John Sheardown: Diplomat who sheltered Americans during the Iran hostage crisis

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The Independent Online

John Sheardown, who died on 30 December at the age of 88, was the former First Secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran who sheltered fugitive American Embassy staffers at his home during the Iran hosrage crisis. He played a key role in the events depicted in Ben Affleck's Argo, although he was not portrayed in the film.

Almost a week after militant Iranian radicals seized the US Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in retaliation for US support for the recently deposed Shah, the Canadian diplomat received a call from consular officer Robert Anders, one of the six Americans who had evaded capture. "What took you so long?" was Sheardown's reply.

The Sheardowns agreed to shelter four of the six Americans in secrecy in their house in Tehran. The Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, housed the other two.

"It would have been selfish for us not to do so," Sheardown's wife Zena recalled. "There weren't many places to hide in Iran, we had the room, they needed our help and it was just not in John's nature to refuse help to anyone."

For 79 days, the pair lived a low-profile life while helicopters streamed overhead, everyone's nerves calmed only by boisterous dinners together and heartfelt hospitality. "We have a lot of fond memories," Zena Sheardown said. "We spent Thanksgiving together, New Year's Eve, together. Every night we would all sit around for dinner together. There was a lot of humour and laughter. It was a nice time to have to spend together. We tried to be protective, but we also went out of our way to make them feel as if they weren't imposing on us."

She said her husband became the father figure of the household, whom everyone would turn to for advice when they went through moments of fear: "He kind of became our leader and since he was a pipe smoker and had more of a mature nature, he became known as 'Big Daddy' – everyone would wait for Big Daddy to come home."

Affleck has apologised for leaving Sheardown out of his film, which he said was the result of time constraints and plot developments.

Born in Ontario, Sheardown joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at 18. He flew scores of Lancaster bomber missions during the Second World War, on one mission barely managing to get his flak-riddled plane back to Britain. With the Lancaster losing power, he told his crew to bail out. He tried to wrestle the aircraft under control before leaping at the last minute. His parachute barely had time to open and he broke both legs upon impact.

He stayed in the Canadian Armed Forces after the war, serving in Korea, before joining Canada's immigration service around 1962. He was posted in London, Glasgow, New Delhi and Los Angeles during his 27-year diplomatic career.