Korean war stories never to be forgotten
A new RTE documentary reveals the horror of the Irish missionaries who suffered brutal torture in Korea, writes Donal Lynch
It was a moment of unbearable tension for Bishop Thomas Quinlan as the long Korean War drew to an end in the early summer of 1953.
The Irishman had already faced death and torture during the war which had claimed the lives of his friends. But he had faced those threats with equanimity -- because his life during those days seemed hostage to fate and the whim of his North Korean guards.
This was different though.
It was his last encounter with a man known because of his murderous tendencies as the Tiger, a man who had led thousands of international prisoners of war, including Quinlan and several other Irish priests, on a brutal nine-day march, which had resulted in hundreds of deaths.
American prisoners of war giving accounts of the march described how the Tiger personally machine-gunned down 16 men who had been too frail to walk and of having to pour boiling water onto their suppurating wounds after they were denied medical care. Now, with the war tapering to an end and the country to be divided along the famous 38th parallel, the notorious sadist had come to say goodbye to the prisoners whose lives he had made hell.
Quinlan's fear -- he told his close friend Fr Gerard Marinan -- was that he would be forced to shake hands with this man, something his conscience would not allow. On the other hand, he knew that a refusal to take The Tiger's hand would be perceived by the Korean guards as an unforgivably calculated insult and would probably mean Quinlan would be the last man to die at The Tiger's hand. That would be a gallingly pointless end, considering all he had already endured.
He breathed a silent prayer and it was answered. After an agonising wait, The Tiger made do with a formal bow and departed. For Marinan, the attitude to the handshake summed up Quinlan.
"He was a man of principle," Marinan wrote. "And of nobody could it be more truly said that he had the courage of his convictions. He was a big man in every sense. He had big ideas with the physical strength and endurance to match them. He gave unsparingly of himself. He loved the poor and they in turn recognised him as a true friend."
Quinlan and the other Columban Fathers were never supposed to have been in Korea. They had grown up in an Ireland mired in its own political foment. While still seminarians at St Patrick's College, Thurles, the First World War was building to a bloody conclusion. The Easter Rebellion of 1916 had changed all utterly and while Sinn Fein rose to power in Ireland, Rome had set its sights on the Far East.
It had been decided that a mission would be set up rapidly in China, so the Vatican pressed for Quinlan and three of his classmates to be quickly ordained. So, in March 1920, the four men -- all in their 20s -- became known as the "boy missionaries". Travelling by sea and over land, it would take six months for them to reach Han -yang province in China.
As with most Columban missions in those years they arrived eager to proselytize and indeed, at Christmas, they did baptise their first Chinese convert. But it was instantly clear that the Chinese had more pressing needs. The country was experiencing widespread famine. Twenty million people were in danger of starving to death while hundreds of thousands were wandering the country in search of food. There was mass emigration, widespread despair and suicide was common.
Quinlan became fluent in several Chinese dialects. He got first-hand knowledge of the many natural disasters that China was plagued by -- floods and famine. From 1926 onwards they also had war and the rumours of war to contend with.
In October of that year Quinlan wrote, "The fighting has thrown everything out of gear. Between war and the awful floods this summer we are facing into a right hard winter. The floods ruined all of Mianyang. The whole population is on the move. The Catholics look to us for help, espeically in caring for young girls who could be in danger if they went begging."
Jingoism and xenophobia were rampant in China and the climate was dangerous for foreign workers and diplomats. Headlines from British newspaper reports on China in the late Twenties include: "Outbreak of anti- foreign sentiment in China; All foreigners, including missionaries in danger; British forces driven out of Hankow; Missionaries and mission property attacked by mobs".
There were constant rumours of a military coup in Han-yang and at one time it was thought that local militias had taken control of the area. Despite this turmoil, the Cantonese foreign minister, mindful perhaps of the essentially humanitarian work that the Columbans were providing, urged them to stay.
In those days, there was no strong central government in China and certainly no semblance of government aid.
Fr Marinan wrote: "Gangs of bandits or Communists or just undisciplined mobs, roaming the country almost at will and wreaking havoc wherever they went. The people were terrorised, ever ready to abandon their possessions and take to their heels. The priests shared these dangers and learned to be constantly vigilant."
In 1930 two of Quinlan's priests, Frs Patrick Laffan and James Linehan were captured by one such mob and held prisoner for months in appalling conditions; beatings, malnutrition and disease became the norm. Quinlan negotiated their release but after another crisis in which another priest, Fr Cornelius Tierney was taken captor and died, Quinlan returned to Ireland, emotionally and physically exhausted.
His experience, adaptability and fluency in Chinese meant that after just a year he was once again called up to return to the Far East, this time to Korea.
An outward reverence for authority was mandatory in the order -- but privately many of the men sent to Korea harboured doubts as to the wisdom of the mission.
"At that stage we were young and inexperienced," remembered Fr Marinan. "We had our own view of infallibility and took a dim view of anything that we considered irrational behaviour in our superiors. Being ordered to Korea fell into this category."
The journey to Korea took them up the Suez Canal and into the Indian Ocean, where for the first time they saw an albatross and flying fish.
Once in Korea, the Columbans had to adjust to what was -- even given their experience in China -- an entirely alien culture. White, not black was the colour of mourning, the silent eating they had learned in China was considered rude in a country in which making noise while eating was encouraged.
Again they found that the humanitarian aspect of their mission automatically superseded all others. Quinlan's knowledge of Chinese proved useful, as many of the Chinese characters were also understood in Korea although ultimately he learned from the locals.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Korea was annexed by Japan and with the country now under Nippon's military control, scrutiny of English-speaking foreigners from a country known to be sympathetic to the Allies reached new heights.
As for the Koreans themselves, millions of men were enslaved as labourers, while hundreds of thousands of women were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers. The Korean language was suppressed and demonstrators were murdered. Quinlan was placed under house arrest and survived as a prisoner until the Americans' victory in the Pacific in 1945.
In that year Quinlan was made Apostolic Administrator in Channahon and it seemed that the Columbans would be able to continue their work unhindered in Korea. But after the war the United Nations had made plans for a "trustee administration" of Korea and the country was cut in two along the 38th parallel, with the Soviets controlling the North and the Americans the South. Despite this agreement, the regime in the north was merely biding its time -- and in June 1950, the North, using Soviet tanks and weaponry, invaded the South. By horrific coincidence the 38th parallel ran right through Quinlan's church and on June 26 shells began to fall around the church grounds.
Quinlan was hit by shrapnel and the church by a shell which burned it to the ground. By the next morning the Communists had taken over the province -- 17 years of work by the Columbans was to be wiped out.
"The first wave of an invasion like that is always the worst part," says Fr Noel Daly, who served in the Korean mission in the 1960s. "They will destroy everything. If you can manage to survive the first big attack then you will have a much better chance." Msgr Brennan was captured, along with Fr Tom Cusack and Fr John O'Brien. They were never seen again and, to the distress of their families, their remains have never been discovered.
Quinlan was arrested and the treatment that he and the other Columban fathers would undergo during their time in North Korea would be far worse than anything they experienced under the Japanese. In the North, they were detained in the worst conditions imaginable, sleeping on lice-infested beds and remaining for much of the time on the verge of starvation. Fr Tom Collier, who was in charge of one of the parishes, was seized and shot dead two days after the invasion. A couple of days later, two more priests -- Frs Maginn and O'Reilly -- were summarily executed. Another two Columbans, Fr Canavan and Bishop Byrne of Maryknoll, died due to hardship and malnutrition.
"There was no real effort to improve conditions for the Irish priests because Ireland at that time had no real diplomatic links with North or South Korea," says Fr Daly. "The Americans and Australians were repatriated or had people making efforts on their behalf but we didn't really have that."
As the situation deteriorated for their captors, the North Koreans -- like the Nazis before them -- decided to march their prisoners cross country. It was the dead of winter and thick snow lay on the ground. Many of the prisoners were old and feeble and the Commissioner Lord of the Salvation Army made a personal plea for mercy to the North Korean forces.
"They will die if they are forced to march," he begged.
"Then let them die," was the reply from the Tiger.
"You have to understand that the worse the situation became for them [the North Koreans] in the war, the more dangerous it became for the prisoners. It was right before they reached safety that they were in the most danger of all," Fr Daly told me. Thousands of people died on those death marches, including Fr Canavan who was laid to rest near one of the local concentration camps. Anyone who dared stop to rest for a moment was stopped for good with a bullet.
Because of the lack of Irish links to the Far East, very little information about the Columban prisoners trickled out of Korea during the war. Quinlan and the others were presumed dead and requiem masses were offered for them at home. After the war drew to a stalemate -- the Americans had indicated their willingness to use nuclear weapons -- Quinlan was found in terrible conditions in a PoW camp in North Korea.
"He was a tough guy," says Fr Daly. "That is what helped him to survive. He was hardy and well able for the cold and the lack of food. He was also sure of his own dignity as a human being and that meant he was never mentally beaten down by the guards. He could stand up to them."
Through a series of backroom deals Quinlan was moved to Moscow and eventually repatriated to Ireland. He could have been forgiven for never wanting to see another mission -- but a year later he once again returned to Korea where he was ordained a bishop in November 1955.
The human cost of the war to the Catholic missionaries was huge. The Columbans lost Msgr Brennan, six priests (there have been petitions from surviving family members to have them canonised), several seminarians, more than 2,000 parishioners and most of their buildings.
The mission continued undaunted and in the post-war period the Columban sisters arrived to set up hospitals and treatment centres for the sick and wounded.
To alleviate local poverty, Fr McGlinchey started a co-op in 1958. He was decorated by the South Koreans for his services to the country and also received the Magsaysay -- the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. In the 1960s Columban priest, Fr John D Vaughan produced a film about the church in Korea, narrated by Gregory Peck, who was friendly with Quinlan.
Quinlan, for his part, attended the Vatican Council but in 1965, in the aftermath of a severe heart attack, he resigned. He ended his days as a chaplain to the Columban sisters at their clinic in Sam Chok. In the last year of his life he was honoured by a special chalice from Pope Paul VI.
Quinlan, however, had little time for pomp. His last will and testament read, "I humbly request a simple grave with a simple cross over it in the diocese in which I die."
"He was that kind of a guy," says Fr Noel Daly. "Very modest and down to earth. And a great raconteur too. He led some life and he really knew how to tell a good story."
In the past few decades, the Columbans' work in Korea has continued. They now focus on relieving the urban poor's spiritual poverty, combating addictions and promoting basic human rights.
The priests have also become involved in the religious and censorship struggles that have played out in Korea in recent years -- in 1999, a group of 18 priests shaved their heads and fasted in protest at the country's controversial National Security Law. The mission also spread to the Phillipines, where Fr Shay Cullen's work to eliminate child prostitution has been widely acclaimed.
All but one of the original group of boy missionaries have now been gathered to God -- Fr Comerford, who is in a nursing home in Korea.
"They were a special group of men and they paved the way for us," Fr Daly says. "You look at the old photos and the memories seem very clear.
"They led lives on the edge of danger," he acknowleges, "but at the same time what an adventure it must have been."
'Korean War Stories' will be broadcast this Friday at 8.30pm on RTE One