Explorer Tom Crean – The Irish Giant
Tom Crean was born to Patrick and Catherine Crean, on 25th of February 1877, at Gurtuchrane, near Annascaul in Co. Kerry, Ireland. Tom’s was one of ten children, and the family lived in harsh, poverty stricken circumstances, on their farm. This was a time when potato famine was a constant threat to families like the Creans, who depended dearly on the crops annual yield for survival. For much of Tom’s infant life the potato crop suffered badly, and it is safe to assume, that the Crean family would have struggled desperately at this time.
Tom probably left school around the age of 12, with little more than the ability to read and write, and he would have done so to help out on the family farm. It is thought that one day while at work on the farm, and tending to cattle, Tom allowed them to stray into a field of potatoes, much to his father’s annoyance, and during the resulting argument, Tom vowed to run away to sea.
He was still a boy of only 15 years of age when he arrived at the nearby Royal Navy coastguard station, at Minard, and signed up to join Queen Victoria’s fleet. He was officially enlisted on 10th July 1893.
His formative years in the Navy show him to have been a hard working, obedient and accomplished sailor and by September 1899 he had made it to the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class, and shortly afterwards he was assigned to Ringarooma, which was operating in Australian waters. Tom had no inkling as to how this assignment would eventually lead him on the road, to a life of adventure and heroism , on the vast frozen continent of Antarctica.
In 1901 at the port of Littleton in New Zealand, the captain of Ringarooma was asked to assist Robert Falcon Scott as he readied his ship Discovery, for an exploration foray into the uncharted, wastes of Antarctica. Work parties were duly dispatched to help with the final preparations, and Tom Crean was most likely amongst their numbers.
Then fate played its hand. A member of the Discovery crew, a man by the name of Harry Baker was involved in an altercation, and struck a Petty Officer, and rather than stay and face his punishment, he deserted, leaving Discovery a man short. Scott’s only hope of replenishing his crew, was to request a replacement from Ringarooma, and when the call went out, it was 24 year old Tom Crean who volunteered to voyage southwards. And so it began!
Crean would partake in five major sledging journeys on the Discovery expedition and was one of a group of twelve men who would stand at 79º 15′ S. This was the furthest south any humans had been at this time, and Scott, Shackleton and Wilson forged ahead in an attempt to reach the Pole, whilst the others returned. The three man team would make it to 82º 17′ S, before abandoning the quest, almost 500 miles short of the South Pole, and suffer a tortuous return trip, which they were lucky to survive.
On the Discovery expedition, Tom Crean also experienced being caught out in temperatures as low as -54 C, falling through thin ice into frigid waters, twice almost losing his life as a result and of course living on a ship that is completely entrapped by ice, for almost two years. When Discovery finally slipped from its icy hold and returned to Portsmouth in September 1904, Tom had firmly established himself as one of the most reliable and valuable crew members aboard, so much so that Scott singled him out for special mention for his ‘meritorious service throughout‘ and promoted him to Petty Officer 1st Class.
Tom Crean continued life in the Navy and in 1906 Scott, whom he had made such an impression upon, invited Tom to serve with him on the Victorious, an invitation he duly accepted.
In 1907 Ernest Shackleton, who had served with Scott on Discovery, launched his own assault on the Pole with the Nimrod expedition. Shackleton, Frank Wild, Jameson Adams and Eric Marshall trudged to within 97 miles of the pole before being forced to return. Shackleton felt they could have reached the Pole, but was certain all would die on the homeward trek. A wise decision as the group only just survived the appalling return march, and eventually made it back to base with a new Furthest South record.
The success of the Nimrod expedition spurred Scott with desire and belief, and in June 1910 he sailed in the Terra Nova, on a mission to finally claim the South Pole, and Tom Crean was with him. While Terra Nova was docked in Melbourne Australia, in October, Scott received a telegram from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, informing Scott of his departure for Antarctica aboard the Fram. The race for the Pole had begun.
After leaving New Zealand in November, Terra Nova was fortunate to survive a violent hurricane, as it voyaged southwards, but by January 1911 the men were on the ice.
Crean and the crew worked tirelessly hauling tons of supplies, hundreds of miles across the ice, in an effort to establish a route of supply depots for the attempt at the Pole. On the return journey from one such excursion, having put in place the “One Ton Depot”, 130 miles from Hut Point, disaster was only narrowly averted.
Crean, Garrard and Bowers decided to pitch tents for the night, and unwittingly, they did so on very unstable ice. They awoke during the night to discover the ice was breaking up beneath them. The men were soon adrift on an ice floe, separated from their sledge and equipment, and one of their horses was lost to the dark icy water.
It was Tom Crean who sprang into action, as the men were circled by a group of killer whales, leaping from floe to floe, until he got near enough to the towering icy face of the Barrier, which he somehow managed to scale. No doubt exhausted by such an arduous and dangerous ascent, he still managed to trek across the Barrier and raise the alarm, leading to the rescue of Garrard and Bowers.
Later, Crean was one of the large group that departed with Scott in November 1911 for the attempt at the South Pole. This journey had three stages: 400 statute miles (640 km) across the Barrier, 120 statute miles (190 km) up the heavily crevassed Beardmore Glacier to an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 m) above sea level, and then another 350 statute miles (560 km) to the Pole.
Scott had always intended a final party of four men, himself included, would complete the final stage to the Pole. By the New Year of 1912, all but two four man sledge teams had completed their toils and had returned to Cape Evans. Then when they were 150 miles short of the Pole, Scott announced that his Polar Party would consist of 5 men, namely Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Taff Evans and Oates. Crean, Bill Lashly and Lieutenant Teddy Evans were ordered back.
It was a huge blow to Crean, who rightly felt he should have been among the Polar Party. Of the eight men who stood on the ice that day, within striking distance of the South Pole, Tom Crean was the fittest, the strongest, and probably the most capable of completing the task, and survive the homeward journey.
But Scott did not pick his men on the grounds of fitness an vigour alone. Instead he allowed sentiment and indecision to cloud his decision. **
So instead of a glorious push for the Pole, Crean, Lashly and Evans now faced the prospect of hauling their sledge on a 750 mile return trek, having already spent 9 arduous weeks on the ice. On the fourth of January they waved off the Polar Party, and watched as they slowly disappeared into the vast white distance, never to be seen alive again.
And now their own race for survival also began. They trudged and hauled across 230 miles of the Polar Plateau, then 120 miles down the Beardmore Glacier encountering numerous dangers, and near death experiences, before the final 400 miles, across the Barrier, stood between them and the sanctuary of one the huts.
By late January, Evans was displaying signs of scurvy, and by mid February he was unable to walk. At this point he ordered Crean and Lashly to leave him behind, and save themselves. This was an order both men refused to obey, and instead they placed the stricken Evans on the sledge and heroically hauled onwards. With immense effort and resolve, with little food, and with Evans on the verge of death, they got to within 35 miles of Hut Point, but that was actually a four or five day march away, at their current pace, and their situation was bleak, at best.
Fearing Evans would die unless something drastic was done, Tom Crean decided to strike for Hut Point himself, leaving Lashly to care for Evans in a hastily erected tent. Crean took no sleeping bag with him as he did not intend stopping until he had reached help, and the only sustenance he carried were a couple of biscuits and some chocolate. Yet, amazingly after 18 hours Crean arrived at Hut Point, just ahead of a ferocious blizzard, and raised the alarm. It was February 19th and Tom Crean had just completed an act which has been widely hailed as the single most, greatest act of bravery, in the history of exploration. When the blizzard had passed a rescue team set off to find Evans and Lashly, and politely refused Crean’s plea to join them.
An eternally grateful Evans would survive the ordeal, and would later dedicate his book South With Scott to both Crean and Lashly, for their bravery. But of course the story did not end there.
By late October, when Scott and his team had failed to return, Tom Crean joined a search party which went back across the ice, in an attempt to find their comrades. On November 12th it was Crean who noticed something unusual protruding through the snow. It turned out to be the top of a tent and inside the men discovered the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Crean wept bitterly as he kissed Scott on the forehead, before the tent was collapsed over the deceased men, and a cairn of snow was constructed over it, and topped with a cross. Journals and final letters, which would tell the story of the Polar Party’s desperate last struggles, were removed from the tent beforehand.
The surviving members of the Terra Nova expedition arrived at Lyttelton, New Zealand on the 12th of February 1913. They would later be presented with their Polar Medals, at Buckingham Palace by King George, and Tom Crean and Lashly were both awarded the Albert Medal, for their bravery, in saving the life of Lieutenant Evans.
Less than one year after returning from the Terra Nova expedition, Tom Crean was on his way back to Antarctica again, this time at the request of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton was leading the Endurance on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which would be an attempt to walk across the frozen continent, from coast to coast, via the South Pole.
Crean was well known to Shackleton, as both men had served together on Robert Falcon Scott’s, Discovery Expedition, and there is no doubt that Shackleton was anything but highly impressed, having learnt of the heroic bravery and endeavour Tom Crean displayed on Scott’s ill fated Terra Nova expedition.
So it was no surprise that Shackleton sought the inclusion of Tom Crean, among his crew’s number. What was perhaps surprising was the fact that Crean accepted the offer, and would return to Antarctica, so soon after the horrors of the Scott expedition.
Tom Crean joined the Endurance as Second Officer, and in doing so became the only man, from a crew of more than 30, that had travelled on Terra Nova, to ever return to Antarctica.
Again Crean would excel on this quest, albeit none of the expeditions aims were achieved by the Endurance, but what did unfold from this chapter of failure, was one of, if not the greatest survival story, of all time.
The Endurance was trapped by the pack ice of the Weddell Sea, before they even got the chance to set foot on Antarctic shores. Weeks of entrapment turned into months, and eventually the ship would be pulverised by the ice and it sank into the icy depths of the Weddell.
The men tried to trek to land by hauling their supplies in modified lifeboats, but on each occasion progress was futile. They camped on the vast ice floes at Ocean Camp, and Patience Camp. These were places the men named themselves, and each camp was situated at the point that their attempted treks were abandoned.
Then as the ice began to fracture beneath Patience camp, the men evacuated in the three lifeboats that had been salvaged from the wreck of the Endurance.
Tom Crean effectively took command of the most vulnerable of the three vessels, the Stancomb Wills, on a hair raising, seven day voyage to the temporary refuge of Elephant Island. Crean and the other seven men aboard, endured horrific conditions throughout, as they battled severe winds, and enormous seas, while being constantly drenched in freezing conditions, and suffering from acute sea-sickness and diarrhoea.
After heroically guiding the Wills to Elephant Island, and being one of only two men able to stand after the effort, Crean was soon among the six man crew, that would attempt to reach the outpost of South Georgia, some 800 miles away, across the Weddell Sea. Their only hope of rescue lay with the Norwegians who manned the whaling stations, on the otherwise uninhabited island.
On Easter Monday 1916, Shackleton, Crean, McCarthy, McNish, Worsley and Vincent set sail on the modified James Caird , which was the largest of the three lifeboats, and they pitched themselves against all the might of the most violent stretch of water in the world – the Weddell Sea.
After two weeks of incredible hardship, endurance and indeed fortune, the men had managed to reach South Georgia, just as a violent hurricane formed around them. Despite being so close to their target the men could not make shore, for fear of being smashed against the rocky approaches to the island. They would spend a further two nights at sea in a constant battle to stay afloat in the midst of a hurricane, that would sink the 500 ton Argentinian ship, Argos , only ten miles away, with the loss of all on board.
The James Caird however, did survive the ordeal, and the pitifully fatigued men eventually landed their craft on South Georgia on May 10th. The problem was they had landed on the wrong side of the island, and the salvation of the Norwegian whaling stations was still a boat journey of around 130 miles, from where they were, but the Caird which had lost its rudder during the landing, was unseaworthy.
The only option now available to the men was to cross the unexplored and uncharted interior of South Georgia. After a few days recuperation, only three of the men were in any fit state to attempt such a feat. They were Shackleton, Crean and Worsley.
In the early hours of May 19th the men roped themselves together and climbed into the unknown interior of the island. They faced peaks, glaciers, crevasses and freezing temperatures, all of which they overcame on a continuous 37 hour march, which ended with their miraculous arrival at the Stromness whaling station on the islands eastern coast.
Rescue was quickly arranged for the stranded McCarthy, McNish and Vincent, but as for the men awaiting help, far away on Elephant Island, it would take considerably more time.
After three failed attempts to reach Elephant Island, on three different ships, each being halted by ice, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley finally returned on the 30th of August aboard the Yelcho and liberated the crew of Endurance from the their captive shore. No lives had been lost, despite the duration and the enormity of the ordeal they had been through. They had survived because each and every one of them had a will to do so, but also because their leader, Shackleton, was so driven by his desperate desire to save them, and he was lucky enough to have with him, men with the enduring stamina and bravery to undertake such impossible ventures, and survive. Men like Tom Crean.
Tom Crean did have a life away from the ice of Antarctica and on September 5th 1917 he married Ellen Herlihy who, like Tom was also from Annascaul. He continued to serve in the Navy, throughout World War 1, and beyond. The last ship Crean would serve on was the Hecla, and it was during this service he suffered a serious fall. As a result of this accident he would retire from the Navy on March 24th 1920, and return to Annascaul where he opened a pub, which he named The South Pole Inn.
Tom Crean never spoke of his exploits, never gave interviews and sadly left no memoirs of his exploits.
He was a modest character, who always seemed unfazed by the enormity of his achievements, but he had returned to Ireland as a man who had served in the British Navy, at a time when the country was in the middle of a battle for independence, from the very nation he had served under.
It was probably a wise decision not to speak of his exploits. Tragically Tom’s brother Cornelius, who was a serving RIC officer, was killed in an IRA ambush, in Ballinspittle, Co. Cork on the 25th of April 1920.
Ironically during the War of Independences Tom Creans home was raided by the much feared British, Black & Tans who ransacked his home, until chancing upon a photograph of him in British navy uniform, and thereafter they promptly left.
Tom and Ellen had three daughters, Mary Kate and Eileen, and they suffered the awful tragedy of losing little Kate when she was just four years old.
Tom The Pole as he was affectionately known to the locals, was a popular man who lived a relatively peaceful life in Annascaul, running The South Pole Inn. In 1938 Tom fell ill and was taken to Tralee General Hospital, with suspected appendicitis. With no surgeon on duty there, he was rushed to the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork and operated upon. But his appendix had burst, and infection soon set in.
Tom Crean died on July 27th 1938, he was 61 years old.