By James Durney
On Saturday, 12 November 2016, the Irish Association of Korea presented ‘Half a World Away: The Irish in Korea, 1871 to Today,’ an event to highlight the history of the Irish people in Korea, and the connections the Irish people have developed with the thriving Far East nation since the first Irishman arrived there in 1871. Visiting guest speaker was Kildare Historian in Residence, James Durney.
The day-long event began at 10 a.m. in the Hamilton Hotel, Itaewon, with opening remarks by David Murphy of the Irish Embassy to Korea followed by a brief presentation on the Irish Association of Korea by Chairperson Andrew Kilbride. Following this was the first of two talks, beginning with Dr. Kevin O’Rourke, a writer and scholar who has been a resident of Korea since the 1960s. His written works include; The First Irish in Korea and the History and Contribution of the Irish People over the Years. This was followed by a talk and presentation on the Irish in the Korean War by visiting Irish author, James Durney, who has written two books on the Korean War: The Far Side of the World. Irish Servicemen in the Korean War 1950-53 (2005) and Irish Casualties in the Korean War 1950-53 (2013).
From the Hamilton Hotel, a packed bus visited the ‘Memorial of the Irish dead of the Korean War’ at the War Museum in Seoul, and then left the city to the former battlefield of Happy Valley where authors Andrew Salmon and James Durney gave a vivid and dramatic tour of the battle zone. Two of the guests on the tour were Donegal man, Colonel Mike Murdoch of the Royal Irish Regiment and Lee Kyung-sik, a journalist, but during the war an interpreter for the Royal Ulster Rifles. Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter who has also written two books on Korea – To the Last Round and Scorched Earth, Black Snow.
Happy Valley was the scene of a key battle in the Korean War, when on 1 January 1951 communist forces launched an all-out offensive against UN positions. The UN commander, General Matthew B. Ridgway, began an orderly retreat. The Commonwealth 29th Infantry Brigade, which included the 1st Battalion the Royal Ulster Rifles and the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, was thrust into the line near Goyang, twelve miles northwest of Seoul, fighting a rear-guard action. The Royal Ulster Rifles were the last UN unit to withdraw. Their flank exposed by the withdrawal of the US 35th Infantry Regiment the Ulsters moved down a valley overlooked by the Chinese. Gen. Ridgway was desperate to secure their withdrawal, but the local British commander made a harsh decision that the Ulsters would have to fend for themselves. To send other units to their rescue would simply have been to dispatch more men to their doom.
One of most difficult military operations was attempted--a withdrawal in the dark--and all went well until flares dropped by friendly aircraft illuminated the Ulsters in the darkness. A hail of mortar and machine-gun fire broke out from the Chinese positions on the heights overlooking the valley. The fighting which developed became confused. Chinese troops swarmed down from the mountains hitting the withdrawing column in the centre. The Chinese were experts at infiltration and managed to set up a machine gun position in the riverbed in front of the Ulsters and their accompanying tanks from Royal Irish Hussars. Major Tony Blake, a much-decorated WWII veteran, from Meelick, Co. Galway, was last seen leading a group of men to take out the machine gun position.
‘Confusion reigned,’ Derryman Henry O’Kane wrote. ‘The Chinese came swarming down the sides of the cliff then calling on us to surrender, shouting, blowing whistles and bugles. The machine guns and small arms mowed them down, but they came relentlessly on as if drugged or drunk. They swarmed around the vehicles and carriers pulling men off and fighting at close quarters. Intense small arms fire was everywhere. At this stage a number of men, including myself, were wounded.’ Henry O’Kane survived the Battle of Happy Valley, only to be captured weeks later at the Battle of Imjin River.
Many more were not so lucky. In the Battle of Happy Valley the Ulster Rifles sustained 157 casualties, killed, wounded or missing. Eighty-nine men were captured and they suffered exceptionally, not only from the severe weather, but also from lack of organisation by the Chinese regarding their evacuation. The men had to wait until the enemy had rounded up enough prisoners to create a column and then were marched to a transit camp near Suan, known as ‘Bean Camp,’ due to the prisoner’s diet of mostly beans. Of the fatalities in the fighting twenty-four were Irishmen.
Seoul fell again to the communists on 4 January, as UN forces set up a new defence line at Pyongtaek-Wonju. The primitive supply lines of the Chinese slowed their offensive and by 15 January it had run out of steam. Some days later Gen. Ridgway ordered a counter-offensive against the exhausted communists. Ridgway’s offensive forced the communists to withdraw north of the Han River and Seoul was recaptured by UN forces for the second time, on 15 March. By the end of the month UN forces were back at the pre-war boundary of the 38th Parallel, along a line that re-established a continuous front.
Among those captured were two men author James Durney later interviewed for Irish Casualties in the Korean War 1950-53 – Kildaremen Jack Shaw and John Buckley. Jack Shaw was born in Sallins, while his father was a Garda detective based in Naas, while John Buckley was from Monasterevan. 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 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 I 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 ... You could say, I helped save two men’s lives that night, Paddy May and Bob Maguire.’
For James Durney it was a poignant visit to the scene of the devastating battle, where bullet marks are still visible on a bridge structure, and where the lives of two young Kildaremen took a hugely tragic turn. Jack Shaw and John Buckley were marched off to a prison camp in the far north of Korea, where they suffered torture, beatings, starvation and ill-health. Hundreds of their fellow prisoners died of neglect and the two-and-a-half years imprisonment in North Korea would affect Jack Shaw and John Buckley for the rest of their lives. Jack Shaw and John Buckley were released in August 1953 after the signing of the ceasefire, which ended the war. Both returned home and gave interviews to the local newspapers – the Leinster Leader and the Nationalist.
The group spent a very animated and intensely interesting time going over the battlefield, which ended in a Korean graveyard where headstones are chipped and marked by bullets. Here possibly one of the last actions of Happy Valley took place as the Ulsters and Hussars made good their escape. The bus returned to Seoul that evening, just in time for the IAK fundraiser of Irish traditional, folk, and rock music, which lasted well into the night, at the Rocky Mountain Tavern, Itaewon.
The Irish Association of Korea (IAK) is a non-profit voluntary organisation that promotes Irish culture in Korea by organising events that are interesting for Irish people and, at the same time, afford opportunities for Koreans and other nationalities to experience and learn more about Ireland and Irish culture. The IAK is made up of people from Ireland, Korea and elsewhere. There are approximately 900 to 1,000 Irish citizens residing in South Korea at any given time. The IAK has been in existence since the early 1990’s (formerly the Korea Irish Association) and has, over that time, raised awareness of Ireland and its culture. It helps fund many popular and unique cultural events like the annual Saint Patricks Day Festival, Rock and Contemporary Music Nights, Film Screenings, Book and Poetry Readings, Bilingual Quizzes, Fun Runs, Information Days, Competitions and general Get-Togethers. The IAK has also helped bring artists to Korea from Ireland, and welcomes and publicises events by any visiting Irish artist, as well as highlighting on its website things that may be of interest to the community.
Wherever possible the IAK also try to raise money for charity, including funding the War Memorial of the Irish Dead. Through fundraising and funding provided by other supportive bodies, in particular the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Programme (ESP), the IAK worked towards building a permanent memorial in Korea dedicated to Irish people and those of Irish descent who died in the Korean War. As part of the War Memorial Project, an information panel was also erected on the site of the Happy Valley battle.
Chairman of the IAK is Andrew Kilbride, from Co. Longford, Secretary Fiona O’Rourke (Limerick), Treasurer Sujung Park, Public Relations: Shane Doyle (Wicklow) and Sora Chai; among the committee members is Victor O’Maolthuile, from Castledermot, a former reporter with the Nationalist. Both Sora Chai and Sujung Park have lived and worked in Ireland, where they fell in love with Irish culture.
Editor’s note: Mr. James Durney, the writer, was born in 1961 in Naas, Co. Kildare, Ireland. His uncle, also James Durney, served with the British armed forces in Korea during the Korean War. He has written 18 books on Irish history, including two books on the Irish in the Korean War and one on the Irish in the Vietnam War. An award winning writer and graduate of NUIM Maynooth, James is married with grown up children.