Quiet Heroes of a "Forgotten War"

© 2001-2003 by Brian McGinn

Close on half a century earlier, in February 1952, they packed St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan to honor nine comrades whose remains were en route to Ireland. Now, on a brisk October morning in 2001, they gathered at Gaelic Park in the Bronx to once again remember those nine, and 14 newly confirmed Irish soldiers who died in the Korean War.

Among the 450 who attended this Requiem Mass and memorial service were sisters and brothers, pals from home and from emigrant life in the States, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren. But it was the scores of surviving Irish veterans of this War that America tried to forget whose dignified and grandfatherly presence paid the most telling tribute to their fallen compatriots. Only their miniature Purple Heart pins--discretely displayed on suit lapels-- hinted at the hell they had endured as they battled Korea's killing cold, brutal terrain, and 300,000 seasoned Communist Chinese soldiers.

Or how close many had come to being remembered rather than present.

Ask Pat Maguire about his Purple Heart and you get a polite Ulster brush-off. That's not important, says the combat-wounded veteran from Mullaghdun, Co. Fermanagh. Pressed a bit, Maguire reluctantly admits that his Purple Heart medal has an Oak Leaf Cluster, awarded for his second wound. Ask Pat's wife or daughter and you realize this self-effacing hero--in common with countless others--has spared his family the details.

The Irish Echo dated February 9th, 1952 fills in some gaps. In a report on the previous week's Requiem Mass in St. Patrick's, Frank O'Connor described how, in June 1951, Donal Harrington from Cork died in a hard-fought engagement on Korea's Hill 1046.

"On the same hill", O'Connor revealed, "Patrick Maguire was machine gunned across the chest and right arm. He spent seven months in hospital and got out for the first time to attend the Mass for his comrades. He must go back again for another operation."

The Price Paid

Back in Eyeries, on Cork's Beara Peninsula, Eileen Harrington clearly remembers the exact date of the 1952 Mass in New York. By coincidence, February 2nd was the day she buried her brother Donal. Eileen also recalls how the Harrington family ended up comforting the man sent to console them. The escorting officer, who had just represented the U.S. at another Irish funeral, was himself distraught. Following orders, he had turned down that grieving family's request for one last look inside their son's closed casket.

Heart-rending scenes like this became all too common between 1950 and 1953, as most of the Irish dead were laid to rest in their native soil. Their homes spanned eleven separate counties and all four provinces, with the highest tolls--four casualties each--falling on Cork, Kerry and Limerick, closely followed by Co. Mayo's three.

Their ages at death ranged from 21 to 27, with the majority in their early twenties. Their fathers were predominantly farmers or laborers. Their mothers were mothers. It was, you might be forgiven for thinking, a simpler and unsophisticated time. But simplicity can be an insidious and irrelevant conceit. As if, in the absence of instant messaging, young men could not live and laugh and love as intensely as their modern, tech-savvy counterparts.

Most had left Ireland in 1947 and 1948, as emigration reopened in the wake of World War II. None could have anticipated that a sudden and unexpected war in an Asian nation that most would have known only as a mission field for the Columban Fathers would soon profoundly transform their lives. A War whose casualties would include five Irish-born Columbans. And Sr. Mary Clare, an Anglican nun from Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow.

Roll of Honor

Among the military dead, four had volunteered for military service: John Corcoran from Cork, John Dillon from Limerick, Michael Gannon from Mayo and Thomas O'Brien from Tipperary. The rest--like their majority of their American comrades--were draftees.

But with one key distinction. Most the Irish were not citizens of the country in whose uniform they served. After the War, the law was changed to permit accelerated U.S. citizenship for foreign-born members of the Armed Forces.  The change, however, was not made retroactive. Those Irish soldiers who served and survived still had to wait the full five years before becoming eligible for citizenship. One of those men, John Leahy from Lixnaw, Co. Kerry, has championed the cause of posthumous U.S. citizenship for the Irish dead. A Bill currently before Congress, H.R. 2623, would extend that honor to all foreign nationals who died in uniform during all twentieth-century U.S. conflicts.

Most of the young emigrants trod well-worn paths to traditional Irish destinations: New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Others went wherever brothers, sisters or friends had settled. Michael Gannon from Achill would have found fellow Mayomen in Cleveland, Ohio. Michael Fitzpatrick from Cappagh, outside Claremorris, went out to his sister Mary in Chicago and found work in nearby Whiting, Indiana. Gannon, a field artillery cannoneer, died in action in South Korea in February 1951. Fitzpatrick, a combat medic, was killed in action in North Korea in August 1951.

In Greenwich, Connecticut, Mark Brennan from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo joined his sister Helen, brother Martin and John (Gerry) Gannon, a neighbor from home. Two and a half years after emigrating, Mark was drafted in August 1951. Trained as an antiaircraft artillery gunner in Ft. Bliss, Texas, Brennan was assigned to the 78th AAA Battalion stationed at Suwon Air Force Base, South Korea.  He died, aged 23, in the June 1953 crash of a C-124A Globemaster cargo plane ferrying him back to his base in Korea after a week of R & R leave in Japan.

Other U.S. addresses provide insight into long-forgotten emigrant destinations. In the late 1940s, Danny Keogh from Drumlish would have felt quite at home in Sparks, Nevada, where many fellow immigrants from Co. Longford found work in the rail yards outside Reno. In a moving tribute  to his uncle through marriage, Oliver Fallon relates how Keogh, a light weapons infantry leader, died in action in North Korea on St. Patrick's Day, 1953. He was 24.

Brothers and Sisters

Siblings, says the author Laura Palmer, are often the least understood victims of war. Although Palmer's analysis is found in Shrapnel in the Heart a compelling book about the Vietnam War, her words could have been written for Korea. 

"Society," Palmer explains, "expects mothers to fall apart and grieve. At least initially, there is a lot of support for a woman who loses a child. But brothers and sisters are told they have their whole lives ahead of them. They do not always get a chance to grieve adequately for the part of their life that is left behind."

Myra Dillon Barrs agrees. Her brother John Dillon, the eldest in a family of eleven, was born in Hartford, Connecticut but raised in Ireland when his parents returned to their native Limerick. Almost half a century on, Myra still recalls her big brother with a mixture of hero worship and a girlish affection undiminished by the passing years.

"He was very handsome and could sing and all the girls loved him. He was the big hero in our parish and used to tell everyone at school that he was an American and not Irish. He sort of swaggered around the playground and I thought he was marvelous."

Myra first lost her hero at 17, when John returned to his native Connecticut. "He was so proud to be returning to the U.S., and I wanted so much to go with him. It seemed like such a big adventure at the time." She lost him again at 22. "When he left, it was like the world stopped. When he was killed, the axis tilted and never regained its balance."

Enduring Lessons

Even as the veterans gathered to remember Korea, echoes of the terror recently visited on New York seemed to linger in the air. One of the clergy came to the service from Lower Manhattan. He had been counseling rescue workers at the World Trade Center.

The term "ambiguous loss" was popping up in the New York newspapers. However well intentioned, it could not possibly capture the unending grief felt by those bereaved 9/11 families unable to pay traditional respects to the remains of their loved ones.

Their pain would be familiar to the relatives of some eight thousand men missing in action in the Korean War. Among them Maryanne Joyce, the still-grieving sister of John Patrick White, a U.S. Marine from Caherdaniel in Kerry. Or Martha Dunbar, who still misses her Belfast-born uncle William John Mills, a trooper with the famed 7th Cavalry. Billy Mills was declared missing in November 1951, John White in September 1952.

As the memorial service ended, rumors of another war, in another Asian land, swept through Gaelic Park. The bombing campaign in Afghanistan had just begun. Facing the first war of the twenty-first century, America's soldiers and citizens could find lessons in endurance, resilience and selfless dedication among these quiet Irish heroes of Korea.

© Copyright 2001-2003 by Brian McGinn

This article originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of Dúċas, the quarterly newsletter of the Irish American Cultural Institute , based in Morristown, New Jersey. Please note that all numbers and other data quoted for Irish casualties reflect the state of research at the time of original publication.

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