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Tom Crean – The Elephant Island rescue and the brave Chilean part in it

On 30th August 1916, at the fourth attempt at rescue, the Chilean vessel Yelcho, a tug built in Scotland in 1906 and sold to the Chilean Navy in 1908, sailed her way into the history books after partaking in the final act of a survival tale like no other as the Elephant Island rescue took place
 
Tom Crean - The Elephant Island rescue and the brave Chilean part in it Tom Crean BookAgainst the odds, the skilful piloting of the ship’s captain, Luis Pardo Villalon, had brought them to a point offshore where he anchored the ship off the coast of Elephant Island.
 
Watching from the shore, the elated expedition members of the ship Endurance, who for four and a half months had suffered unimaginable cold, hunger and deprivation, shrugged off the pains of their ordeal as they leapt and cheered with delight.
10 months earlier they had been forced to abandon their sinking ship and with it, all hopes of achieving the glory of being part of an expedition that would accomplish the first coast to coast crossing of Antarctica, 
 
Onboard Yelcho, the rescue vessel, were Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, the three main protagonists in in this remarkable drama. Their resilience, determination and tenacity had seen the them overcome almost impossible odds to arrive where they were now at.
 
From the deck of Yelcho they counted the crew members on the Elephant Island beach christened Cape Wild after Frank Wild, Shackleton’s deputy and the man left in charge of the stranded shore party.
 
Incredibly, not one man had been lost and Shackleton, Tom Crean and a group of Chilean sailors who formed part of the vessel’s volunteer crew, took to the lifeboats to bring the relieved party aboard the Yelcho. It was 1pm and, by 2pm, all the stranded shore party were aboard the tug boat heading north.
 
As they steamed into the Chilean port of Punta Arenas welcomed and escorted by a flotilla of boats four days later on 3rd September 1916, a fanfare of crowds cheering and brass bands playing were among the largest ever witnessed in the town to mark the return of the Yelcho approaching port.
 
They were there to cheer on heroes, every last one of them.
 
Central to this, the greatest survival and rescue story in maritime history, were the names Shackleton, Worsley and Tom Crean, the Kerryman who had, on two previous occasions, been a primary player in saving the lives of expedition colleagues whilst serving in Antarctica, most notably his historic 36 mile lifesaving, solo walk for which he’d received the Albert Medal for bravery.
 
For his vital part in the Elephant Island rescue, Luis Pardo was later offered a reward by the British Government, reputed to be £25,000, a huge amount for the time, yet the reluctant hero declined it stating “I was only doing my job.”
 
The measure of his character is revealed in a letter he wrote to his father when it was confirmed he had accepted the role of navigating Yelcho to attempt the rescue:

“The task is great, but nothing frightens me: I’m Chilean. Two considerations make me face these dangers: to save the explorers and to give glory to Chile. I’ll be happy if I could achieve what others can not. If I fail and die, you will have to take care of my Laura and my children, who are without any support except for yours. If I have success, I have done my duty as a seaman, a humanitarian and as a Chilean. When you read this letter, or your child will be dead or have reached Punta Arenas with the castaways. I will return not alone.”

In May 1930 Luis Pardo was appointed attaché to the Chilean Consul in Liverpool and it was recorded that, in the following month, he presented an illustrated lecture about the Elephant Island rescue at the Royal Institution whilst in the city. In the following years until his departure back to Chile in 1934, it’s likely he delivered a number lectures whist in England.
He passed away on 22nd February 1935, in Santiago, Chile
 
To this day Luis Pardo is deservedly feted and celebrated as a National Hero in Chile.
 
In contrast, Tom Crean returned to Ireland, rarely spoke about his exploits and, after a century, recognition of his achievements existed only in the form of a solitary, privately funded bronze statue facing the South Pole Inn that was his home. That is, until January 2021, 11 years after the campaign created to earn him official state recognition, bore fruit and a scientific vessel, RV Tom Crean, yet to be launched, was named in his honour.
 
Tom Crean - The Elephant Island rescue and the brave Chilean part in it Tom Crean BookThe image shown here is a magazine centre spread titled ‘Antártica: preocupación de 5 continentes’ which the National Library of Chile kindly allowed me to share in this image for the article.
 
The memorial piece lists not just the more recognisable names of Shackleton’s expedition members but those of the brave Chilean crew members of Yelcho, whose part is often overlooked in written accounts of this dramatic rescue. Without them and their brave Captain, the historic Elephant Island rescue would never have taken place.
 
Today we remember and salute the courage of every one of the men mentioned here.
 

Discover Tom Crean’s Story Revealed As Never Before

Tom Crean - The Elephant Island rescue and the brave Chilean part in it Tom Crean BookTo learn more about this incredible man I’ve written a fully-referenced account that in March 2021 gave rise to substantial revisions to Crean’s story in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

The book addresses a number of inaccuracies previously written about him and it reveals his incredible life with events and new stories that have never before been published.

All formats of the third edition of the biography ‘Crean – The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero’, including a hardcover version and an audiobook, are available via all major online retailers

Tom Crean - The Elephant Island rescue and the brave Chilean part in it Tom Crean BookFor children, aged 6-10 years-old, it was important for me to chronicle Tom Crean’s story for the younger generation. The book ‘Tom The Mighty Explorer’, is based on the research I undertook for the grown-ups biography. Like the adult version, it’s generating excellent reviews from those who’ve read the print version or who have listened to the audiobook. Available via all major online booksellers, you can discover more about where to order the books here.

 
Image credit to Memoria Chilena
Biblioteca Nacional de Chile
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