Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Valour of Ireland's Cold War warriors

It was termed the 'Forgotten War', but thousands of Northern Ireland servicemen fought in the Korean conflict 60 years ago. Author James Durney set out to remember them.

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion the Gloucestershire Regiment during the Korean War in 1951
Soldiers of the 1st Battalion the Gloucestershire Regiment during the Korean War in 1951
The Royal Ulster Rifles memorial is dedicated in Korea
The monument was later brought home and can now be seen at Belfast City Hall

Back in 1976, as a young teenager, I read The Dead, The Dying And The Damned by D J Hollands, a fictional account of an English regiment's experiences in the Korean War.

This book and earlier fleeting references in one or two comics (and the fact that my great uncle and namesake James Durney, a young Irish conscript, served in Korea) drew my interest to that terrible conflict.

Author Hollands won the Military Cross – he was the youngest MC winner in Korea – as a teenage platoon commander with the Duke of Wellington's Regiment. He was also, apparently, the most decorated national serviceman of the Korean War.

It was no surprise, then, that his novel comes across as a powerful evocation of British national servicemen in combat and of what it was like to face hordes of Chinese soldiers on a bleak Korean hilltop and conduct pointless and costly night patrols.

One of the characters in The Dead, The Dying And The Damned is 'Paddy O'Hara', a brave and reckless Irishman in the fictitious Rockinghamshires.

O'Hara repels a Chinese attack on "the Hook", but, because he earlier fell foul of his company sergeant, the Irishman's bravery gets no mention and, therefore, he is not awarded a "gong" (medal). To me this typified the story of the Irish in the "Forgotten War" – few knew and still fewer cared.

Nearly 30 years after reading The Dead, The Dying And The Damned, I wrote an account of the many Irish who served in that "police action", which left millions dead, injured and homeless and a poor country devastated by another needless conflict.

With the writing of The Far Side Of The World: Irish Servicemen In The Korean War 1950-53, I thought I had exorcised the ghosts of Korea, but I further took pen to paper to record the Irish – north and south – who were killed or taken prisoner in the conflict.

Of the thousands of Irishmen who served with the United States and British and Commonwealth armed forces, 110 were killed and more than 100 captured. Irish missionaries were also killed and imprisoned.

Irish Casualties In The Korean War 1950-53 is a biographical record of these Irish casualties taken from newspaper reports, books, regimental and museum records and interviews I conducted with veterans and their families.

Ninety-two Irish-born prisoners in total are recorded: 71 from Northern Ireland; 21 from southern Ireland, including two in the US Army, and one missionary from the Columban Fathers.

Eighteen Irish natives died in captivity: 11 British servicemen; four US servicemen and three missionaries. In all, 117 fatalities are recorded: 110 military servicemen (35 US, 73 British and two Australian) and seven Irish missionaries.

On June 25, 1950, without warning, the North Korean People's Army invaded South Korea. Their aim was to unite the country by force without the need for elections.

The attack was immediately condemned by the USA, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, followed by a majority of UN members, who called for a ceasefire and a withdrawal of North Korea troops.

It was only the fact that the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council that permitted the passage of a UN resolution not merely condemning the invasion, but authorising the formation of a multinational force to combat the aggression.

British premier Clement Atlee called the North Korean People's Army attack "naked aggression" and stated that Britain would live up to its UN obligations.

Royal Navy units in the Far East set course for Korea and within days British aircraft and ships were in action. On June 30 President Harry S Truman committed US troops to South Korea's aid.

The first American ground troops, men from the 24th Infantry Division, landed on July 1. A week later, on July 7, the UN called for member states to provide military forces and asked the US to lead the UN contingent to Korea. General Douglas MacArthur was appointed commander-in-chief of the UN Command in Korea.

Irish casualties occurred almost immediately when Fr Anthony Collier, of the Columban Fathers, was murdered at Chunchon in South Korea by North Korean People's Army troops on June 27, 1950. He was a native of Clogherhead in Co Louth and had been in Korea as a missionary since 1939.

The first Irish soldier to die in the war was Private First Class Thomas J Ward (24), who was killed in action on August 22, 1950, while serving with the US 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.

A native of Belfast, Tom Ward was living with his family in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, when he emigrated to America in 1947 to join the US Army.

Private Michael Dempsey, of Kilkenny, of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, became the first Irish soldier serving in the British Army to die in the war, when he was killed in action on September 21, 1950.

The 29th Infantry Brigade arrived in Korea as the war took a turn for the worst. The brigade consisted of three infantry battalions of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Royal Ulster Rifles; 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars; C Squadron, of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment; 45 Field Regiment; 11 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery; and 170 Mortar Battery, plus supporting units.

The men of the Royal Ulster Rifles who sailed for Korea came from all parts of the British Isles and Ireland and consisted of regulars, reservists and volunteers.

The Ulsters would see action at places which have passed into history – Happy Valley and Imjin River. In three days of combat on the Imjin, the 29th Infantry Brigade suffered 1,091 killed, wounded, or captured, including 141 fatalities.

Seventeen of those killed were Irishmen. Dozens more were taken prisoner. On December 19, 1951, the communists issued a list of United Nations personnel whom they admitted as holding as prisoners of war. The list contained the names of 926 British Commonwealth personnel and included 92 born in Ireland.

Hae-yun Park, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Ireland, said: "In this book, the author has compiled the definitive record of Irish people who were killed in action, or taken prisoner, in the Korean War."

James Durney's Irish Casualties In The Korean War 1950-53 is available from Gaul House, 52 Morell Drive, Naas, Co Kildare (€10 plus €2 p&p) or from Amazon. His other books include In A Time of War: Co Kildare 1914-18 and (as co-author) Co Kildare's World War I Dead

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz