His brother Alphonsus, “Foncy,” had left Limerick to try his luck in America, as did so many young Irishmen at the time. O’Connell not only remembers the year, the month and the date that Foncy left for America, October 13, 1947, but also the day of the week.
“It was on a Monday,” O’Connell said.
The O’Connells had relatives in New York, so Foncy could look forward to a helping hand once he landed in the city. For the first few years all went well enough.
Foncy, however, had not quite reckoned on a war interrupting his new life in the new world. Nobody had, but it was a war for sure that broke out on the Korean peninsula in the early summer of 1950.
The United Nations called its Korean operation a police action, but the fight against the North Koreans, and later the Chinese, turned out to be a lot more than just policing.
What resulted was a bitter, bloody series of battles that would range up and down the peninsula for three years.
And Foncy ended up in the thick of it. He did so along with many other young Irishmen who had figured on a good job and prospects in Boston, Chicago or New York only to find themselves drafted into Uncle Sam’s army, posted to the far side of the world and plunged into a grim struggle for survival against a foe that would often attack without rifles, certain in the knowledge that the living could snatch a gun from the dead.
Back in Garryowen, however, life for the O’Connell family went on at more or less its usual pace. The O’Connell family was involved in building a house. There was no reason to expect bad news from far away. At least that was what everyone hoped.
“An uncle in New York got word that Foncy had been killed,” Donal O’Connell remembered. “He called the parish priest, Fr. O’Grady, and he came over to the house. It was a Saturday afternoon. My father was working on the new house, so we drove in the car.
“Fr. O’Grady told me that he had news of Foncy and that it wasn’t so good,” his brother said, recalling the moment he suspected the worst.
The news was indeed grave. Foncy had been killed in a mine-clearing operation.
Foncy had an address in Limerick that spoke of battles past. The family lived on Sarsfield Avenue in Garryowen. But Corporal Alphonsus O’Connell, 8th Engineer Combat Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, would die a world away from his hometown.
He was killed in North Korea on Oct. 29, 1951. Foncy was expected home for Christmas that year. His remains were instead buried New York, where he had worked as a carpenter.
In a sense, posthumous citizenship will mean Foncy is finally accepted in his adopted home. And that means a hell of a lot to his brother, even after all the years.
“It’s the least than can be done,” his brother said. “It will be very much appreciated that Foncy finally gets recognition along with all the other lads.”
That recognition will soon come in the form of posthumous U.S. citizenship. But citizenship for the dead Irish has not come easily. A 25-year campaign has only now reached its near successful conclusion. President Bush signed the necessary legislation into law last November. The legislation, crafted by a group of congressmen and senators from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, was contained in a Justice Department appropriations bill. What now remains is for the necessary paperwork to be completed and submitted to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the successor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
One sheaf of papers will be filed on behalf of John Patrick White, a County Kerry native Private First Class, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, United States Marine Corps.
White is the only marine of the now 29 Irishmen who stand to finally secure posthumous U.S. citizenship.
“It’s been a very long road for me, especially because John’s body never came home,” said his sister Maryanne Joyce, who lives in River Edge, N.J.
Joyce heard the first news of her brother when she was waiting on a ship in Cobh to travel to the U.S. He was first reported missing in action on Sept. 24, 1952.
“When I got here I was told he had been taken prisoner,” she said. “You still figure that he would be coming out, but in March 1954 a telegram arrived saying that he was dead.”
The telegram was dated on St. Patrick’s Day.
“I still wouldn’t accept it,” Joyce, who married and raised five Americans of her own. “It hasn’t been a good 50 years.
“You never get over it. Even a dog tag would do. We could take it back to Ireland and bury it there, but with posthumous citizenship we will get some closure.
“John was supposed to have been back by St. Patrick’s Day 1953. He was so loyal to America. He didn’t have to go to Korea, because he qualified as my legal guardian. But he was so true to America.”
Also true to America was another Kerryman, Cpl. Patrick Sheahan, of the 7th infantry Regiment, 3rd infantry Division — true to the point of risking his life more than once before the enemy took it.
Sheahan was killed at a place called Chungse-Ri in North Korea in October 1954. During his service in Korea he won both a Silver and Bronze Stars for gallantry.
It was Sheahan’s remains that were honored at a Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in February 1952. Sheahan’s flag-draped coffin represented nine dead Irish soldiers whose remains were passing through New York on the way back to Ireland.
That total of nine known dead who were the centers of the posthumous citizenship campaign for many years expanded in the last couple of years to the present total of 29 as word went around that success in the campaign was finally in sight.
Sheahan’s sister Bridie Cox still lives in Kerry, close to Listowel.
“I’m glad at long last they will be getting citizenship,” she said. “Patrick represented the nine, now the 29, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“I was only 11 when he left for New York. He wrote very week and eventually my sister Mary also went over.”
Before being shipped out to Korea, Patrick Sheahan had met and befriend Irish Echo writer Frank O’Connor. Sheahan duly wrote O’Connor on a regular basis from Korea.
When Sheahan’s body, and that of the other eight Irishmen, arrived back in New York, Mary Sheahan asked O’Connor to go with her and pay her respects at a port facility where the bodies were being kept. It was O’Connor who helped arrange the Mass at St. Patrick’s, an event he then reported on for the paper.
Patrick “Paddy Joe” Lavin was not among the original nine. But he captures as well as any of the now 29 the spirit of their common sacrifice for a country that is only now ready to fully embrace them.
According to his niece, Helen Lavin of Fairfield, Conn., Paddy Joe, who grew up in the village of Arigna in County Leitrim, had been fascinated by the U.S. almost since he could utter its name.
His mother, Nellie, had liven in the U.S. for 13 years and was always telling stories. By the time he was 9, Paddy Joe was champing at the bit, but his uncle John Lavin, who lived in New York, advised him to be patient. If he bided his time, he might consider allowing the youngster cross the Atlantic when he was 15.
When he reached that age, Paddy Joe wrote his uncle and reminded him of his promise to consider. John Lavin warned Nellie that her son would face the military draft at 18, but that didn’t stop the young man in his tracks for a moment.
He moved to the Bronx, lived with his uncle and aunt, graduated from high school and, as his uncle had warned, was drafted into the army at age 18.
Paddy Joe opted for the Army Medical Corps. He was killed only a few days before the Korean armistice was signed in July 1953.
In a release from headquarters of the 7th Infantry Division on Oct. 12, 1953, it was stated that PFC Patrick J. Lavin, had “distinguished himself by heroic achievement” near Sokkogae, Korea, on July 19, 1953.
“Private Lavin, an aidman, was moving forward with his comrades when he noticed a casualty lying in the midst of intense fire and in dire need of immediate medical attention,” the army report said.
“Completely disregarding his own personal safety, Private Lavin voluntarily proceeded to the fire-swept area where his wounded comrade lie. As Private Lavin moved through the open terrain and neared the stricken man, he was caught in the burst of a hostile round and mortally wounded. The heroic actions of Private Lavin reflect great credit on himself and the military service,” the report concluded.
Credit enough for a Bronze Star, but not for U.S. citizenship.
Lavin was buried in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. It would have been his dearest wish to rest forever in America, Helen Lavin said.
“He loved America from the day he arrived and at last the day is nearly here for us to honor Paddy Joe with citizenship,” she said.