Monday 25 June 2018

The GI and the Irish colleen

Ailin Quinlan

Ailin Quinlan charts the unlikely friendship that blossomed between an American GI stuck on a boat at Christmas and a girl from Co Kerry who happened on his message in a bottle

It began with a bottle tossed into the Atlantic, blossomed into a romantic tale that made headlines around the globe, and ended more than 60 years later with a few words carved on a tombstone.

The story of the message in the bottle, the American GI and the Irish colleen was even covered by 'Time Magazine'.

It was just before Christmas 1945. The Second World War had ended and, under intense public pressure, the American government was bringing home as many troops as possible for Christmas.

Thousands of soldiers were being shipped back from Europe and Asia on enormous troop and cargo carriers called Liberty ships.

One of the vessels, the SS James Ford Rhodes, which was en route from northern France, was due to dock in New York on Christmas Eve but was hit by a heavy storm a few days out from port.

The storm raged until Christmas morning, by which time it was clear to all onboard that they wouldn't make it home in time.

In a bid to cheer up the troops, some drinks were distributed and an attempt was made to bring a more festive atmosphere to the ship.

However, one of the soldiers, 21-year-old medical assistant Frank Hayostek, was a staunch Catholic who did not drink, so, while his buddies sang carols and drowned their sorrows, he wandered up on deck.

As he gazed across the choppy grey waves, Hayostek remembered seeing a movie about a message in a bottle. Inspired, he walked to the sick bay, found a large aspirin bottle and wrote the following note:

"Dear Finder, I am an American soldier, 21 years old; just a plain American of no wealth but just enough to get along with. This is my third Christmas from home."

The message concluded with a request for the finder to write to him at the address included.

Eight months later, in August 1946, the aspirin bottle washed up on Kinnard Strand near Dingle, Co Kerry.

It was found by 19-year-old Breda O'Sullivan, from Kinnard near Lispole, who lived with her widowed mother in a thatched cottage on a small farm nearby. Intrigued by the discovery, O'Sullivan replied to Hayostek's letter.

Her response -- which was the beginning of a correspondence which would last for 13 years -- was received by Hayostek's mother and forwarded to the young soldier, who was now based in New York.

"Frank couldn't believe that someone in Ireland had found his message in a bottle," explains Peter Mulryan, producer of an RTE One radio documentary on the story.

Hayostek -- who, afterwards, returned home to Johnstown, Pennsylvania to work in the steel industry -- decided to visit O'Sullivan in Ireland.

The airfare was extremely expensive even at the time -- €850 -- but for several years he put away $30 a month and, by August 1952, he had saved enough to make the journey.

A week or two before he left America, Hayostek told an old friend about the bottle, the message and O'Sullivan. The friend, a journalist, wrote a small article about it for the local paper. The article was picked up by Associated Press and then by 'Time Magazine', and the story quickly went viral.

"The British and American newspapers were all over it," says Mulryan, adding that newspaper editors found the story of the American GI and the milkmaid -- as one editor dubbed O'Sullivan -- absolutely irresistible.

The radio documentary -- which will be broadcast today to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Hayostek's arrival in Shannon on August 5, 1952 -- details how the young steelworker emerged into the arrivals lounge to be met by a battery of cameras and microphones.

The world's press had turned out to see the former GI and sender of the message in the bottle -- and they weren't about to go away.

"It was a huge story," says Mulryan.

Stunned by the media circus which greeted him in Shannon, Hayostek took a bus to Tralee, where he was met by O'Sullivan.

From there the young couple travelled to Dingle, followed all the way by a posse of excited journalists, who reportedly hounded the young couple for several days.

Hayostek stayed for two weeks in a lodging house in Dingle, patiently cycling the five miles to Lispole every day to meet O'Sullivan.

He was quite smitten by the young Kerrywoman, believes Mulryan, who has read some of the correspondence.

"The letters were charming and between the lines I felt he was quite smitten by her, particularly after he'd met her," he says.

When his Kerry holiday was over, Hayostek returned to the States and the couple continued to write to each other.

However, in 1959 the correspondence suddenly ceased. After two or three of his letters to O'Sullivan went unanswered, Hayostek stopped writing.

He had married the previous year, and with his new responsibilities -- he and his wife soon had a child -- life became busier than ever.

Yet tragedy struck in 1965 when his wife died, leaving him to raise a four-year-old son, Terry, alone.

The story of Hayostek's message in a bottle and the Irish girl who discovered it on a Kerry beach passed into family history. Hayostek had proudly arranged a display of the memorabilia from his trip to Ireland on the walls of his sitting room.

It wasn't until 2009, when Hayostek was 85, that things took an unforeseen direction following a chat with his son Terry.

One day, Terry asked him if he'd ever wondered what had happened to O'Sullivan. He had, of course.

The conversation had an unexpected result. Terry, his wife and their three children flew to Ireland that very summer and travelled to Dingle to find O'Sullivan.

Now a mother of 10, she was still alive and in her 80s.

They managed to locate her with the help of her first cousin, Tom Fitzgerald, a former Fianna Fail senator.

As a child, Fitzgerald had befriended Hayostek during his whirlwind visit in the 1950s and still remembered him. He brought Terry to meet O'Sullivan.

"It turned out that the reason Breda stopped writing was because she had gotten married in 1959 to a local man, Peter Hand," says Mulryan.

Hayostek died the following November, just a few months after finally learning what had happened to O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan died about a year later.

"It's a very bittersweet story from Frank's point of view," says Mulryan.

"Breda allegedly said on one occasion that if she'd known what was going to happen, she would have left the bottle on the beach.

"She was a very private person and perhaps may have preferred not to have experienced the media circus that resulted from her first letter to Frank."

There is another moving element to the story. As part of his research, Mulryan went to Johnstown.

" I went to visit Frank's grave. On his tombstone he had a carved inscription about the story," he explains.

"It turned out that prior to his death, Frank had commissioned the tombstone and asked that the story be engraved upon it."

The gravestone reads: "Frank L Hayostek, June 11, 1924-November 15, 2009: Frank Hayostek met in Tralee, Ireland, with Breda O'Sullivan who found a message-laden bottle he had tossed from a Liberty ship seven years before."

The Documentary on One'Message in a Bottle' will be broadcast at 2pm today on RTE Radio One

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