January 4, 2013, - 1:48 pm

John Sheardown, Canadian Diplomat Who Saved American “Argo” Hostages in Iran, RIP

By Debbie Schlussel

Can’t let the week go by without noting the passing of heroic Canadian immigration official and diplomat, John Sheardown. Although he is sadly not depicted in Ben Affleck’s movie, “Argo” (read my review), about the six U.S. Embassy workers the Canadians sheltered in Iran, Sheardown was even more instrumental than the Canadian Ambassador–who is depicted in the film–in saving their lives, with the U.S. citizens ultimate getting out of the country and to freedom. As Canada’s top immigration official in Iran, he risked his own life to shelter four of the six Americans and got little recognition.

In death, he still gets little mention, but his heroic efforts deserve to be recognized, especially in a day and age in which few would do the same to help Americans to safety from the Islamic threat. And Sheardown was a hero twice over, as he also was severely injured while serving in World War II. It is also worth noting that Sheardown’s life was always in danger, even after he returned to Canada, since his native Windsor (and neighboring Detroit) are filled with pro-Iran Shi’ite Muslim followers of the ayatollahs.

johnsheardown

Canadian Hero John Sheardown (Right) w/ Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor

“Hell yes. Of course. Count on us.”

With those words to an endangered U.S. diplomat in November 1979, John Sheardown, then Canada’s top immigration official in Iran, launched what would become known as “the Canadian Caper.”

For the next three months, Sheardown and Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor sheltered six U.S. diplomats in their private homes. . . .


Sheardown, a Second World War bomber pilot and an Order of Canada recipient, died Sunday at The Ottawa Hospital. He was 88. . . .

Sheardown was an immigration officer with the Canadian Embassy in Tehran when militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage during the Iranian Revolution. . . .

Six Americans who were in other buildings escaped the hostage-taking; they were initially aided by the British and Swedish embassies. Then one of those on the run, Robert Anders, contacted Sheardown, an old friend.

Sheardown invited Anders and his colleagues to stay at the home he shared with his wife, Zena. Four would stay with Sheardown, two with Ambassador Taylor.

The Sheardowns lived alone in a large house in Tehran; they had an Iranian gardener and a Filipino maid. The maid came to be involved in the deception, but not the gardener.

Of note, Ben Affleck’s movie shows the Canadian Ambassador’s Iranian maid helping in the deception. I wonder if that’s made up.

“We were under surveillance,” Sheardown once told an interviewer. “We had tanks at one end of the street and a fellow that walked up and down. They were always suspicious, they’d search the car.”

Sheardown had to buy groceries in several different stores each day so as not to arouse suspicion about the amount of food he was bringing home, all the while maintaining regular contact with Iranian officials.

Every evening, the Sheardowns and their four house guests would have a formal dinner, then retire to the den to listen to U.S. Armed Forces Radio.

Mark Lijek was one of the U.S. diplomats who hid in Sheardown’s house for three months before leaving the country with a fake Canadian passport.

“I have no way of knowing what would have happened had he not taken us in,” Lijek told the Citizen two years ago when he visited Sheardown to mark the 30th anniversary of his escape from Iran. . . .

Taylor received the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal for his efforts and was celebrated across the continent, while John and Zena Sheardown were awarded the Order of Canada.

Writing in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Carleton University history professor Norman Hillier said that while Sheardown received some of the credit for the Canadian Caper, he did not get “nearly as much as he deserved.”

Taylor himself has said as much. “John and Zena were very much part of the core of activity in Tehran, but on top of that, John also shouldered a very demanding job as head of the immigration section, which loomed large at the time,” Taylor told the Toronto Star in July 2010. . . .

A Second World War bomber pilot, Sheardown once had to bail out of his crippled plane over Britain. He broke both his legs because he parachuted from such low altitude.

More:

Mr. Sheardown became a vital — but necessarily discreet — point of contact for the desperate Americans seeking sanctuary. When the mission proved successful, he was often overshadowed in the public imagination by more prominent government officials.

He figured in a 1981 Canadian television film, “Escape from Iran,” and later in books as a loyal and daring supporting player. . . .

But as Kathleen Stafford, one of the American “house guests,” recalled in an interview Tuesday, Mr. Sheardown was “a lifesaver” at a time when she and her colleagues feared for their safety. . . .

Robert Anders, another of the American diplomats seeking haven, knew Mr. Sheardown and called him to request official protection.

“Why didn’t you call sooner?” Mr. Sheardown replied.

Five of the six Americans arranged passage to the Sheardown residence in the suburbs north of Tehran and arrived on Nov. 10. Mr. Sheardown, who had helped obtain permission from Ottawa, phoned Taylor to say that the “house guests” had arrived. They were soon followed by the sixth American, Henry Lee Schatz, who had been hiding at the Swedish Embassy.

The Taylors took Stafford and her husband, Joseph. The other four — Anders, Schatz, and Mark and Cora Lijek — remained with the Sheardowns.

“We were under surveillance,” Mr. Sheardown once told an interviewer. “We had tanks at one end of the street and a fellow that walked up and down. They were always suspicious.”

During the two months they quartered the Americans, the Sheardowns took creative precautions to avoid tipping off the authorities. To feed the extra mouths — especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas — they bought groceries at different stores to disguise the amount of food consumed at the home.

Mr. Sheardown took garbage with him on the route to work, to camouflage the amount of refuse they were generating. The CIA arranged preparations for the Americans’ departure, which became urgent as the Iranians erected roadblocks around the city and rumors of the house guests spread among Western media.

What a mensch and courageous person this man was.

Since Sheardown was a resident of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, just over the bridge from Detroit, it’s unfortunate that we didn’t do much over here to recognize his good deeds and heroism in our media. Perhaps if Sheardown had rescued Muslims, instead of Westerners from Muslims, the mainstream American media would have found it more worthy.

John Sheardown, Canadian hero, Rest In Peace.

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17 Responses

I keep thinking of the “les patriotes” who fought the British in Canada in the late 1830s:

Un Canadien errant,
Banni de ses foyers,
Parcourait en pleurant
Des pays étrangers.

Un jour, triste et pensif,
Assis au bord des flots,
Au courant fugitif
Il adressa ces mots:

“Si tu vois mon pays,
Mon pays malheureux,
Va, dis à mes amis
Que je me souviens d’eux.

“Ô jours si pleins d’appas
Vous êtes disparus,
Et ma patrie, hélas!
Je ne la verrai plus!

“Non, mais en expirant,
Ô mon cher Canada!
Mon regard languissant
Vers toi se portera…”

Translated:

A Canadian wandering afar,
Banished from hearth and home,
Would gaze at the northern star
And weep in the strange lands he roamed.

One day, with thoughts full of woe,
He sat by the river’s edge.
To the fugitive current below,
These are the words that he said:

If you see my country some day,
My country in sorrow’s thrall,
Go tell my friends faraway
That I remember them all.

O days of charm you have passed,
You vanished like summer rain.
And my fatherland, alas!
I never will see you again.

No, but on my dying day
These eyes will be filled with tears
As my longing look turns your way,
O Canada, ever so dear.

Decent people like Canadian hero John Sheardown have always been rare. They do what is right without thought of award or recognition. History will judge them kindly!

John Sheardown – RIP!

NormanF on January 4, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Quite a difference from US behavior in Benghazi.

Little Al on January 4, 2013 at 3:27 pm

That was the beginning of the end for Iran and when Carter eagerly welcomed the deposing of the Shah and the ayatollah’s return from exile.

DS_ROCKS! on January 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Thank you very much for bringing this to our attention, it is so important to thank the true out there, and I certainly would not have know about this gentleman without your post. Mr. Sheardown Z”L A”H

I enjoyed Argo and was glad the movie was made and the story was brought to the attention of so many of us; I have little doubt, however, about the lack of veracity of the maid element of this story, but you really don’t expect ol’ Ben to be showing Muslim savagery without some amount of “balance” (even if he has to take “artistic license” to do so). It was pretty compelling for me, however, to sit with a bunch of my liberal co-religionists after ths show and hear their reaction to the portrayals of brutality shown. Had the movie been made by someone they thought of as “Republican” or “right wing, I have no doubt they would have dismissed those scenes as exaggeration, but since the moviemaker was one of “theirs,” they seemed willing to accept the reality that those of us who frequent this site understand all too well.

Michael on January 4, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    I meant to say “true heroes” out there, sorry.

    Michael on January 4, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Definitely worth noting, thanks!

Did you also hear about the recent passing of Nobel-winning scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini? Unlike Sally Ride, she should be a hero for aspiring scientists of all stripes, female or not.

R: Yes, I was planing to get to her, but didn’t get there yet. She was a genius. DS

Robert on January 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm

back then in buffalo ny
on whatever factory building
across the niagara river
from fort erie ontario
a gigantic sign was erected
saying

THANK YOU CANADA

it remained there for months
our friendship with canada
did not have to be proved
nor vice versa

it’s obvious amd it’s been there
for a long time

by the way
when the canadian rescue happened
various moslem states complained
that canada had committed a war ceime

FACT

prestigio on January 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Hi Debbie; Thank you so much for your artical about my Dad. I certainly couldn’t have put it any better myself. He was a great Dad and a true Hero in my eyes. He will be sadly missed by all of us.

Robin Sheardown on January 4, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Mr Sheardown had done good. As a Canadian and an ex-Navy man, I am proud.

See you on the other side, Johnny.

The Reverend Jacques on January 4, 2013 at 5:38 pm

I will be thinking about this article for a long time. What a great man.

I aspire to have the courage of this great man and the brave teacher who died saving her young students at Sandy Hook. America (and the world) needs more sorts like this and less of the sorts that seem to be the zeitgeist in 2013.

I wish I had read about Mr. Sheardown before this interesting column. I know if I had, his bravery and selflessness would have stayed with me.

RIP Mr. Sheardown!

Skunky on January 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm

R.I.P. John Sheardown you have made me proud to be Canadian.
Thankyou D.S. for this article, and thank you to all here for the kind words for this hero.

Canadian Steve on January 5, 2013 at 2:09 am

great story never knew about the whole story to bad the movie did not have all the facts just another liberal made movie

martin on January 5, 2013 at 10:11 am

Thank you for the information about John Sheardow, Debbie.

John Sheardown–RIP.

JeffE on January 5, 2013 at 11:30 pm

From what I remember reading the Filipino maid was incredibly brave and was running the greatest risk of all.
Very sad to hear about the passing of one of the old guard, there’ll be no replacing guys like him.

Frankz on January 7, 2013 at 5:43 pm

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