Dromore-born WWII hero laid to rest

Mayors Parlour, presentation to veteran Tommy Jess INUS2313800JC
Mayors Parlour, presentation to veteran Tommy Jess INUS2313800JC

One of Dromore’s true heroes has been laid to rest.

Tommy Jess, a Dromore native who more recently lived in Lisburn - only recently rewarded for his service in the Atlantic Convoys during the Second World War - passed away duringthe early hours of Saturday September 19, at the age of 92.

It has been said of Tommy that anyone who knew him, knew him as a humble, gracious man who never sought the limelight, a man dedicated to his family, all of whom adored him in return.

Tommywas born at Ballykeel, Dromore in 1923 and by the time war broke out he was working at Mackey’s engineering company in Belfast; it was during a staff strike that one of his colleagues suggested enlisting as something to do to ease the boredom.

While his friends joined the army and air force, Tommy was the only one to join the navy, for one simple reason - he liked the uniform!

He left his family behind in 1942 and began his naval training. He came home to Dromore on leave several times and always found it hard to leave again.

In 1944 Tommy was on board one of the ships which escorted the American troops to Omaha Beach for the D-Day invasion.

After surviving the horrors of the D-Day landings, little did he know that a greater horror was yet to come.

After D-Day his ship, HMS Lapwing, became part of the Russian Convoy, escorting ships through the treacherous, submarine-infested waters off the Russian coast.

The Lapwing left Greenock on its last voyage into Russian waters on March 11, 1945 and at 10.58am on March 20 a German submarine torpedoed the ship, knocking the captain unconscious.

Tommy managed to climb onto a life raft with shipmates. He remembers watching the ship vanish into the icy waters and feared they would all be dragged under with it.

Over the next two hours, Tommy drifted in and out of consciousness.

There were 16 people on the life raft but by the time they were rescued only six remained.

When a rescue ship arrived the survivors were examined by the ship’s doctor, who said they would only have survived another 20 minutes.

Before returning home, the survivors had their photograph taken, a poignant reminder of the trauma they endured together. The six then parted company.

Tommy returned to Dromore as a war hero but it was almost 70 years before the sacrifice was honoured by both the Russian and British governments.

Tommy met his beloved wife Sadie at a dance in Annahilt Orange Hall and the couple were dedicated parents to Doreen, Pauline, Wilfred, Margaret and Jennifer.

They also took great joy in the triumphs of their grandchildren, as granddaughter Laura recalled at Tommy’s funeral.

In a tribute read at the funeral in Christ Church, Lisburn, by the Rev Paul Dundas, Laura shared her profound love for her grandfather and recalled his devotion to his family, as well as to his garden - saying that you never left his house without a few sticks of rhubarb or a bunch of Sweet Pea.

Tommy was also a member of the Orange Lodge, and a determined bowler, playing for Christ Church, St Pauls and Lisnagarvey Bowling Club.

After the war, Tommy worked in a variety of jobs, including postman, bus conductor, at Ford Motor Company and as a caretaker at Wallace High School.

He was known for a strong but quiet faith, much admired by those close to him, including Christ Church minister Mr Dundas.

“He was very modest and didn’t want the limelight,” said said the minister. “He always encouraged me and he had a quiet, strong faith.

“His favourite hymn was ‘How Deep the Father’s Love For Us’. It is my favourite hymn as well and really spans the generations,

“Family, friendship and faith were reflected in so many aspects of his life.”