The story of John Hearn

The HMS Privet, pictured sailing down Carlingford Lock. Inset on the frame is a picture of John Hearn as he would have looked around the time he left for the Merchant Navy.

By Peter McNamara

For over 70 years, a question mark hung over the fate of local lad John Hearn. In 1939, he went off to join the merchant navy during the Second World War, aged 19. From that date, up until the new millennium and beyond, the parents and relatives of John Hearn never knew what became of him. He was never seen again.

Of course, his family assumed the worst, but they never gave up hoping. Lest he return to Ringsend one day, his mother always kept a place set for him at the dinner table, and left the door to their cottage unlocked. She had three daughters; John was her only son.

The full facts of John’s story only came to light in 2012, with help from the Lord Mayor of Newry, Councillor Pat McCartan, and NewsFour. By remarkable happenstance, and with some unlikely coincidences, the sad truth eventually reached the Hearn family. 

According to his living descendants, John “always wanted to join the navy”. Perhaps it was a spirit of adventure that sent him on his way and he’d have been happy enough earning a few bob. Whatever his reasons, the nineteen-year-old John bade farewell to his family, and to his native Ringsend, to go and work on the HMS Privet. 

The Merchant Sailors

During the war, the Royal Navy took anyone they could get to work their vessels, but it was by no means an ordinary job. 

Merchant seamen “signed on” to sail aboard a ship for a voyage or succession of voyages. After being “paid off” at the end of that time, they could either sign on for a further engagement if they were required, or to take unpaid leave before signing aboard another ship.

Some sailors might choose to settle wherever their ship had docked, and work ashore. There were a wide range of roles on a merchant ship. John Hearn most likely started out as a “Boy”, a kind of apprenticeship, through which you could learn your chosen profession right up to the level of “Master Mariner” – also known as a captain. 

The merchant seamen who crewed the ships of the British Merchant Navy during the Second World War kept the United Kingdom supplied with raw materials, arms, ammunition, fuel, food and all of the necessities of a nation fighting for its survival. The work of these humble seamen was fundamental in keeping the Allied war effort going. Without a supply of food for its population and raw materials for its arms production, a country could not fight. 

Britain relied heavily on imported goods and materials, all of which were carried over sea, and for this very reason, any cargo vessel headed for the British mainland was an essential target for the Nazis. Whether large or small, merchant ships were hunted ferociously. These often unarmed, unarmoured vessels, were frequently attacked by enemy ships, planes and submarines – and sometimes by all three at once. 

In this way, the humble merchant sailor – those ordinary men like John Hearn, from ordinary backgrounds – might be the most unsung heroes of the Second World War. Such sailors sustained a considerably higher casualty rate than almost every other branch of the armed services (over one in four merchant seamen lost their lives) and they suffered great hardship. Across long Atlantic crossings, carrying arms and supplies to Britain from the US, it’s hard to imagine the days and nights spent toiling on deck in fear of attack from an invisible U-boat submarine. The men, who could be aged anywhere from fourteen through to their late seventies, were fundamental in winning the war for the Allies. 

John Hearn’s story

John was working on the HMS Privet for a year, when disaster struck. In 1940, the Privet was making what you might consider to be an ordinary crossing, from Northern Ireland to the British west coast. The ship left Warrenpoint in County Down, but never reached its destination across at Birkenhead. In the narrow channel of the Irish sea, a U-boat was patrolling, looking for any merchant ship, so as to deprive Britain of those essential war-sustaining supplies. The U-boat sunk both the HMS Privet and her sister ship, the HMS Walnut. John Hearn, and the rest of the crew, perished in the water. 

That might have been the end of the story, but it turned out that from the two ships one crewman survived. After the torpedo attack, amid the burning wreckage, this seaman found himself alive. 

One can only imagine the terror and confusion this surviving sailor must have felt. He probably didn’t know where to go, or what to do. Having survived an attack that claimed the lives of every other man must have been traumatic to say to least. What’s more, there in the middle of the Irish sea, how could he know the quickest direction to shore? It just so happened that not far from him, floating nearby, there was a great big cow. 

This cow was most likely part of the Privet or the Walnut’s cargo. Luckily for this merchant sailor, the cow kicked into action. Literally. The cow began to kick its legs and swim.  

Animals, and cows especially, have a strong sense of direction. They have an instinctive awareness of tides, temperatures and currents and in this way the cow could deduce the direction to the nearest shore. When the sailor saw the cow beginning to swim, he followed, and hung on to the animal’s tail, and in a matter of hours the two made it back ashore. If this man had not survived, if this cow had not been there to assist him, the sad story of the Privet might never have been known. 

For some reason – due to some error or misunderstanding – news of John Hearn’s untimely end never reached his family in Dublin. Hearing nothing from him, they eventually made inquiries. The Hearn family could not be told with certainty what had happened to their boy. It would take over 70 years, and a few more unlikely events, for the full truth to reach Ringsend. 

The Lord Mayor, the plaque, and the newspaper 

In August 2012, a crowd gathered at Victoria Lock in Newry, in the north of Ireland, to watch their Lord Mayor unveil a special plaque. The Maritime Memorial, erected on the banks of the Newry River, carried the names of those that had died on the HMS Privet and HMS Walnut. They had a fine unveiling ceremony, attended by many of the relatives of those other fallen sailors. But there was a problem. Those that erected the plaque knew all the names on it – except for one. Who was John Hearn? 

Contact had never been made with his family. All they knew of him was that he might have been from somewhere in Dublin. Members of the Newry Maritime Association asked Cllr Paddy McCartan, who attended the ceremony, if he could trace John Hearn’s relatives. Thus began a chain of events which culminated in families from both Newry and Dublin coming together to bring closure to an extremely sad episode for all those involved. 

Cllr McCartan said, “I gave them a pledge that I would endeavour to find the relatives of John Hearn. It was as a result of a letter published in NewsFour that three people contacted me; Therese Finnegan, Christy Pullen and May Kane.”

Word filtered through, and news finally reached John Hearn’s surviving family. Over half a century later, his loved ones finally learned the whole story of what became of their intrepid son, and perhaps felt a sense of resolution at last.

John died like so many ordinary men in WWII. He was a lad in search of work, and maybe a little adventure, thrust into heroic circumstances. His service helped shape the world we live in today. 

Jack Pullen: A gold medal for bravery

And John Hearn wasn’t the only man from Ringsend to take to the high seas. Captain Jack Pullen (pictured) was another heroic local sailor. In fact, Pullen was even awarded a gold medal for bravery by the President of the United States. 

He was a Seaman of the British Steamship, the HMS Oyleric. And along with three other seamen, Pullen was honoured for his courage in the rescue of passengers from the U.S. schooner Valkyria.

At 6.30pm on November 5th, 1926, the Oyleric picked up a distress signal from the Valkyria. Against a strong wind and with a high sea running, the Oyleric launched a lifeboat, manned by the first mate, third mate, boatswain, and four Dublin seamen – one of whom was Captain Jack Pullen. As a part of the rescue operation, Pullen courageously saved the lives of all 12 of the Valkyria’s crew, which included two children. 

In the end when news of John Hearn’s untimely end reached his family, they were also invited to a special party at the mansion house in Dublin, at which they met the Lord Mayor of Newry. Although it was ultimately a cruel fate that met John Hearn, through coincidence and happenstance, and by the efforts of kind-minded strangers (and one swimming cow) John’s story came to be known. There are many other nameless soldiers, and countless unmarked graves. This at least is one story with a little bit of closure.