Family’s tragic story of wartime loss uncovered

From left, Harry Sheehan, the youngest of the brothers, Frank Sheehan, and Edward Sheehan. Pictures: Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Canada

Good historians and archaeologists don’t sit on their laurels.

That’s why Damian Shiels is appealing to the public to provide him with more information about three brothers from Co Cork who lost their lives fighting alongside the Canadians in the Second World War.

Mr Shiels has already amassed a considerable amount of information on the three Sheehan brothers, but is seeking further details in what has to be one of the most extraordinary and heartrending stories of Irish involvement in any war.

“A little over a year ago, while working on files relating to servicemen who lost their lives in the Canadian forces, I noted similarities in a number of the documents that suggested some of the men may be related.

“Exploring further, a heartbreaking story began to reveal itself — a story of one Cork family’s unimaginable loss,” he said.

They were born to a shopkeeper at Queen’s Square (now Pearse Square) in Fermoy.

Queen Square — now Pearse Square — in Fermoy, Co Cork, where the Sheehans lived before emigrating to Canada. Picture: National Library of Ireland

Its proprietor James Joseph Sheehan, a baker and confectioner, had married Mary Ellen Hearne in her native Co Carlow around 1905.

“Ultimately, the couple went on to have eight children — seven boys and a girl,” Mr Shiels said. “They decided to emigrate to Vancouver in British Columbia.”

On July 31, 1925, James Joseph boarded the SS Melita at Cobh along with his eldest son, 20-year-old James Jr. They spent the next few months getting everything ready for the rest of the family and on November 25, 1926, Mary Ellen and the remaining children boarded the SS Minnedosa at Cobh.

Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, the Sheehans became embedded in Canadian life and took up citizenship.

A picture of Frank’s temporary grave marker, sent to his family by the Canadian military. Picture: Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa

With the outbreak of war, a number of the children turned their thoughts to military service.

Thomas saw service with the 4th Battalion of The Canadian Scottish Regiment, while Michael went to sea with HMCS Laurier. The three youngest — Edward, Francis (Frank) and Henry (Harry) — all set their sights on the skies.

Mr Shiels said their initial enlistment into the Royal Canadian Air Force reveals something of their pre-war lives and character.

Harry, the youngest, enjoyed playing baseball and tennis, and worked as a messenger for CN Telegraphs until 1939. His job had taught him how to send Morse code, a skill that would eventually see him become a wireless operator.

Frank had been a pantryman in the dining car department of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and served as a messman in the Air Force. His determination to succeed finally paid off in 1942 when his assessor reported: “has been trying to get into aircrew for a couple of years now. Believe he might be able to make A.G. [Air Gunner] due to his determination to fight in the air”.

The actual Lancaster — JA856 — that Frank Sheehan was aboard during the ill-fated Munich mission. Picture: Australian War Memorial

Frank was described as a “keen and determined type. Likes action and should succeed”.

The eldest of the three, Edward, had worked as a vulcaniser, re-capping tyres for the Commercial Tire Company in Vancouver before signing up. He played football with the Knights of Columbus, as well as badminton, baseball, and soccer.

“Perhaps mercifully, by the time all three were deployed for active service their mother had passed away, dying on May 6, 1941, and their father would afterwards remarry,” Mr Shiels said.

Harry was the first to head for England to finish his training, arriving in the middle of 1942. He would serve as a Warrant Officer. Frank, a Flight Sergeant, arrived on November 30, 1942, with Edward, also a Flight Sergeant, following in June 1943.

Edward’s grave listed his initials as “R.C.” apparently a result of the burial party mistaking his religious denomination ‘Roman Catholic’ for his initials.

Bombs being loaded onto a Halifax of 51 Squadron at RAF Snaith. Picture: Imperial War Museum

“The horrors that the Sheehan family experienced between May 1943 and April 1944 are unimaginable,” Mr Shiels said.

“It’s hard to process the realities of what it meant to have ‘paid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom’.

“It’s appropriate that we in Ireland remember Harry, Frank, and Edward, together with all those other Irish emigrants who made the ultimate sacrifice between 1939 and 1945.”

He is eager to hear from anyone who may have more information on the family, or from anyone who has details on Irishmen and women in general who served in Canadian or American forces during the Second World War.

Anyone who can assist Mr Shiels can email him at: irishamericancivilwar @gmail.com.

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