Honoured at last

Customs officer George Jackman disappeared while searching a Portuguese ship in 1943

Danette Dooley danette@nl.rogers.com
Published on August 2, 2010
Fred Murphy (left), George Jackman's nephew, listens as author/researcher Gary Browne talks about the area where Jackman vanished while searching a Portuguese vessel during the Second World War.
By Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram

It’s been almost 70 years since George Jackman vanished while searching a Portuguese vessel in St. John’s harbour during the Second World War.

Now, the then-46-year-old St. John’s customs officer will soon be officially recognized when his name is added to both the Canadian Police and Peace Officers’ Memorial in Ottawa and the Newfoundland and Labrador Police and Peace Officers’ Memorial on Confederation Hill.

Author/researcher Gary Browne began delving into Jackman’s story after he gave a talk to the St. John’s Rotary Club last fall about his book “To Serve and Protect: The Newfoundland Constabulary on the Home Front World War II.”

At the event, Browne talked to former St. John’s city councillor Art Puddister, whose father, Frank, was a prominent merchant marine captain during the Second World War.

Puddister said his father often talked about a customs officer who lost his life through foul play.

Browne said customs officers played a major role during the Second World War in carrying out searches and helping the security division of the Newfoundland Constabulary in alien and spy-related investigations.

Browne delved deeper into historic files and learned that Jackman and several of his colleagues boarded a Portuguese vessel on the afternoon of Jan. 18, 1943.

Once the search was concluded, Jackman was nowhere to be found.

His wife, Florence, was 44, and they had a five-year-old daughter named Florence.

Jackman was a Blue Puttee —one of the first 500 recruits of the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War.

He had been wounded in his right arm during the infamous Battle at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916, was sent back to St. John’s and discharged from the regiment for being medically unfit for service.

He then began work as a customs officer.

At the time of his disappearance, he had 26 years’ service with His Majesty’s Customs (Newfoundland).


“These rumours were devastating to the family,” Gary Browne acknowledges

A magisterial inquiry was held shortly after his disappearance and the presiding judge ruled the inquiry was incomplete as there was no evidence or information to confirm that Jackman was dead.

The judge ruled that the inquiry would re-open if his remains were found.

Browne said Jackman went missing on a clear, windless evening.

A police report into his “mysterious disappearance” states he could have fallen into the harbour due to the ice on the ship’s lower ladder.

Police dragged the harbour for two days but found neither Jackman nor any of his clothing.

A death certificate was never issued.

In his book about the constabulary’s role in the Second World War, Browne writes about how German spies operated on Portuguese vessels in St. John’s and around the Grand Banks during the war.

After the book was published, he confirmed through British MI5 archive reports how one such spy —working as a senior wireless operator on a Portuguese depot/hospital ship — was secretly feeding the Nazis encrypted code messages about the Allied convoy.

Gastao de Freitas Ferraz was arrested off the Grand Banks and confessed to having been paid by the Germans to report on the Allied convoy’s movements.

Jackman’s disappearance happened two months after Ferraz was arrested.

Browne wonders if Jackman found something during his search and — as rumoured by mariners at the time — may have been pushed into the vessel’s furnace.

“These rumours were devastating to the family,” he acknowledges.

Browne says it’s unlikely the family will ever find the truth.

Jackman’s headstone says he was lost at sea.

Browne is adamant that he died in the line of duty, and with the endorsement of now retired RNC Chief Joe Browne, he’s been working to have Jackman’s name included on the Canadian Police and Peace Officers’ Memorial.

That request was recently approved, which was welcome news to Jackman’s nephew, Fred Murphy.

He was only three when his uncle disappeared but said his mother often talked about him.

Jackman had four brothers and one sister.

His wife and daughter were left destitute after his disappearance, Murphy said.

“Mom told me the very sad story that he disappeared and that he was thrown into the furnace (on the vessel). That was very difficult on my mom. She was very sad when she told the story.”

Jackman’s father, E.M. Jackman, a prominent St. John’s businessman, was big on education, Murphy said.

“(Jackman’s wife and daughter) had no money, but Florence was a bright young girl and, through the influence of my grandfather, she won scholarships and got a doctorate degree.”

The last Sunday in September is Police and Peace Officers’ National Memorial Day.

Jackman’s name will be added to the memorial on Sept. 26.

RNC Const. Georgina Short, the founder and president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Police and Peace Officers’ Association, said once her association receives confirmation that Jackman’s name has been added to the national memorial,  his name will be added to the provincial monument.

“We are very grateful for (Gary Browne’s) efforts …,” Short said. “The police and peace officers of our past have shaped who we are today. It is very important for us to honour them in life and remember them in death,” she says.

Browne has a new book “Forget-me-not: Fallen Boy Soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment —WW1” coming out in the fall by DRC Publishing.