Reflections on a Labor of Love
by Brian McGinn
It began with Pat Maguire, a combat-wounded veteran of Korea from Mullaghdun, Co. Fermanagh. Pat, like myself, had been drawn to the Memorial Day and Veterans Day wreath laying organized by the Irish Center's Vickie Curtin at The Wall, as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC is known.
Introduced by Vickie, Pat asserted that the earlier conflict had a wider and deeper impact on the Irish community in the U.S. than Vietnam, a war for which we already knew of 16 Irish-born casualties, plus three born to Irish parents in the UK.
In terms of Irishmen killed in action, wounded, and taken prisoner of war, Pat continued, a careful analysis would show that the cost of Korea far surpassed that of Vietnam.
Not to mention the number of Irish-born soldiers who served without obvious effects.
These, it soon became clear, did not include Pat himself, lending credibility to his statement.
Still, skepticism was dominant was I asked Pat to give me with some proof. In response, he provided a list of twelve names. Nine has been honored at a Requiem Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, in February 1952, which Pat himself had attended.
His wife Margaret, from Drumlish in Co. Longford, had added number ten, that of her neighbor Danny Keogh. And Pat had added an eleventh with Pat Lavin, the courageous combat medic from Co. Leitrim who died in 1953, sixteen months after the services in St. Patrick's. When he first immigrated to New York, Pat had played cards with Pat Lavin's Uncle John on Webb Avenue in the Bronx.
Help from the Fighting Sixty-Ninth
Next I phoned an old friend, LTC Keneth Powers (Ret.), official historian of the Sixty-Ninth New York Regiment, which traces its lineage back to the Civil war era and still leads the New York St. Patrick's Day parade up Fifth Avenue.
In addition to his expertise on the 'Fighting 69th', Ken is widely known for his in-depth knowledge and voluminous files on all things Irish and military.
In due course, a hefty envelope arrived. Inside, I found press accounts of the February 1952 services at St. Patrick's Cathedral from half-a-dozen newspapers.
It was columnist Frank O'Connor's account from New York's Irish Echo that proved most revealing, providing details that the self-effacing Maguire had not revealed.
In an article titled "The Irish Boys for Died for America", O'Connor described how, during a bitterly-contested June 6, 1951 battle on North Korea's Hill 1046, Donal Harrington, who had been back from hospital in Japan only about three days, was killed instantly in a blaze of machine gun fire.
"On the same hill," O'Connor continued, "Patrick Maguire was machine gunned across the chest and right arm. He spent seven months in hospital and got out last week for the first time to attend the Mass for his comrades. He must go back for another operation."
Later, when I finally met Pat in person at the October 2001 commemorative service in New York's Gaelic Park, I realized that this reticent Ulster hero had not shared the details of his wounding with his wife or daughter. "
"That's not important", said Pat when I tried to get the details from him. But his suit lapel told me all I needed to know--a miniature Purple Heart with Oak Leaf cluster, awarded to the twice combat-wounded. Such dignified understatement, I would come to appreciate, is a common characteristic of Korean War veterans.
My respect reinforced, I set about the task of expanding Pat Maguire's core list. This was facilitated by a fortuitously timed from phone call from John Oman, a Dubliner living in Little Rock, Arkansas. John, it turned out, was a retired 21-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, including service over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Responding to journalist Ray O'Hanlon's seminal coverage of the Korean War in the Irish Echo, John Oman had taken the initiative to contact John Leahy, a Kerry-born Korean War veteran who was spearheading a drive to gain posthumous U.S. citizenship for his fallen compatriots.
The idea had first come to Leahy in 1976, while watching the Bicentennial Celebrations in New York harbor. After the War, on June 20, 1953, President Eisenhower had signed Public Law 86 granting U.S. naturalization to foreign-born veterans who served between June 1950 and July 1955. But Public Law 86 applied only to those who survived.
Through an apparent oversight, the debt to the dead was forgotten.
For a quarter century, Leahy had tried to interest politicians and other persons of influence in both the U.S. military and Irish-American community in his cause.
His campaign fell on deaf ears. In a classic case of misunderstanding, an official of a national veteran's organization thought that Leahy himself was complaining that he had been denied U.S. citizenship, and advised him to take his case to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the War provided the spark that John had been waiting for, and lit a fire under his quarter-century campaign.
A fire fueled by retired Marine Corps commandant General P.X. Kelley's May 24-30, 2000 letter to the editor of the Irish Echo, in which he listed and saluted the heroism of the nine Irish soldiers honored in February 1952.
"A fact often lost in the 'fog of history', General Kelley wrote, "is that some young Irishmen who were killed in combat while serving under the 'Stars and Stripes' were not eligible for citizenship."
"As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the commencement of hostilities in the Korean conflict," Kelley continued, "let us all join in thanking those who served from June 25, 1950 to the final truce on July 27, 1953."
This time, ears were open and eager for Kelley's message. The story was picked by Ray O'Hanlon, whose dedication to this cause can only begin to be gauged by the number of links we have on this web site to his Irish Echo coverage.
A Genealogical Quest
From John Oman, I received a phone message that John Leahy would like to talk. John, an outgoing people person if ever there was one, had a dozen other names of Korean War casualties in his head. But after fifty years, his information was often fragmentary, not having the benefit of having appeared in the Irish Echo.
As I jotted down the sometimes sketchy clues, I assured John that once it was confirmed I would post it on a web site. That would give his cause added credibility, and provide an opportunity for visitors to flesh out the otherwise lost details of young lives cut so short.
In the case of Korea, I was determined to precisely mark both the beginning and end of these young men's lives. Their dates of death were already available from online sources. But these websites only included their years of birth. And none of them mentioned Ireland as their place of birth, instead listing the U.S. state and county that was their "home of residence" when they were drafted or enlisted.
I needed help. Fortunately, I had already established a research relationship with John O'Neill, a professional genealogist and researcher based in Dublin. John had impressed me with his unparalleled knowledge of Ireland's archives and his leave-no-stone-unturned dedication during my research for Irish on The Wall, a web site honoring the Irish casualties in Vietnam.
My research strategy was simple--and as John undoubtedly thought simple-minded. I'd give him a name and year of birth, turn him loose in the General Register Office in Dublin--where birth records are stored--and expect him to come up--from all the males born that year with the same name--with the one killed in Korea.
In some cases, knowing the Irish county of birth helped a bit--but not much. In Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s, when all of our casualties were born, births were registered by Poor Law Unions, archaic administrative divisions that often straddled the borders of modern Counties.
True to form, John O'Neill teased out the information, often ordering up six or more birth records in order to find the right one. In those cases where it was impossible to decide, he turned them over to me. The benefit of having the records was that they included, in addition to the full names of the parents, the name of the townland in which the birth took place.
As most of the addresses were rural, and given the Irish attachment to ancestral land, I followed a hunch that there were might still be kinfolk living there. Using the online Eircom directory, I searched for a like-named family and rang the number.
In some cases, I was lucky enough to hit the jackpot with one try. This was the case with Pat Prior of Derradda, Co. Leitrim, whom I contacted with regard to Owen Prior, who died in Korea in July 1952. Pat was a distant cousin of Owen's, and could see the crumbling remains of the house Owen grew up in from his own window.
Owen's remaining family now lived in Co. Monaghan, where I was raised. He gave me the telephone number of Owen's brother Laurence, who lived in the village of Newbliss--about five miles from my grandparent's farm. Laurence and his wife Josephine knew my aunts and uncles. His sister Julia McGoohan would later write to tell me that her daughter was married to a primary school classmate of mine.
Little had I expected, when I first embarked on the Irish in Korea project, that it would reconnect me to the Ireland of my own youth.
I felt it was important to confirm the details with family members, out of respect for the dead and in the knowledge that some of their siblings were in failing health.
Although Donal O'Connell of Limerick, brother of Korean casualty Alphonsus O'Connell, is a fit and sprightly man, he gave me a lesson in putting too much faith in official records. Based on his brother's birth record, obtained from the GRO, I had put Sarsfield Street, Limerick as Alphonsus' place of birth. Not so, said the message I received via Donal's nephew in Co. Limerick. Donal still lived in the house, which was now and had always been on Sarfield Avenue, not Street.
I consulted with John O'Neill, who advised me that the birth records in the GRO are the final word on places of birth. I dug in my heels on the street name, which as I was to discover is a fatal mistake when dealing with a Limerickman. After it was pointed out that there is a Sarsfield Street in Limerick, but in another part of the city, I was soon in full-blown retreat before this self-assured man from Garryowen.
In another case, I was unable to match one of John Leahy's clues to the name of any Irish Korean War casualty. The race of the only surname match was classified as Black rather than Caucasian, leading me to dismiss him as a possible candidate.
But this turned out--minus a keystroke error--to be our man. After confirming that this mistake did not appear in official U.S. Government records, I brought it to the attention of the private data base operator, who was happy to correct the error. It was important for my peace of mind, as the Irishman involved is one of five Missing in Action. I needed reassurance that U.S. recovery teams still searching for Korean War remains had the right information, should they uncover this hero's body.
"Irish in Korea" is Born
The next step was to contact another not-so-old friend, Marilyn Knapp Litt in Chicago. I'd first met Marilyn through our mutual interest in Vietnam. Many of Marilyn's friends are women who served there. She has volunteered her time and technical talents to organize web sites that tell their neglected stories. One of these heroes was Pamela Donovan, an Irish nurse who died in Vietnam in 1968.
Somewhat skeptically, as Marilyn herself admits, she posted the first dozen Korean names on a companion site to our existing "Irish on The Wall."
After the passage of more than fifty years, she wasn't sure whether the exercise would draw much--if any--reaction from kin who would now be in their 70s or 80s. I secretly shared her doubts, but appreciated her "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" faith in this Irish-American's latest crazy project.
At first, tributes trickled in to the Guest Book that Marilyn has thoughtfully added. One was from Paul Olivier in Lafayette, Louisiana, to his buddy John Corcoran from Millstreet, Co. Cork. Corcoran, who was mortally wounded in September 1950 in what is euphemistically referred as a "friendly fire" incident. The wounded Irishman landed on Olivier's back, likely saving his buddy's life. Since the Corkman's uncle passed away, Olivier has loving tended to John's grave.
The potential of the Internet was already becoming apparent, since Corcoran--settled in an off-the-beaten track Irish destination--was not known nor included in Pat Maguire's original eleven honorees.
Next, Oliver Fallon in Dublin left a detailed and moving tribute to his uncle-in-law Danny Keogh, who died on St. Patrick's Day, 1953 on his first night at the front. As a historian researching Irish men from the Midlands who died in the Great War, Oliver proved an invaluable asset to Irish in Korea. Already familiar with the local sources and repositories, he volunteered to research any Korean War casualties from the Irish Midlands. I was happy to accept his offer, and Oliver duly dug up provincial newspaper notices and obituaries on the deaths of Michael Hardiman and Michael King from Roscommon and Patrick Lavin from Leitrim.
Proud to be an American
An online search led me to an article in the Limerick Leader with the names of four casualties from Co. Limerick: Billy Collins, John Dillon, Patrick McEnery and Billy Scully. The brother of the weekly's editor was himself a Korean War veteran.
Based on that information, I tracked down and phoned John Dillon's brother Joe in Kilteely, Co. Limerick. Joe revealed that John, the eldest of family of eleven, was actually born in Hartford, Connecticut. When John was four years old, the Dillon family had returned to their native Co. Limerick.
Although Joe, the youngest, had never known John, who left for the U.S. before Joe was born, it was quickly obvious that Joe worshipped his big brother's memory.
And the same was true of their sister Myra Dillon Barrs, who had emigrated and settled in Sydney, Australia. Myra, who was nine when John left for the U.S., shared some heart-rending memories of her brother's departure, at age 17, and the double sense of loss she and her family afterwards endured.
"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."
"He was very handsome and could sing and all the girls loved him. I remember once he walked past the gate with two girls linking arms with him and I ran to tell my Mom 'That's our Johnnie walking past with two girls'. 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 it was marvelous. So when he left it was like the world stopped. When he was killed the axis tilted and never regained its balance as far as I was concerned."
So traumatized were the Dillon siblings, said Myra, that "we used to have bets as to who would gladly give his or her life just to see John again for a little while." Their grief-stricken mother, Joe reported, cried every day for a year.
Though ineligible for inclusion in the recent October 30, 2003 posthumous citizenship ceremonies, by virtue of his U.S. birthright, John Dillon's name clearly belonged on our roster of Irish Korean War dead.
Apart from his Irish upbringing, under Irish law he was also considered an Irish Citizen by Birth. The applicable provision in Ireland's citizenship law applies to any child of Irish-born parents, no matter where he or she is born and regardless of what other primary citizenship they may hold.
Murphy Covers Munster
Another Guest Book entry came from Stephen Murphy in Cork City. Stephen is the nephew of William Francis Murphy, who was captured shortly after he arrived in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division in early 1951.
I was struck by the obvious sincerity and deeply felt sorrow of Stephen's tribute to an uncle he never knew. And by his determination to find out how and where William died. With the help of Timothy F. Casey, a nationally recognized expert on Korean War POW/MIA issues, Stephen was able to contact the two fellow POWs who were with his uncle at the time of death, and to retrieve William's wrist watch.
I contacted Stephen via e-mail, and thus began a creative alliance that has already spanned two years. As a retired secondary school teacher and scholar, Stephen has the tact, temperament and skills to work with even the most reluctant kin.
In uncountable ways, Stephen's contributions assured the ultimate success of John Leahy's campaign. His status as the nephew of a POW/MIA gave his instant credibility, as he acted as the project's liaison to the Irish families.
He was especially effective and useful with the Munster-based kin, keeping them informed of the latest political developments with the Posthumous Citizenship Bills before the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
He made countless research queries on my behalf, allowing me to concentrate my efforts on the U.S. families. And he has helped cajole photos from both Irish and U.S. families, permitting us to put faces on the names of 28 of the 29 casualties on our roster. After half a century, that's a record in which we both take pride.
When we finally met in person on
October 30th in the Dirksen Building on Capitol Hill, it was like we were old
school friends--though we'd never spoken on the phone let alone met. A
soft-spoken Corkman with a mind as sharp as a pin, Stephen never fails to
impress with his unexpected insights, analysis and queries. I pray that with the
granting of Posthumous Citizenship his family may find some measure of peace.