It's been 60 years, but the memories of fierce fighting and their fallen comrades' faces are still vivid to the Irish soldiers who returned to the site of their battle in South Korea. In a visit arranged by the South Korean government in April of this year, 12 Irish veterans of the Korean War, many in their 80s, as well as family members of Irish soldiers who died in the conflict, participated in commemorative activities. Through the Revisit Korea program, which South Korea began in 1975 to thank Korean War veterans from 21 UN-allied nations, many former soldiers have had a chance to return to the land where they fought. This year's trip was particularly poignant because it marks the 60th anniversary of the war's suspension in 1953.
Ireland didn't directly send troops to Korea, but many Irish soldiers served in British and UN regiments. In an overdue recognition of Ireland's sacrifice, a new memorial for the 159 people of Irish heritage who died in the Korean War was unveiled in the War Memorial of Korea. Dr. Eamonn C. McKee, the Irish Ambassador to South Korea, was a driving force to properly honor his countrymen's role in the conflict and allow their stories to be told.
In an interview with Asia Society Korea Center, Albert Morrow, who was part of the Royal Ulster Rifles, recalled that none of his fellow soldiers had heard of a nation called Korea before being dispatched. Yet they came to its defense at one of the most dangerous moments in its history. He describes coming under heavy machine-gun fire by Chinese forces during the Battle of Happy Valley in January, 1951, during which his regiment suffered the heaviest losses of the war.
The veterans also recalled a Seoul that had only one bridge over the Han River, which was subsequently destroyed, and a Busan harbor without a single ship in sight. They marveled at the enormous change Korea had undergone, going from a poor country flattened by war to an economic powerhouse and a modern, thriving society. "It's a miracle, what they have done," said Michael Kelly, who was part of the 8th Calvary Regiment of the U.S. Army. "Anybody that was in Korea in my time, they would back me up on that statement."
Watch the above original video by Asia Society Korea Center to find out more about the Irish veterans' experience during the Korea War, and to hear their reflections on the country today.