Monday 16 September 2019

'I fought in a war 67 years ago... and it is still ongoing' - Irish veterans of a forgotten conflict

Korea is in the spotlight this week as the ­Winter Olympics kicks off in PyeongChang, but for Irish veterans of the Korean War and their ­descendants, it always looms large

Irish soldier Tony Thorpe - who fought in Korea - with some of the medals he received
Photo: Mark Condren
Irish soldier Tony Thorpe - who fought in Korea - with some of the medals he received Photo: Mark Condren
Jason O'Brien

Jason O'Brien

TONY THORPE fought in a war 67 years ago, and it still hasn't ended.

Think about that for a moment.

"I was a marksman, and a good one. I carried a Bren gun out there," he says, sitting in his well-worn armchair in the back kitchen of his home in Dublin, his memories of 12 months in the suffocating dirt and blood and snow of relentless trench warfare not clouded by time or sentiment.

"It was a great gun, it didn't jam. It was my best friend when I was out there. They said I never missed."

You don't doubt it. Tony's story needs no garnish.

He offers a cup of tea, and points to the biscuits in a tin on the table. He is patiently explaining that the Bren was a light machine gun. Clumsily, maybe even rudely, you ask a question that knocks some of the comfort from the evening.

Does he know how many people he may have killed?

He pauses for the first time. "A war is a war," he says eventually.

But not all wars are equal. And for most Irish people, the Korean War barely registers.

It has none of the easy familiarity of World War II or Vietnam - two old friends from history class and the cinema screen, their names alone a touchstone for an instant barrage of images, half-remembered facts, and iconic reference points.

And it is often easily dismissed into irrelevance as long ago, far away, and relatively inconsequential.

Elizabeth Farrell never had the easy option. "When I was young I used to say to myself, 'Maybe it didn't happen'," the softly-spoken grandmother explains, smiling sadly.

"You'd think, 'Maybe there'll be a knock on the door and he'll just be there'. But we were very young."

She was six and her sister Angela three when their father, Michael McSherry, originally from Dominic Street in Dublin, was reported 'missing' in Korea in January 1951.

His status remained unchanged for a full year - an eternity for his young daughter.

She didn't know it but she had already played with him for the final time. He came to her school at Whitefriar Street and brought her to the zoo during a rare trip home two years earlier.

"I remember it well. I remember getting on the elephant," she says. "And I remember my dad. It's my earliest memory. He was a very jolly man, everybody loved him."

Elizabeth Farrell holding a photo of her late father Michael McSharry, who died in the conflict. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

The body of an unknown soldier was finally, conclusively, confirmed as Michael in January 1952, after an aunt of Elizabeth sent photographs of his tattoos. But it would be another 60 years - a lifetime, in effect - before Elizabeth properly grieved.

Like Tony and many other young Irishmen in the 1940s, Michael had joined the British army in search of two things: a wage and a little adventure. "He fought in World War II and survived, and then he went to Korea," Elizabeth says, leafing through pictures of a dapper young man with an easy smile.

"It was only supposed to be a small war. It ended up being anything but."

It started in June 1950 when North Korea invaded the South in an attempt to reunite the peninsula under communist rule. Maybe one million people died over the following three years. Maybe three million did.

Put against those alarming estimates, a figure of 110 Irish deaths seems relatively benign, but more Irish lost their lives in Korea - mainly in the British or US armies - than in any other UN-mandated action.

"It is known as the 'Forgotten War', and the involvement of the Irish was doubly forgotten," says historian James Durney, author of Irish Casualties in the Korean War.

"Very few in Ireland knew what was happening then, or cared after."

Those who did will likely have focused on Happy Valley.

"I don't know why they called it that - it was anything but," Tony Thorpe says, pausing for the second time.

Happy Valley

Tony turns 90 soon, but the dumb mistake of some US pilots on January 4, 1951 still makes him bristle, and understandably so.

Like Michael McSherry and hundreds of other Irishmen, he was unlucky enough to be in the first battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles that night. Happy Valley would be their bloodiest battlefield.

The Chinese had entered the war in October 1950 and pushed the UN forces south to the 38th parallel, the dividing line between the two Koreas - today surrounded by the infamous demilitarised zone. The frontline see-sawed back and forth, before the Chinese attacked again in early January.

In blizzards and freezing conditions, the Ulster Rifles were part of an infantry tasked with defending a shaky frontline at Koyang, 12 miles north of Seoul. It was brutal, with napalm strikes, tanks and US jets used in desperate efforts to wrest control.

Eventually the line buckled elsewhere, and word came the capital was to be abandoned (the defence having allowed thousands of civilians to be evacuated safely).

The Ulster Rifles were the last unit to withdraw from Koyang - at night, down a valley overlooked by the enemy.

"Next thing the US planes lit up the hill with flares," Tony recalls, still bewildered at the turn of events. "We heard the Americans thought we were the Chinese! Unbelievable."

With the flares exposing the UN troops, the Chinese charged down from the ridges above. The battle became a melee, with Tony among those who fought their way down the snow-covered valley and through a burning village and to safety. "It was very tough," he says, with some understatement. "The Chinese were relentless. You hit one and six more jumped up in his place. There was no end to them."

Irish soldier Tony Thorpe who fought in Korea. Tony is front right in this photo, taken in Korea with others in his battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles Pic:Mark Condren

Later, with a heavy dose of Irish black humour, the troops would christen it 'Happy Valley'. The Ulster Rifles lost 157 men - killed or captured - from a battalion of 1,000. Many of those lost were Irish.

"My dad didn't get out of that," Elizabeth Farrell nods. His military records shed no light on how his life ended, what his last words may have been, or where his body was found.

The eventual confirmation of his death devastated the family, his wife Molly never recovering and spending her few remaining years in and out of hospital. His girls were raised by their grandmother. Elizabeth married at 19, Angela at 18.

The business of life took over for Elizabeth - she would raise seven children - and thoughts of her own dad were relatively-easy to push to the side.

But, like a tiny pebble in a shoe, a day came when she couldn't ignore it any more. She started to poke around.

Her father, she learned, is now buried in the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan. South Korea was a long, long way outside her comfort zone. She took a deep breath.

"It was sad of course, and I started getting tearful and nervous. And when I got to the grave, I just thought of all the years he had been there," she says, her voice even quieter.

"I picked up a bit of soil and rubbed it.

"That was the first time I grieved for my dad, seeing the grave and his name in gold lettering. I grieved for a long time after."

Elizabeth Farrell has letters from the War Office in London in the immediate aftermath of the death of her father Michael McSherry, who was killed during the Korean War. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

North Korea has this week, for the first time, sent a team to compete in an Olympic Games in the South.

While fighting on the peninsula ended with a ceasefire in July 1953, there was no peace agreement and the sides have been in an uneasy, armed truce ever since.

Worthwhile cause

Tensions have soared recently due to Kim Jong-un's incendiary rhetoric, grandstanding and nuclear weapons testing - even on this side of the world it isn't easy to simply dismiss him into irrelevance. It was Kim Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, who ordered the invasion of the South in 1950. He casts a long shadow.

Tony Thorpe remembers him less than fondly, and has little time for the grandson either.

Tony returned to Dublin in the 1950s, married his childhood sweetheart Maureen, and they raised six children while he worked on the roads for Dublin Corporation.

Fighting communism in Korea was a world away, another lifetime.

But he still fits in the uniform, and digs out the medals to go to lunch with other Irish veterans including Thomas McKenzie and Walter Coote. Their numbers are dwindling, but their interest in the peninsula is not.

Veterans Robert Jennings, Tony Thorpe, Walter Coote and, Thomas McKenzie (seated) at a recent reunion lunch in the Shelbourne Hotel.. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

"When we left the South there was nothing, so to see the way it is now is very important to us," he says, talking economics and the upcoming Olympics.

"It's a powerhouse, an amazing place. Now the North is a different story, a bad story. That guy (Jong-un) doesn't care about his people, he's more interested in weapons than poverty.

"The contrast is so stark. I think what we did was definitely worthwhile."

It was long ago. And it was far away. But it matters.

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