Metro-East News

Luck of the Irish (sort of): WWII sailor saw action in Korea with U.S. Army

Walter Slattery in 1950. He served in the U.S. Army in Korea even though he wasn't a U.S. citizen.
Walter Slattery in 1950. He served in the U.S. Army in Korea even though he wasn't a U.S. citizen.

Walter Slattery's parents were about to have their ninth child in 1937 when they told their eldest it was time for him to leave their Waterford, Ireland home.

He was 14, but decided he'd save his money to come to America.

Ten years and World War II passed before he made it.

Slattery served for a time in the Irish Free State Army. He wanted to see the war, so he tried to cross the border and join the British Royal Navy. He failed the color blindness test. He tried to write the U.S. Army, but they weren't taking foreigners.

The teen settled on merchant ships that had been drafted into war service, serving aboard Irish, British and Norwegian ships. He sent half his wages home.

Just after midnight on Dec. 29, 1942, Slattery was shoveling coal in a bunker of the Baron Cochrane, a British merchant ship in a 45-ship convoy northwest of the Azores in the Atlantic. Two wolf packs of 19 German U-boats attacked.

Twenty-six ships were sunk or damaged by the time the U-boats were finished.

"I heard a terrific sound. It turned out to be a torpedo," Slattery said. There was mayhem on deck.

"I saw some of the toughest guys in the Navy were scared. I figured when they were scared, there was something to be scared about."

He saw a cook so panicked that he cut a lifeboat rope and 16 men fell into the water. Shipmates hit the cook on the head and tossed him overboard.

Others jumped into the cold water to escape. The captain, engineer and Slattery failed to free a raft from its rusted mounts.

The skipper said, "Every man for himself, and God for his soul." Then he and the engineer jumped overboard.

Slattery couldn't swim. He kept praying for a raft, telling God he was too young to die at age 19.

The nearby Lynton Grange's cargo of heavy bombs blew up. Its rafts dropped out of the sky near Slattery as his ship keeled over. He got three shipmates out of the waves and aboard.

At one point a U-boat surfaced near their raft. Floundering Dutch sailors tried to climb aboard the U-boat, but were beaten off with rifle butts.

Slattery tried to speak the little German his father had taught him after serving in the artillery during World War I. The German officer laughed.

"'You're no German,' he said. Then he said in English that we didn't have to paddle. The Admiralty had been notified and two destroyers would pick us up."

The German asked to exchange souvenirs. He tossed over an Untersea Booten insignia and swastika medallion in exchange for Slattery's Cross of Tara.

For the next two and a half days, rough seas pounded the raft. Slattery and the others used a piece of canvas as protection from breakers. They shivered.

Slattery hallucinated. He thought he was home in a pub and an ember from the fire popped out and burned his wrist. When he came out of it, he found his wrist was burned.

Slattery was a poor Irish kid used to going hungry. He kept candy bars in his pockets in case the ship ever went down. Those were his rations while floating in the Atlantic.

One of the men was so thirsty he drank sea water. It made him crazy and sick.

Another gnawed on his arm.

When they were picked up, Slattery was offered rum or tea. He said he wasn't a drinker, but the three fingers of rum were what he needed. The others who took tea were so dehydrated they were sickened by the stimulant.

The destroyers chased the U-boats for a few days, but then took the survivors to the Azores. The sailors eventually made it back to England aboard another ship that had to pass through the U-boat infested waters.

Slattery also served aboard Norwegian ships. It was traditional to be put in a circle with other potential crewmen for a brawl to earn your way aboard, he said.

He didn't win, but he said the Norwegian sailors said he'd done well enough. Slattery learned to box at the Christian Brothers school in Ireland.

The Norwegians stood by him -- including Orson the "man mountain" -- when four Royal Air Force members tried to make off with some young ladies in a London club.

After the war, Slattery finally made his way to Chicago in 1947. After he arrived, his sponsor decided she didn't really have room for him.

He found himself on the street with $4. With nowhere to go he rode the train 26 miles to the end of the line, where the lunching transit workers spotted him the transfer ticket back.

When they got to the Loop he asked a female passenger where to get a Social Security card. She headed for a Chicago policeman to report the foreigner and the cop chewed her out for being rude to a newcomer.

The cop and train engineer were both Irish.

"He took me by the hand and led me to the Social Security office," Slattery said. "Then he said, 'Whatever you do, watch out for Chicago girls.'"

He found a job.

In 1948, Slattery wanted to serve his new country, and enlisted in the 101st Airborne. The U.S. Army sent him to Okinawa, but never asked whether he was a citizen.

He was eventually sent home when Truman decided to downsize the Army in 1949 but remained in the reserves. When 1950 and the Korean War came he was drafted into the 7th Infantry Division and would be part of that war's infamous battles at the Chosin Reservoir and the Yalu River.

The Army finally found out he wasn't a citizen when they wanted to promote him to lieutenant. He became a U.S. citizen after the war in 1952 when he returned to Chicago.

Slattery met his wife, Virginia, through a Catholic magazine correspondence exchange. They eventually met when she traveled through Chicago with her sister and he asked her to marry him on the first night.

She made him wait nine months, then he followed her to Belleville in 1953. They raised three daughters and a son in Belleville.

Slattery is now 84 and suffers from Parkinson's Disease. He depends on his wife for help moving around their house in Belleville. He is blind and has been told his memory will be the next to go.

He said he wanted to tell his story while he could.

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