For the families and friends of the Donegal men who formed part of the 35th Infantry Battalion, on peace keeping duties in the Congo, the headline from the front page of the ‘Evening Herald’ of Friday September 16th, 1961, screamed at them in all its starkness.
“Grim News from Katanga,” it read. “Irish At Jadotville Said To Have Surrendered.
“Katanganese Radio claims 57 Killed.”
At a time when communications were far from what they would become, those printed words sounded searing alarm bells in towns and villages throughout Ireland and specifically in Castlefin, Killygordon, Lifford, Killea, Fahan, Bridgend, Ballindrait, and Bundoran, home to ten of the Irish contingent.
As a talk to be delivered at Letterkenny Golf Club this Tuesday night (7th) will reveal, relief for those at home only came when it was discovered that none of the 155 troops who were at the centre of what became known as the Siege of Jadotville, had been killed as they defended an isolated UN military unit, around eighty miles from their main base at Elizabethville.
Under the command of Commandant Pat Quinlan, they faced up to a combined force of between 3,000 and 4,000 mercenaries – who were backing the breakaway province of Katanga – bombarded by mortars, machine guns and other artillery.
For six days up to September 17th, they were also attacked from the skies but held out until they ran out of water and ammunition. But despite wounded casualties on the Irish side, there were, miraculously, no Irish fatalities with all 155 men surviving the onslaught.
Taken into captivity they were finally released on October 25th, 1961.
Where the claims that 57 had been killed stemmed from is unclear but what is certain is there would be no more headlines for the courageous members of the 35th Infantry Battalion. No official Government parties to welcome them home when they did return affording Comdt. Quinlan and his men the honours they were due. No ceremonies at the military command in commendation of courage beyond duty.
Airbrushed out of Irish military history – their heroics not acknowledged until many years later.
September 17th last to be precise when the Company was presented with a Unit Citation on the 55th anniversary of the siege.
It read: “This Citation recognises the leadership, courage, bravery and professional performance of ‘A’ Company 35th Infantry Battalion and its attachments who, under challenging circumstances at Jadotville, while besieged by overwhelming numbers of Katanganese Gendarmerie and cut off from support and reinforcements, did valiantly defend their position from the 13th September, 1961, to 17th September, 1961.”
The Donegal men honoured on the day included Private Michael James McDermott, Ballindrait; Pte. John Nicell (R.I.P.), Fahan; Pte. Patrick Gildea (R.I.P;), Castlefin; Pte. Robert Bradley, Killea; Pte. James Harper, Porthall, Lifford; Pte. Leo Boland, Killygordon; Pte. William Duffy (R.I.P.), Bridgend; Pte. Seamus O’Kane, (R.I.P.), Castlefin; and Corporal John Kerr (R.I.P.), originally from Antrim but then resident in Bundoran. Another Donegalman, Henry Hegarty, was also a member of ‘A’ Company during the siege but his local roots remain unknown.
Lt. Thomas Francis Ryan from Ballyshannon had been captured in Elizabethville in September 1961 and joined ‘A’ Company in Jadotville as a Prisoner of War but played no part in the siege.
A number of well-acclaimed books have been written about the subject and a film starring Jamie Dornan has also won rave reviews.
Tomorrow night (Tues) at Letterkenny Golf Club, the story of the courage of the 155 men and their Commander, Pat Quinlan – he passed away in 1996 – will be told by a son of the latter, Leo, who will give a talk on the siege of Jadotville.
“It’s a unique and heroic story that hasn’t been told for over 55 years,” said Letterkenny based retired Col. Brian O’Reilly who along with Col. Declan O’Carroll, has been involved in organising the event locally and lobbying along with the main mover Leo Quinlan as part of a small group determined that the men of ‘A’ company will finally receive the recognition they deserve.
“These men would have gone to hell and back for Pat Quinlan and in many ways they did.”
The talk at Barnhill commences at 8.p.m. and is open to the general public.