When I first read of John Gorman’s story, it was in disbelief and with a heavy heart. When I met John a few weeks ago that disbelief turned to awe and admiration as in front of me sat a gentle and humble man who has spent a lifetime fighting for his friends and his colleagues who formed part of “A” Coy, 35th Irish Infantry Battalion.
You see the pain etched in his face and hear sorrow in his voice when he recalls his memories, but you also hear pride in the journey that life has taken him on since September 1961, when he was a wide eyed innocent 17 year old private that was part of an Irish Contingent of the United Nations Peacekeepers deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When you sit down with John and he recalls his experiences you have to remind yourself that this is not a story, it was his truth, it was the truth, and the subsequent years of gathering information and campaigning for over 18 years in search for the truth to be recognised.
Between the 13th and 17th September 1961, 156 members of “A” Company, 35 Infantry Battalion were serving in the newly independent Republic of the Congo as part of a UN mission to keep the peace in a country that was descending into civil war. However what was Ireland’s first ever international military deployment mission turned into a battle of survival and a fight for their lives that was to last beyond the 5 day battle in Jadotville to become a battle of a lifetime, not for their lives but for the truth to be heard, acknowledged and recorded.
In an article written by Time Magazine on the Netflix movie “The Siege of Jadotville”, it describes the movie as depicting a little known but astonishing story of heroism and against all odds soldiering. The movie tells the true story of how 156 Irishmen led by Comdt. Patrick “Pat” Quinlan forced their 3,000 attackers to fight which resulted in killing 300 of them and wounding 1,000 while in contrast the Irish had remarkably suffered no fatalities and only five wounded.
However it was not a movie, or a story, it was the truth of what happened during the real Siege of Jadotville.
Today we recognise John Gorman and the tireless campaign that he has fought on behalf of his friends, fellow comrades and most importantly his Comdt. Pat Quinlan, not to rewrite the history books of what was recorded of those five days, but to correct them. To clear his and his friend’s names and to share the story that went unrecognised for over forty years. Today, thanks to John’s efforts the siege is now recognised as one of the most heroic and wrongfully stories in Irish Military History.
Recognising Comdt. Pat Quinlan has been an important aspect of John’s fight over the years. John recalls how he would often meet him on the street in Athlone and could see the pain etched in his face as he walked down the footpath. Not only did this weigh heavily on John, but it drove him on during times in his campaign and clearing Pat’s name become a priority, for it was Quinlan’s inspiring leadership that saved the lives of all members of “A” Company, Quinlan promised that every man would get home safe and that was a promise that he kept.
John Gorman grew up in Castlepollard in the 1950’s. John was working from the age of 14 and got involved in the grooming of race horses at a local stable. He always loved horses but to this date has never backed one.
He was encouraged by Major Bonham, his boss in Castlepollard, who always thought he was good with horses, to go over to England to the famous Major Lionel Holliday stables, to train as a groom or jockey, but John wanted to stay in his own country and he ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the Army in June 1959. He was looking for a job, an opportunity and perhaps a chance to travel. Little did he know what lay ahead of him.
While he joined the Army in Mullingar, John was eventually stationed in Custume Barracks, Athlone. He was a baby faced 17 year old when he went to the Congo in 1961. He had never been on an airplane, he didn’t even know where they were going.
There were 104 members of his Company who were single young men out of the 156 and for most of then it was their first time out of Ireland. John recalled how the Yanks who flew the out were laughing at their old uniform and the little bags of food they had to bring on the plane with them.
As part of the UN Mission, “A” Company was dispatched to Jadotville, a strategic mineral rick town in Katanga. What appeared on paper as a simple mission ended up in a fight for their lives putting John and his comrades against a formidable army which consisted of Katanga troops, supported by European mercenaries and settles who outnumbered them 20 to 1.
Comdt. Pat Quinlan, who at 42 years of age loved to smoke a pipe, knew instinctively that something was wrong and while most of his men were at mass said by Father Joseph Fagan from Fineas Castlepollard on September 13th the Katangans attacked leaving the Irish completely trapped.
John and the rest of “A”Company were lightly armed with 60mm mortars, Vickers machine guns, shoulder fired anti tank guns and Bren light machine guns. They had one truck, two jeeps and only intermittent radio communications. The Katangans had artillery and air support in a single Fouga Magister training jet.
Their fearless and intuitive leader, Pat Quinlan was a master tactician and negotiated a series of ceasefires with the Belgian major of Jadotville, which the Katangans continued to breach. In the trenches Father Joseph Fagan gave the men the last rites. After the fifth day the Belgians and Katangans looked for another ceasefire. Quinlan agreed to the ceasefire, and agreements were drawn up, and there were to be joint patrols between the Irish, and the Katangans. An hour later a man in a hard hat came looking for their company commander and Quinlan was then told that he would have to surrender and that they were being taken prisoners.
On 17th September 1961 they were held in an old hotel in Jadotville until a prison camp was made ready in the nearby town of Kolwezi, where they transferred on 11th October 1961 and there they remained for six weeks. Finally they were released due to a prisoner exchange agreement.
John did not tell his mother he was going to Africa. The first she knew of this was when she got a telegram from the Army saying he was a prisoner of war. She had been praying all night for the boys in Jadotville but she had no idea that one of those boys was her precious little John.
When they returned home there was no hero’s welcome, in fact there was deafening silence, the surrender was seen by some as an embarrassment and the treatment of the men lead to a lifelong fight tyo recognised the importance of the men and their leader who showed nothing but bravery and professionalism in Ireland’s first ever peacekeeping mission. When I spoke to John he said that he always had in his mind that he was the person that to rectify this injustice, he felt it was meant to be hisd life’s mission and that he did.
All of the men returned home but their experiences in Jadotville and on arrival at home destroyed lives and turned some of them into ghosts who disappeared into the wind never to return home again. Over the years the impact on the members of “A” Company, their loved ones, wives, children was tremendous and unfortunately the damage was untold. John recalls how some of his friends and colleagues committed suicide, some turned to drink, some ended up in institutions as they couldn’t handle what had happened to them, the harrowing after effects of their experience and subsequent treatment on home soil. The families of the deceased members worry John because he feels they should get an apology from the government as they went to their graves branded as cowards.
John took it upon himself to fight for justice and he felt committed to stay true to the memory of his colleagues and friends, John was always mindful in his heart to stay true o not just the members of “A” Companies suffering but also to the suffering of their families.
John left the army like a lot of his fellow friends and he went to England and worked in Coventry. He returned to the Irish Defence Forces subsequently and served 26 years with them. John retired as a Corporal from the Defence Forces in 1984, and then worked full-time on his campaign to vindicate the men of Jadotville. For the past nine ye4ars, John was involved with Irish United Nations Veterans Association in Mullingar, and in 2009 he re-kindled the old Post 9 IUNVA in Athlone.
His family often asked him why he didn’t just forget it as the campaign had a huge impact on his life, but his courage, perseverance and stubbornness made him continue. Sadly John’s wife, Mary dies after his retirement but he went on to find love again and remarried some years later to his beautiful wife Joan. His children Sarah, Andrea and Derek and his grandchildren, Adam and Daire are to this day very proud of John.
When he started the campaign for justice it took him down a long and winding road with lot of highs and lows. One of his low points was trying relentlessly to get someone, anyone to listen to him, to fight for them, trying multiple avenues to get one person in power to listen to their truth, to read their truth, to be present in their truth and to acknowledge what truly happened. This journey led him to finding members of “A” Company scattered all over the world in Australia, Spain, Canada and America among others. John’s passion pushed the campaign on and on. His perseverance shone bright when no one else held out any hope.
His high point came in December 2004 when the Minister of Defence Willie O’Dea called him and said as John recalls, John I am granting you vindication, recognition and there will be a monument erected in Custume Barracks in Athlong dedicated to you and all members of “A” Company, 35th Irish Infantry Battalion.
However despite the relief, there was sadness attached to the vindication, because so many of John’s comrades had passed away. Today, only 42 members of the company of 156 remain alive. John recalls how he was sad for those great men that were branded cowards but be was happy that since the foundation of the Defence Forces in 1922, there is no company that has ever received the recognition that their Comdt. Pat Quinlan and his company has received. The men of Jadotville were presented with a scroll of honour each, and a memorial was erected in Custume Barracks honouring the men of “A” Company.
When I asked John what would he like his legacy to be true to his gently, kind and humble nature he said that he would like to be remembered for what truly happened, no award, no pomp or ceremony, just not to be forgotten.
Martin Luther King Jr once said “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my absolutely honour and privilege to have met a genuine person like John who has fought every step of the way for his friends in that fateful “A” company, those that are here and those who have gone but left behind families. This is a story of bravery, courage and of hope, but this is not a story, this is John Gorman.
Written on the scroll that was presented to each of the men is as follows; “That which is painfully gone, let it be so. Like the soil on the soles of your boots, but let it not be without learning that someday your children may walk in your footsteps” – Unknown Soldier.
President, it is my honour and privilege to invite you to confer the Distinguished Fellowship upon Mr John Gorman.
Citation written and delivered by Orla Thornton, Director of Marketing and Communications.