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John Hawkins. No ordinary life

James Durney

I first met John Hawkins, of Enniscorthy, about eight years ago, when I was working on a book about the Irish in the Korean War. Declan Hughes, Director of the Irish Veterans Memorial Project, passed on my name to John, who rang me with his customary greeting ‘G’day.’ John was the first Korean War veteran I spoke to and interviewed for the book. His photo graces the cover of The far side of the world. Irish servicemen in the Korean War 1950-53.
John Hawkins was born in 1926, in Drumgoold, Enniscorthy, in the shadow of Vinegar Hill, that great battlefield of the 1798 Rebellion. The family had a great military tradition stretching back to 1798 where a family member fought on each side. John’s father was a boy soldier and served on the Northwest Frontier and in the Great War and following in his footsteps John served three years in the Irish Army during the Emergency, enlisting when he was sixteen. He emigrated to Australia, in 1948, where he joined the Australian Army. John was on occupation duty near Hiroshima, Japan, with the British and Commonwealth Occupation Forces, when the Korean War broke out in June 1950. Landing in Korea with the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment John and his comrades were soon in action against the invading communist North Korean People’s Army. He served nearly a year in Korea, where he experienced much combat and witnessed many forgettable events. John had many stories to tell, most of them funny. The bad stories he rarely mentioned. From Korea John went to other hotspots with the ‘Diggers’ – Borneo, Indochina and New Guinea, to name a few.
On a visit home to Enniscorthy he met a young local girl, May Carty, on Christmas morning 1954, and soon they were an inseparable couple. They married and went to Australia and travelled around the world. Their only child, Maria, was born in Enniscorthy. In the 1980s, after forty years service, John left the Australian Army and the family returned to live in Enniscorthy.
John was a soldier most of his life, but he was also many other things. He was a good husband and father. He was a good friend to many; a good neighbour, too. He worked well into his eighties, only being slowed down by his recent illness. In his last few years he worked locally on a nearby deer farm and also cleaned chimneys and cut the grass for his not so-able neighbours. John was active for many years with the British Legion – facilitating, promoting and collecting – and Maria carries on that fine work. When a ‘Poppy’ collection was needed John was first out and always collected the most – being the most visible in his Aussie slouch hat – and the most popular. Who could resist those mischievous blue eyes?
He was one of the first to throw his weight behind the Kiltoom Project, a veterans’ campaign to finance and raise a lasting memorial to the Irish war dead. John was the unofficial spokesman for the Irish Korean War veterans and was ever present at commemorations and events. He was a rock of strength and a natural leader – I’m sure he was the same under fire and in combat situations. An extremely proud man he was not afraid to speak his mind and to say how disappointed he was in the way this country is run.
John was interviewed for radio and television programmes and few will forget his interview on RTE’s ‘War Stories, Korea,’ and his speech on behalf of his comrades at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Korean War at the South Korean Embassy in Dublin, in June 2010. Being a veteran of Indochina John also spoke on behalf of Irish veterans at the launch of Vietnam. The Irish Experience, in Barker and Jones, Naas, when that book was launched there in 2009.
Over the years I brought many people to Enniscorthy to meet John and he always took time to bring them to Vinegar Hill, where he would give a description of the 1798 battle as if he had been there. The most recent visitors were Ger McCarthy and Paddy Behan as we planned last year’s Naas Local History Group trip to the sunny south east. Despite recovering from an operation John brought us up to Vinegar Hill where he compared that fight in 1798 to that of the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951 when the Aussies held the line against overwhelming odds.
Perhaps my most memorable visit to Vinegar Hill was with John and Charlie Dennehy, a Kerry native, who lived most of his life near Straffan, Co. Kildare. Charlie had served a year in Korea with the US Army, his service mirroring that of John’s – the advance to the Yalu river frontier with China and the headlong retreat back to South Korea when the Chinese People’s Army entered the conflict. That time the Aussies held the door open as the Yanks retreated. Sadly, Charlie Dennehy passed away in October 2011, so this time the Yank is guarding the gate, waiting for the Digger. G’day!

James Durney has written a tribute to Australian Army veteran John Hawkins who died on 30 April 2012

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