The US in the late 1940s, early 50s offered a better way of life but also the battlefields of Korea

History is about to repeat itself as a group of Irish heroes travels towards a sporting battle in Japan and Korea this summer. Irish soccer supporters are hopeful that their soccer heroes can conquer the Cameroon, Saudi Arabia and Germany in the early stages of the World Cup finals to book a place in the playoffs in the Korea cities of Seoul, Pusan and Inchon.

But 50 years ago, a number of courageous Limerickmen were among those who took part in an altogether different kind of battle in the countryside and the cities of Korea.

Today, few people will know that exactly half-a century ago Irishmen serving in the US army, as part of a United Nations force, were shipped to Japan en route to Korea.

Following training in Japan they were sent into Korea where they fought on cold battlefields in defence of the freedom of South Korea.

Tragically, 27 of them - including four from Limerick city and county - were called upon to make the supreme sacrifice.

Their story deserves to be remembered in view of the forthcoming Irish involvement in the 2002 World Cup co-hosted this year in Japan and Korea.

Following an easing in US immigration regulations after World War Two, many young men said goodbye to their Irish homeland between 1947 and 1953 and headed for the shores of America.
For the most part they were the sons of Irish labourers and small farmers, who travelled across the Atlantic in pursuit of a more prosperous life in America. Their goal was to become citizens of the United States. For some their families in Ireland would never see them again as events in Korea were set to alter the course of their lives.

In June 1950, the Land of the Morning Calm was thrown into turnmoil when the communists of North Korea invaded the South and the United Nations was called upon to act in its defence. This was the first time that the UN, then in its infancy, embarked upon a course of military action and 15 countries - spearheaded by the US armed forces - sent troops in response to the UN mandate.

The situation appeared to be under control by September 1950, as the North Koreans were first repulsed and then pushed back into their own territory by UN forces. However, in October the situation escalated into a more serious conflict after the intervention of an enormous Chinese army that had suddenly entered the war in support of North Korea.

Apparently, the Chinese became alarmed to find UN troops so close to their borders in North Korea and the UN forces, outnumbered by the massed attacks of Chinese infantry, were forced into retreat and were in danger of being pushed out of Korea.

A new commander was appointed and the UN forces managed to hold on, to regroup and then to counterattack. Fierce battles followed between January and July 1951 as Chinese attacks were gallantly countered by the allied troops of the UN.

The UN counter-offensives eventually pushed the Communist Forces northwards and a defensive line was established across the middle of Korea. The war then followed a pattern of attack and counterattack above and below this line of defence.

In July 1951, truce talks were initiated and the war entered a period of stalemate. Despite this, fierce fighting continued and major battles continued to be fought until, on July 27, 1953, a truce was signed.
The 38th parallel, which runs across the centre of Korea, was agreed upon as the line of demarcation between North and South Korea.

The escalation in the war following the Chinese intervention was to prove a dramatic turning point for some of the Irishmen who had emigrated to the US prior to the outbreak of war. Along with thousands of young Americans many of them were drafted into the US armed forces and most of the Irish who died in Korea were killed during the nine month spell of relentless massed Chinese attacks on the South.

Twenty-seven Irishmen, four of them from Limerick; Pte First Class William (Billy) Collins, Tullig South, Templeglantine; Cpl Alphonsus O’Connell, Sarsfield Avenue, Garryowen; Pte First Class William (Billy) Scully, Galbally, and Pte First Class John Francis Dillon, Coole, Kilteely are known to have died on the battlefields of Korea between 1950 and 1953.

Ten other counties are represented on the role of honour: Cork, 5; Kerry, 4; Mayo, 3; Roscommon, 3; Antrim, 2; Leitrim, 2; Galway, 1; Louth, 1; Longford 1; Tipperary, 1.

The remains of most of those killed in action were returned to their families in Ireland for burial. An American officer represented the United States at the funerals.

A military-style headstone with a simple inscription was erected at each of the graves. A few were interred in the US in accordance with the wishes of their relatives.

In all, a total of 36,940 Americans were killed in action and 8, 176 were declared missing in action at the end of the Korean War. South Korea sustained 1,312,836 military casualties, including 415,004 dead; casualties among other United Nations allies totalled 16,532 and included 3,094 dead. The casualties estimated among the communist forces were two million.

The truce was signed at Punmanjom in July 1953 and marked the end of hostilities in the Korean War. But the North and the South have remained estranged and buffered by a demilitarised zone. An armed stand off still exists between the two Koreas, who are still technically at war.

Today, the Irish who served and died in Korea have not been forgotten in the USA, thanks largely to the unstinting efforts of a small group of Irish-American Korean War veterans.

When those young Irishmen left Ireland in the late 1940s and early 1950s, their aim was to settle in the United States and to become citizens of that country. Those that were fortunate enough to return to the States after the war come to a conclusion in 1953, eventually qualified for citizenship and all the benefits that accompanied it.

In 1953, a Bill was passed granting citizenship to all immigrant soldiers who served in the US armed forces. However, this was not made retrospective which meant that those who served from 1950 to 1952 in Korea had to wait for five years from the time of their arrival in the US.

As for the Irish and other non-citizens who gave their young lives for their adopted country, on the brutal battle fields of Korea before 1952 - they never had the opportunity to fulfil their ambition of citizenship.

For many years a campaign has been underway in the United States to honour these Irishmen by seeking to have posthumous citizenship granted to them.

John Leahy, from Derrevrin, Lixnaw, Kerry has been in the vanguard of this effort. The Kerry man left Ireland in 1949 and 10 months after his arrival in America was drafted into the US army.
Sgt Leahy served with distinction on the frontlines in Korea, where he was attached to the 82nd AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery) Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.

John had to wait the full five years for citizenship upon his return from Korea and has spent the last 25 years campaigning for the posthumous award of US citizenship to his fallen Irish comrades.

He has been busy lobbying politicians and trying to increase public awareness not only on behalf of the Irish casualties but also for all immigrant US soldiers killed in the Korean War. His enthusiasm has inspired others to get involved in this noble cause.

Most recently, Dan Herlihy, a Korean War veteran from Youghal who lives in Massachusetts, has become actively involved in the Korean Veterans Posthumous Citizenship issue.

His intervention has given a new and decisive impetus to the campaign. Last July 25, Representatives Martin Meehan and James McGovern of Massachusetts introduced the Posthumous Citizenship Restoration Act of 2001 in the Congress.

Significantly, the Bill was immediately passed to the House Judiciary Committee where it is likely to be supported by both sides of the house. If, and when the Bill becomes law, the young Irishmen who died for the American flag in the Korean War will be eligible to become posthumous citizens of the USA.

Furthermore, last December 19, a companion Bill sponsored by Senator C Schumer of New York, was introduced in the Senate. The resolution was co-sponsored by Sen LD Chafee, Rhode Island, and Sen Hillary Clinton, New York.

The Bill proposes “to extend the deadline for granting posthumous citizenship to individuals who die while on active-duty service in the armed forces.” It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
John Leahy has championed the cause of his dead Irish comrades. “These soldiers were wronged nearly 50 years ago. It is time for this injuries to be addressed,” he says.

In this, he has served them well and done them proud.
Fifty years ago, on February 3, 1952, more than 3,000 people attended a Requiem Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, in tribute to these Irish youths killed in Korea.
At that time the remains of nine young Irishmen were about to be shipped back to their families in Ireland for interment.

Last February 4, an anniversary Memorial Mass was concelebrated at the same venue in honour of the Irish born US soldiers killed during the Korean War. Veterans organisations joined with family members and friends in acknowledgement of the contribution and sacrifice of these men 50 years ago.
An internet site - - has been set up in tribute to the Irishmen known to have died in Korea, while serving with US forces.

Fiftieth anniversary commemorative ceremonies have been taking place since the year 2000 and will continue until 2003. These have been organised by the governments of the United States and the Republic of Korea and have been conducted in Korea and the US.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, the ROK government decided to issue the Republic of Korea War Service Medal “to pay tribute to the Korean War veterans for their historic endeavours to preserve freedom of the ROK and the free world.”

This offer was originally made 50 years ago to US military personnel, but was only recently approved by the US Congress and accepted by the Defence Department.

The forthcoming World Cup will see the Irish team training in Japan in preparation for matches in the football arenas of Japan and South Korea. Fifty years ago, many young Irishmen underwent final weeks of training in the land of the Rising Sun before being sent to the theatre of war in Korea.

Since China and the USA have also qualified for these finals, we may see some intriguing games between some of the former protagonists of the Korean War. South Korea itself will be participating as one of the two host nations. Regardless of the outcome on the field of play next June, the Irish will be happy that they have made it to the finals and supporters will rejoice in the participation of their team.
In sharp contrast to this, when news of Irish casualties in the Korean War was reported back to Ireland 50 years ago there was great sadness in certain Irish households. This conflict coming so soon after the World War Two had ended was unexpected and brought grief to number of an unfortunate Irish families, as the 20th century reached its halfway mark.

Soon Irish fans will travel in hope to a land where the hopes of a group of Irishmen, from a previous generation were dashed. This time, as Irish links with Japan and Korea are renewed, all participating Irishmen will hopefully return home and will live to fight another day.

A word of thanks to the following who provided photographs: Mary Ita Roche, Tullig South, Templeglantine, brother of Pte William Collins; Joseph Dillon of Coole, Kilteely, brother of Pte John F Dillon; Donal O’Connell, Garryowen, brother of Cpl Alphonsus O’Connell, and Denis Henebry, Deerpark, Galbally, nephew of Pte Billy Scully.

Alphonsus was in Inchon landing
Corporal Alphonsus O’Connell lived at Sarsfield Avenue, Garryowen, before emigrating to America in 1947. This was the family home of Sam and Elizabeth O’Connell.

When Alphonsus emigrated in 1947, he stayed with his Uncle David in Brooklyn and worked in New York as a carpenter.

His brother Donal said that “many of the O’Connell’s were carpenters. There was also a tradition of emigration (to the US) in the family, both on my father’s and mother’s side. Uncles and aunts had previously emigrated.”

When the situation in Korea deteriorated Alphonsus was drafted into the army for training. Eventually, he was sent to Korea, where he served with the 8th Engineer Combat Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, US Army.

At the outbreak of war, the 8th battalion was quickly ordered to Korea, landing at Pusan, in July 1950 where the 8th Engineers were pressed into intermediate action demolishing bridges in order to halt the advance of enemy forces. In addition to demolition and construction duties they often acted as infantrymen on the front lines.

In September 1950, the 8th took part in Gen Douglas MacArthur’s famous amphibious landing at Inchon. They came ashore far behind the lines of North Korean forces.

The hazardous task of clearing mines was one of the main duties of the 1st Cavalry Division engineers. On October 29, 1951, Alphonsus O’Connell was killed in action in North Korea. He had been sent to clear mines left behind by retreating Chinese forces when an explosion claimed his life.
Only weeks later, his battalion was withdrawn from Korea after over 500 days in combat. His remains were not repatriated but were buried in a military cemetery in the US.

Donal O’Connell recalls how his mother Elizabeth, received a letter of sympathy from President Harry Truman telling her that the Purple Heart had been awarded posthumously to her son.

Today, like his parents before him, Donal resides with his own family at Sarsfield Avenue, Garryowen. The 1st Cavalry Division has officially adopted the rousing Garryowen as its regimentals marching tune.

Billy’s life cut short by a sniper’s bullet
PTE William (Billy) Scully, one of 14 children born to Denis and Bridget Scully, originally lived in Kilgrena, Galbally. His family later moved to nearby Deerpark, where he was raised. Billy played gaelic football, and was adept at hurling.

At the age of 23, he emigrated to America in 1947 with his older brother Jack. Their three sisters, Mollie, Nellie and Kitty had previously settled in Manhasset, Nassau County, and Long Island, New York. Mary Scully remembers that Jack, had misgivings about going to the US as he was concerned that his younger brother could be drafted into the US army in the event of war. William, however, wanted to stay in America. Jack’s foreboding came true as, a year after his arrival, Billy was called up to serve a tour of duty as an infantry trainee. His nephew Denis Henebry explains that Billy was given a choice when called up - enlist or return to Ireland.

He was honourably discharged into the Enlisted Reserve, but was recalled to active service in October 1950. That December he was sent to Korea where he served with the 31st Infantry, Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. On January 14, 1951, and only weeks after his arrival, Billy was killed in action by a sniper’s bullet barely a month short of his 27th birthday.

His family, and in particular his parents, were grief-stricken when the news of his death was reported back to Galbally. Not surprisingly his brother Jack, who had emigrated to the US with him in 1947, found it hard to come to terms with Billy’s death.

His body was shipped back to Ireland in accordance with his wishes for burial in Galbally cemetery. Billy was awarded the Purple Heart, posthumously. Denis Scully, Billy’s father received certification of this, as well as a letter from President Truman, in which he was thanked for the honourable servive his son, Billy had rendered to the USA in time of war.

John F fought and died with courage
PTE John Francis Dillon was born in Hartford, Connecticut on July 24, 1930. He was the first child of Patrick and Mary Dillon who had emigrated to America in 1929.
When John was four, his Irish-born parents decided to return to Ireland. One of 11 children, John was raised in Coole, Kilteely.

As a child, John was always immensely proud of his American status so it came as no great surprise when at the age of 17 he announced that he wanted to return home to the US!
His mother did not want to let him go, but Joe, the youngest of the Dillon children, explained that John was claimed out to America by his Aunt Catherine.

In March 1948, John Dillon bade farewell to his family in Coole and headed off on his great adventure. His brothers and sisters did not realise at the time that they would never see him again.
Before sailing from Southampton, he sent his last £1 note back home to his mother.

Back in the US, John Francis Dillon, volunteered for the army at the age of 19. He was sent to Korea where he served with the 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
On February 9, 1953 during a hard fought battle, in which he reportedly fought with great courage, John was killed in action aged 22.

Tom, Paddy and Joe and sisters Tess, Myra, Helen, Kitt and Paula had lost their big brother for the second time.

Joe Dillon was less than one year old at the time of his brother’s departure for America. He never had the chance to get to know his brother. His broken-hearted mother cried every day for almost a year.
John Dillon’s remains were brought home to Ireland for burial and interment took place at Coole cemetery on May 30, 1953.

At the graveside an officer of the US army handed the Stars and Stripes, the flag for which John Dillon gave his young life, to his grieving mother.
Five months after his death hostilities ceased in Korea.

Billy looked forward to becoming a US citizen
PTE William (Billy) Collins was a native of Tullig South, Templeglantine. He was the son of Lawrence and Mary Collins and brother of Maurice (Mossie), Sean and Mary Ita.

In 1947, a year after the death of his mother, Billy crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life in America. He settled in Astoria, Queens, Long Island, New York, where his Uncle Martin had an apartment. His brother, Mossie, followed him over in 1948. A next-door neighbour, from Ireland, Billy Roche, came over to join them.

Billy’s sister, Mary Ita Roche, fondly recollects how the young men were under strict instructions to keep their room clean and tidy. Martin’s wife used to chide the boys about the untidyness of their room.

She remembers how Billy and Mossie worked at the Manhattan branch of A&P - a well known New York supermarket chain.

Billy looked forward to the day when he would become an American citizen and with this in mind he declared his citizenship papers. Sadly, his great ambition would not be realised. In November 1950, Billy was called up for army training and in February 1951 he arrived in Korea.
There, he was assigned to a heavy mortar company in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Div, US army.

On May 18, 1951, Billy Collins was killed in action in South Korea, aged 22.
His death was a bitter blow for his brother Mossie. Back in Ireland unbearable grief was suddenly visited upon his brother Sean and sister Mary Ita, as one of consideration for her, Billy had concealed the news that he had been drafted into the army and sent to Korea.
“He didn’t want me to worry about him” she revealed.

In County Limerick, it was with regret that the people of Tullig South, learned of his death, and in America a newspaper reported: Astoria Soldier Dies for Nation not his own.
Billy’s remains were interred at Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, Farmingdale, NY. In a poignant graveside ceremony, the folded US flag was handed over to Mossie in the presence of his Uncle Martin.

Billy Roche also served in Korea. Fortunately he survived and remained in the States and raised a family.

- courtesy of the Limerick Leader