The Irish in America

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Memorial Day: Remembering our Irish-American soldiers

Another offering from Jim McCormack…this time he writes about the Irish-Americans who served in the US military over the years.  Jim also takes a moment this Memorial Day to reflect on on a personal heroes, his uncle Jimmy Flannery – one of the many Irish Americans who bravely served in World War II. 

Memorial Day always reminds me of the role played by soldiers of Irish and  Irish American descent in American military history. Irish soldiers fought on both sides of wars America was involved in from the French and Indian War to the American Revolution  in the 18th century through the War Between the States which featured “Irish Brigades” on both sides.

In the U.S. War with Mexico in the middle of the 19th century countless Irish immigrants were recruited directly off the immigrant ships to serve in the U.S. Army.  With little training these recruits from the famine were sent to fight against the Mexicans. Many served with distinction.  On the other hand some of the new recruits changed sides and fought on the side of the Mexicans. According to members of the “San Patricio” Battalion, they felt more comfortable fighting on the same side as the Catholic Mexicans and against the Americans who reminded them of the English oppressors they were fleeing. The vile treatment they received from the Nativist leaning officers they experienced in the American army made their decision easier. Every year they are still remembered and honored in Mexico.

Another interesting fact from the History of Military Service in the United States is the majority of those honored with the Medal of Honor in our country are either Irish-born or of Irish descent.

Closer to home on Memorial Day I always think of the many family members that fought in Americas wars. One of those was my uncle Jimmy Flannery, my mothers younger brother. He was one of my personal heroes as I grew up.

Jimmy Flannery WWII

Growing up in Minneapolis after the war we as kids knew that most of the old guys had “been in the service.” What we did not know was the real meaning of that phrase.  We knew that some of the men had an easier time than others.  Of all the men that I knew or knew of as a boy my uncle Jimmy Flannery was the one that experienced the worst of the war.  As I child I was aware that he had been involved in the worst of the fighting.  No one ever told me directly or sat me down and explained what he had gone through from June 1944 to July 1945. I knew he had gone in a few days after D-Day and had fought the Battle of the Bulge.  I remember I was not surprised by the fact that he “had it tough” because I knew he was a tough guy. I knew also from listening to the adults, when they didn’t think anyone was listening, that he did not get his broken nose from singing in the parish choir. My favorite story was about an evening in Linke’s bar and café that some of the locals were making fun of one of the Holy Rosary guys who was gay. The story went that my dad Bill McCormack and Jimmy Flannery took exception and in short order beat the hell out of the miscreants.  The quote was something like “he might be gay but he is our friend.”  Although I don’t think the term used was “gay.”

Jimmy Flannery

As I grew older I began to read history and like all boys of that generation came to worship the old guys.  Although I was just fifteen when Uncle Jim died I knew that his early death was somehow connected to the war. Going through high school and college I was taught by and knew a lot of the veterans.  Unfortunately most of them never talked directly about their personnel experiences during the war. What I knew I had learned from reading and the movies.  I knew that my uncle Jim had been in the middle of it all. I knew that he symbolized to me the sacrifice of self that generation had made.  He was one of my heroes.

When I began writing my family history I wanted to include a section about his service so the younger generations could put a face on that terrible war. Who in the family could be a better face than my uncle Jimmy Flannery?

Insignia of 30th Infantry Division "Old Hickory"

If they were not too old or too young they went.  The smart ones, the not so gifted, the tough ones, the soft ones, the entire generation went.  If you had been born between 1905 and 1927 chances are you either were drafted or enlisted. The war was fought all over the world; in North Africa, Europe, the Pacific, and at home.  My uncle Jimmy Flannery was a member of the 117th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division. With the exception of not landing on D-Day this division bore the worst of the fighting in Europe. The story of Jimmy Flannery and his comrades is the one I will tell. The story is about how the division landed at Omaha Beach; broke through at St. Lo and liberated countless towns in northern France, Belgium and Holland. After successfully invading Germany they had to turn back to Belgium and help stop the Nazi counter offensive that became known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” Historians whether American or German agree on the important role the 30th Division played in the invasion of Europe and the defeat of Germany.

The 30th Infantry Division known as “Old Hickory” had been active during WWI and was manned by Southerners from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia.  It had achieved distinction in that war and retained its identity as a National Guard unit in the period between the two wars. The 30th was recalled into Federal service 16 September 1940. In 1942 the division was rebuilt with personnel from all parts of the country.  Because of its exceptional record in training and in maneuvers the 30thwas selected for early deployment in combat and was transferred from Florida to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for final preparation before going overseas.

MS John Ericsson

Destroyed German tanks at St. Fromond 7 July 1944

The regiment sailed from Boston aboard the “John Ericsson” a former Swedish luxury liner turned troop ship on 12 Feb 1944. At 1300 hours in a blinding snowstorm they began their crossing of the North Atlantic.  The Ericsson met the rest of the convoy from New York City and Hampton Roads, VA 100 miles east of Boston on the 13th in the early afternoon and became part of the largest convoy to cross the Atlantic up to that time.  Twelve days later after a typically rough winter crossing they landed at Liverpool. They spent the next three months training for the invasion of France at various bases in England.  On 8 June they left Hemel Hempstead just north of London for South Hampton where they boarded the “Judiah Smith” for the channel crossing. They landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on the 14th of June. The 117th was committed to its baptism of fire on 15 June 1944, in a sector previously occupied by the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, with its first headquarters being established at Les Obeaux after leaving Omaha Beach. Its first mission on landing in France was to secure the high ground north of the Vire et Taute Canal. The small community of La Ray soon fell before the rolling 30thand the mission of clearing the north bank of the canal was completed by 17 June.

Insignia 117th Infantry Regiment

The 117th liberates Evreux Aug 1944

On 7 July the Division moved forward again, crossing the Vire River and penetrating as far as St Jean-de-Day. This began one of the war’s most memorable actions, the St Lo breakthrough. It was here that the 30thslugged through the hedgerows against fortified German infantry and dug in tanks. Advances were slow in July, but by 6 August the 30th relieved the 1st Infantry Division near Mortain. Suddenly the Division was attacked by five armored divisions of the enemy, the German’s purpose being to drive to the sea at Avranches and split the American First and Third Armies. The 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment and Jimmy Flannery’s unit the 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry Regiment bore the brunt of the assault and were so hard-pressed, that all available personnel of the 30th Division were thrown into action. The Battalions held fast. In a week the Nazi spearhead was broken and the enemy thrown back.

The "Impenetrable" Siegfried Line

After leaving St. Barthelmy the 117th received a four-day rest period. From 19 Aug onward they were engaged in the rat race across northern France.  The 30th was the first infantry division to enter Belgium and Holland, where they liberated Maastricht. The 30th was also instrumental in breaching the Siegfried Line in October 1944, and the capture of Aachen, Germany, the 1st large German city to be captured by the Allies in WWII. This attack into Germany through the “impenetrable Western Wall” exposed the 117thto the greatest concentration of artillery and mortar fire they had yet experienced. After the fall of Aachen they continued the drive into the German industrial heartland. In late November they were part of what the American generals called the “Perfect Infantry Attack near Alsdorf Germany.

Rocket Gun captured by the 117th at La Gleize

On 16 Dec 1944 the 117th was given a new job. They were ordered to reverse course and go back to Belgium to deal with the unexpected German offensive.  This last big push by the Nazis was an attempt to drive through to Liege Belgium, split the allied forces and seize the port.  If they had succeeded the German’s could have won the war. This critical decisive battle was referred to as the “Battle of the Bulge.” After a 48 mile march elements of the 30thengaged the Germans at Stavelot Belgium.

Malmedy 2 Jan 1944

At Stavelot, Stoumont, La Gleize and Malmedy they stopped the German advance and gained control of their sector of the bulge with extraordinary speed. In a savage battle that lasted from 18 Dec to Christmas Eve they destroyed the fighting effectiveness of the elite Adolph Hitler division, the 1st SS Panzer Division.

German prisoners clear land mines

At LaGleize on the 24th they captured over 170 German vehicles including Tiger tanks, halftracks and artillery pieces. As a result of this fight the Germans gave the 30th nickname “Roosevelt’s SS Troops.” According to the Germans this was because the 30th was always “thrown in where the going is the roughest.” The rest of January was spent slogging through chest deep snow over rugged forested terrain retaking the ground the German offensive had secured. In February they were back in Germany crossing the flooded Roer River on 24 Feb. This surprise attack under cover of an artificial fog opened the drive to the Rhine. How much resistance the Germans offered was dependent on the spirit of the individual commanders.  Some fought fanatically and others surrendered with little fight.

In early March the 30th was pulled back to Holland to train with the Navy and engineers for the crossing of the Rhine. The Rhine crossing was second only to Normandy in size as an amphibious operation. The 30th crossed in three places and experienced minimal losses. From there to crossing the Weser River at Hameln on 6 April they met with varying degrees of resistance ranging from sporadic sniper fire to stubborn fighting from fortified strong points. The 30thcaptured 24,000 prisoners and several large cities before reaching the Elbe.

Magdeburg 1 May 1945

Their last big battle was for Magdeburg where on 5 May they met up with the Russians. After a brief occupation of an area on the Czech border near Oelsnitz the 117th returned to Sissone France. After three weeks in France on 31 July they boarded ship to cross the English Chanel to Southampton.  The fourteen months that had elapsed had changed the course of human history. My uncle and hero Jimmy Flannery and the rest of the 117th Infantry Regiment had played a major role in winning the war. While in England the 30threceived the news of the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan. On 15 August the Japanese surrendered. I cannot imagine the joy felt by these brave men knowing they had survived the war and would not be deployed to the Pacific after all.  Two weeks after arriving at Tideworth Barracks England, Jimmy and his fellow soldiers boarded the Queen Mary and sailed to New York on 17 Aug at 0425 hours. The trip home took only four days compared to the 14 on the voyage over. At 2215 the Queen tied up at Pier 99 in New York City.  After a day of record checking and orientation leave arrangements were made and 30 day furloughs were granted.  Most were extended to 45 days and the soldiers were then discharged at the separation center nearest their home. Uncle Jim was discharged at Camp McCoy Wisconsin 13 Nov 1945. Coincidentally his discharge was signed by his brother-in-law, my father Capt. William J. McCormack.

Queen Mary

Fifteen years later in December 1960 my uncle died at age 42.  The stresses of the Ardennes, Normandy and breaking the Siegfried line had finally taken their toll prematurely ending his life.