John Leahy fights for the Irish who fought for us
Former Chester resident helps secure citizenship for the Irish who died in Korea while fighting for the United States
Patrick Sheahan was shot in North Korea after wiping out a machine gun nest and rescuing soldiers.
William Sharman Douglas was killed in South Korea in 1950.
John and Eileen Leahy, pictured, worked to erect this monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn. (Photo by Alex Féthière: thenewwildgeese.com)
A 'voice lifted'
John Leahy may be a fighting Irishman with a sacred mission, but he's also got a wry sense of humor.
While recovering from knee surgery back in January, he developed a blood clot that traveled to both lungs.
“I was knocking on the pearly gates and they said ‘No Irish need apply,’ and they sent me back," he said.
Leahy married his first wife, Teresa, in 1950, while he was still in the service. They lived in the Bronx as members of St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish, then moved up to Rockland when Teresa got a job with the Clarkstown School System. They raised four children together.
Both Theresa and their daughter Patricia died in 1994.
Leahy later married Eileen, the widow of his good friend who was raising four children of her own. John and Eileen waged a long, successful campaign to secure U.S. citizenship for the Irish immigrant servicemen who died in Korea, and ultimately honored them with a memorial in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
At 87, Leahy speaks with the voice of a young man. He says he's "had his voice lifted.”
And that voice will continue to advocate for those who served the country they so much wanted to call their own.
By Ginny Privitar
CHESTER — During the U.S. bicentennial celebration of 1976, John Leahy was walking the streets of Manhattan. Ships from around the world were in port. Flags and bunting decorated the buildings he passed.
His thoughts turned to his fallen comrades, the Irishmen who had died fighting for the United States in the Korean War, but who had never received U.S. citizenship. In the late 1940s, many young Irishmen like Leahy came to the United States seeking a better life. Before being allowed to immigrate, they had to swear to serve in the defense of the country.
"There’s a whole bunch of people who gave their lives for this country, and they’re totally forgotten," Leahy thought at the time. And so started his mission, which he shared with his wife, Eileen, to get them the U.S. citizenship that had eluded them in life.
From Lixnaw to the front lines
Leahy was born and raised on small farm in Lixnaw ("the flat rock") in County Kerry, Ireland. He lived in Chester from 1983 to 1988 and during that time was involved in local politics. He now lives in St. Augustine, Florida, and comes back often to visit family.
In 1949, when he arrived in the United States, he was 22 years old. He and the other new arrivals had only three months to register for the draft.
“Korea broke out overnight," Leahy said. "We were the perfect age. Forty to 50 of us Irishmen had basic training at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I was attached to the Tennessee National Guard, had 16 weeks training, then was shipped off to Japan."
There he was stricken with acute appendicitis before proceeding to Korea, where he spent 10 months on the front lines, in the 82 AAA, 2nd Division.
“AAA stands for Anti-Aircraft Artillery," Leahy said dryly. "It’s not the people that give up booze.”
A dream denied
Many Irishmen fought for the United States in Korea, and some died there. Their remains in most cases were transported back to their families in Ireland.
Leahy, along with the other survivors, had been promised citizenship in 90 days. But then "the government changed things," Leahy said.
"Korea was declared a ‘police action,’ and you only get citizenship in war," he said. "That’s how we were deprived of our citizenship.”
In 1953, Eisenhower granted automatic citizenship to non-citizen immigrant servicemen in active duty for between 90 and 180 days. They wouldn’t need to serve in a declared war, and they would not have to wait five years. But the law was not made retroactive, nor did it include reservists. Survivors who served from 1950 to 1952 still had to wait the mandated five years.
“The active army got automatic citizenship in 90 days," Leahy said. "They plain forgot the reserves.”
Help from Ben Gilman
The day after his bicentennial epiphany, Leahy called then-Congressman Ben Gilman of Middletown, a fellow veteran.
“Gilman was a veteran’s best friend," Leahy said. "He had time for everybody and had time to listen. Believe me, I’ve gone to both sides, Democratic and Republican, and not too many people want to listen when you talk about the dead.”
Others joined the campaign to grant citizenship to those of all nationalities who died during active service. Congressmen Martin Meehan and James McGovern from Massachusetts introduced the Posthumous Citizenship Restoration Act of 2001, which allows family members of the fallen to apply for citizenship on their behalf in the two years after the bill was made law.
On Oct. 30, 2003, 27 Irish-born G.I.s and one Marine who died in Korea received their posthumous citizenship. In a ceremony in Washington, D.C., 48 family members who had come over from Ireland accepted on their relative's behalf a commemorative plaque denoting citizenship, accompanied by a photo taken from the serviceman's passport.
With $15,000 in donations and $10,000 from the Irish government, John and Eileen Leahy put up a memorial to the 28 fallen Irish servicemen in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, one of oldest military cemeteries in the country. A two-ton granite slab with Celtic cross is engraved with an epigraph and the names of the 28 men.
Two still forgotten
Since then, Leahy discovered two more who deserve notice. One, Patrick Sheahan, received posthumous citizenship. But in 1952, when Sheahan’s body was returned to Ireland, officers told his family that his heroism entitled him to the Medal of Honor. He had wiped out a machine gun nest, returned to remove the wounded, and again to bring out the dead. He was shot in the back.
Sheahan received a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his heroism on two different occasions. But he never got the Medal of Honor. Leahy is now fighting to get the Medal for Sheahan posthumously.
Leahy's other recent discovery is William Sharman Douglas, who came from the north of Ireland to Erie County, N.Y., in 1947. He was drafted in 1949 and killed in the first month of the war, July 1950. Two years later he was buried in the National Cemetery at Elmira, N.Y. Leahy drove up to Elmira to visit his grave.
“It is now 64 years later, and he has never got his citizenship," Leahy said. "And there is nobody listening now."
For more information on the 28 Irish GIs visit illyria.com/irishkor.html.
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