WHEN Tom Crean died at the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork on Jul 27, 1938, his passing was hardly mentioned in the national press. There was just a standard 30-word obituary, with no mention of his epic feats of endurance.
For a combination of courage and endurance he was one of the most extraordinary men the 20th century had seen. He was part of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Four years later Crean was one of the men who made the epic journey from the Antarctic to South Georgia in an open boat. Yet his extraordinary accomplishments were overlooked for decades.
Born near Annascaul, Co Kerry, on Aug 20, 1877, Crean joined the royal navy as a 15-year-old. In 1901 he went on Robert Scott’s first expedition to the Antarctic.
When Scott put together his second expeditionary team for the race to the South Pole a decade later, Crean was one that Scott selected for the 16-man team, which set out on the 920-mile (1,500km) trek to the pole on Oct 24, 1911.
“Crean is perfectly happy, ready to do anything and go anywhere, the harder the work, the better,” Scott noted in his diary.
As the team progressed, they set up stations with supplies for the return journey. Groups of men were sent back as they were no longer needed to pull the dwindling supplies.
Crean was one of the last three to be sent back on Jan 4, 1912. “Poor old Crean wept,” Scott noted in his diary as set out on the final 180-mile leg of the journey to the South Pole.
On the way back, Edward Evans became ill was scurvy. Crean and William Lashly relieved him of pulling supplies. When Evans became too weak to walk they pulled him on a sledge for four days, covering 53 miles.
After it snowed heavily on Feb 18, they were no longer able to move the sledge. Lashly remained to look after Evans in a tent, while Crean covered the final 34 miles in 18 hours to get the help to rescue them the following day.
Meanwhile, Scott made it to the South Pole, only to find that a Norwegian expedition had got there first. On the way back Scott and two of his colleagues got to within 11 miles of the safety before they perished.
Crean had walked more than three times that distance on his own to get help for his colleagues. It was actually Crean who opened the tent in which the bodies of Scott and two colleagues were found the following October.
When Ernest Shackleton put together his Antarctic expedition, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Crean was a natural for selection. The plan was to cross the Antarctic from one side to the other via the South Pole, but they never actually set foot on the Antarctic.
Their ship, the Endurance, got stuck in an ice floe and began to break up. The 22 men made for the uninhabited Elephant Island, about 100 miles away, in three lifeboats.
They sheltered there under their upturned boats for more than four months. With the southern winter approaching and no sign of help, Shackleton decided that six of them would undertake the perilous 800-mile voyage to South Georgia for help in the sturdiest of their lifeboats.
In the early hours of Easter Monday 1916, while the Rising was about to begin in Dublin, Shackleton and Crean set out on their epic journey with four colleagues.
They got caught in a hurricane in which a steamer bound for South Georgia foundered, but they managed to reach the island after 16 eventful days. It was too dangerous to sail around the island in the stormy seas, so Shackleton decided that three of them would cross the island for help on foot. He, Frank Worsley, and Crean had to wait for more than a week for the weather to break before they could cross a treacherous mountain range to reach the whaling base at Stormness.
At one point the three of them locked themselves together on a coiled rope as a sledge, and they glissaded down a steep slope into the unknown in the clouds below them.
“The speed was terrific,” Worsley recalled.
“Then to our joy, the slope curved out, and we shot into a bank of soft snow. We estimated we had shot down a mile in two or three minutes, and had lowered our altitude by two or three thousand feet.”
It took 36 hours to cover the 40 miles to Stormness. They were a pitiable sight, having not washed for months, and their clothes were in rags.
Next morning the three of them went on a whaler to rescue their three colleagues on the other side of the island. They then set out to rescue the men on Elephant Island. They were forced back three times by the bad weather before they found their 16 colleagues on Aug 30, 1916, living on penguin meat under the two upturned boats.
Crean retired from the navy in 1920 and returned to Annascaul, where he opened the South Pole Inn. He died following a ruptured appendix on Jul 27, 1938. Had he been of “the officer class”, he would undoubtedly have been celebrated as one of the greatest explorers in history.
Although Crean Glacier was named in his honour in South Georgia, and the Australians named a mountain after him in the Antarctic, Crean was largely forgotten in this country. It was only with the publication of Michael Smith’s celebrated biography, Tom Crean: Unsung Hero, that he finally began to get the recognition he deserved.
Guinness commemorated him in an advertising campaign, he is the subject of a critically acclaimed one-man play, and RTÉ celebrated his Antarctic exploits with its two-part television documentary — Charlie Bird on the Trail of Tom Crean. He has finally been getting the recognition he deserved.