A young sailor from Buffalo, New York signed on to Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship, the Aurora, in 1914, unaware that this would be one of the most memorable adventures of his life. John Downing ended up living in Foxton and his grandson Louis Pink retells the story to Bruce Falloon.
The late John Downing was employed at the Woolpack and Textile mill on Ladies Mile in Foxton in the 1940s.
But he was also one of the crew aboard the Aurora which was adrift in pack ice for 315 days after being swept away from her anchorage at Cape Evans in the Ross Sea on the fringes of the Southern Antarctic Continent.
Downing grew up in the town of Buffalo, in the state of New York. At 16, he travelled to Glasgow in Scotland to the shipping yards of James Boyd and Son and took on a 4-year apprenticeship as an able seaman.
When interviewed by The Times 40 years after the Aurora ordeal, Downing said, "I was one of the personnel who was fortunate to fit her out at the Cockatoo Naval Base in Sydney.
"When the Aurora left Hobart on Christmas Eve 1914 for the Antarctic under the command of Captain Macintosh, she was like a floating menagerie - with sheep, poultry for
meat and most importantly, sledge dogs, which were originally going to be landed at the
meteorological station on Macquarie Island."
However, the Aurora struck an ice cliff in heavy fog, which resulted in her jib boom breaking.
After a long battle with the pack ice, the Aurora eventually anchored offshore near
Captain Robert Scott's midwinter quarters.
More trouble arose when some of the store provisions that were being unloaded were washed away by a massive wave, due to a large iceberg plunging into the water a few miles away.
Downing said, "It was intended the Aurora be bedded down for the winter at Cape Evans, attached firmly to the shore with buried anchors. However, one night a heavy storm blew up and at its peak, the Aurora was violently shaken by a large earthquake."
In the morning it was evident that the ice floe in which she was frozen had broken and she had drifted away. The whole of the bay was on the move.
"Aurora was carried away from the mainland, leaving behind those personnel who were camped onshore, including her captain and a number of scientists. By evening the Aurora
was out of view of Cape Evans and Mt Erebus."
Adrift in the pack ice, and still hopeful of making it back to Cape Evans when the thaw came, the remaining crew on board busied themselves during the winter months, preparing sledge rations for shore parties during the coming summer.
The Aurora took a heavy pounding in the pack ice, and in one giant squeeze, when her
rudder was smashed, Downing broke a rib.
After 10 months the pack ice broke but this left the Aurora leaking like a sieve, requiring
the pumps to be constantly operated to keep her afloat, and a jury rudder to be rigged.
There being no hope of making it back to Cape Evans, the ship set course for New
Zealand, arriving in Port Chalmers in April 1916.
Meanwhile, the shore party attempted to cross the ice from Cape Evans to Hut Point, which resulted in the loss of three men, including Captain Macintosh.
After being refitted in Dunedin, the Aurora later returned to pick up the remaining members of the party.
Downing, however, was not part of that rescue mission. "Myself, and other young members of the crew had answered the fresh call of adventure and enlisted in the army.
"While the Aurora was heading south we were already in France, as part of the Otago Infantry Rifles." Downing said.
On the other side of the Antarctic Ocean, Sir Ernest Shackleton was also beaten back by adverse weather conditions. He had already abandoned his ship, the Endurance,
which was crushed in the pack ice, having taken his crew on open lifeboats to
Shackleton then made his remarkable journey to South Georgia for assistance and aid from the Chilean trawler Yelcho, removing his men from Elephant Island on August 30 1916.
After World War I ended, Downing returned to shipping and served on deepwater and coastal vessels until the birth of his first child in 1930. He then "swallowed the anchor",
coming ashore for good. Downing received a Polar Bronze Medal for his efforts aboard the Aurora during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
After 10 years in the South Island Downing moved to Foxton and lived there with his wife,
Hilda Hansen, for the remainder of his life.