Sailor and author celebrates 100th birthday in Galway


SUBMARINER, SAILOR and author Cdr Bill King is due to celebrate his 100th birthday with friends, family and neighbours in Oranmore, south Galway, today.

Cdr King, the oldest surviving submarine commander from the second World War, danced to a version of Cab Calloway’s Sweet Jenny Leeon his actual birthday two days ago at his home in Oranmore Castle.

“We had lamb on a spit, lobster, music,” his daughter, artist Leonie King, told The Irish Times. “He rose to the occasion and we had a good old jamboree into the small hours.” Joining them were his son Tarka, grandchildren Cian and Heather, nephews, nieces and cousins.

The wider community is marking the occasion today, when the Fastnet Trophy, which he was recently awarded by the Irish Cruising Club for his sailing achievements, may also be displayed.

Cdr King already holds the Blue Water Medal, presented by the Cruising Club of America. He secured it for being the first Irish sailor to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly, in his yacht Galway Blazer II, after several attempts and a dramatic collision with a whale or shark.

He holds seven medals for military service. Cdr King was raised by his mother in England, as his father and uncle were killed in the first World War. Aged just 12, he was dispatched to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, where flogging was regularly employed as incentive and deterrent. He was sent to sea aged 17. His “nursery” was a battleship, HMS Resolution, in the Mediterranean.

However, the life of rude “fresh air” which he had hoped for was replaced by the claustrophobic confines of submarines. He was 29 when he embarked on his first mission. He later wrote of a world “bounded by the chart table, the periscope and the bridge”, with the constant smell of “diesel oil, chlorine and unwashed bodies”.

Cdr King moved to Ireland after the war with his late wife, author Anita Leslie. Leslie had been decorated for her work as an ambulance driver in the French army. She bought Oranmore castle in 1945 for £200. The couple hunted with the Galway Blazers, King sailed and climbed and they reared their two children.

Six years ago, the Japanese son and grandson of one of his wartime victims met Cdr King at Oranmore Castle and marked the occasion of reconciliation with the planting of a crab apple tree.