foyer just stares and freezes because, you know, there's an 85-year-old man tumbling down the stairs. And we all freeze and then he gets to the bottom and then he sits up, dusts himself down, completely unscathed, unbruised, perfectly fine. And there's a loud, loud sigh of relief.

I mean what we have just witnessed was him going straight into a parachute role. His [Jedburgh] training just clocked in straight away. And he was relaxed, got his arms in and was completely fine. Nobody could believe it in the theater. They were all amazed. And of course he enjoyed that.

On the experience of writing a book about her dad's past

It was extraordinary. One minute I would be with ... nine men that had been mined on a road in Tipperary in Ireland, and the next minute I'd be in the Burmese jungle, and the next minute I'd be in France, the next minute I'd be with my dad in the garden. I'd be walking around the corner and I hear him say to the neighbor, "I don't remember you, but I do remember your teeth. They're rather distinctive." ... It was never mundane with dad, even with dementia. There was really never a dull moment.

On whether the book would have been different if she had written it before her dad's dementia

I think it would have been a very, very different experience. First of all, in a way I had more freedom because he wasn't there to ask. I had a lot of the very, very colorful anecdotes that I carried about with me since a child — and those were the stories that he told where he'd outwitted some general or done something smart. But the actual nuts and bolts of it, and also the really astonishing stuff, was buried in secret files that weren't actually available until the last 15 years. They were all stamped with "secret" and hidden away and you couldn't actually access them. So I think it would have been a very different book.

Digital producer Nicole Cohen, producer Art Silverman and editor Melissa Gray contributed to this piece.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Keggie Carew's father, Tom Carew, was known as Lawrence of Burma and The Mad Irishman. In her new book "Dadland," we find out why. It's a memoir that combines espionage and war stories with reflections on parent-child relationships.

When Keggie Carew began writing this book, her father's war days were long behind him. He was losing his memory to dementia. Carew describes a moment she took him to see a play in London.

KEGGIE CAREW: And on the top step, dad trips. And he starts falling all way down the stairs - bump, bump, bump, bump - all the way down to the bottom. And everybody in the theatre foyer just stares and freezes because, you know, it's 85-year-old man tumbling down the stairs. And we all freeze, and then he sits up, dusts himself down, completely unscathed, unbruised, perfectly fine. And there's a loud sigh of relief. I mean, what we have just witnessed was him going straight into a parachute roll. His Jedburgh training just clocked in straightaway.

SHAPIRO: Jedburgh training - the Jeds, as they were called, were an elite secret unit during the Second World War. Keggie Carew's father was trained to lead partisans in Europe who sabotaged the Germans. While Carew had heard stories about her father's war years, she was never sure how much to believe. Then she went to a Jed reunion with him and learned more about how they trained. Here she reads from the book.

CAREW: (Reading) By the end of the training, there would be nothing about guerilla warfare they wouldn't know - how to blow up a train, a tree, a railway line, a road, a canal, a factory, a power station, a dam, a reservoir, high-tension pylons. They had to be able to set a mine, attach a clam, lay tire bursters (ph), throw a grenade by instinct, neutralize a booby trap, prepare an ambush. There was observation and memory training, intelligence gathering, how to conduct surveillance, how to know if you were being followed, reception techniques for receiving airdropped supplies, night parachuting. There were lessons in unarmed combat, silent killing and survival. They would have to be able to swim with a limpet mine and pitch a lump of plastic explosive into a moving train. I look at Dad quizzically. Silent killing? He shrugs his shoulders.

SHAPIRO: I want to start with something that you write at the very end of this book, which is that you compared the experience of writing this to a pair of trains leaving the station going in different directions. Explain what you mean by that.

CAREW: Well, it was a parallel journey. As my dad was losing his memory, I had set the task of retrieving it. But it was like as his life was sort of going out of the station, I was chasing the train in the other direction.

SHAPIRO: And so the book itself juxtaposes the incredible kind of mundane tragedy of someone who's unable to do the most basic things against the extraordinary exploits of people parachuting out of airplanes and surviving in the jungle on no food. I can only imagine what it was like to live that every day as you were writing.

CAREW: Well, yeah. It was extraordinary. One minute, I would be with a log with nine men that was - had been mined on a road in Tipperary in Ireland. And the next minute, I'd be in the Burmese jungle. And the next minute, I'd be in France. The next minute, I'd be with my dad in the garden. I'd be walking around the corner, and I hear him say to the neighbor, I don't remember you, but I do remember your teeth. They're rather distinctive. So when you say mundane, it was never mundane with dad even with dementia. It was - there was really never a dull moment.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that if you had done this excavation of your father's history before his dementia began setting in that it would've been a different experience?

CAREW: Yeah. I think it would've been a very, very different experience. First of all, in a way, I had more freedom because he wasn't there to ask. I had a lot of the very, very colorful anecdotes that I carried about with me since a child. And those were the stories that he told where he'd outwitted some general or done something smart.

But the actual nuts and bolts of it and also the really astonishing stuff was buried in secret files that weren't actually available until the last 15 years. They were all stamped with secrets and hidden away, and you couldn't actually access them. So I think it would have been a very different book, and it wouldn't have had that woven quality that it has where your chronology is replaced by memory so that the memory comes and goes and one moves around from the past into the present and back to front.

SHAPIRO: I think every child, probably, to some extent views their parent as a superhero. Was there a moment in adulthood or perhaps even as you were researching this book that it suddenly hit you that these were not just stories, that he actually had done these incredible daring feats during wartime?

CAREW: Well, I knew he was called Lawrence of Burma and The Mad Irishman because we had these newspaper reports from India from 1945 and, you know, we - I used to take them to school (laughter) show people. And I knew he parachuted out of planes into the jungle. And I knew he was a spy in Burma. But when I really found out, the truth was much more outrageous. And he was in so much more kind of crucial part of history when the Burmese guerrillas were trying to get their independence, and he was...

SHAPIRO: From the Japanese.

CAREW: ...From the Japanese, and he was working with Aung San Suu Kyi's father who was later assassinated. Oh, it was so brilliant. It was much better than I thought. I didn't think I would be writing quite so much about that, but it was so fascinating. I couldn't resist getting really deeply into some of that stuff.

SHAPIRO: What does it mean to you now that he's gone to have this work that you've created that is a tribute to a man who shaped you, created you, influenced you and is no longer with us?

CAREW: Well, it's - in a way, he's been more with us with this book. It's been incredible. It's been a very cathartic thing with my family. Actually, we've talked about, you know, the more difficult sides of our life together since this book's come out. And it also, I think, kind of acts as a sort of universal - resonates universally because it's about lots of things that families experience apart - obviously, not that guerilla warfare, jumping out of planes stuff.

SHAPIRO: No (laughter). My family has never experienced that.

CAREW: No. But then lots of other things - family things - you know, the grief, the loss, the love, you know, the dementia side. And, you know, perfect lives are not very interesting, and ours is certainly not that (laughter). So I felt it was a kind of way to reach out in a way like in a - as an everyman or, you know, the experiences that we all have. And, yeah, that's - that was important to me so that it did resonate in that way.

SHAPIRO: Well, Keggie Carew, thanks so much for your time.

CAREW: Thank you very much. It was lovely speaking to you.

SHAPIRO: Keggie Carew's book is called "Dadland."

(SOUNDBITE OF OLD TIME MUSKETRY SONG, "KEPT CLOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.