The Korean War began in 1950 when the North Korean Communist army crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea. The North Koreans over-ran the south and captured the capital, Seoul. The United Nations assisted by fifteen nations including American, British and Australian forces supported South Korea while North Korea was sustained by China. This was the first major action by the United Nations. Douglas McArthur was initially in charge of the U.S. forces but clashed with President Truman and was removed. The Communist forces were eventually beaten back after fierce fighting to the 38th parallel. An armistice agreement, maintaining the divided Korea, was signed in 1953. The final death toll could have been as high as 4 million with over 50,000 American causalities. Kildare author, James Durney, has outlined the story of the Irish servicemen in the Korean War in his book, ‘The Far Side of the World’ which is available from jamedurney.com.
Irish emigrants to America became eligible for the draft for service in the U.S. Forces. Twenty nine Irish born soldiers serving with the U.S. forces lost their lives in the conflict. Many Irish men survived the war and it is only in the last decade that their sacrifice was recognised. In August last year U.S. Ambassador Daniel Rooney presented medals for Korean War Service to twelve surviving American veterans living in Ireland.
Dick McCabe left Thomastown, Crossakiel, in 1948 to emigrate to the U.S. He worked for a year before being called up and following training was sent to Korea, landing at Pusan, in the south of the country. Assigned to the First Cavalry Division Dick found himself in conditions similar to the trench warfare of the First World War. Dick spent a period attacking Hill 346 which became known as ‘Old Baldy’ as the artillery bombardment had stripped it of any vegetation. Early in his time in Korea he was taken prisoner by two Chinese soldiers. As he was being marched away he heard a shout in an American accent to ‘hit the dirt’. Dick fell to the ground leaving the two Chinese soldiers easy targets for American gunfire. Weather conditions were extreme, intense heat in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Food was scarce for both sides; Dick recalled the smell of the garlic from the opposing trenches which was carried by the Chinese to flavour their rice. Long periods were spent in the trenches, living in mud and unable to move for days on end. All the soldiers could do was to hope to survive; Dick at one stage received two bullet holes in his helmet. At one point he served with a tank unit and slept under the tank at night with the engine running in order to keep warm.
The division was rotated back to Japan and Dick spent a period there with the occupying army before departing for the States. Returning to Ireland in 1953 Dick continued to suffer from nightmares from his experiences in Korea for a long period. Dick found the Korean people very friendly and is proud of his service and loved the army life.
In June 1951 Martin McDonagh, of Rathcairn, a member of the American forces was reported as missing, believed dead, but later turned up as a prisoner of war. McDonagh was interrogated by the enemy. Asked was he American he replied that he was Irish. He explained that he was not a volunteer but had been conscripted to the army and had no choice but to join. After this his treatment improved. McDonagh was held as a prisoner for over two years. After his release he returned to the family farm in Rathcairn.
General William Dean, a commander in the United States forces was said to be a relation of Michael Deane of Farganstown, Navan. Dean was commanding the 24th Infantry Division at the outbreak of the war. Making a last stand at Taejon, Dean was captured and was listed as missing. He became a prisoner of the North Koreans and was released at the end of the war.
Meath had other connections with Korea. Dalgan Park was the headquarters of the Maynooth Mission to China and the order had been active in Korea from 1933. Many of their priests were drawn into the conflict as hostilities began. Fr. James Dunne from Kilcloon and Fr. Frank Woods were among the priests in Korea when the conflict began. Fr. Peter Collier from Clogherhead was killed in his parish outside Seoul. Fr. Patrick Reilly from Drumraney, Co. Westmeath was initially listed as missing but had been taken prisoner. Fr. Reilly became ill in prison and was taken on a forced march. After twenty miles unable to go any further he was shot.
A missionary in China, Rev. Patrick O’Reilly from Moynalty, was arrested together with a number of other priests from the Maynooth Mission to China, on charges of opposing recruiting for Korea.
Fr. Frank Woods, of the Maynooth Mission to China, hit the headlines with his activities during the war. Fr. Woods, a native of Dunleer, had a brother Joseph who ran a drapery business at Trimgate Street, Navan and another brother, Augustine, had a licensed premises, now named Inn Moderation, in Athboy. Fr. Woods went to Korea in 1935. During the Second World War Fr. Woods and sixteen other priests were taken prisoner by the Japanese and held for three years on a near-starvation diet before they were liberated by the U.S. army. The American soldiers cooked up a big meal but he priests were unable to consume anything bigger than a bar of chocolate for days. Fr. Woods wrote to his brother, Joseph in Navan, that the American soldiers were giving them the time of their lives.
In 1950 Fr. Woods became unofficial chaplain to the U.S. forcers when they arrived in Pusan at the outbreak of hostilities. The most popular figure in the Second Infantry Division Fr. Woods became the best interrogator in the company as he spoke fluent Korean. Serving through the fiercest battles of the war, including Chipung Wonju and Heartbreak Ridge, Fr. Woods comforted the troops as enemy mortar fire and self propelled guns shelled the trenches. While ministering to the sick and wounded during the defence of the Naktong River an enemy force infiltrated to within 25 yards of a command post. American troops could hear them talking. Fr. Wood called on the North Koreans to surrender and told them they would be well treated. One by one the enemy soldiers surrendered with seventy two prisoners being taken by the priest and the G.I.s. For this action Fr. Woods was awarded the Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm, one of the highest civilian honours the United States can present. Fr. Woods returned to Ireland for a holiday before returning to Korea at Christmas in 1952 with four new missionaries including Fr. John Lynch from Moynalty. Having survived the war Fr. Woods returned to his Korean parish and continued his missionary work until his death in 1973. The Columbans continued to send missionaries to Korea and carry on their work in the country to the present time.