The conflict in Korea has been called “The Forgotten War.” The conflict lies buried in the shadows of the global magnitude and populism of World War II and the media scrutiny and violent class of ideologies that defined Vietnam. Even the then Commander-in-Chief President Truman appeared to trivialize the conflict by referring to it as a “policing action”, yet to those Americans actually called to serve it was one of the most brutal wars fought in one of the most inhospitable environments known to man. It is tragically too often a passing footnote in history courses and forgotten by most Americans.
That the sacrifices of the Korean War are too often overlooked is a grave disservice to all the brave Americans who answered when their country called. However, if there can be a greater injustice it would have to be among “the forgotten soldiers of the forgotten war.” That was the case of 28 Irish American immigrants who fought and died defending their adopted country.
These young men had come to America as had previous generations of Irish Americans in search of freedom and opportunity, and like previous Irish immigrants when America called them to serve they answered unhesitatingly. Yet, their devotion did not influence the immigration process; when they returned from defending the United States they still had to wait the mandated five years before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship. As one surviving Irish American Korean War veteran noted he had been given an Army commendation for capturing an enemy spy in Korea, but on his return to America he could not get a job at the Post Office. The irony of someone serving the United States loyally in the military and still not being able to claim citizenship was addressed by Congress in 1953 after the war ended, but the law was not retroactive leaving hundreds of returning foreign born veterans of the Korean War still waiting to apply for citizenship, but worse still leaving 28 Irish Americans who had been killed during the war in the paradox of not being recognized as citizens of the country they had died fighting for.
Among them was Corporal Patrick Sheahan of County Kerry. On the 8th of June, 1951, his unit was advancing up Hill 786 when they came under heavy machine gun fire. Seeing two men fall wounded Sheahan, without regard to his own safety, carried them one at a time under enemy fire to a place of cover. Sheahan stayed with the wounded men while another soldier went to locate aid. At this point a large group of enemy soldiers assaulted his position, but Sheahan stayed with his wounded comrades and held off the enemy until the rest of his platoon could break through. For this action Sheahan was awarded the Bronze Star. Four Months later, while attacking another hill, Sheahan’s unit would once again be pinned by enemy machine gun fire and once again Corporal Sheahan would risk all for his fellow soldiers. Crawling forward under heavy machine gun fire, Sheahan reached the gun emplacement and silenced it with grenades. Unsure whether all the enemy had been eliminated Sheahan rushed forward to the trench where he deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire so that he could fire a long burst into the trench and ensure the enemy was eliminated. It was at this time that Sheehan was killed by a second and previously unknown enemy gun position. For his heroism and supreme sacrifice Sheahan was awarded the Silver Star, but still was not recognized as an American.
There are other stories of Irish immigrants that are equally as heroic. Private John Corcoran of County Cork was killed when he shielded with his own body a previously wounded comrade when his unit came under attack by enemy mortars. Private William Murphy, also of Cork, was captured by the Chinese and suffered a long and brutal march to internment in North Korea. In order to survive, Pvt. Murphy would offer to trade his wrist watch wrapped in a cloth to local villagers for food. Apparently Murphy was skilled at sleight of hand for after Murphy and the other prisoners were marched off, the profiteering villager would unwrap the cloth to find not a watch but a rock. Using this trick Murphy kept himself and his fellow soldiers alive along the pitiless march to the prisoner of war camp where he would later die in the subhuman conditions. One of the soldiers who had benefited from Murphy’s conjuring trick was able to hide the watch that had kept them alive before the guards could steal it. It would take that soldier fifty years, but he eventually found Pvt. Murphy’s family in Ireland and returned the watch to them.
For fifty years the memory of these faithful 28 Irish immigrants was lost in a maze of contradictions. They had worn the uniform of the United States honorably and often heroically, but they were not recognized as Americans. They had earned our nation’s highest awards, but could not earn citizenship. Not everyone had forgotten them and their sacrifice. After a long struggle led by John Leahy, himself an Irish immigrant Korean War veteran, and supported by The Ancient Order of Hibernians, these 28 Irish immigrants were awarded posthumous citizenship and a memorial dedicated to their memory and service at Green-Wood Ceremony on the 14th of October, 2003.
While justice was delayed, let it never be denied, and may we as Irish Americans never forget.
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian
Note: In a sad footnote, there is an ongoing effort to have Corporal Patrick Sheahan’s heroism and sacrifice recognized by being Awarded the Medal of Honor. Many feel he would have received it upon review if it had not been for his Irish Immigrant status. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy is making Corporal Sheahan wait again, the National Archives claiming they have lost his records. Let us pray it won’t be too long before another recipient of our Nation’s highest honor who listed his birthplace as “Ireland” is added to the 253 already there.