A year before Jack Kent died, he sent a letter to his family in New Zealand: “Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a while. I’ll be fine.”
The Taranaki-born professional wrestler then sent two more postcards, the last one depicting a beautiful French coast, so when his father and two sisters didn’t hear from him, they thought nothing of it.
Until they received a letter of sympathy from a friend of Kent a year later. He had died just two weeks after sending his last postcard.
The family had no idea Kent was one of 300 Spanish Civil War volunteers who perished when their ship was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Spain on May 30, 1937 – and they didn’t believe it in the years that followed.
* Only Kiwi victim of the Spanish Civil War tragedy to be remembered on the memorial
* The Taranaki family, Spanish Civil War volunteers, provide precious moments at the war memorial
But, after decades of asking questions, doubting his death and learning more about the tragedy, living relatives who grew up hearing stories about “Uncle Jack” finally have closure.
Two weeks ago, on the 85th anniversary of the Ciudad de Barcelona sinking, a memorial was unveiled for those who lost their lives that day, and some of Kent’s family – whom he’s never met – proudly watched.
“It was really, really emotional,” Kent’s nephew Steve Jenkins said this week when he had just arrived in Australia.
“We were the only ones to witness the unveiling of someone who actually died on the boat.”
The memorial, created by English sculptor Rob MacDonald, was erected in Malgrat de Mar, Spain, just 400 meters from where the small converted coal steamer was sunk by an Italian battleship.
The top of the monument signified those who lost their lives, and on the base was a map of the world “where you could see New Zealand and Australia very clearly,” Jenkins said.
There was a “large crowd” of people from across Europe at the unveiling, but the family were the only Kiwis as Kent was the only New Zealander on board that day.
Kent, christened John Horatio Kent, was born in Eltham, South Taranaki, and raised by his father alongside his two sisters in Hāwera.
One of his sisters, Patricia – Jenkins’ mother, always remembered her brother had a great sense of adventure, she told the Taranaki Daily News in 2009.
When Kent finished school, he landed a carpentry apprenticeship and moved to Napier to help rebuild the town after the 1931 earthquake.
It was there that he got into the struggle – something he continued to do when he moved to Australia, to work in the silver mines, then to South Africa, to continue building .
It was in South Africa that he became a professional fighter, calling himself The Taranaki Tiger.
Meanwhile, Europe was becoming increasingly politically unstable – and the Spanish Civil War broke out.
While Kent’s family never knew he was interested in politics, his sister Patricia believed his decision to get involved stemmed from his adventurous nature.
Kent traveled to London, where he was recruited by the International Brigade to support Republicans opposed to Italian-backed Fascists.
This took him to Glasgow and France, and from there he and over 300 people boarded the Ciudad de Barcelona on May 29, 1937.
A survivor’s diary recorded Kent and an Australian giving a wrestling demonstration for other volunteers that night – the day before the ship sank.
The ship was only 60 kilometers from its destination when it was hit and sank within 10 minutes.
A year later, when the family received the sympathy letter, they contacted the Spanish Civil War recruiter for more information.
A telegram returns in March 1938: “Jack Kemp went down with the city of Barcelona, May 1937.”
Patricia had said Things it had been “traumatic” for the family, who did not want to believe that Kent had been killed.
The telegraph said Kemp, not Kent, and there had been no official notice of his death.
They wrote to many people and organizations for official information, but without success.
They held out a faint hope that Kent was still alive – perhaps thinking he was a prisoner somewhere in Spain.
Only in recent decades has the family learned much of Kent’s history.
Being at the unveiling was special for Jenkins, as it ended the decades of uncertainty he knew his late mother Patricia had endured.
“It was long after the letters stopped coming that they found out he had perished on the boat,” Jenkins said. “They just didn’t know.”
Jenkins was joined by his wife Joan and his nephew Tim, who lives in Vienna.
“Our other family in New Zealand couldn’t go.”
It was emotional for the 75-year-old, as he had grown up hearing stories about the mysterious ‘Uncle Jack’.
“All we knew was what we read or what mom told us,” he said. “My mother died only three years ago, it’s a pity that she is not here yet. I hope she was looking down.