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

Keggie Carew — seen here with her father, Tom Carew — says, "It was never mundane with dad, even with dementia."
Courtesy of Grove Atlantic
Keggie Carew — seen here with her father, Tom Carew — says, "It was never mundane with dad, even with dementia."

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.

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