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The Remarkable Story of Francis McKane

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As I have worked collecting McCain clan lore over the years, I have noticed how many McCains have served, often in harm’s way and in dramatic fashion, in the military. Given our Gallóglaigh origins, perhaps something deep in our psyche leads McCain men to seek this path. This story comes from the descendants of a McKane family that immigrated from east Donegal to Scotland in the 1850s to work in the coal mines. Here is the very poignant tale of Francis McKane.

Francis McKane 1938Francis McKane took the road of many McCains before him; he joined the military during the Depression years in Scotland. He entered the Royal Artillery and shipped out from Hong Kong in 1938, just in time to become involved in some of the hardest and most brutal fighting seen in WW II. He rose to the rank of Senior Sergeant with his own gunnery detachment. The world knows the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and on the 8th they attacked Hong Kong and Francis McCain’s world changed forever. Francis has volunteered to act as spotter for his battery, which placed him in an obsolete biplane flying into the face of the fighting to observe the effects of his artillery. His battery was the last one to fall in the defence of Hong Kong. He went into four long years of very hard and cruel captivity.

In September 1942, he and 1800 other POWs were locked in the hold of the Japanese transport the Lisbon Maru. They were the Allied prisoners that had been captured in Hong Kong nine months earlier. The Lisbon Maru was called the Hell Ship as the POWs were kept in appalling conditions of filth, disease andJapanese Attack Hong Kong malnutrition. They were being transported to Japan as slave labour. On 1 October, 1942, the Lisbon Maru was spotted by the US Submarine Grouper off of Shanghai. The sub fired six torpedoes and immediately came under attack from Japanese patrol boots and aircraft and sank deep and quickly left the area. One torpedo struck the Lisbon Maru and exploded sending water pouring in. The US sub, of course, had no idea there were 1,800 Allied prisoners of war aboard, nor did they see the Japanese batten down the hatches over the holds as they abandoned ship in an attempt to drown these men. Over 850 POWs drowned!

Francis McKane, and a few others, managed to get out using the breach made by the torpedo and through port holes. Francis McKane swam a very long way in shark infested waters, eventually making his way to a small island. There, he was again taken prisoner by the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war as a slave labourer in the shipyards in Osaka, Japan, suffering tremendous cruelty and torture. The Japanese attack on Hong Kongbombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came just in time to save him and the other prisoners that were by that time walking skeletons, with their numbers shrinking daily. Even with the Japanese capitulation, he had a long road to get back home, with many sad experiences; he made it back to Scotland via Canada in 1947.

The story is quite remarkable if it stopped just there, but there is more! Francis McKane was discharged on medical grounds in 1947, after being told he had only 6 to 12 months to live because he had contracted a bad case of tuberculosis while a POW. To have gone through the hell of being a prisoner, tortured and starved, then to survive only to find out your life was over, you would never have children, would never feel the fire of your own hearth. What a blow! But, not really, because you see Francis lived to be 81, passing away in 1998 and he had 8 children. One of his children, Dr. Joe McKane, is a participant of the Ulster Heritage DNA Project. Joe lives in the Glasgow area and leads the very busy life of a physician. Joe’s family descend from James McKean that left Donegal circa 1846-47 and settled in the Renfrewshire mining area in the west of Scotland. As our readers know, the McCain clan has two branches, one in north Antrim, but then another large group in east Donegal, in the Finn Valley and around St Johnstown.  Sen. John McCain as a POW

Joe mentions that his family thinks warmly of Senator John McCain because his family understands the pain and suffering that POWs often go through and as was the case with both Francis McKane and John McCain. Both John McCain’s father and grandfather served in the Pacific Theatre in WWII (as did my own father) so there is this connection as well. This Irish family has produced many remarkable sons and daughter, but up there among those at the top surely is Francis McKane.

Barry R McCain © 2008

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