Outcasts No Longer
Anywhere else they might have been heroes—the 5,000 Irish soldiers who volunteered to join British and American forces fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. They landed at Normandy, liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and endured torture as prisoners of Japan.
But back home in the Republic of Ireland, these soldiers were branded as criminals for deserting their own neutral military to join the fight against the Axis powers. After the war, they were dishonorably discharged, stripped of their pensions, and put on a blacklist that left them pariahs and blocked them from getting decent jobs.
Now after the publication of a scathing book and an outcry in the media, the Irish government is planning to pardon them at last, reversing what many regard as an old injustice. “I believe it’s now right that we revisit historically how this issue was dealt with,” Irish Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter told Irish radio. The men “contributed to the future of freedom and democracy in Europe,” Shatter said.
The Republic of Ireland, nursing bitter memories of its struggle for independence from Great Britain, chose to keep its 40,000-man military on the sidelines and to maintain strict neutrality during World War II. Even so, tens of thousands of Irish civilians volunteered to join British units and fight the Germans and Japanese. And about 5,000 Irish soldiers signed onto the Allied cause, even though it meant deserting their own army. Some wanted adventure or better pay than the meager wages they earned as Irish soldiers. Others wanted to join the fight against fascism. Many soon found themselves in the thick of it. Patrick Kehoe, for instance, flew 22 missions over Germany as a flight sergeant for the Royal Air Force. Patrick Shannon fought as a corporal in the British Army, and was taken prisoner in Italy. And Joseph Mullally died on the beaches at Normandy.
Various countries prohibited their citizens from fighting for foreign nations, but the circumstances could be complex and the laws weren’t always enforced. Before the United States entered the war, numerous citizens volunteered to fight for Britain, including pilots who fought for the Royal Air Force. Doing so was technically illegal, but perhaps owing to the special relationship between the United States and Britain, the Americans experienced no consequences.
The Irish weren’t inclined to be lenient. The government of anti-British politician Éamon de Valera had declared the soldiers outlaws. Kehoe and Shannon were arrested as they landed at the Irish port of Dundalk. Mullally was courtmartialed posthumously—a year after D-Day. Altogether, the Irish government identified 4,983 men who had deserted to fight alongside the Allies and distributed the list of names just about anywhere they might go to seek work after the war. The list became known as the Starvation Order.
Paddy Reid, whose father helped turn back the 1944 Japanese onslaught at Kohima Ridge in India, told the BBC that his family spent the postwar years “moving from one slum to another,” and that he sometimes got by on a slice of bread a day. “My father was blacklisted and away all the time, picking turnips or whatever work he could get,” Reid recalled. “It’s still painful to remember. We were treated as outcasts.”
John Stout, who survived the Battle of the Bulge, bitterly remembered the way he was shunned back home in Cork after the war. “They cold-shouldered you. They didn’t speak to you,” he told the BBC. “They didn’t understand why we did what we did. A lot of Irish people wanted Germany to win the war—they were dead up against the British.”
Adding to the indignity, the Irish government showed little interest in punishing deserters who didn’t join the Allies. Author Robert Widders notes that those who deserted the Irish army in 1941 to take up a life of crime, for example, were never blacklisted from government work or benefits.
As relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland improved—especially after the Good Friday peace accord of 1998—a growing number of Irish began to call for their government to reconsider the case of the wartime deserters. The cause picked up momentum after the publication last year of Widders’s book Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave, a scorching account of the men’s ordeal. A BBC exposé followed.
Not everyone is sympathetic. Writing in the Irish Independent, journalist Don Lavery declared, “At a time when Ireland was desperately short of arms and trained soldiers to defend the country in its darkest hour, they deserted…. What they did was wrong. They left their country, and their families and friends.” Even Lavery, however, agrees that the government blacklist was “spiteful” and unnecessary. Parliamentarian Gerald Nash said, “What happened to them was vindictive and not only a stain on their honor but on the honor of Ireland.”
Where to Remember Ernie Pyle?
The tiny town of Dana, Indiana, is struggling to save a museum honoring Pulitzer Prize–winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle after state authorities withdrew funding and repossessed some of its most prized artifacts. Pyle, renowned for providing a grunt’s-eye view of the war, was killed in April 1945 on an island off Okinawa.
Indiana state officials said that the Ernie Pyle museum, located in the journalist’s hometown, cost $40,000 a year to run and attracted fewer than 2,000 visitors annually—mainly because Dana is located in a remote area far from interstate highways and major cities. Thus it became a target when state officials were eyeing budget cuts. But the move rankled Dana residents, who claim that the museum’s annual operating cost was only $6,000. They were especially put off when state officials arrived unannounced in September 2009 and packed up several important Pyle artifacts, including his typewriter and Zippo lighter, which can now be found at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. “All of this has been a slap in the face of Ernie Pyle,” says Dana farmer Phillip Hess. “They saved 6,000 bucks and canned us. It was offensive.”
Originally, the state planned to auction off the site after 30 days if local officials wouldn’t take possession. Dana residents appealed the decision. The museum was closed throughout 2010 while the dispute waged. Indiana ended up rejecting Dana’s appeal— but it did agree to let a local support group, the Friends of Ernie Pyle, keep the museum open on a temporary basis in 2011. And last November it agreed to turn the site over to the group. But there was a problem: “We didn’t know anything about operating a museum,” says Hess, a board member. The board brought on members with more expertise and fund-raising clout, and they are now getting marketing assistance from Franklin College.
It wasn’t the first time the group rescued Pyle’s memory. The Friends of Ernie Pyle intervened in the 1970s to save Pyle’s birthplace from demolition, moving the old house into town and restoring it. It became a state historic site in 1976. The museum expanded in 1998 with funding from the Scripps Howard Foundation, adding two Quonset huts and creating an interactive visitor center. The exhibits feature narration by television actor William Windom, who has performed a one-man Ernie Pyle show.
Perhaps Pyle’s best-known column was “The Death of Captain Waskow,” which described the simple way that GIs in Italy showed their grief for a beloved officer. Riley Tidwell, who had served with the slain captain, came up from Texas a few years ago to speak at the museum after a reading of the column. Tidwell couldn’t do it, not even more than a half century later. “All he could do was stand there and cry,” Hess recalls. He says many visitors leave the museum in tears.
The site is now open from mid-May to mid-October on Fridays, Saturdays, and half a day on Sundays. In the off-season, visitors can call the museum at 765-665-3633 to arrange an appointment. Donations can be made on the group’s website, erniepyle.net.
Nein to Mein Kampf
A court in Munich has blocked a British publisher from printing excerpts of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Germany. Peter McGee had planned to print brochures containing annotated passages from the book in which Hitler spelled out his political philosophy and his plans to seize power. But the state government of Bavaria went to court to stop him. Bavaria owns the copyright to Mein Kampf until 2015, and has refused to publish it.
McGee had intended to publish 100,000 copies of three excerpted Mein Kampf brochures. He said his plans are on hold until he receives “legal clarity.” McGee has clashed with Bavarian authorities before. In 2009, he published reprints of Nazi newspapers alongside comments from historians. Bavaria, which also owned the copyright to the newspapers, ordered police to confiscate the reprints.
Return of a Rising Sun
It was a prize souvenir— a big Rising Sun flag inscribed with hand-drawn Japanese characters. Private First Class Carl Coker, a Marine radioman, stumbled upon it while fighting on Guam in the summer of 1944. He found it stashed inside a Japanese helmet. Coker stuffed the flag into his pocket and later showed it off to his friends. When the war was over, he took it home with him to Tennessee. Eventually, he framed it and displayed it proudly in his den, next to his computer. “I didn’t think anything about the Japanese,” he says. “I had me a nice trophy.”
But as the years passed, something started to bother Coker. He suspected that the Japanese characters spell out the name of a dead soldier—and the man’s brothers in arms. Perhaps, Coker thought, the flag didn’t belong near Memphis but instead with the family members of one of the fallen Japanese soldiers.
He wasn’t sure what to do. But with the help of Forever Young, a nonprofit group that tries to fulfill the wishes of aging World War II veterans, Coker contacted the Japanese consulate in Nashville, which dispatched two officials to collect the flag. The handover was liberating—and emotional— for the American veteran. Sobbing, Coker told his Japanese visitors, “You used to be my enemy. You’re not anymore.” The Japanese government is trying to locate any survivors named on the flag, or their families. Failing that, it will donate the flag to a museum. Diane Hight, president of Forever Young, said, “We’ve never had one of these vets who wanted to give back to the enemy.”
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.