Five men who drowned in Cobh during the war are remembered

Five men who drowned in Cobh during the war are remembered

Diarmuid Higgins, left, and Pat Feen, organisation of national ex-servicemen and women

SEVENTY-NINE years is a long time to be remembering, I thought, as I stood at the monument on East Beach, in Cobh, last Saturday morning and heard the names of five men called out.

It was damp, with a cold wind blowing. Members of the National Organisation of Ex-Servicemen and Women (O.N.E.), prominent in uniforms, stood rigidly at attention, facing the memorial on its red base, topped by a white navigational mark, as the names were called: Frank Powell, William Duggan, Patrick Wilshaw, Frank Lloyd, John Higgins.

Every December, the O.N.E. members gather to remember the five men, who died in a tragic shipping accident on the stormy night of Saturday, December 12, 1942, in the middle of the Second World War.

Ship inspections

Under wartime regulations, every ship entering the harbour had to be inspected, so when Irish Shipping’s Irish Poplar arrived, bound for Cork Dockyard, at Rushbrooke, for an annual refit, the vessel hove-to at the Dog Nose Buoy, southeast of Spike Island. The Cork Harbour Commissioners’ launch left the Cobh pilot station to put a harbour pilot aboard. One of the crew was John Higgins. He would not return to the station that night.

The Marine Service launch departed its Haulbowline Base with an inspection party.

Frank Powell, William Duggan, Patrick Wilshaw, and Frank Lloyd were on the crew. They would never return to their Haulbowline base.

The bodies of two of those five men have never been found.

In the storm, pilot Patrick Lynch and Marine Service chief petty officer Frank Barry were assisted by the ship’s crew to get aboard Irish Poplar.

Having completed inspection, Officer Barry prepared to disembark, but there was no sign of either the Marine Service or commissioners’ launch. It was assumed that, because of the severity of the weather, those vessels had put back to their bases.

But, unbeknownst to the Irish Poplar, both launches had collided in trying to cope with the increasingly severe conditions. Both lost power and drifted towards the ship’s stern.

Without cargo, the Irish Poplar was light in the water and part of her propeller was above sea level. There being no sign of the launches, the ship’s engines began moving the vessel from its hove-to position.

“The launches were trashed by the ship’s propeller and six people were thrown into the water,” says the O.N.E. description of what happened.

“Coxswain of the pilot launch, James Hogan, a very strong swimmer, managed to swim to Spike Island and raise the alarm.” 

Powerful search lights were turned on at the three harbour forts manned at the time – Davis, Meagher, and Mitchel – and a search began. Another Marine Service boat, Wyndham, got to the scene and the Ballycotton lifeboat battled around the coast to engage in the search.

Three bodies found

Following days of searching, three bodies were found. Frank Powell and John Higgins were never located.

Representatives from several maritime organisations were present last Saturday and laid commemorative wreaths at the memorial, as did family members of those who died.

Rev Paul Arbuthnot, Church of Ireland rector, led prayers and the singing of ‘Abide With Me.’ Aisling McCarthy sang the lifeboat song. It is very special to continue remembrance for so long, 79 years from the night when the tragedy occurred.

O.N.E. Cobh branch chairman, Pat Feen, told me that the men who were lost were the only ones who had died on active service for the nation during WW2. “It is important, we believe, to remember these men in Cobh, which is a very seafaring town and it is very special for the O.N.E.” Diarmuid Higgins is secretary of the Cobh O.N.E. branch and also national president of the O.N.E.

What he told me is worth remembering in these times when the naval service, the successor to what was, back in 1942, the Marine Service, has difficulty in recruiting and keeping its personnel.

“The O.N.E. helps and supports service personnel, who, for whatever reason, have fallen on hard times and we also focus on remembrance. Four of the men who died were of the Marine Service, the forerunner of the naval service, where we all came from. We must remember them and their colleague from the harbour pilot launch.” 

The O.N.E. has a five-bed home in Cobh and others in Athlone, Letterkenny, and Dublin, for those who need support.

“We also provide counselling service for former service personnel who have found life difficult outside of the service, where their needs were taken care of. When they went out, they fell by the wayside and we are picking up the pieces. The public may not be aware of what O.N.E. does or what is needed to be done. Everyone relies in emergencies on the defence forces, such as when there are floods, severe weather, other emergencies, the defence forces are needed, but when people leave, they walk out the gates, they are gone, they are not needed any more, and people forget about them. We must remember and offer support for those men who have served the country at home and abroad.”

It was an emotional occasion last Saturday, which I will broadcast on my programme and podcast – the Maritime Ireland Radio Show – from next Monday.


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