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Kerry, Korea and Kildare. Charlie Dennehy  - a tribute

James Durney


Charlie Dennehy died on October 22, 2011, after a short illness – far from his birthplace of Co. Kerry – in his adopted county of Kildare. Charlie, was born in Staigue, Cahirdaniel, Castlecove, Co. Kerry, the youngest of fourteen children. He only met his older siblings when he emigrated to New York City in 1947 at the young age of seventeen. He remembered there was plenty of work around Kerry, but no money, and was forced to take the emigrant trail. After a period living and working in the Bronx and Queens Charlie joined the US Army at the Times Square recruiting station in July 1949, signing up for three years. He went through his sixteen weeks basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey after which he applied for duty in Germany in May 1950 from where he planned to visit home. The process usually took about a month but the Korean War broke out before his application went through and instead he found himself shipping out to Korea with the 32nd Regiment, 7th Infantry Division who were earmarked for the Inchon invasion.
The Korean War began in June 1950 when the North Korean Communist Army crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea. The North Koreans over-ran the South and captured the capital, Seoul. The United Nations assisted by fifteen nations including America, Britian and Australia supported South Korea while North Korea was sustained by China. This was the first major action by the United Nations. Charlie said he really liked the Koreans. “They were a very humble people. The men always walked ahead of the women to protect them.”
On the second day of the invasion, troop transports carrying the 7th Infantry Division arrived in Inchon Harbour. “We got terrific aerial and naval support as well. I think our firepower was far superior to theirs” Charlie recalled. “I think they were taken by surprise. They had good defences set up there but the Air Force and Navy took care of a lot of that. Just as we landed they opened up. The North Koreans had tanks – Russian T34s. As we went up to the front we met loads of wounded coming back in jeeps – Americans and South Koreans covered in blood.”
After three days of sporadic fighting, Seoul was cleared of Communists and the Inchon landing ended in total victory. Seoul after the fighting, recalled Charlie, was a “heap of rubble.” He was a witness to the savagery visited on the civilian population, while the North Koreans occupied Seoul. “They wiped out whole families. We found the bodies in swamps. They were bound, their hands and feet, with wire, shot in the head and thrown into these rice fields.”
By the time the American forces had captured most of North Korea Charlie had been promoted to Corporal. As a rifleman and mortarman, he was “closest to the frontlines. We never knew the Chinese had entered the war. We’d thought it was all over. We felt great. We figured, ‘that’s it, we’ve reached the borders of China.’ And then the Chinese came in. There was no sign of them during the day; they were packed tight into Korean huts because of our Air Force. They only moved at night. We thought we were still fighting the North Koreans until the firepower increased. We were wondering where they got all the firepower but it was the Chinese. They came in hordes, blowing a lot of bugles and a lot of whistles. They outnumbered us, I suppose, twenty to one at times. They suffered heavy casualties because they came in open waves and superior firepower always counteracts that.”
After the Chinese intervention the UN elements made a withdrawal from the Fusan area. Charlie was wounded in the arm and leg by shrapnel from a Chinese grenade, which killed three of his comrades. He was still able to walk and when the 32nd Infantry reached the safety of Samsu, Charlie was evacuated to the Naval Hospital in Kove, Japan, where he spent a month recovering from his wounds. He left Korea in August 1951 and was discharged from the US Army in September 1952. He had taken part in four major and three minor engagements and was awarded a Purple Heart (for wounds received) and a Bronze Star (for sixty days in combat). He returned to Ireland in October 1951, stayed for a year, and then returned to New York.
Back in NYC Charlie attended many boxing fixtures at Madison Square Garden and could recall notable fights from memory. He was also a great conversationalist and very well read he had a particular interest in WWII and the Vietnam War. After serving in Korea Charlie had little desire to read about that War and was always very modest about his service there. He returned to Ireland and soon was on the move again, this time to the east of the Country.
On the formation of the Irish Free State, the Land Commission was reconstituted by the Land Law (Commission) Act, 1923, which also dissolved the Congested Districts Board. Provision was made for compulsory purchase of land owned by non-Irish citizens. Untenanted land could now be compulsorily purchased and divided out to local families; this was applied unevenly across the country, with some large estates surviving if the owners could show that their land was being actively farmed. In 1963 Charlie and his brother Ned left their holding in Kerry and came to Turnings, Straffan, Co. Kildare, as the Land Commission broke up the Mills estate. Charlie recalled when he and Ned went to mass in Straffan on the first Sunday after his arrival in Co. Kildare, all their new neighbours lined up to shake their hands and welcomed them to the area.
Charlie married Anne in 1968 and they had two daughters, Helen and Caroline. The area around Straffan where they lived was so full of Kerry natives – the Ashes, Norris’, McKennas – it was known locally as the ‘Ring of Kerry’. He became a member of the Kildare-Kerry Association and the American Legion, which looked after the affairs of ex-servicemen. He farmed at his holding right up to his last illness. Charlie was a big sports fan and despite being from Kerry he would have had no problem with Kildare taking the Sam Maguire, as he had lived most of his life here. Alas, he did not live to see that day and Charlie is now buried in Straffan graveyard, far from his Kerry homeland, but in the bosom of the Short Grass County.

James Durney writes about Charlie Dennehy, a Kerry man who made his way to the USA and then to the Korean War before finally settling in Co. Kildare.

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