Commoner Tom Crean’s heroism went almost unnoticed

On its centenary, Ryle Dwyer looks at an extraordinary rescue in the South Atlantic involving two Irishmen 

Commoner Tom Crean’s heroism went almost unnoticed

A CENTURY ago today, three men — Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean — stumbled into a whaling station at Stormness on the island of South George in a pitiful condition. They had not washed for months. Their faces and hands were black from blubber smoke, their hair and long beards were matted, their clothes were in rags.

Their experiences were among history’s greatest survival and rescue stories in the most trying conditions, extending not just over hours, days, or weeks, but months.

They were part of a 28-man expedition that set out from Britain just before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Led by Kildare-born Shackleton, they had planned to make the first crossing of the Antarctic from one side to the other via the South Pole.

With the outbreak of war in Europe, the expedition was essentially forgotten. Their ship, the Endurance, got caught in an ice flow in January 1915 and they drifted with the flow for the next eight months before the ship got crushed in the ice.

They managed to salvage three lifeboats, and Shackleton decided to head for uninhabited Elephant Island, some 160km away. It took six days to reach the island, where they remained for over four months, sheltering under their upturned boats, and eating penguin meat.

With the southern winter approaching and no sign of help, Shackleton decided six of them would undertake the perilous 1,450km journey to the island of South Georgia for help in the James Caird, the sturdiest of their lifeboats.

Shackleton selected Worsley and Crean for the rescue mission. Worsley was chosen for his navigational skills, while Crean, from Gurtuchrane near Annascaul, Co Kerry, was selected for his experience and the extraordinary prowess he had already demonstrated in tight situations on earlier Antarctic expeditions.

Crean had been part of Robert Scott’s Expedition to the Antarctic in 1901, and he later distinguished himself in Scott’s second expedition during the epic race to the South Pole.

Crean was one of the 16 men Scott had selected for his team when he set out on the 1,500km journey on October 24, 1911. On the long trek towards the South Pole, they set up depots with supplies for their return journey.

As those were established, the men no longer needed to pull the supplies, would return to their starting base. The plan was for just a few men to escort Scott on the final leg of the journey.

Lt Edward Evans, petty officers William Lashly, and Crean were the last three sent back on January 4, 1912. Crean was reportedly very emotional at having to turn back so close to the South Pole.

“Poor old Crean wept,” Scott noted in his diary. On the return journey, Evans became seriously ill with scurvy. Crean and Lashly relieved him of pulling supplies, and eventually pulled him on a sledge for four days, 13 hours a day.

Evans told them to leave him, as otherwise none of them would survive. When it snowed heavily on February 18, 1916, they were no longer able to move the sledge. With their food supply running dangerously low, they decided to split up.

Lashly remained with Evans in a tent, while Crean set on out on his own to their starting base, some 55km away. It took him 18 hours to reach the camp. “Crean’s lone march that day was one of the finest feats in an adventure that is an epic of splendid episodes,” polar explorer HG Ponting wrote in his 1923 book, The Great White South.

Evans and Lashly were duly rescued little over a day later. But Scott was not so lucky. His party had reached the South Pole on January 17, only to find that they had lost the race to a Norwegian expedition, led by Roald Amundsen.

Scott and his four colleagues then failed to make it back to their base camp. His body was later found in his tent a little over 15km from safety.

Crean had managed to walk more than three times that distance on his own to ensure the rescue of his two colleagues. He was therefore an obvious choice for Shackleton in the attempt to reach South Georgia from Elephant Island. They loaded their boat in the water.

“As each boatload came alongside, the contents were passed to us, with a running fire of jokes, chaff, and good wishes from dear pals whom we were leaving behind,” Worsley wrote.

“As for Crean, they said things that ought to have made him blush; but what would make Crean blush would make a butcher’s dog drop his bone.”

In the early hours of Easter Monday 1916, around the time that the Easter Rebellion was beginning in Dublin, two Irishmen — Shackleton and Crean — set out with four colleagues on their heroic journey across the south Atlantic in a small boat.

Crean was remembered as always cheerful on the arduous journey. He used to sing during his turn at the tiller, but he was tone deaf, so nobody knew what he was singing, except at more inspirational moments when he would burst into ‘The Wearing of the Green’.

They got caught in a hurricane in which a steamer bound for South Georgia actually foundered. After 17 eventful days they made land at the uninhabited southern side of South Georgia. Their boat’s rudder broke off during the landing.

Another storm struck that night. Shackleton decided that three of them would cross the island on foot, but they had to wait for nine days for suitable weather. They set out without overnight provisions, planning to walk to the whaling base at Stormness as quickly as possible. They covered some 65km of mountainous terrain in 36 hours.

Next morning, the three men went on board a whaler to rescue their three colleagues on the other side of the island. The day after that, they set out to rescue the 22 men on Elephant Island, but they were forced back by weather conditions.

It required three different attempts to get to Elephant Island, which they reached on August 30, 1916. They found their colleagues still living on penguin meat under their upturned boats.

Crean retired from the British navy and returned to Annascaul in 1920, to open his own pub, the South Pole Inn. He died on July 27, 1938, and is buried in the graveyard nearby at Ballinacourty.

Had Crean been of “the officer class”, he would undoubtedly have been celebrated internationally for his feats on two wholly separate occasions.

While he was engaged in the second venture, the rebel Proclamation read in Dublin promised to cherish “all the children of the nation equally”.

Yet Crean was almost forgotten until the memory was resurrected in recent years. This is not to demean Shackleton’s accomplishments, but Crean deserves to be celebrated as a distinguished Irishman for his phenomenal endurance in helping to save so many men in the most trying of circumstances.

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