Turtle Bunbury

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Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo. January 1962. John Flannery returned to his kitchen clutching the rusty old biscuit tin to his chest. Conversation ceased around the table as all eyes focused on the tin, its dull sheen glinting with the flames of the turf fire. Outside the snow continued to fall, as it had been doing for several days.

John coughed nervously. The 52-year-old bachelor farmer was not used to such distinguished guests. After all, it’s not every day that a motor cavalcade led by the Commander of a United States Destroyer arrives at your front door.

At length he ran his finger beneath the lid of the tin and eased it open. One by one he passed the contents over to Commander Albert Sackett. All nine medals were there. The two Medals of Honour. The two bars, the medal and the pin for ‘Good Conduct’. And the four medals awarded for service in the Spanish Campaign, the Philippines and World War One.[i]

Commander Sackett quietly wolf-whistled. Only four days earlier, he had sailed up the Liffey into Dublin at the head of one of the US Navy’s latest destroyers. The ship was named for an Irish serviceman called John King. And now here he was sitting in the same thatched cottage where the original John King was born, being presented with his medal collection by the late mans’ next-of-kin.

John Flannery was delighted for Commander Sackett to take the medals away. It’s what old John would have wanted, he reasoned. And so the convoy left Ballinrobe and drove east through the snow back to their ship in Dublin.

By the time the USS John King was mobilized for the Cuban Missile Crisis later that year, the Mayo man’s medals were proudly displayed in the crew’s mess area.

The John King proved a useful addition to the US fleet given that she was armed with a Tartar supersonic missile, at that time the world’s most powerful anti-aircraft weapon. She went on to serve in Vietnam and clocked close on thirty years of service before she was decommissioned in 1990.

The ship was sold for scrap nine years later. But in the meantime, John King’s medals vanished. Their fate remains unknown but two men are determined to track them down. Patrick Gorman, a military historian from Dixon, Illinois, and Ron Howko, Commander of American Legion Post No. 3 in Claremorris, Co. Mayo.[ii]

On 4th September 2010, both men were present when a large crowd gathered in the sunshine to watch Tony Killeen, the Minister of Defence, unveil a bronze statue to John King in Ballinrobe’s Cornmarket Square.[iii] In the life-size bronze by eminent Co. Down born sculptor Rick Lewis, MBE, John King is depicted with one Medal of Honour on his chest and the other held in his hand. Sadly his descendents do not have quite such a firm grip on the read medals.

Gorman, who is closely associated with Michael Feeney’s acclaimed Mayo Peace Park, says he has tried repeatedly to interest the US Navy Department in the fate of King’s medals with no success. ‘We have tried every path there is but there is just no trace of the original medals’, concurred Howko. However, amongst those at the 4h September ceremony was US Senator Christopher Dodd.

Howko is a veteran US military broadcaster who settled in Swinford, Co. Mayo, fourteen years ago with his Irish wife, Helen. He frequently champions the cause of Irish men and women who served in the US Army and is particularly interested in the story of those who won a Medal of Honour.

He reels off the statistics with unconcealed pleasure. Of the thirty three countries to have fought alongside the US during its various wars, Ireland has won more Medals of Honour than any other. 258 Irishmen have received the coveted medal. Only 19 men in the world have been awarded two of these medals and six of those 19 were Irish.

And one of those six men was John King of Ballinrobe. ‘To win two of those medals is an extraordinary achievement’, says Howko. ‘It doesn’t happen anymore. Nobody will ever receive two medals again’.

John King was born in Curragh Buí, a couple of miles south of Ballinrobe, on 7th February 1862, just as the American Civil War was erupting 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.[iv] The Medal of Honour, with which he was twice decorated, was established in July 1862. (The day before his birth, General Ulysses S. Grant gave the Union Army its first taste of victory when he captured Fort Henry, Tennessee).

John’s parents were Michael King, a farmer, and Ellen Flannery, a native of Cushlough.[v] At the age of 24, John emigrated to the USA, arriving in New York on April 14th 1886. Seven years later, he joined the US Navy with which he served for the next 26 years, re-enlisting six times.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898-1899, the 5' 11” brown-eyed Irishman served upon the USS Massachusetts. The 10,288-ton battleship played a vital role in helping the US win the war, with its blockade action off the coast of Cuba and Puerto Rico. John held the rank of Watertender which meant he was stationed deep down in the ship’s fire-room, responsible for "tending" water to the steam-boilers and seeing that all fires were properly cleaned and stoked. This was sweltering hot, intensely grimy and often dangerous work.[vi]

As he watched the fires belch beneath the ship’s steam-powered Scotch boilers, the Mayo man must have reflected, time and time again, upon the fate of the battleship USS Maine, the pride of the US Navy, which had suddenly and unaccountably exploded off the coast of Havana in February 1898, with the loss of 266 lives. The cause of the tragedy, which ultimately precipitated the Spanish-American War, remains unknown but an undetected fire in one of her coal bunkers is considered one of the most likely reasons.

John King was awarded a Good Conduct Badge as well as the Sampson Medal and the Spanish Campaign Medal for his services during the war. In 1900, he transferred to the gunboat USS Vicksburg when she sailed from Boston via the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal to the Philippines to crush a revolt by Filipino revolutionaries opposed to the recent annexation of the islands by Washington. This was where Watertender King received his first Medal of Honour.

Many years later, addressing a crowd of prospective naval recruits in Central Park, he recalled the event with characteristic modesty. ‘In 1901, while lying off Port Isabella in the Philippines a boiler on the Vicksburg exploded. I went down and shut off the main stop of the boiler and smothered it up with blankets and towels. Seven others got letters of recommendation from the Government, and I got a Medal of Honour’.[vii]

The Medal came with a citation for ‘Heroism in the line of his profession’ signed by President Teddy Roosevelt himself. John remained on the Vicksburg for the last two years of its tour, cruising the coasts of China, Japan and Korea, returning to Washington in June 1904.

John King visited his family in Ballinrobe in 1908 but returned to New York via Queenstown (Cobh) that summer.[viii] The following year, the tall, dark-haired Mayo man earned his second Congressional Medal when he prevented another near fatal accident in the boiler room of the USS Salem, a light scout cruiser and one of the US Navy’s first turbine-engined warships. The ship was at sea on the Atlantic at the time. As John King later recalled to the recruits in Central Park, there was ‘another explosion in a boiler [which] carried away the tube and twelve men in the fire-room stood in danger of being scalded to death. I was in the fire-room, and turned on the blowers full force. There was 310 pounds of steam on at the time. I was badly scalded on the arms, but went back to the fire-room and stayed until the engineer of the watch found me, and sent me to sick bay. We got all the men out of the fire-room, and only one was injured’.

The 47-year-old Irishman received the medal for ‘extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession’ by President William Taft. He was also advanced to the rank of Chief Water Tender.

John King became a naturalized US citizen in November 1912. He was honourably discharged from the Navy in 1916 but was recalled at the age of 54 when the US joined the fight against Germany in World War I.

In 1917, he married Delia McKenna, a Ballinrobe lady whose family once had a public house in The Cornmarket where John King’s statue stands today. Her family home is now occupied by Flannery’s Pub.

He served in the New York area until August 1919, after which he settled permanently at 167 Sands Street, Brooklyn, and was employed as a Watchman.

On 27th August 1920, he returned to New York from a visit to Ireland on the Baltic, which sailed out of Liverpool. This appears to have been something of a reconnaissance mission because in September 1921, the grey-haired 59-year-old double Medal of Honour recipient returned to his Irish homeland with his wife and settled back in Currabee. With the country about to tear itself apart during the Civil War, the Mayo-man must have experienced greatly mixed emotions upon his arrival.

In Ballinrobe he was recalled as ‘as fine a looking man as you'd see walking down the street - particularly when he had his long overcoat on’. One of his kinsmen, retired Chief Garda Superintendent Michael Burke, spoke last week of how he had run errands for Mr King when he was a small boy during the 1930s, for which he was paid a meaty five shillings a pop.

Ann Reid, whose father Paddy King was John King's nephew, also remembered hearing of these visits. ‘My dad stayed with John’s sister, Mary King, in the family house at Curragh Buí for a number of years when he was a child and often recalled the times when John was actually staying back in Ireland. Dad would regularly be despatched into town for “messages”, which I am told were often heavy and in bottles!’ Paddy also told how the Irish-American hero enjoyed throwing sweets and coins to the children of the town.

Delia King died in 1936 and was buried in Ballinrobe. John returned to America where he broke a leg in Philadelphia. He died on 20th May 1938 in a military veterans’ hospital in Arkansas. Chief Water Tender King is buried at Calvary Cemetery, Hot Springs, Arkansas.[ix] His grave was unmarked until the 1960s and there are plans afoot to try and reinter him at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The USS John King was launched in 1961. ‘There was great excitement in the family when we heard that a US destroyer had been named after John’, says Ann Reid. ‘I remember trying to impress my school friends that our family name was on a big American ship, although I am not sure how impressed they actually were’. During his visit to Mayo, Commander Sackett also called in upon John King’s cousin Sister Bernadette at the Convent of Mercy while Mrs Mary O’Sullivan, John King’s sister-in-law, was invited to visit the ship in Dublin.

John’s will dictated that all of his medals be sent home to his sister Mary in Ballinrobe. When she died they passed to their cousin, John Flannery. He was the man who lent them to Commander Sackett when he called by in January 1962.

‘Those medals were taken in an age when there wasn’t bar codes or computer records’, says Howko. ‘And now they are either down in someone’s basement or they’re in a box in a warehouse waiting for some ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ moment. But the fact is the US Navy borrowed them from John King’s family in good faith and, nearly fifty years later, they still haven’t returned them. We want them back so that we can put them in on display along with all the other John King memorabilia in Ballinrobe Library.’

[NB: In the portrait photograph of John King, the Medal of Honor is on the left in the top row of medals. The photograph was probably taken soon after the First World War.]

With thanks to Ann Reid, Martin Coyle, Ron Howko and Pat Gorman.


[i] As well as his two Medals of Honour, he had won the Sampson Medal, The Spanish Campaign Medal, The Philippines Campaign Medal, WWI Victory Medal, one Good Conduct Medal Badge, (1899) The Good Conduct Pin, (1909) and two Good Conduct Bars, (1912 & 1916).

[ii] Patrick Gorman is closely associated with Michael Feeney who received a MBE for promoting Anglo Irish Relations and his outstanding work founding the Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar.

[iii] The life-size statue is the work of the Co. Down born sculptor Rick Lewis, MBE. The statue was the result of a combined initiative between the John King Memorial Committee and the Ballinrobe Community Development Council. Amongst those who attended were US Senator Chris Dodd, US Defence Attaché Lt Col Shawn Purvis, and Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny. Music was provided by the US Navy quintet “Five Brass”, who were specially flown in from Italy for the occasion. The Medal of Honour was modelled on that which Michael Gibbons of Newport, Co. Mayo, received for his service in the Spanish-American War off the coast of Cuba. It was lent to Rick Lewis by his great nice Mary Higgins of Westport. Mr Gibbons lay in an unmarked grave in Newport for 66 years until Ron Howko and the American Legion ordered a flat bronze grave marker from Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC and had a rededication over his grave. The American Forces Network broadcast this ceremony, as they did the unveiling of John King’s statue.

[iv] Some materials claim his date of birth as 1865. His passport states 1862.

[v] John Flannery, who later inherited the medals, was a grand nephew of Ellen Flannery. Her brother John married a Bridget O'Malley and they had a son John, who married a Bridget McHugh. Their son John Flannery was born in 1910 and inherited the house when John King's sister Mary died. He died in 1982 and is buried in the same grave in Ballinrrobe cemetery as Delia King (nee McKenna), John King's wife.

[vi] On the USS Maine for instance, the eight Scotch marine boilers generated a heat of 364 °F (184 °C).

[vii] OVERSEA FLIERS WITH NC-4.; Two Men Who Made Trip to Boost Navy Recruiting Campaign. The New York Times, July 27, 1919.

[viii] http://www.ellisisland.org/search/passRecord.asp?MID=08172992120921226944&FNM=JOHN&LNM=KING&PLNM=KING&CGD=M&bSYR=1862&bEYR=1862&first_kind=1&last_kind=0&TOWN=null&SHIP=null&RF=6&pID=101802011898

[ix] Check out http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9817