Category: Archive

New effort afoot to to honor Irish dead in Korean Conflict

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

For the second year in a row, the upcoming New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade will honor those who served and fell in a U.S. uniform in the Korean War.

But for something like 50 years in a row, a small group of Irishmen who paid the ultimate price in that ferocious conflict will fall short of an honor that many feel they more than earned thousands of miles from both their native and adopted homelands.

Nine Irish-born U.S. soldiers killed in Korea have yet to attain U.S. citizenship despite their service and ultimate sacrifice.

And the fact that they have yet been denied this appropriate salute is due in part to a technicality, a linguistic twist that meant little or nothing on the bloody battlefields of the Korean Peninsula in the years 1950-53.

By legal definition, the 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 nine Irishmen were excluded from U.S. citizenship even after being drafted into the army and sent to the front lines.

Follow us on social media

Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo

Had Korea been a formally declared war, the nine would have been made citizens as a reward for their service in uniform.

John Leahy, a Lixnaw, Co. Kerry, native who served in Korea during what he certainly feels was a war, has been battling on behalf of the nine for more than 25 years. And though the ultimate prize is yet elusive, Leahy said he feels that it must, and will, be secured someday, if for no other reason than basic fairness.

One of the nine dead, another Kerryman, named John Canty, had been in school with Leahy in the years before both followed the well-worn trail to the United States.

"John Canty was killed less than a mile away from where I was at the time," Leahy, who now lives in St. Augustine, Fla., said.

Leahy was drafted in 1950 and after 16 weeks of basic training arrived in Korea at the end of March 1951. His arrival had been delayed a bit by an appendicitis operation. After this induction into the war, Leahy’s Irish luck held out and the scar from the operation was not exceeded to any dramatic degree by anything aimed his way by the North Korean or Chinese armies.

Leahy rose to the rank of sergeant and at one point was offered a battlefield commission. He also received two battlefield citations, one for delivering the mail under fire, the other for capturing a North Korean spy posing as a South Korean interpreter.

"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 said.

Clearly, there were many young men in the same position 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."

Leahy’s own service, it must be said, did help him out on other fronts. Under the GI Bill he was able to pay his way through college and start himself out on what was to be a successful civilian life.

But though he has lived decades beyond his Irish/U.S. Army compatriots, Leahy has never been able to rest easy or accept what he sees to this day as a gross injustice, one made worse by the fact that the dead Irishmen, by virtue of their non-citizenship, are not even listed on the memorial in Washington, D.C., to the fallen in Korea.

"I find this unacceptable," he said. "We served the U.S., not the UN. These brave soldiers were wronged 50 years ago and it’s time for this injustice to be addressed."

Leahy has spent much time and effort writing letters of behalf of the nine. At one point, the difficulty of dealing with events so long ago affecting men no longer around to represent themselves was clearly illustrated in a reply Leahy received from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an organization that would seem to be a natural ally in his quest.

Leahy is an erudite man. He explains himself and his story well and writes a good letter. However, the veterans groups seemed to think that he was somehow trying to obtain citizenship for himself.

At one point in the responding letter from the VFW, it was suggested that Leahy look in his local yellow pages and find an immigration lawyer.

"They thought I was trying to become a citizen based on my military service," he said. "They missed the point of my letter to them completely, but this was a good example of the problems you face in a situation like this."

Leahy, luckily, is not facing into his mission alone. There are others around the country involved and Rep. Ben Gilman has been a sympathetic backer in Congress.

And Leahy has lateely secured a particularly vital ally in the person of General P. X. Kelley, retired commandant of the United States Marine Corps.

Kelley was in uniform during Korea but was posted elsewhere. But a war on the Asian landmass was in his future anyway. He served two tours in Vietnam, as a battalion commander and later as a regimental commander.

"This is one of those issues than can so easily fall on the backburner and it will take a special act of Congress to make things right," Kelley said.

"There is also the matter of soldiers of other nationalities who were killed in Korea and any bill would have to be all-encompassing in that respect. I totally concur with that."

Kelley, whose daily work covers financial rather than military strategies since his retirement from the Marines, believes that the next move on behalf of the fallen non-citizens will be an extensive lobbying effort in Congress.

But as with John Leahy, Kelley is determined not to allow a good cause to become lost in the "fog of history," as he puts it.

Leahy is delighted to have General Kelley as a comrade in his mission.

"Fifty years is a long time to wait, but I will continue to be a voice for these men until such time as they are awarded posthumous citizenship," he said.

Their last full measure of devotion

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 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 on behalf of all the nine young immigrants who had died for the flag now resting on Sheahan’s casket.

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 of all nine were shipped back to Ireland. The army released Sheahan’s body to represent the entire group.

Sheahan, like John Canty, was a Kerryman, as were two others of the nine, Bart Galvin and Patrick White. The other dead were Mayoman Michael Gannon, Michael Hardiman of Roscommon, Michael King, also from Roscommon, William Scully, from Limerick, and Daniel Harrington, from Cork.

All of these men were under 23 years when they were killed, most of them in bitter hand-to-hand fighting in Korea’s notorious "Iron Triangle."

New York honored them half a century ago and many in the city’s parade will remember them this weekend. But the United States of America has yet to fully embrace them.

— Ray O’Hanlon

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese