Three Vancouver men killed in separate Royal Canadian Air Force missions during the Second World War will be remembered at a gravesite ceremony in the Heverlee war cemetery in Belgium on Saturday.
Brothers Edward, Harry and Frank Sheehan were shot down in separate bombing missions during the war, but other than a small plaque that once hung in St. Patrick’s Parish church on Main Street in Vancouver, their deaths had, until now, been overlooked.
Event organizer Denis Buckley, an Irishman living in Brussels, has made it his mission to recognize and acknowledge the contribution of the tens of thousands of Irish citizens and Irish-born emigrants who served in both world wars.
“This family gave a greater sacrifice than I can even imagine,” said Buckley.
The story of the Irish-Canadian family that lost three of their sons fighting Nazi Germany might have been forgotten if not for the work of British historian Damian Shiels, who uncovered the tragedy while researching Irish emigrants who died while fighting for Canada in the Second World War.
When he discovered that three RCAF airmen shared a last name, Shiels said “a heartbreaking story began to reveal itself.”
Shiels calls it possibly the worst loss of life suffered by a single southern Irish family during Allied combat operations — one that had its roots in County Cork, Ireland, where the boys were born, and Vancouver, where they later settled.
James and Mary Ellen Sheehan’s family ran a successful bakery confectionary in Fermoy, Ireland, but decided to emigrate to Canada in the early 1920s, when Cork was ravaged by violence, separatist insurgency and civil war.
James and his eldest son, James Jr., arrived in Vancouver first to set up a home and, a year later in 1926, his wife Mary Ellen arrived with their children Thomas, Maureen, Joseph, Michael, Edward, Francis and Henry, who ranged in ages from four to 19.
Over the next decade the family prospered. The youngest boys, Edward, Francis (known as Frank) and Henry (known as Harry) all attended St. Patrick’s secondary in Mount Pleasant in Vancouver, and attended mass each week at nearby St. Patrick’s.
In 1939, war broke out. By 1940 Harry, Frank and Edward had enlisted with the RCAF. Harry, who was skilled in Morse code, arrived in England in 1942, and served as a warrant officer; Frank and Edward, both flight sergeants, arrived next, Frank in November 1942 and Edward in June 1943.
According to Shiels, Harry was serving as a wireless operator and air gunner on a Lancaster Mark 1 of 57 Squadron, on a mission to attack targets in Duisburg, Germany, on May 12, 1943, when they were brought down by a Luftwaffe night fighter over the Netherlands. Harry was just 24.
Frank, an air gunner on a Lancaster III and part of 460 Squadron, lost his life when his plane was brought down near the German town of Oberhaching on Oct, 2, 1943. Frank was 26.
Edward, stationed in England, had fallen in love and married a local girl, Mary Webb, on Oct. 20, 1943. In April 1944 Edward’s aircraft, a Halifax LV783, on which Edward served as a bomb aimer, was shot down over Belgium. Edward’s wife later gave birth to a son, Michael.
It’s by Edward’s grave at Heverlee war cemetery that Buckley will lead the graveside tribute.
“We owe it to those Irish who died,” Buckley said in a phone interview from Belgium. “Lest we forget their family’s sacrifice, these boys fought fascism. They took it on to defend democracy, and lost their lives.”
Valerie McIntosh, 66, the daughter of Tommy Sheehan, said she’s deeply moved by the efforts to recognize the loss of her father’s three youngest brothers.
“My father didn’t talk about it,” said McIntosh. “That’s the way the men in the family were.”
Tommy Sheehan also served in the war but survived. Over the years the family would visit St. Patrick’s to worship and to view the plaque with the brothers’ names on it.
“When they rebuilt the church and renovated it the plaque disappeared,” said McIntosh.
The family asked parish priests and construction workers but no one seemed to know, and no efforts were made to replace the plaque.
Now, thanks to Shiels’ research, the City of Fermoy in County Cork is planning to erect a plaque in their honour and, when they do, MacIntosh said she and her brothers plan to attend.
For Buckley, who works with the Irish in Europe Association, the graveside remembrance ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 9, is part of a greater effort to recognize the contribution of the Irish in the world wars.
Because of historical enmity between Britain and Ireland, the contributions of the Irish to Allied forces in the wars had largely been ignored outside of Ireland, said Buckley.
Buckley estimates about 70,000 Irish citizens joined the Allies in the Second World War, and some 12,000 died — the number is larger than official estimates because it includes soldiers of the Irish diaspora.
“The Irish were in the Canadian Army, the American, New Zealand and Australian forces. They defended Australia against the Japanese and got slaughtered in Gallipoli, rightly slaughtered,” said Buckley.
Buckley plans to recite the lines of a William Butler Yeats poem over the Sheehans’ grave: “They shall be remembered for ever/They shall be alive for ever/They shall be speaking for ever/The people shall hear them for ever.”