Fate, as it turned out, didn’t give them a long American life, golden years, the time to watch the green sward grow beneath their feet.
But others have now ensured that their memories will be honored for all time, in a sacred place, on a little slope, surrounded by trees, in a bucolic corner of their adopted land.
Family, friends, old comrades and the merely curious from both sides of the Atlantic will join politicians, diplomats and clergy at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn this Saturday for the dedication of a granite memorial to the 28, all of them Irish, all of them American, all once soldiers who served and died in the Korean War more than fifty years ago.
The memorial stone will be located close to the grave of Matilda Tone, widow of 1798 Rebellion leader Wolfe Tone.
Together they will comprise an Irish corner of an historical New York cemetery, final resting place for over 600,000 souls, many of them Irish-born and Irish American.
The 28 first saw the light of day in Ireland but were born at a time when the island of Ireland had an especially hard time holding on to its young.
It probably came as no surprise when the 28 announced to their respective families that they would take their chances in America.
It was what so many young Irishmen did, particularly in the immediate years following the end of World War II.
In some cases there would already have been relatives in America extending invitations, offers, promises of jobs.
But some of the ocean crossers would be complete pioneers, the first in their families to go stateside.
Regardless of circumstance, the 28 all ended up in uniform and in a war that none of them could have imagined so soon after 1945.
All but one of the 28 served in the U.S. Army. One of them fought with the Marines.
By legal definition, the 1950-53 Korean conflict was never actually a war. Despite the fact that tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers died fighting there, the conflict was, and remains, a United Nations “police action.” As such, the 28 Irishmen were excluded from U.S. citizenship even after being drafted into the army and sent to the front lines.
Had Korea been a formally declared war, the 28 would have been made citizens as a reward for their service in uniform.
The technical difference between a war and an action mattered little on the hilltops of the Korean peninsula, during its scorching summers or freezing winters.
But it mattered a lot to the Irish veterans lucky enough to return to the U.S. alive.
One of them was Kerry native John Leahy, the man who, in later years, would became the emotional driving force for the citizenship campaign on behalf of the 28.
“I returned to the U.S. after my tour of duty but couldn’t apply for the police force or post office because I was not a citizen,” Leahy told in the Echo in an interview some years ago.
There were many young men, Irish and of other nationalities, in the same predicament and the Eisenhower administration did take some remedial action.
In 1953, new rules came into force that allowed all military personnel who were not U.S. citizens to become citizens between 90 and 180 days after enlistment, regardless of whether they were involved in combat, and regardless of whether they were volunteers or draftees.
However, the new law did not include a grandfather clause and neither did it apply to the army reserves, of which Leahy was then a member.
“Our sacrifices in Korea were not a factor,” Leahy said. “And apart from all the restrictions it has to be remembered that the poor guys who were killed couldn’t speak for themselves. I got my citizenship in the end after the normal five-year wait. But at least I could turn up at the Immigration and Naturalization Service office and do what needed to be done.”
The sacrifice of the Irish draftees, it should be said, did not go entirely unheeded. While Washington was lax, Irish America at least was determined to have its say.
In February 1952, Irish Echo reporter Frank O’Connor stood at the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York listening to Taps being played by a lone bugler.
Every seat and standing place in the cathedral was taken as the flag-draped coffin bearing the remains of Patrick Sheahan, one of the 28 and a recipient of the Silver Star, was carried down the main aisle by an honor guard from the Fighting 69th regiment.
The flag over Sheahan’s coffin was the Stars & Stripes but the man inside was not an American, at least not officially. The army had released Sheahan’s remains for a solemn Requiem Mass.
At the time of the St. Patrick’s gathering, the known number of dead Irish national in Korea was just nine.
O’Connor himself had discovered the existence of the other eight during a service for Sheahan in Brooklyn. Phone calls were made to St. Patrick’s and a Mass for all nine was rapidly arranged before the bodies were shipped back to Ireland for burial. The army released Sheahan’s body to represent the entire group.
The recognition given at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, even as the war raged, and the failure to grant American citizenship would, to John Leahy, stand out in ever-greater contrast with the passing of the years.
But the passage of time would ultimately bring victory. Three years ago, in a Capitol Hill ceremony attended by family members and supporters who had made the trip from Ireland and all across the United States, the names of the 28 were read out. One by one they were made posthumous citizens.
That America finally delivered its full embrace was a victory over neglect and forgetfulness.
This weekend, in a corner of America that has seen so much of the nation’s history unfold, the final act of recognition and remembrance will take place.
A certificate of posthumous citizenship, though permanent in its meaning and effect, is a private, personal thing to be treasured by the individual families.
Names carved into stone are a public proclamation, notice to the world that these men deserve our lasting attention.
All of the 28 were under 23 years of age when they were killed.
Most of them died in bitter hand-to-hand fighting in Korea’s notorious “Iron Triangle.” Two died in prisoner of war camps and are listed as MIAs. Two others were killed in action and are also listed as MIA. Four of the men are buried in the U.S., in New York, Connecticut, Illinois and Louisiana. The rest are interred in Ireland.
All 28 are honored as a group on the website compiled by the late Brian McGinn of Virginia. From this weekend onwards they will be collectively recognized in an even more tangible sense by the Green-Wood memorial.
The memorial ceremony begins with Mass in the cemetery chapel at noon. This will be followed by the unveiling and dedication of the memorial stone. All are welcome.