Tom Crean - Unsung Hero

by Michael Smith

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

Few men graced the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration at the start of the twentieth century more nobly than Tom Crean. The big, smiling Irishman was a colossal figure in an era that produced a succession of heroes and incredible tales of endurance and survival.

But, surprisingly, Tom Crean's contribution to the history of polar exploration has been largely forgotten. While generations have become familiar with the exploits of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, Mawson and the other great antarctic explorers of the age, Tom Crean has been badly served by history.

Tom Crean was, in fact, at centre stage in the high drama and figured prominently in three of the four major British expeditions to the Antarctic. Crean spent more time in the South than either Scott or Shackleton - and he outlived them both!

He distinguished himself on the Discovery Expedition in 1901-04 and more outstandingly on Scott's tragic last expedition between 1910-13. But his most celebrated feats were performed on the memorable Endurance Expedition in 1914-16, where he was among Ernest Shackleton's most able and loyal lieutenants.

Crean was the rare breed of character who managed to serve both the rivals, Scott and Shackleton, with equal distinction. He was also big enough to reject a personal appeal from Shackleton to join the Quest Expedition in 1921, the last hurrah of the Heroic Age that also proved to be Shackleton's last journey. Perhaps Crean knew the right time to quit.

However, there are good reasons why history has been unkind to Tom Crean and focused largely on men like Shackleton and Scott.

First, the officers and scientists were mostly middle-class, well-educated men who invariably left behind an endless supply of diaries, letters, paintings, photographs and shelf-loads of books. But Tom Crean came from the other side of the tracks. Crean was the poorly educated son of an Irish hill farmer in Kerry. As a result, Crean left a paltry legacy and only a handful of his letters survive to this day.

Second, Crean was a victim of the fractured history between Britain and Ireland. When his exploring days ended, Crean returned to Kerry. Ireland was then gripped by the war of independence with the British and one of his brothers, a policeman, was murdered at around this time.

Crean's associations with the British Navy left him vulnerable and therefore he deliberately chose not to speak about his remarkable exploits in the Antarctic with Scott and Shackleton. Crean never once gave an interview and rarely even spoke to his family about his adventurous life.

As a result, Crean's extraordinary life has remained untold for 80 years. Until now.

Crean rose from the most humble and impoverished circumstances to become one of the most prominent figures in the race to explore Antarctica. He was born in 1877 on a remote hillside farm near the small village of Anascaul on the picturesque Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland. At the age of 15 he ran away from the poverty and enlisted in the Royal Navy.

By chance his warship was moored in New Zealand around Christmas 1901. Also in port was Captain Robert Scott's Discovery, which was making last-minute preparations before departing on a two-year exploration to the unknown Antarctic continent. Then fate stepped in.

Shortly before departure, one of Scott's sailors attacked a Petty Officer and jumped ship, leaving the expedition a man short. Crean promptly volunteered for a trip to Terra Australis Incognita - the unknown southern land.

Discovery was Crean's Polar apprenticeship, where he learned about the rigours of the world's most inhospitable climate and joined many of the legendary names who would achieve enduring fame during the next two decades of polar exploration: Edgar Evans, Bill Lashly, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Frank Wild and Bill Wilson.

Crean returned to the Antarctic in 1910 with Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition. He marched to within 150 miles of the South Pole and was among the last men to see Scott's doomed party alive.

Crean wept at the disappointment of not going to the Pole. But he faced his own immense problems on the 750-mile trek back to base camp. The journey, with Bill Lashly and Lt Teddy Evans, was a race for life. Only Evans could navigate and their sledgemeter had broken, which forced the trio to retrace their tracks made on the outward journey to locate precious food and supply depots.

Their plight worsened when Evans was struck down by scurvy and had to be carried on the sledge. Evans ordered Crean and Lashly to leave him behind and save themselves. They refused.

But 35 miles from the safety of base camp, their strength finally gave out. Evans was placed in the tent and Tom Crean bravely volunteered to walk the final 35 miles across the icy terrain and treacherous crevasses to get help.

Crean strode off and his only food was two sticks of chocolate and three biscuits. He had no sleeping bag or tent and carried no stove to make a hot drink. He was also physically exhausted after the draining march of around 1,500 miles on an inadequate diet.

Crean walked, stumbled and crawled for 18 hours. Over his shoulder a deadly blizzard was gathering. Somehow he covered the 35 miles and collapsed on the floor of the hut, delirious with hunger and exhaustion. When revived by a tot of brandy, he volunteered to go back out onto the ice to rescue Lashly and Evans. Luckily his plea was rejected and Evans and Lashly were picked up by a dog team.

Tom Crean's solo march to save the life of Evans ranks as the greatest feat of individual heroism in the history of polar exploration and he was rightly awarded the Albert Medal, the highest recognition for gallantry.

However, Crean's incredible story was inevitably overshadowed by the ultimate tragedy of the five men in Scott's party who perished on the terrible return from the South Pole in 1912. To add the poignancy, Crean was in the search party that later found Scott's body.

It is not difficult to see why Sir Ernest Shackleton wanted the powerful and reliable Crean to accompany him on the Endurance Expedition in 1914, which aimed to make the first-ever crossing of the continent. Crean was appointed Second Officer on Endurance and was one of the men earmarked for the historic march.

The Endurance Expedition is the most memorable story of survival to emerge from the whole era of Polar exploration and the epic tale could not be told without recognizing the role of Crean.

It was on this expedition that Crean truly excelled. His reliability, formidable resolve and great mental strength were vital to Shackleton - particularly when the going got really tough. The biographer Roland Huntford declared that at the expedition's darkest moments, the only men Shackleton could trust were Frank Wild and Tom Crean.

Crean rose to the occasion soon after Endurance was crushed and the castaways launched the three little lifeboats for the perilous trip through dangerous ice floes to Elephant Island. Crean guided the little Stancomb Wills, the smallest and most vulnerable of the craft. Indeed, it was the Stancomb Wills - with Shackleton alongside Crean - that made the first historic landfall on Elephant Island.

It was typical that Crean should volunteer to join Shackleton on the hazardous 800-mile crossing of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia in the tiny James Caird, while 22 men remained behind on Elephant Island.

The Caird journey to South Georgia brought all Crean's qualities to the fore on the terrible crossing of the world's most feared piece of water. Somehow Crean even managed to find time for a joke and a song.

At the end of the harrowing ordeal, only three men were still standing - the indomitable Shackleton, the peerless navigator Frank Worsley and the indestructible Tom Crean.

It was inevitable, therefore, that these three men would make the first-ever forced march across the daunting peaks and dangerous glaciers of South Georgia to reach the whaling station at Stromness. The astonishing march took about 36 hours and the scale of their achievement is beyond belief. Duncan Carse, the explorer who retraced their steps 40 years afterwards, simply wrote: "I do not know how they did it, except they had to ..."

It was appropriate that Crean was involved in the final act of the Endurance Expedition, the rescue of the 22 men on Elephant Island. It took four attempts before they were able to break through the ice surrounding the island. But Crean stood alongside Shackleton as they rowed ashore to pick up the grateful castaways.

Crean, like the other men from Endurance Expedition, returned from the South to be plunged straight into the horrors of the First World War. Fortunately, he survived and continued to serve in the Navy until 1920, when he retired after 27 years of service.

Crean returned to his home village of Anascaulin Kerry and opened a pub, which he called The South Pole Inn. The delightful pub, which sits alongside a gentle flowing river, thrives and flourishes to this day and contains various items of Crean memorabilia to interest visitors and local people. It is also a suitable place to toast a great hero.

He was a contented and popular character in the village. Locals affectionately called him Tom the Pole.

But his contentment came to an abrupt end in the summer of 1938 when he was struck by peritonitis. Tom Crean, who had survived a life of unimaginable rigours and ever-present danger in Antarctica, died on 27 July 1938, a few days after his 61st birthday. He was buried alongside the river that flows peacefully past The South Pole Inn.

He was the great unsung hero of polar exploration and it is time to set the record straight. Tom Crean, more than most, deserves his rightful place in history.


© Michael Smith 2002. Michael Smith is a freelance journalist and author of An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean - Antarctic Survivor, available as follows:

Irish edition published by The Collins Press, Cork
UK edition published by Headline Books, London
US Edition Tom Crean: Unsung Hero of the Scott and Shackleton Antarctic Expeditions published by The Mountaineers Books, Seattle

He is also the author of I Am Just Going Outside, a biography of Captain Oates, and Sir James Wordie - Polar Crusader and has written two children's books on polar explorers.

 

Click here to join the Tom Crean Society, based in Annascaul, Ireland.

 

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