Seen Argo yet? Well, you’ve probably heard about it at least. It’s about how six Americans weren’t in the American Embassy when it was overrun by Iranians in 1979 and the CIA created a fake movie crew to get them out. If you want to know the rest of the story, what was going on in Tehran for 85 days, you need to find an old TV movie called Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper. It was produced in 1981. Those of us who were familiar with the Canadian part of the story were really pissed off at Ben Affleck for downplaying the courage and ingenuity of the Canadian diplomats who sheltered our diplomats and arranged their escape.
John and Zena Sheardown were a major part of that story. On the sixth day after the taking of the embassy, consular officer Robert Anders managed to call his friend John Sheardown and alert him to the fact that six Americans were lose in Tehran. Sheardown’s reaction was simple. He wanted to know what took Anders so long to contact him.
Four of the Americans were hidden in the Sheardown’s house, while the other two were living in the private residence of Ambassador Ken Taylor. Had the Iranian revolutionaries found out about the Americans, the Canadian Embassy would have suffered the same fate, the staff would have become hostages, just like the Americans. Several times during each and every day, helicopters flew over the homes of Western diplomats, looking for any sign of the Americans. With four extra people in their home, the Sheardowns had to take some extreme precautions to avoid detection, care in purchasing food, not putting out too much garbage, not altering their normal routines in any way that would cause their neighbors and other Iranians who had contact with them to think there was anything out of the ordinary.
While Taylor worked with his own government and the Americans to get the six out of Iran, the Sheardowns worked to ease the discomforts of confinement and keep their guests distracted and happy.
Speaking from her home in Ottawa, Ontario, Zena Sheardown told the Associated Press, “It would ahve been selfish for us not to do so. There weren’t many places to hide in Iran, we had the room, they need our help and it was just not in John’s nature to refuse help to anyone. We have a lot of fond memories. We spent American Thanksgiving together, New Year’s Eve together. Every night we would all sit around for dinner together. There was a lot of humor 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.”
Speaking of her husband, with whom she shared 37 loving years, Zena said, “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.”
Mark Lijek, one of the Americans sheltered by the Sheardowns, posted on Slate Magazine’s website in October that Sheardown’s role in their escape was “indespensible.” “Without his enthusiastic welcome, we might have tried to survive on our own for a few more days. We would have failed.”
John Vernon Sheardown was born in Ontario on October 11, 1924. At the age of 18, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and flew scores of bomber missions in World War II. With his plane crippled by German fire, he told his crew to bail out over Southern England, and managed to wrestle the plane a few more miles before bailing out himself. His jump was too short and he broke both legs on landing. He not only recovered completely from his injuries, but he went on to fly more missions in Korea before joining the immigration service in 1962. During his 27-year diplomatic career, Sheardown served in London, Glasgow, New Delhi, Los Angeles and Tehran. Zena was his second wife, and they met while he was stationed in London.
For the past four years, Sheardown suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and other physical ailments. He died in an Ottawa hospital on December 30 at the age of 88, having lived, according to Zena, “a wonderful life, and we shared many wonderful years together.” In addition to Zena, Sheardown is survived by two sisters, two sons, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
In the 1981 movie, Sheardown was portrayed by Canadian actor Chris Wiggins, best known to American audiences for playing Jack in the old series, Friday the 13th. Ambassador Taylor was played by Gordon Pinsent, whose filmography is too bloody long to go into. Affleck omitted the Sheardowns from Argo, claiming it was done because of time and plot constraints. The omission led to a considerable amount of protest, and a statement was apparently added to the end of Argo to acknowledge the role of the Canadians in the escape of our diplomats from Tehran.
The Sheardowns and Taylors received the Order of Canada for their role in the escape. Zena Sheardown would normally not have been eligible for the award because she was a Guyanese-born British subject, but Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald intervened on her behalf. President Carter did not admit to the escape at the time, hoping that not alerting the Iranians would somehow protect the 52 Americans who were held for 444 days. Ambassador Taylor was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress.
In addition to Anders and Lijek, also rescued were Cora Lijek, Henry Schatz, Joseph Stafford and Kathleen Stafford. On the day the six were taken out by the CIA, Taylor closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran and all the staff were evacuated. Taylor later became the Canadian Consul in New York City and is now 78 years old, resides in New York and is chairman of the public consulting firm Taylor and Ryan.