World War 2
from "Swords and Ploughshares"
by Francis Herlihy.

Frank was born in New Zealand, assigned to Korea in 1937. He was repatriated to New Zealand by the Japanese during World War 2. Frank died in 2006.

It was from the police, naturally, that we learned that Japan was at war with America and Britain. Monsignor Quinlan and I were summoned to the barracks, and the local chief made the announcement with some formality. He told us that his department was responsible for our security. The Monsignor said that this need not cause concern, since he and most of his priests were Irish and their country was not at war with the Japanese nor anyone else. He admitted having an American and three Commonwealth citizens on his team, but could guarantee their good behaviour. The officer made no comment; we guessed from the tone of the interview that he was awaiting instructions.

Father Pat Brennan, late of Chicago and now of Wonju, came in to Chunchon that evening. Having no notion at this time of the happenings at Pearl Harbour, we predicted a short war. The militarists had made a desperate gamble which was bound to prove a costly mistake. Our own situation would be uncomfortable while it lasted, but not alarming. Enemy nationals would no doubt be interned; it would be a good opportunity to improve our grip on the language and do some reading, and we would have a four for bridge. By the following evening, however, we were in the town gaol; the Monsignor also, but all in separate cells. It was not at all what we had planned.

We were joined in a day or two by Tom Nelligan and Phil Crosbie. I could not see them but could hear them, especially Tom – he would not mind going to gaol for a good cause; it was the charge of being British that annoyed him. Some days later, a young offender who joined the company in my cell told me he had come from Kangneung and that there had been a foreign preacher in his cell also. This would be Father Jim Doyle; so it seemed that no one had been overlooked.

The gaol was dark by day but lighted at night; it smelled badly and was very cold. The guard had a stove in his cubby, but it did little for the cells. The day’s occupation for prisoners was to sit on the floor and reflect on their misdeeds, and they were not to talk or go to sleep. Meals created some commotion; two grimy old ladies brought buckets of rice and barley, kimchi and cabbage which they dispensed in small tin bowls. When your bowl was empty you held it through the bars and called “Mother” and one of them poured you a measure from a kettle of warm water. This was for drinking but you could wash with it too.

You devised a programme to meet the emptiness of dragging hours. You might make some headway as a contemplative if you stopped being sorry for yourself, I thought.

You could be very sorry for yourself I thought, sitting here, with Christmas on the way. You used to tell people that it meant something more than having a good time, but up to now you hadn’t missed out on the good things. This time you would be depending on the ‘something more’; at least it would be different from any other Christmas.

They only half believed what you told them around an Irish fireside, about Christmas in New Zealand’s summer – what sort of people would they be at all, spending Christmas at a beach! Holly berries winking in the firelight, and curtains drawn against the coming dark, gusting rain on the window, and outside, in the leafless trees, a crow who avers that all, all is lost…It did seem improbable, but you still remembered the tang of sun oil mingling with the aroma of mince pies.

Christmas was something else again in Rome, although wherever you went you were only a spectator. You could watch the Pappas and the Mammas bringing overdressed Massimino and self-conscious Eusepina all the way up the steps to Ara Caeli to see the jewelled Santo Bambino carried in procession to his crib, while children’s voices greeted him in a diapason of joyous song. Or you could join the pilgrims at Midnight Mass in S. Maria Maggiore, where the relic of the crib of Bethlehem is enshrined above the great altar, with lights around it gleaming on gold leaf and splendid porphyry.

It was pleasant and loving and could be prayerful too. But all of it was far removed from the cold grey cave in the Judean hills on Christmas night. So Christmas in the Chunchon cells would have some claim to authenticity, a dimension of reality that Murillo and Titian and the rest forget. The cave would be stark and dimly lit and cold and probably smelly also. You were closer to that experience here than in any tableau memory brought to you.

On Christmas afternoon, however, we were taken from the cells to the adjoining barracks, where we were noisly greeted by the nine other Columbans of Kangwondo, already installed in a large bunkroom. It had suddenly become a very good Christmas.

The euphoria generated by reunion with old friends, and the luxury of the bunkroom, raised the morale to a degree that brought more trouble. Items that various ones had thought of bringing with them had been returned. We had some books, a pack or two of cards, and for the next few days the place was like a holiday-camp during a spell of bad weather. It was freezing outside, but we had a stove now, and at night, especially, amused ourselves around it. Jim Doyle, who was liaison officer with our hosts, because he spoke Japanese, would have highlights to retell from the day’s exchanges. Someone else would be reminded of a piece of whimsy about a character in his home town; if stories halted there might be a few songs. In all, it appeared to our guards, who were never far away, that we were not conducting ourselves in a manner befitting a defeated enemy.

The Deputy Police Commander of the province flanked by a rigid posse of subordinates reprimanded us for the space of two hours. His declamation was punctuated by a stentorian translation into Korean as he went along, and it covered the ill deeds of Britain and America, and the retribution that had now come upon them; the destruction of the American Pacific Fleet, the British Repulse and Prince of Wales, the collapse of Hong Kong, and, any day now, the Phillippines, Malaya and Singapore would fall. The time had come, he said, for us to bow our heads.

We were not, in fact, as defiant as the Deputy Commander supposed. We were worried by the jubilant reports that the guards relayed each day about new victories. But we were not convinced. We argued about it, pounding around the track we had cleared in the snow covered yard outside the bunkroom. Naturally the guards believed it all; they had for years now been getting news of glorious victories in China.

As Jim Doyle joined a group at the stove one morning, someone asked if the guards had been talking to him all this time. “No,” he said, “It was T.Q. I was with. The pair of us out there on the track…like the two lads going to Emmaus.”

By the time they announced the fall of Singapore, we were ready to admit that we had underestimated the Japanese. It was going to be a long war.

We had been moved to a vacant house, which we now shared with a roster of policemen. It was an improvement on the barracks, and we guessed that many of our kind were much worse off. We could say Mass now, and had books and spent a couple of hours each day working on the obscurities of Korean.

The war was three months old when we had another visit from the Deputy Commander of Police. We noted, for what it was worth, that he appeared less bellicose than the last time, he had only two aides, and was without his ceremonial sword, which had been a serious distraction, as it was much too big for him, but about right for Pooh Ba’s song in the Mikado. He called the Irishmen apart and told them that his Department had carefully investigated their national status. It had decided that, although they had much in common with the British enemy, the Japanese Government was not required to make provision for their protection, and this would cease as from today. They would, however, remain under surveillance.

They departed that afternoon with mixed feelings. Nothing had been said about returning to their own places and resuming work.

The four enemies left behind were to fare a lot better than the non-belligerents. We did not know at this time that negotiations had been started for the exchange and repatriation of civilian internees. We, and some hundreds more, were to leave Japan about six months later in the Tatsuta Maru, sailing under safe conduct for Laurenco Marques. The Irish priests were technically at liberty but were not allowed to work. Twenty of them from Cholla-namdo and Kangwondo, had to sit out three more years in cramped quarters, and on low rations, and the three from Cheju island were in Kwangju gaol.

The three priests on Cheju knew, as everybody else did, that the Japanese had developed an airstrip near Mosulpo on the island’s southwest corner. It was considerably closer to China than any of their home bases, but its operations were not a topic for discussion in these times. If it had occurred to the three foreigners that the loss of its rural innocence had made the island less healthy for themselves, there was nothing they could about it. But they had no idea of the threat hanging over them until the storm broke around them on the day Japan went to war against the west.

Along with the priests, the police arrested men and women catechists; people they employed, and any others with whom they had frequent contact, some of these were teenage girls and boys. From their separate cells in Cheju town gaol, Pat Dawson, Tom Ryan and Austin Sweeney could hear the sounds that came from the interrogation room, where their friends were being bullied, cajoled or belaboured though the day and a great part of the night, to provide accusations against them. They heard them being brought back to the cells, sobbing and groaning. They could recognise their voices but saw none of them. They called out to them and told them to agree with whatever the gaolers wanted her to say – it was not going to make any difference.

They had supposed that, when their houses had been searched and their activities unbarred, the police would have to conclude that they were harmless. But something had evidently happened to cause alarm.

People told Dawson and the others after the war that, later, an agent with a secret transmitter had been caught, and was a Japanese. The officers of the Cheju gaol could not foresee that development; the foreigners had to be spies, and their associates now in gaol would have to be induced to confirm this.

By Christmas, the young people had been released, but thirteen men and seven women were still detained. They continued to deny suggestions of sinister import about the priests, and interrogation sessions now got rough. The women were bullied and sometimes slapped, but to no effect; the men were beaten, some quite badly, with a kendo – stick, rather like an old time quarterstaff. Some were put on the pihaenggi which means an aeroplane, but here it was a swivel fixed to the ceiling, and they tied you to it by the ankles and spun you like a top. Some got the old fashioned water-cure, which is worse again; they hold you down on a table, your head projecting over the edge, and they pour water steadily down your throat, or over a cloth that covers your face, until you reach drowning-point, and the questions begin again.

The priests were being questioned too; endless idiotic questions that could go on from mid-evening till three o’clock in the morning. They met no serious violence, but sometimes their hands were tied high behind their backs, and this was painful. Dawson and Sweeney both got some kendo whacks for giving foolish answers to foolish questions. Ryan was ill and getting weak, because he could not eat the food they got; they questioned him, too, but did not keep him so long. They were confronted with accusations pieced together from the burgeoning dossier of the investigation; a collage of fact and fancy, truths and half-truths, assembled in sinister patterns; they had collected information; they asked many questions; they knew everything that went on in the island; they had information about the war in China; they had maps in their houses, and radios also . . . they were , in fact, spies.

If they admitted these accusations their female accomplices would be released. They signed without further argument the sheets of rice-paper presented to them, covered with characters which, for the most part, they could not read, and the women catechists were duly released.

It was February now, and the investigation had been completed. The three foreigners and thirteen Koreans awaited trial. They waited five more months in the cells. They were then taken to Kwangju. They were roped together for the journey on the ferry to Mokpo. They had no shoes, but their heads were covered by large straw hats. No one gave them much attention as they padded in file from the ferry to the railway, and through the streets of Kwangju from the station to the gaol.

They thought this was a fine gaol. They were each issued with a blue Kimono and a small towel, the complete prison wardrobe. They abandoned the clothes in which they had been arrested, verminous since their first night in the Cheju cells, washed in the prison bath-house, ate a supper of noodles, and were refreshed and almost content.

They were all in one cell that night. They could only whisper very quietly, but it was their first communication since it all began. They asked forgiveness for the suffering they had brought on one another – the priests for involving so loyal friends, and these, for the harm they may have done by things they had been made to say. They said night prayers together, but the men also wanted to confess their sins, so they whispered their confessions in the corners of the cell and the priests absolved them. They were separated next day, and the foreigners were put in a cell on their own, so that they would not be a bad influence on other prisoners.

Their trial came three months later and did not take very long. Monsignor McPolin, who was now under house detention with his remaining men in Mokpo, had arranged a lawer to defend them, and he made a timid plea. Several of the Cheju men repudiated statements they had signed, claiming that they were misleading and obtained under duress, but the court was not impressed. Dawson, identified as the ringleader in activities detrimental to the State, was sentenced to five years imprisonment; Ryan and Sweeney were given two years. Their co-defendants drew sentences of a year or less, which would be lenient if they had been guilty as charged.

The other Columbans in the south had been put in gaol in December and remained there until February. They were then permitted to return to their parishes for a short time.

Father Tom Mulkerrin went back to Yeong-Kwang and a joyful reception from his little flock. They brought along eggs and chickens and beancurd and Kimchi to restore his strength and to express their sympathy and shook their heads in disbelief when he told them it had not been too bad. He was haggard and pale, and his clothes seemed too big for him.

“You didn’t believe what people in the town were saying!” Cho Pauro, a zestful Harbinger of gloom, chided a group of women chatting in the churchyard.

“What were they saying Grandfather?”

“You know as well as I do. They said something bad was going to happen to the priest.”

“But why would they say that? They’ve nothing against the priest!”

The old man cast a furtive eye towards Kim Agatha the catechist, and dropped his voice. “Have you forgotten the little dog?”

The dog had come with Tom Mulkerrin to Yeong-Kwang, travelling, in breach of bus regulations, in his master’s overcoat pocket. His name, in deference to part of his lineage, was Scotty, but like his master’s it underwent local adaptation and became Sikoti. He grew up with a flair for public relations and had many friends, young and old, about the town. The parents of youngsters who came to evening doctrine classes, or preparations for the Christmas play, were reassured by the knowledge that Sikoti would see them home safely. When the last of his charges had bade him goodnight, he would trot briskly home, bounce through the kitchen window, and retire to his box and blanket near the stove.

The kitchen fire in old-style houses was fuelled from outside the house, and its flues warmed the floors within. On a night when Mulkerrin had gone to Mokpo, somebody carefully closed the kitchen window, forgetting Scotty’s arrangements. Deprived of his bed, the most inviting alternative he could find was the channel beneath the kitchen, still warm from the midday fire. But at dawn, an unsuspecting cook threw in an armful of pine-brush, set it alight and the little dog perished.

His sorrowing friends insisted that Sikoti should have a proper funeral. They prepared his grave in a corner of the compound, and a crowd of them gathered after school to pay their last respects. There were grown-ups too who had never heard of such a thing but came because they knew that the Sinbu was very sad about the little dog. Others came who did not know the Sinbu, nor Sikoti either, but thought they saw meanings in things that happened, and it was these who said that something bad must be going to happen to the priest.

“What sort of Christians would believe that nonsense?”

A few young women sniggered. The speaker was Cho Pauro’s wife, deeply embarrassed by his show of superstition. “Believe it, or believe it not,” the old man grumbled, “the bad things happened – and more beside. See what happened to Han Yosep!”

Kim Agatha the catechist intervened: “Nothing would have happened to poor Han Yosep if he had behaved with better sense.”

The subject of these remarks was an old character with a wispy beard, a high-crowned hat and a long white coat, who wandered into the church one afternoon when no one was about, to rest a puzzled gaze on things not met before. What most intrigued him was a statue of a bearded foreigner, identified on the pedestal as Sung Yosep. He extended his exploration then, to the house beside the church, and here he came on another foreigner, asleep in a chair in the living-room. He had reddish hair, which the old man had never seen on man or woman before. Under his peering inspection Mulkerrin awoke and stared; the old man beamed at him and asked if he was at peace. Mulkerrin affirmed that he was; he asked his visitor if he, too, was at peace, and would like some tea.
When he had learned what he wished to know about Mulkerrin, the ancient had further questions about this other one whose image stood next door. He was given a short rundown on St Joseph’s place in history, and on departing, took with him a small book called No-een Mun-dap, a catechism for old people.

After that he came back often. He had many questions to ask as he worked his way through the catechism, and when these had been dealt with, he would want a game of checkers. Mulkerrin called him Yosep now, and he liked that. He was greatly interested to know that St Joseph was a carpenter, having done a little in that line himself. He loved to win at checkers, but he cheated, and would draw Mulkerrin’s attention to something outside the window while he moved a piece to a more useful place on the board.

When the game was finished he retired to the church, and recited at the top of his voice the prayers he was learning from the Mun-dap, before ambling peaceably home. In the autumn Mulkerrin examined him on the catechism and baptised him.

He came nearly every day to the church now, to say his prayers and salute the priest. Mulkerrin would sometimes yield to his wistful eye and bring out the checkerboard; he observed that his neophyte still cheated.

When the police took Mulkerrin away, they closed and sealed the house, and locked the church, and Yosep was incensed. He went to the police barracks and abused the officers with great sincerity, but it only amused them, and they refused to put him inside with the priest. He came every day to the deserted church and chanted his prayers outside the door, and when the snow came in January, people still saw the old man standing there in the late afternoon, or plodding homeward in the dusk. Then one day he did not come; it had snowed all the previous day, yet he had come as before. But he had not reached home again, and they found him dead in a snowdrift below the steep path to his house.

Within a few weeks Mulkerrin and the others were again collected by the police and brought to Mokpo, where for the next three years they had the freedom of their own house but could not go outside the church compound. After eighteen months had gone by, Monsignor McPolin was summoned to Kwangju prison to take Tom Ryan away. Jerome Sweeney went with him, in hope of seeing his brother. He had avoided being repatriated with the other Australians the previous year, for the sake of the letter he was able to send him once a month.

They did not see Austin Sweeney or Pat Dawson but were shocked when they saw Tom Ryan; he had shrunk to about half his weight and was clearly a very sick man. All three of them had contracted beri-beri, and more recently, dysentery. The others were recovering but it appeared that Ryan might not, so he was being released. They took him to the Japanese hospital where he responded to the sudden experience of first-class care. He claimed, himself, that the smell of freedom was all the cure he needed.

The two who remained had become inured to prison fare; they suffered most from boredom and the cold. They had red kimonos now, but that was all. Then, mercifully, they were allowed some books, and toward the end of Sweeney’s term, they were let out to work on the prison farm.

A siren went off at 6.30 am and presently the tramp of warders, jangling keys, shouts and clanging doors, ushered in another day. Prisoners emerged from their cells, bringing with them nothing but their precious rag towel. They were marched to the change-room, and waited, shivering, for their numbers to be called. They went in then, vested themselves in cotton jackets and shorts, and filed into the mess-room where they collected bowls and chopsticks, and lined up for servings of rice mixed with barley, kimchi, and cabbage or seaweed soup.

Work began at 7.15. Dawson and Sweeney, as new hands, were assigned to the detail that pulled a sewage cart from gaol to farm and distributed its riches to the hungry plots. For the rest of the day they squatted on their haunches, weeding their way across the closely planted fields, with a break at noon for lunch and a half-hour rest. They ached all over but it was relief from the daily tedium of their cell. They were getting more food and their health seemed to be improving. Then Sweeney was suddenly hit by an infection. They had no shoes, and he had cut his foot on flax stubble. He had swollen glands and a high fever and wondered if he had tetanus. A doctor examined him, showing no undue alarm, gave him an injection and some tablets, and he recovered in a week, but both of them were withdrawn from the workforce.

Sweeney’s release was coming close now, but he was subdued by the vision of the dragging years that Dawson faced. Together they had found that they could survive; it was going to be tough here alone. He was taken to see the Chief Warden on his final day and answered polite enquiries about his health. Then he heard himself asking if he could not remain to keep Dawson company, and could they again be allowed to work. The Chief Warden had not heard of such a thing. He said that Dawson, or 634, as he called him, would have no lack of company, and could work too, as long as he behaved himself, and he sent Sweeney on to the Buddhist chaplain for the parting admonition that he gave to prisoners about mending their ways and becoming good citizens.

So, the last morning came, and all that Sweeney could do for Dawson was to offer him his own breakfast, which Dawson ate without compunction. If he was feeling sorry for himself it did not show. Adopting the mien of the Buddhist chaplain he exhorted Sweeney to go straight in future, and they parted.

In Mokpo as the war’s third year ended, the policemen who visited the Mission house no longer lingered, as they did in the past, recounting highlights of its progress. From non-official sources, the inmates picked up rumours of air-raids on Japan, and by spring, the omens of bad trouble were no longer secret. The enemy had invaded Okinawa, and the homeland itself was threatened; every citizen must be prepared now to defend it with his life. Stony-faced Koreans dug air-raid shelters and practiced fire-drill in the streets of Mokpo and hoped devoutly that the invasion would succeed.

In April, Monsignor McPolin and the twelve priests in Mokpo were taken north to Seoul, and from there to Chunchon and then to Hongchon where three of their Kangwondo confreres had spent the past two years. Quarters were cramped, but the weather was good, and there was scope for all in the garden, because they would need all the food they could grow.

They had been allowed to get a small radio. Vigilant policemen regularly checked to see that no one had tinkered with it. Short-wave receivers were very illegal. They did not appear to know that standard receivers could now pick up relays from voice of America and the BBC and, as summer advanced, their charges may have known more than they did about the war’s approaching climax. In the hots nights of July, the sixteen men gathered in the Hongchon living room heard of Allied carrier and land-based air-strikes through the length of Japan, naval bombardments along its eastern seaboard, fire-raids on Tokyo and other cities. They heard of an Allied conference at Potsdam. Then came news of an ultimatum and a demand for unconditional surrender.

In the dog-days of August, a season of moist heat and swarming flies, Harry Gillen, the youngest member of the group, went down with dysentry. The town doctor came, a mournful little man, who said that the illness was very severe this year, and that there was a lot of it in the town, and to this appended the chilling information that he had no drugs. He said he had not been able to get sulphonamides for months. He rigged a saline drip, and urged Gillen to conserve his strength. He told McPolin that he would return, but the outcome was going to depend on the patient’s own resources.

On a forlorn hope McPolin went to the Chief of Police, who listened impassively to his plea for help, and told him the police could no longer get medical supplies themselves. Then he produced from his desk a small package. He said he had been given this in case of a family emergency. He scrutinised the label and laboriously, but not without pride, spelled out ‘sulpha-guana-dine’, and observed drily, that it appeared to have come from Hong Kong. There were four phials in the package; he gave McPolin two of them, and McPolin, retracting many things thought and spoken about Japanese policemen, bowed his thanks with deep respect.

The injections brought relief, but they were late and Gillen was weakening. He listened and responded to the Annointing prayers that he had said over many others and received Viaticum, then slowly, slipped into a coma. He wakened in the early morning two days later, and knew he was going to die. He was very calm about it; He asked for Holy Communion and, afterwards, said he would like to see them all. They came in, oe by one, gave him a blessing and pressed his hand. He was in a room opening off the church, and when they began the prayers for the dying, the voices in the room were hushed, but those outside were strong and full, and surged around the church, and in the room it seemed as if many distant voices were echoing their prayer. It was around mid morning when Harry Gillen died. It was 6 August and three hundred miles away, a B-29 high above Hiroshima had just released its obscene burden and fled from the shock-waves of a blast that would take 70,000 lives.

That evening broadcasts celebrated this technological triumph, which would make victory certain. Time would reveal that Japan was already crippled, and an early capitulation had become inevitable. Within the space of three days, a second A bomb wiped out the centre of Nagasaki. On the following day, the Japanese said they would submit to the Allied ultimatum if the Emporer remained head of the nation, and, on 14 August, the nation heard the Emporer’s voice announcing their surrender, and bidding them accept defeat.

The world had suddenly slipped over. There was an air of fantasy about it all. Korean flags, hidden for a generation, were waving over spontaneous celebrations in the streets. Some Hongchon citizens, fortified by makoli, made a procession to the Shinto shrine and burned it down, but no policeman stirred. The Americans were coming-some said the Russians also, but no one thought much about them yet. The one thing that mattered had come at last. Korea would again be free.

In Kwangju gaol, on 17 August, Pat Dawson heard his number called for the last time, and learned he was free. He exchanged his red kimomo for the clothes in which he had been arrested three years and nine months back, and they gave him a pair of straw slippers. The clothes were mouldy, but outside the gatethe sun was shining and air had never been so sweet.