An Irishman's Diary

Wed, May 9, 2012, 01:00

ON THE same day Tom Farrell was relating his surreal experiences in North Korea (An Irishman’s Diary, May 7th), by coincidence I found myself in a Monaghan cemetery, stopping by the grave of one Thomas John Ward.

As his headstone suggests, Ward died in Korea. In fact, by his own lights, he died for it. He was one of at least 29 Irishmen to give their lives while serving the US army in the “forgotten war”, which began when Kim Il-Sung – father of Kim Jong-Il, the “frustrated movie director” of Farrell’s story – sent his North Korean forces south across the 38th parallel in June 1950.

Many more Irishmen would die in British uniform during the following three years, part of the UN multinational force assembled to help the South Koreans repel the invasion. But the soldier buried in Monaghan has a sad distinction. He was the first Irishman, under any flag, to fall in the conflict.

Born near Belfast’s Falls Road in 1926, Ward crossed the Irish Border with his family as a child and grew up in Carrickmacross. He had soldiering in his blood, however, and American soldiering at that. His father, also Tom, had been a US cavalryman. So Thomas jnr was perhaps destined to follow him into a GI uniform.

In any case, the young Ward had just finished training in 1950 when, with the backing of China, Kim Il-Sung made his fateful move. Within weeks, the Irishman’s infantry division, nicknamed the “Cacti”, were landing at Pusan, in time for one of the war’s first major engagements: the “Battle of Pusan Perimeter”. Barely a month later, Ward was killed in action, aged 23.

He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. And in a letter to his family, Gen Douglas MacArthur expressed the hope that they could derive some comfort from the fact that their boy had died “in defence of a peace-loving people” and “in the service of his country”.

That last detail was not incorrect. Ward was a US citizen by the time of his death, unlike many emigrant Irishmen who had been obliged to enlist while applying. But as with most émigrés, he had two countries.

After they were first interred in Korea, his remains were brought home to the land of his birth, and the family plot in Donaghmoyne.

KOREA IS America’s forgotten war, I suppose, party because it came too soon after the cataclysm that ended in 1945, and partly because it was to be the last untelevised war involving the US. It would soon be overshadowed by Vietnam, in which TV played a huge part. And yet, forgotten as it may be, Korea left a big mark on popular culture, television included.

Kim Jong-Il’s frustrations as a wannabe movie director may only have been exacerbated by Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H, a Vietnam-era satire on war set during the earlier conflict. That in turn spawned the softer-centred TV series of the same name, which famously lasted several times longer than the Korean campaign itself.

Like most wars, in fact, the series lasted much longer than it should have, the adventures of Hawkeye Pierce, “Hot Lips” Houlihan, “Radar” O’Reilly limping on for 11 seasons. Even so, when a ceasefire was finally achieved in 1983, the last episode attracted a then-record audience for a US TV programme of 125 million.

The Irish experience in Korea has been recorded in a fine book, The Far Side of the World, by James Durney. And of course it is also dealt with in Soldiers Chiefs, the National Museum of Ireland’s epic exhibition on 400 years of Irish military history.

That’s a lot of wars to cover, as I’ve noted here before, especially given the historic Irish propensity for fighting in other people’s conflicts, often on both sides. In the Monaghan parish where Thomas Ward is buried, for example, the local GAA club are the “Fontenoys”, a name that commemorates a battle fought in France (but gloriously involving the Irish Brigade) as long ago as 1745.

So, of necessity, the exhibition has to focus. And yet, on the subject of Korea, it manages to fit in not just a uniform and medals belonging to Irishmen in the British army, but also a Chinese rifle, seized and brought home by an Irish US soldier.

Furthermore, while talking to the curator Lar Joye yesterday, I learned that one of his own cousins, Mick Joe Joy from Tipperary, was wounded in Korea. And that despite being wounded, he is still around – in his 80s now – to tell the tale. So maybe the forgotten war is not as forgotten as it seems.

The South Koreans still remember it, certainly. Only two years ago, they awarded another medal to survivors, Mick Joe included. And the Americans continue to recognise the contribution of emigrants who fought under their flag.

Back in 2003, in fact, they added a rather poignant footnote to the events history. It was 50 years then since the war ended. So to mark the occasion, the Irish immigrants who died in it were posthumously awarded a thing that at least some of them had been fighting for, citizenship of the US.