Fr. Tommy Cusack of Liscannor, Co. Clare

Article written by Fr Dan Conneely

 On November 28, 1950, His Lordship the Bishop of Galway presided in Liscannor Church at Requiem Mass for Father Thomas Cusack, a son of the parish, “missing, presumed killed,” in Taejon, Korea, the previous September. It will be appropriate in this, the twenty-fifth anniversary year of Fr Cusack’s ordination to the priesthood, to recall his captivity and death at Communist hands, and the spirit in which he met them.

The war of which he was to become a victim stemmed from a complex of causes. Two in particular may be mentioned: the political void (after forty years enslavement by the Japanese) into which Korea was suddenly projected in August 1945; and the Yalta agreement (February 1945) providing for the division and occupation of Korea by Russian and American forces, to accept the surrender of the Japanese.

North of the dividing line (the 38th parallel) the Russians remained long enough to organise a Korean state, and a Korean Communist army trained and equipped for aggression against the south. Admission was refused to a United Nations Commission empowered to supervise free elections to a National Assembly for a unified Korea. Below the parallel the American military government turned over its functions to an Assembly elected democratically under United Nations auspices. In June 1949 the last of the American soldiers was withdrawn. Exactly a year later-on Sunday, June 25, 1950-the Communists launched their attack over the 38th parallel.

North Korea Attacks

Left to its own resources, South Korea would have been overrun in a matter of weeks. The Security Council, however, acted immediately, declared a breach of the peace in Korea, and called on member states of the United Nations Organisation to assist the South. Sixteen nations responded, with at least token forces. In late October a Communist defeat, and the unification of Korea, seemed imminent. Then China intervened with her “volunteer troops” from Manchuria. The bitter fighting continued until the following June.

At this point Russia suggested negotiations for an armistice. These began and dragged on to July 1953. The armistice was signed on July 27. It terminated the fighting, recognised the existing line of division, (which lay aslant the 38th Parallel) and left the way open for political negotiations (which later proved fruitless).

The war lasted for 37 months. On the United Nations’ side, America had contributed the bulk of outside forces. Her losses included over 23,000 dead, over 11,000 missing, nearly 100,000 wounded. South Korean losses (killed, wounded, missing) ran to over 300,000. Estimates of Communist losses vary between one and two millions.

In addition, there were the countless Korean civilians killed or dead from hunger, exposure and disease. And north and south there was the universal nightmare of destruction.

Fr Cusack Pastor in Mokpo

Fr Cusack was pastor in Mokpo in the extreme south-west. The headquarters of St Columban’s Mission in the area was also here and the mission plant consisted of a church, a presbytery, and the Prefect Apostolic’s residence (which also served as a language school for young missionaries and as a centre for the priests’ retreats). In residence when the Communists arrived were Monsignor Patrick Brennan (from Chicago, U.S.A.), Fr Cusack and his curate, Fr John O’Brien (from Claremorris, Co Mayo). The three priests were never seen again by their fellow missionaries of St Columban’s. What we know of them after July 25 comes from the testimony of Mokpo Catholics, Korean prisoners (including a priest who survived captivity), and a captured American infantryman who met them in jail and lived to record his memories of them.

The Communists Arrive

The accounts of so many witnesses vary on matters of detail, but the general picture emerges clearly. A truckload of troops draws up in front of Mgr. Brennan’s residence a 1 a .m. on Tuesday, July 25. The soldiers shout for admission. Mgr. Brennan comes downstairs, kneels to pray, then opens to the troops. On learning who he is, the soldiers withdraw, assuring him that Communism guarantees freedom of religion.

Next morning, Fr O’Brien, on his way to the church to consume the Blessed Sacrament, is halted and turned back. Later, Fr Cusack is allowed to go. Sometime in the morning the two priests are marched separately around the town under guard. But Fr Cusack, on returning to the presbytery, receives the assurance given previously to Mgr. Brennan: religion will be respected and his parishioners will not be molested. Greatly relieved he circulates the news among the people.

Fr Cusack Questioned

Mass as usual on the following Sunday. After it some Communists arrive and ask Fr Cusack for a list of his parishioners. He refuses to give it. Pressed, and threatened, he continues to refuse. Mgr. Brennan is next approached and he too refuses. “ Some days later”- it seems on the following Friday, August 4 – the three priests were arrested and lodged in the local station. About a week later they are transferred, under guard, to Kwangju.

Fr Cusack Spokesman

Kwangju, the provincial capital, is fifty-three miles distant from Mokpo. The prisoners were accompanied by two armed guards. Transport for the five consisted of one motorcycle with a sidecar. The priests were big-boned heavily built men. Presumably it was a ride to remember.

In Kwangju Fr Lucius Chang, himself a prisoner, was summoned to interpret for them before the chief of the secret police. He recalls how they looked: Father O’Brien “thin”; all three of them “terribly tired.” Fr Cusack, fluent in Korean, was spokesman; “he did all the talking and I Really don’t know why I was there at all,” comments Fr Chang. The dreary, pointless interview dragged on in the manner of such Communist Interrogations. The priests were accused of spying; of living as drones off their parishioners. Had they been military personnel, they would have been killed immediately and without mercy. Now, however, they were in protective custody, to save them from the fury of the people. While the war lasted they must content themselves with ordinary prison fare; after at they would eat well, as they, and all the Communists, normally ate…..

In Prison

At some point in the interrogation Fr Cusack begged that they should be allowed some rest: “We haven’t slept for nights.” When the examination ended, they were lodged in a cell in the police station and Fr Chang was confined in the town prison. He never met them again.

They were held in Kwangju until the beginning of September. Prison fare consisted of one small portion of boiled barley and a cup of water each day. Mgr Brennan and Fr O’Brien had never quite inured themselves to Korean food. Fr Cusack was long accustomed to it; but he was a heavy eater. He was once overheard, during these weeks, to ask for bread, or at least a more generous allowance of the prison food. “We can’t live much longer on what you’re giving us.”

They were joined, on one of the last nights in August, by three American soldiers. One of them tells us;

Always Cheerful

“They put us in a dark cell that seemed deserted . . . but I wasn’t too surprised when I heard an American voice say, “ Don’t worry about it Mac. We’ll talk about it in the morning. You just get some sleep tonight.” Three invisible occupants of the cell shared blankets with the newcomers and “next morning it was wonderful; I opened my eyes and there looking me and kind of smiling were these three Roman Catholic priests . . . They’d been arrested about a week after the war started. They all three expected to be shot, but it didn’t seem to bother them. If it did, they didn’t let on.

“ I mean by that, Fr Brennan was always cheering us up. Once we heard a bird chirping outside the window and he said, “That’s a good sign lad. That’s an omen of hope.” Or Fr O’Brien would sing songs, and once he danced a jig and once sang “Faraway Places” and we cried like babies, all six of us”.

Curiously enough, our soldier, who had already sampled the fare of several Korean prisons, tells us that the food “was quite good at Kwangju; we had half a bowl of cooked barley three times a day, and we were given pickled turnips which were delicious.” It looks as if this was special fare for this particular cell, in response to Fr Cusack’s representations.

Removed to Taejon

On the first or second night in September, a truck set out from Kwangju for Taejon. It carried some 30 prisoners, including our three priests and their three cell mates. It travelled only by night; by day the prisoners were lodged in jails along the way. At dawn of the third day the truck broke down seven miles outside the town of Taejon. The prisoners were ordered to walk, and weak as they were, they struggled on: Fr Cusack had overheard the guards remark that they would shoot any man who dropped out of line. A mile outside Taejon they ran into an air-raid and ducked for shelter under a bridge. By now, Mgr. Brennan and one American soldier were too weak to keep up with the rest and they were allowed by an unexpected act of kindness, to follow on more slowly. They re-joined their group “in a big stone building,” but an hour later the three soldiers were separated from the civilian prisoners and were afterwards taken north towards Seoul, the capital. One of them survived, to freedom.

The Americans Arrive

We are still in the early days of September. On the 15th, American forces landed in strength at Inchon, port of Seoul, laid siege to the city and sent a task force south towards Taejon to block Communist troops from rushing to the defence of the capital. Simultaneously, the American Eight Army broke through its containing line in the south-east and drove north-west to link up with the troops around Seoul. Arrangements were hurriedly devised to dispose of prisoners held at Taejon. They were disposed of in the Communist way. On the night of the 24th, a general massacre took place and from 5,000 to 6,000 people died. A woman prisoner released on September 24 records that her cellmates in in Taejon were the three priests from Mokpo. Their bodies were not recovered.

Difficult Decisions

The outbreak of the war in Korea contained not a single element of surprise, apart from the point of its timing. Among priests there must have been many debates, and a good deal of silent reflection, on what one’s duty might be when war actually came. The question was certainly complex. It varied with the situation of one’s parish (was it likely or not to come within the enemy lines?) and the number of one’s parishioners (small scattered groups which could easily flee, or a large, settled community that would probably stay). It was posed by the principal of a priest’s duty to minister to his people; but under Communist rule would his ministry be allowed? How long would the war last? Would it end quickly and favourably as a result of hoped-for American intervention-so that the unnecessary exposure of a priest’s life would in the long view be a plain disservice to his mission? Or would American intervention provoke, in turn, a universal war?

Decision to Stay

It is scarcely to be wondered that in the end decisions were made hurriedly and as if by improvisation. After all, war might never come, and one had one’s work to think of . . There is something almost casual about Bishop Quinlan’s choice, and Fr Canavan’s . An American officer arrives, with transport, on his way south and offers to take them with him. The bishop enquires if the United States is expected to intervene in the war. The officer doesn’t know. The Bishop then elects to stay; he would have gone “if the United States was going to take a hand, because in that case the invasion would soon be rolled back.” He next turns to Fr Canavan and enquires what he wishes to do. “ You’ve no charge of souls here, no district for which you’re responsible. You’re free to go, and if you go, you go with my fullest blessing.” Fr Canavan takes a minute to decide and decides to stay if the bishop will allow him: “ I can hear confessions.” He is asked to reconsider it; he repeats “I want to stay.” So these two choose their road, which leads both of them to captivity and one of them to death in that captivity.

The first Communist onrush, then, provoked agonies of deliberation on this particular question. Priests stayed; priests fled. Communist treatment of missionaries in occupied territory settled the question finally. When a second invasion threatened the following winter no priest stayed; to do so would have been suicidal.

Could have Easily Fled

Mokpo, in June 1950, seemed as safe as, say, Japan. South Korean troops would, of course, put up resistance; America, and the United Nations, in a matter of days had decided to come in; the invasion would be rolled back before it could reach the south-west.
But help couldn’t come as soon as all that and by mid-July it was clear that Mokpo would fall. Priests studying the language were hurriedly evacuated to Japan. Mgr. Brennan and Frs Cusack and O’Brien remained on. There had been talk of evacuating to an island off the coast where they would still be within their own mission territory, but the final decision was clear and deliberate and free on the part of all three of them. Knowing Fr Cusack’s direct and uncomplicated approach to life one cannot even imagine him deciding differently.

We have his final message to his family, entrusted verbally around midnight to one of the young priests, as they were about to take ship for Pusan. He would never again be happy if he left his parish when his people most needed him. It broke his heart to cause them worry. But he knew that deep in their own hearts they would be happy with him, and would approve of his decision.

Fr. Cusack the Man

I set out to speak of Fr. Cusack and found that the story of the last months of his life is inseparably interwoven with the story of others who shared his captivity. I end with a paragraph exclusive to himself.
He was of medium height and very strongly built. His intelligence was above average, with a bias towards the practical. In judgement he was deliberate and shrewd. He was respected, from his student days onwards, for his strong sense of duty and his sound but unostentatious piety. He was cheerful and good-humoured, and it was his nature to be kindly. He was sent to Korea in 1935 and is said to have picked up the language easily and quickly-principally, we are told, because of the freedom with which he mixed among the Koreans. He was to die in the sixteenth year of his priesthood, and the some of his active missionary years is considerably less when you subtract his nearly four years of internment under the Japanese. Yet, even while he lived, his industry had become a legend; the Koreans called him “the Iron Man” for it; and a young colleague, writing of him in the year of 1959, tells us: “I had never met, and have never met since, any priest anywhere, who handed over, day in, day out, his time and his privacy to his people so completely. He never eased off, yet you could never visit him without seeing that you were really welcome; and he never forgot to ensure that his curates took time out to relax.”

“Honest,” “straightforward,” “sincere,” “singleminded.” “courageous, morally and physically” . . . the testimonies to him as a true man and a true priest are universal; and one feels now as one felt nine years ago, that the particular kind of death God sent him crowned quite naturally the life that preceded it.



Note from Steph!!!
Dan Conneely was from Glenamaddy. He was in St Mary’s College, Galway with Tommie. He was in Dalgan with him and was ordained with him in 1934. He said the final grave-side prayers at the funeral of our Grandfather, Michael Cusack, ( Tommie’s Father) at St Bridget’s Well.

We have the original handwritten letter which Fr Michael O’Connor wrote to Granny. I have added a typed copy to this document.