As Sean Taheny, a 79-year old farmer from Gurteen, County Sligo, bows to accept another medal, adding to the seven he was awarded for service in Korea, his eyes attain a faraway look.
Like the other 12 Irishmen honored at the South Korean Embassy in Dublin on 25 June 2010, he retains grim memories of the war.
“It’s always on my mind. It never left it but I don’t talk about it,” says the veteran of the 45th Infantry Division.
“A lot of people are not interested. They don’t want to know about it.”
By the time the Korean War officially (if not technically) ended with the signing of an armistice on June 27, 1953, the United States had lost 54,246 dead ( 33,629 in combat). Upwards of one million communist troops and at least two million civilians were also killed.
Alongside the American dead were 29 young men born in Ireland, one of them a Marine and the others GIs. These men were posthumously awarded US citizenship in October 2003 at a ceremony in Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn. They are also honored by a monument in Lixnaw, County Kerry.
The veterans who gathered in the Embassy to receive medals and certificates fought in both the US and UK/Commonwealth armies. Some were drafted; others were career soldiers or ‘lifers.’
Recalls Enniscorthy native John Hawkins (84), who fought at the April 1951 Battle of Kapyong: “I believed that communism, if it got a foothold there, would sweep down towards Australia, down through The Philippines into Indonesia. I did believe that. And I thought: I don’t mind going.”
Sandwiched between the victories of the Second World War and the controversies of Vietnam, Korea is often called the ‘forgotten war.’
It began sixty years ago this week, when four columns of Soviet manufactured T-34 tanks and tens of thousands of troops stormed across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the two Koreas since 1948. The North Korean premier Kim Il-Sung banked on rapidly overrunning South Korea and had secretly attained Stalin’s authorization to do so.
An American-led UN taskforce was rapidly dispatched to Korea under the command of General Doulas McArthur. By the winter of 1950, the North Korean communists were in retreat, pushed back towards the border with China. But when China’s Chairman Mao Zedong ordered 300,000 of his troops to intervene on North Korea’s side, the course of the war was dramatically reversed.
“When they came en masse you’d need nerves of steel just to stand up and wait,” remembers Hawkins, who served with the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment.
“It was mostly at night, the screaming and the bugles blowing…you’d think you were in an orchestra, sitting there.”
Thus began the great ‘bug out’ of the United States military, fighting its way through freezing mountain passes to the Sea of Japan. After mid 1951, the war settled into two years’ of attrition in the hills straddling the 38th parallel.
Sean Taheny came to this battle zone in June 1952, having been drafted the previous November. Like many young men, abandoning an Ireland wracked by poverty and unemployment in the early 1950s, he wasrequired to register for US military service under the 1948 Selective Service Act. Exemptions were allowed under the 1950 US-Irish Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, but the men would forfeit the chance of American citizenship by not serving.
Sent by train to the front on arrival at the port of Inchon, the politics of the war were quickly trumped by the simple imperative of survival.
“To be honest, we had no interest in what was happening politically,” he says.
“I used to write home and letters used to take six weeks to get from Korea to Ireland. They were censored.”
For Taheny, like hundreds of other enlisted Irishmen, the climate was pitiless, roasting summers inevitably giving way to Arctic winters. Dug into the hillsides, the battlefield sometimes resembled the Western Front 35 years earlier
But added to trench warfare and incessant artillery barrages were new innovations: napalm, jet fighters and helicopter evacuations of the wounded to Mobile Surgical Army Hospital (MASH) units.
“There was a lot of propaganda from the Chinese,” remembers Canon Robert Jennings of Newcastle, County Wicklow, formerly with The Royal Welch Fusiliers.
“They used to drop Christmas cards asking why you were fighting for the Yankee imperialists and millionaires enjoying their Christmas dinner while you’re fighting here!”
Sean Taheny holds up one such article. A leaflet shows a typical American girl wondering if her soldier boyfriend will return alive from Korea. Another booklet conveys ‘Greetings from the People’s Republic of China.’
These items were picked up just before Christmas 1952, having been airdropped. Their sentiments were hardly sincere ones. On Christmas Eve, the Chinese attacked Hill 812, killing Taheny’s platoon sergeant. Under fire, he telephoned in artillery support and the hill was held. He was later awarded a bronze star.
On other occasions he partook of intelligence and reconnaissance patrols behind communist lines. Typically, twelve men would venture out at night to assess enemy positions.
“There was one night we were out on a patrol and one lad got injured,” he says.
“I had to wait all night with him before I could bring him back. For that they gave me a (second) bronze star.”
Discharged in 1953 and back in the States, Taheny found civilian life difficult. Although the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not in common use until the Vietnam War, he was depressed and lethargic. Within 18 months he was back in Sligo and has remained there ever since.
“When I got back to Ireland it was a big help to me because it helped me to forget about it,” he says.
Although an armistice was signed in the border village of Panmunjom in 1953, no formal peace treaty was ever forthcoming.
Technically the Koreas remain at war. Tensions were exacerbated this March when North Korea was accused of sinking a South Korean warship, killing 26 sailors.
Moreover, the two societies went in very different directions after the war. Ruled over by the dynastic cult of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, North Korea has become possibly the most isolationist society on Earth. South Korea is now the world’s 15th largest economy.
Born in Ballaghdereen, County Roscommon and now living in New Hyde park, New York, Michael Grady was 22 when he arrived in Korea with the 2nd Division, 23rd Regiment. He remembers the South Korean capital as a place of ruined buildings and begging children.
“In later years, when the Olympics were in Seoul (1988), I saw it on television,” he says.
“I couldn’t believe how Seoul had rebuilt with skyscrapers…in 30 years it had gone from ashes to granite!”
And in Dublin today, South Korea’s ambassador Chang Yeob Kim is fulsome in his praise for Ireland’s veterans.
“The forgotten war is not forgotten by the Korean people,” he says.