Aiken’s Ships

At the start of World War 2 the Irish Free State had very few ships. It must be understood that the country was then very young as a free nation in its own right. It was slowly recovering from the struggle for Independence from England and the disaster of a Civil War. As a country in its own right it was about 15 years independent; that was the 26 counties that made up The Irish Free State. Naturally any island country depends on a shipping fleet for the exportation and importation of goods and supplies. Most of the trading with Ireland was British owned and servicing the island was a profitable business.


Ireland had for some years declared a policy of neutrality, when war broke out in 1939 the country came under extreme pressure from Britain and the United States of America to drop its policy of neutrality and join with the Allies in the fight against Germany. Bear in mind that at this stage the U.S. itself was neutral and did not become involved in the war until after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in late 1941 and then it was Germany who declared war on America.


The Irish Government then formed the Irish Shipping Company and purchased or leased some vessels that would be suitable for trans-Atlantic trading. A total of about 20 Irish ships small and large were lost in the early stages of the war. Some were destroyed by mines laid in the English Channel; others attacked by air craft and U-boats. The British were deliberately cutting back on the shipping of supplies to Ireland. Eamon deValera and his government decided that it should try to buy or lease some ships from America for the situation was now desperate. deValera choose to send one of his most trusted Ministers on this mission. In February 1941 Frank Aiken was sent to deal directly with the American Government. The British used their influence with the Roosevelt administration to block the sale of any ships to Ireland as long as the country remained neutral. During an interview with the President on the matter, Roosevelt said that if Ireland was invaded by Germany his country would come to the aid of Ireland. Aiken being aware that his country was also in grave danger of being invaded by Britain at this stage asked the President would he also come to aid of Ireland if that happened. Roosevelt lost his temper at this stage and the interview came to an end. The president and his government were not very popular with a number of the strong Irish/American associations.


While attending a function organised by one of the groups it was suggested to Frank Aiken that he should approach a high ranking officer in the U.S. Navy. This officer was Lieutenant Commander Abigail Pillsbury a lady with strong Irish ancestry. She was the first female to have achieved high rank in the U.S. navy. Born on 5th May 1910 she died aged 75 on 19th May 1985. Abigail’s father was Henry Like and her mother was Abigail Mary Frances O’Connor who lived in Seattle. The meeting between her and Frank Aiken was very successful and in her words “Aiken got his ships”.


It was announced on 21st May 1941 that two American ships had been chartered to Ireland for the duration of the war. The vessels were part of the U.S. Marine Commission Reserve Fleet. The West Neris was renamed “The Irish Oak” and the West Hematite named “The Irish Pine”. It is important to record and honour the work accomplished by L.C.D.R. Pillsbury for the Irish nation. It is worth noting at this stage that on 21st January 1941 the deValera government had made an agreement with Britain permitting the Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh based flying boats to use a four mile stretch of neutral territory from Belleek to Ballyshannon. This flight path became known as “The Donegal Corridor”. It enabled the flying boats to extend their range by at least 100 miles when giving protection to the Allied shipping convoys sailing to and from Britain, the U.S. and Canada. This agreement had a major bearing on the Battle of the Atlantic; the dreaded U-Boats were playing havoc on allied shipping. It was the longest battle of World War 2 lasting from September 1939 until May 1945. Mr. Churchill was only to well aware of the Donegal Corridor and the many other ways in which neutral Ireland was assisting the allied cause, but still he tried to block the sale of ships to Ireland.


In the years after the war Abigail was a regular visitor to Europe, when possible she would come to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day and she was given a place of honour on the platform at the G.P.O. to view the parade. In the afternoon she attended the Railway Cup Football and Hurling finals in Croke Park where she rightly received V.I.P. treatment.


It was sad that “The Irish Pine” was torpedoed and sunk in mid Atlantic with the loss of all 33 hands on board. This happened just after midnight on 15th November 1942, its Captain was M. O’Neill, the youngest crew member was Eamon Donagh aged 18 years; the oldest John Nolan aged 60 years. U-608 was captained by Rolf Struckmeier. The Irish Pine was clearly marked with the letters ‘EIRE’ and flew the Irish flag. On 15th May 1943 ‘The Irish Oak’ was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic by U-607; thankfully the crew under Captain E. Jones were saved. It is strange that both the Irish ships were sunk under similar circumstances and both U-boats with numbers so close together.


When Allied convoys were attacked by U-boats and ships sunk, the other ships were under strict orders not to stop and try to rescue and survivors as this would leave them open to further attacks fro the U-boats. Irish boats refused to take the orders and as a result they rescued about 700 British seamen from the Atlantic.


Many years after the war Belleek man Sean O’Loughlin was on holiday in the U.S. when a mutual friend introduced him to Abigail Pillsbury and naturally the conversation turned to the story of Aiken’s ships. Abigail said, “Anyhow Sean you would not know any of the people concerned”.  Sean replied, “Abigail, you will be surprised to learn that my sister – Eileen is married to Frank Aiken, Junior the son of your good Irish friend”. So another friendship between Ireland and the U.S was established.