Priests at home and abroad help find graves of crew
+DUFFY, John Joseph
RAFVR. Flight Sergeant (Wireless Op./Air Gunner).1312519. Died 03/06/1944. Aged 27. Born in Lissummon, Jerrettspass on 27/11/1916, the eldest of the four children of of James and Bridget Duffy; husband to Dorothy Lily Duffy, of Wortwell, Norfolk. Malabo Cemetery, Bioko, Equatorial Guinea
John Joe Duffy was born in Lissummon, Jerrettspass on 27th November 1916, the eldest of the four children of James and Bridget Duffy. He was educated at Lissummon Primary School and, while still in his teens, went to find work in England.
There he worked as a landscape gardener, eventually setting up in business on his own. On Boxing Day 1939 he married Dorothy (Dorrie) Dalaston and they set up home at Rugby in Warwickshire. The following December, he enlisted in the R.A.F. He was trained as a wireless operator and air gunner before being assigned to Coastal Command. In February 1941 his son Roger was born and, shortly thereafter, Dorrie and their baby son came to Lissummon to live with John Joe’s mother for the duration of the war.
During the next three years he saw a great deal of action. He served in the Far East and was awarded ‘The Burma Star’ and with Costal Command took part in numerous missions in the Sunderland Flying boats. Throughout his time in the RAF, it seems that the crew, of which he was a member, remained largely unchanged and a great bond of friendship grew between them. In 1943 their plane came down in the sea, off Portugal, whether through mechanical failure or enemy action is not clear. Although they suffered injuries all were rescued and in time recommenced their service. On December 21st 1943, possibly from hospital, he wrote the following to his mother.
“Dear Mother, I was very pleased to hear from you and Mary yesterday. Was sorry to hear you were all so upset about me but don’t worry mother, I’m feeling tip-top again. I feel a lot better now that I’ve got my letters coming through. It took them quite a while to catch up with me. I had to know you are all well at home and that you all like Dorrie and Roger. Thanks a million, mother, for having a Mass said for me also prayed for. It has meant a lot to me. I was glad to hear Tom Savage was enquiring about me. I shall be very pleased to hear from him. Give my kind regards to all at home. I hope to see you all very soon. God bless you all. Your loving son
In April 1944, Dorrie gave birth to their daughter Marlene. John Joe was given compassionate leave and spent some time back home in Lissummon with his family before returning to his squadron.
Shortly thereafter the family learned, much to their relief that his crew were to be posted to East Africa, as this was largely out of the main war zone. While the reason for the posting is not known, it was seen as a reward for a crew who had, together, come through so much in the previous three years.
Dorrie, with Roger and Marlene
In order to avoid flying over mainland Europe and North East Africa, the flight path they were directed to take was that they follow the west coast of Africa, south to Nigeria, before heading east across the continent to their destination in Uganda. However they were never to make it, for while crossing the Gulf of Guinea, they flew into a very severe tropical storm, which caused their plane to crash-land on the little island of Fernando Po. There were no survivors. Fernando Po was then part of Spanish Guinea. (Today the island is called Bioko).
The family were informed of the loss but had no other details. The ‘Tom Savage’ referred to in John Joe’s letter to his mother had become a priest and, in her distress, in an attempt to find out details what had become of her son, Mrs Duffy turned to Tom Savage for help.
Fr Savage recalled what had happened at the time:
“Early in 1944, I was sent to a parish in Edinburgh and while there I received a letter from Mrs Duffy telling me the sad news of John Joe’s death and asking if I could do something about finding out about it. I discovered where Fernando Po Island was, and that it was part of Spanish Guinea and that the language spoken there was Spanish. One of my duties in Edinburgh was to attend prisoners in the prison and as it happened there was a Spaniard there. With his help, I wrote a letter and addressed it to ‘The ParishPriest, Fernando Po Island, Spanish Guinea.’ I thought I would never hear of it and that I might as well have written to ‘The Parish Priest, America!’ but lo and behold, two months later a letter duly arrived from ‘The Parish Priest of Fernando Po.’”
The Duffy family have treasured the quaintly worded letter all these years.
“The reference you received concerning your friend Mr Duffy is true by misfortune. The storm that broke when an English aeroplane was flying over this island caused it to fall down dying in the same instant the men (about ten) that were in it, except the one that was the cook who survived for an hour and by him we learnt certain details of the plane. There was nobody near the place where this catastrophe took place in this stage it was not possible to give these unfortunate men spiritual assistance….
Judging your well known Mr Duffy that he took in the main trip of his journey he was a good Christian; among said documents we found one that assures he had fulfilled with parish cathedral of Lagos confessing and receiving Holy Communion for the Easter. Moreover he took there crucifixions, some medals and one prayer book….
….. Knowing the undersigned all these details and wanting to give more embossment to the event being that it was treating of a catholic so excellent denote all his documents I ordered the Rev Fr Parson of the cathedral to display all his items for the burial of the late Mr Duffy and was done according to my orders….. The ceremony was very solemn and grand it has been few in this capital…. After the ceremony was done… they were carried to the cemetery by the great multitude….You may be tranquil trusting that our heavenly father in his infinite mercy has reserved a place for him in heaven….”(sic.) In May a letter from the Squadron Leader arrived containing John Joe’s gold wedding ring. A letter from the Air Ministry later in the year gave more details of the funeral and enclosed photographs of the funeral in Santa Isabel (the capital of Fernando Po):
The funeral of John Joe Duffy in Santa Isabel, Fernando Po Island
“ The funeral was conducted by a Roman Catholic priest and two Methodist Ministers, as no Church of England priest could be found. The cortege formed up outside the cathedral and proceeded to the cemetery. The pallbearers were all British Africans and military honours were accorded by a detachment of Marines. Wreaths were received from the Spanish Guinea Government, various government departments, British Africans, a number of business houses, the British Consulate and from the African Staff of the Consulate. Each wreath was inscribed ‘In honoured memory of a member of the Royal Air Force.’ The town council of Santa Isabel has ceded, to His Majesty’s Government, the land in the cemetery where your husband and his comrades lie.”
A few years ago, a nephew of John Joe’s was able to visit Santa Isabel on Fernando Po. (Santa Isabel is now known as ‘Malabo’) The graves of his uncle and the other crew members are perfectly kept.