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By James Durney

On 27 July 2006 the South Korean Ambassador to the US delivered a speech at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington. He said:

“I would like today to honour all those who answered the call to defend a country they never knew … and a people they never met. On behalf of the tens of millions of South Koreans who survived the war, our children, grandchildren, and generations to come, I offer my most heartfelt and deepest gratitude.”

While not directing his words to Ireland, Irish veterans of the Korean War can be proud of their contribution to the freedom of yet another small nation.

When North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950 it began a war that was to last three years, leave millions dead and bring the world to the brink of a third world war and nuclear destruction. Few people in Ireland knew of the Korea which hit the world headlines that summer of 1950. But within weeks hundreds of Irishmen would be fighting and dying on the far side of the world. Thousands of young Irishmen ended up in Korea, few of them of their own free will. Some were recent emigrants, drafted into the US Army, others were in the British Army, which sent three Irish battalions to Korea – the Royal Ulster Rifles, Irish Hussars and Irish Dragoons – while others served with the Australian or Canadian forces. Two men with local connections, John J. Buckley and Jack Shaw, spent nearly three years of their lives as POWs in North Korean hell camps, not very hospitable places as neither the Chinese or North Koreans respected the Geneva Convention and thousands of UN prisoners and European civilians died of hardship and ill-treatment there. Over a dozen Irish soldiers and nine missionaries, including a lay sister from Co. Wicklow, died in these hell camps.

Ironically, two weeks before the war broke out the Leinster Leader carried a report titled: ‘Strange Story of Japanese Sword. Grim period recalled in a Carbury home.’

‘Father James Doyle, a native of Teelough, Carbury, had been ministering in Japan and at the outbreak of the war between Japan and America he was interned in Korea. He was one of the few who survived those long and dreadful years of imprisonment. When the glad day of release came he had shrunk to a skeleton, a mere shadow of his former stalwart self. Months afterwards when he returned to Ireland with his uncle, Rev Dr Glennon, Archbishop of St. Louis, USA, he was still so changed in appearance that his brother, Mr W. Doyle, of Teelough, failed to recognise him. Yet he never had a bad word to say about his captors and was full of praise for the plain Japanese people who had shared their meagre rations with him at great pains to themselves if they had been found out.

At the end of the war Fr Doyle figured in a rather strange ceremony after the Americans had entered Korea. Being the only white man in a place who could speak Korean he took the surrender of the Japanese troops on behalf of the American officer who captured the district. After the surrender a period of unrest and troubles began. The Koreans had turned on any Japanese soldier or civilian they could lay their hands on and slew them without mercy. Living in Korea at the time was an extraordinary figure, a Hindu monk who had lived peacefully all his life in the country. He was hunted by the people and Fr Doyle helped him to elude his pursuers, but only for a time, as things had turned out. A few nights afterwards Fr Doyle received a message to go to a certain part of the city. He went there and found the monk dying. Before his death he told Fr Doyle he was a Buddhist and that he had fasted rigorously for thirty days. It was his dying wish to become a Catholic, which he did before his death, being anointed by Fr Doyle. In the monk’s possession was a large, two-handed sword – the typical weapon of the Japanese soldier – and this he gave to Fr Doyle before he died. The sword now hangs in the peaceful home of Fr Doyle in Teelough, a moving souvenir of God’s strange and merciful ways. Fr Doyle himself is back again in Japan, ministering to the people he loves with a whole-hearted and sincere love. He has tried hard for them since he returned to Japan in 1947, and one result of his labours is a new church that raises its spire above the ruins of the atom-bombed city of Nagasaki.’

On 8 July 1950 the Leinster Leader reported ‘The War in the Far East. Fears of World Conflagration.’ It also carried a report of an ‘Irish priest wounded. Associated Press reports Monsignor Tom Quinlan, wounded in Korea.’ The following month the Leader said ‘while disturbed that the North Koreans were gaining the upper hand predicted that in the long run we may be sure that the Americans will win in Korea,’ adding that ‘They cannot afford to lose.’ While the United Nations had rushed to the aid of South Korea few of the Irish, British or Americans could agree with the antics of the Republic of Korea’s President Syngman Rhee. He was as much a despot as his North Korean counterpart, Kim Il Jung. Shortly after the Royal Ulster Rifles and other British regiments had broken the back of the 1951 Chinese Spring Offensive at the Battle of the Imjin river, Syngman Rhee had denounced Britain by saying ‘the British troops have outlived their welcome in my country. They are not wanted here any longer.’ In some ways most of the UN troops in Korea agreed with him! However, it would be two more long years before they could go home.

Like Fr. Tom Quinlan the two POWs from the Short Grass, John Buckley and Jack Shaw, also survived to tell their tales. Jack Shaw was born in Sallins on 15 December 1931. His father, John, was in the armed flying squad stationed at Naas police barracks. Jack’s mother died on the birth of his brother in 1934. However, in order to look after his family John Shaw, Snr. took a demotion and became a desk sergeant in Rathvilley, County Carlow. He met and married a local woman and the following year was transferred to Mountmellick Garda Station, Co Laois, and the family moved again. Jack Shaw grew up mostly in Mountmellick. He was educated in the national school in Mountmellick and at Portlaoighise Christian Brothers’ School. Jack left his home in Mountmellick in 1949 when he was eighteen and travelled to Belfast to join the British army as he said himself ‘to see the world’. His two paternal uncles had fought with the Royal Ulster Rifles in WWII, so Jack joined what was considered the family regiment.

Jack Shaw wrote: ‘I was taken prisoner on the 3/4 January 1951 in a place called Happy Valley – what a name!  I spent the next two and a half-years as a POW, mostly in Camp 5 in North Korea. It is all 50 years ago now but that long march from where we were captured, just north of Seoul to Camp 5 in North Korea was pretty grim. Paddy May was badly wounded in the battle and just after we were captured they lined us up in a line to march us away from the fighting. It was about 2 a.m. in the morning and very dark. Behind me in line I discovered a friend of mine, Sammy McKenzie, from Cookstown, County Tyrone.  All around us were dead and wounded men, burning tanks, etc, etc.  As we marched away we heard this injured man crying out for help and I do know to this day why, but both Sammy and myself broke away from the column and ran over to a burning tank which we knew always carried stretchers. We   got a stretcher, found the man who was crying out for help and discovered it was Paddy May, from County Cork, a very heavy man if can remember rightly. Anyway, we were very foolish to have done that because the Chinese guards were very jittery and could have shot us thinking we were trying to escape. Not long after we reached some houses and were told to put Paddy down and put our hands on our heads.   I said to myself   ‘Shaw you have three more minutes on this earth.’ But nothing happened.

‘They put us into old Korean houses and sheds and what have you. As there was no medical assistance for the wounded they were put in with us. Beside me was a man from the Ulster Rifles. He was not a friend of mine, but I did know him as Bob Maguire. I think he had done his basic training in the same platoon as me, in Ballykinlar, Co. Down – the spring of 1949. He was badly wounded. He had taken the full magazine of a ‘burp gun.’ One wound in his mouth was bleeding badly. A bullet had gone in his mouth and out under his jaw bone. It was a flesh wound, and I took my field dressing from my belt, and gave it to him and forgot all about it.

‘Then in the summer of 2006, fifty-five years later I received a letter about an old army pal of mine who had died some time ago. His cousin was now clearing his room out, found my address and asked me if would like some old Korean War memorabilia, old photos, newspaper cuttings, etc. One was a 1999 obituary notice from a newspaper with the man’s photo as well, who was an ex-RUR/Korea veteran. I looked at the man’s face, and looked again, the name Maguire, and he had a dimple in his jaw-bone. Happy Valley, 3/4 January 1951, my field dressing. Could this be the same man? I wrote to his old home address, hoping his wife had not moved, and apologised if I was intruding on her private life. However, would she be kind enough to tell me if her late husband, Bob Maguire had an old Korean War wound in his mouth. Had a reply, Yes, Bob had an old wound in his mouth from the Korean War. You could say, I helped save two men’s lives that night, Paddy May and Bob Maguire.’

On 30 December 1952 the Irish Independent carried a story on five Irish POWs who had broadcast messages to their families from Peking Radio. They were Rfn. John Shaw (to Mr. and Mrs. J. N. Shaw, Patrick St., Mountmellick); Lance-Cpl. William Massey (Dublin); Rfn. Jeremiah Bergin (Kilkenny); Rfn. Patrick Ryan (Clonmel); and Rfn. John Sullivan (Kanturk). A reporter who sought further information about the prisoners learned that a letter and photograph of Jack Shaw had been received by his parents. The letter, which arrived shortly before Christmas, stated that he was fit and well. This was the second Christmas Jack Shaw had spent in a POW camp. The parents of Lce.-Cpl. Massey saw a photograph of him taken in a POW camp in which he was boxing with Jack Shaw.

John J. Buckley, of Oldgrange Cottages, Monasterevan, was also captured in January 1951 and spent two and-a-half years in captivity. He had originally joined the Irish Fusiliers and had been sent to the Ulster Rifles as they sought reinforcements for Korea. Buckley had only served four months with the Ulster Rifles when he was captured on 23 January 1951, thirty-eight miles from Seoul, South Korea’s capital. He and the other prisoners were marched northwards through bleak and desolate country in a temperature of 30 degrees below zero. They were forced to occupy dank and infested native houses, with no light or ventilation at the various stops. Marching twenty-five miles a day on raw barley and millet, and at times without food they arrived physically exhausted and mentally depressed at Camp No. 5, near the Yellow River, in March.

As long as prisoners showed a willingness to co-operate they would receive fair treatment. Not all of them, however, proved to be ideal captives. Riflemen J.J. Buckley, John Shaw and J.T. Alexander were three of the most obstinate. ‘We were told,’ John Buckley, said to a Leinster Leader reporter when he returned home in 1953, ‘by the leaders that they would save us from capitalistic slavery and that our standard of living would be improved, because they would re-educate us.’ Buckley had managed to conceal a camera despite numerous searches, until he was betrayed by another prisoner. Arrested as a ‘spy’ he was ordered to confess and when he refused he was beaten around the head with fists and clubs and sent to solitary confinement for two months. 

In Camp 5 there were 1,600 prisoners, and an average of thirty-six dead prisoners were carried out daily. The prison authorities administered aspirin tablets for all diseases, but nobody cared any more whether a man died or lived. ‘I was having trouble of my own,’ said John Shaw, ‘for I fell ill with dysentery. I was given sulphur and aspirin tablets to take and I was later treated in hospital.’ Drinking water for the prisoners was taken from the stagnant Yellow River. In the same river the North Koreans and Chinese washed and bathed.

In the camps the communist did their utmost to convert the prisoners to communism but with little success. Communistic reading matter and three lectures a day were forced on the men. Some of the prisoners read the books for nothing better to do; others pretended to be interested in such beliefs and policy, to gain small privileges, but the Irish were never affected by these communistic tactics. The communists were well acquainted with the Partition of Ireland, but their talks on Partition and the life of James Connolly did not cause a rift between the prisoners. The Irish got along well with their fellow American and British prisoners.
While he was reluctant to dwell on his personal experiences John Buckley told of how a bayonet was thrust at the back of an American prisoner’s neck; he was ill and unable to eat and had kept over his portion of crackers for supper. Two guards beat him up and jumped on his body. The American and other prisoners were held up and then and clubbed with rifles; the guards alleging they had started a riot. John Buckley recalled how he was made to stand to attention for three days with very little clothing in terrible weather and was then thrown into a hole with another prisoner in the hard labour camp, reserved for those who resisted the Communist policy. He and Paddy Neeson, from the Falls Road, in Belfast, were the only two Irishmen in the hard labour camp. They were there for ten months.

‘Some Irish kept to themselves as there were informers in the camp. A bloke called Paddy Neeson, from the Falls Road, and myself used to raid the Chinese hen-house. I used to kill them and pass them to Neeson and then we would get them to Lance Corporal Dick Massey and he would get broth boiled and give them to the sick. Massey was the man who saved a lot of lives in Camp 5. Such a brave man – he was Mentioned in Dispatches.’ He remembered Jack Shaw being picked out by a guard known as the ‘Screaming Skull’ in the camp. Shaw was asked if Taiwan was an integral part of China and when he answered ‘No!’ he was put in the Hole as punishment.

The last few months in the camp were bearable and when peace talks were initiated the prisoners were treated better. At last in July 1953 the barbed wire gates opened. Turkish nuns behind bars waved a goodbye. On 19 August 1953 John Buckley crossed the boundary of Panmunjom into United Nations territory and was taken straight to hospital. He immediately sent a telegram home: ‘released; fit and well; home in two months.’ On 22 August the Leinster Leader carried a report of his release. In September John crossed over from the Royal Military Hospital at Netley, Hants, to his home in Monasterevan. He was described as well and fit when greeted by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Buckley, 661 Grange Cottages, Monasterevan. He was officially thought dead for eighteen months until word reached Monasterevan, a year after his capture, that he was alive and in a North Korean POW camp. His mother always refused to believe John was dead and kept hoping for his return. She saw his photograph in an English magazine as one of a group of captured UN soldiers released by the Chinese for propaganda purposes. Eighteen months after he son’s capture, Mrs Buckley was officially notified that he was alive. Those years of anxiety ended last Sunday when John walked through the gateway of his home. John was then twenty-two and with him was his fiancée, Miss Patricia Reddin, of Mountmellick, Co. Laois. ‘It is good to be home,’ declared John, ‘and I have twenty-eight days’ leave before I report back to finish my last year in the army. I have no plans after that.’

Fifty-five years later Jack Shaw, who knew John Buckley and was with him in Camp 5 said: ‘John Buckley got it right in his description of our time as POWs in Korea.  We all have stories to tell. To sum it up to say is that ‘We Have Been To Hell And Back A 1000 times’ would not be an exaggeration. How any of us got out of that lot was a Miracle. My Granny White and my aunty Ann lived in St Alphonsus Road and had connections with the De La Salle Convent School, in Waterford City.   They told me when I came home (in 1953) that every morning all the little school children used to pray for me to come home safely.   Maybe that is why I did.’

Jack Shaw kept a diary of his time as a POW and on 9 June 1953 he wrote from Camp 5: ‘The happiest day of my life in my 21 years of existence. I was informed the ‘Korean War’ was about to be concluded and I am about to be united with my own beloved father in Ireland again, the best people in the world… The summer of 1953 was very harrowing because the peace/talks in Panmunjom would signal that all was okay and the war was to end on such a date then like I described in my diary on the 9 June. It was supposed to end then, but something happened and the war went on. Our hopes of going home were dashed once again.’ However, on 27 June 1953 the Armistice was signed and the guns fell silent. Within weeks all the UN prisoners were released.

Jack travelled to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Aden and home by Suez and Gibraltar. His father and three of his sisters were at Southampton docks to meet him. He was back in Mountmellick two days later. ‘Now,’ he told a Nationalist reporter. ‘I want to lead a quiet life. And I never want to see Korea again – or a bowl of rice.’

As the historian Edwin P. Hoyt wrote: ‘There was nothing satisfactory about the Korea War, except that it finally ended.’ The war left the Korean peninsula divided and in ruins. The cost of the war was enormous. 1,250,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. 33,629 Americans were killed, 105,785 wounded. The British Commonwealth (Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded. The South Korean Army lost 46,812 killed and 159, 727 wounded. The other UN nations – Belgium, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Holland, the Philippines, Thailand and Turkey – lost 1,800 killed and 7,000 wounded between them. The North Koreans suffered 214,899 killed and 303,685 wounded; the Chinese 401,000 killed and 486,995 wounded. Civilian losses were staggering, 2 million had died and another 3 million were made homeless. It was one of the most devastating conflicts in history.

Around 100 Irish soldiers were killed: two serving with the Australian army and fifty each in the American and British armies. Nine Irish missionaries were murdered or died in captivity, including Sr. Mary Clare from Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow. Over a dozen Irish soldiers died in captivity, including Sgt Larry Kavanagh, from Pollerton, Co. Carlow. Jack Shaw remembers Larry Kavanagh dying, along with 1,600 more men in Camp 5, and it has had a lasting effect on him. The war in Korea has had a lasting effect on many more and today the demarcation line in Korea is still one of the world’s flashpoints.

My thanks to Jack Shaw and the late John J. Buckley. This story was unknown to me when I was writing my book and only came to light when Jack Shaw saw his name mentioned in my book – The Far Side of the World. Irish servicemen in the Korean war 1950-53. The two comrades in arms had lost contact with each other for many years and after this they again resumed contact. Sadly, J. J. Buckley died in January 2011.


James Durney writes of some Co. Kildare connections to the Korean War 

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