May 23, 2014

Ahead Of Memorial Day Weekend, Gillibrand Honors 83 Year-Old Korean War Veteran From Orange County

Warwick, NY – Ahead of Memorial Day weekend, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today honored Korean war veteran John O’Neill, thanking the 83 year-old Orange County resident for his courageous service and sending Mr. O’Neill a United States flag that was flown over the Capitol in Washington, DC.

According to O’Neill’s family, Mr. O’Neill served as a prison guard at Koje-do Island Prison Camp for North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war (POWs) during the camp’s final months of operation in 1953. Mr. O’Neill was assigned to help bring peace and stability back to the camp, which had previously experienced turmoil and a series of riots that resulted in the death of almost 100 prisoners and guards.  The Korean war veteran treated the prisoners with compassion and ensured they had access to clean water. 

“We must never forget our brave men and women who risked their lives to protect and defend our freedom,” said Senator Gillibrand. “John O’Neill’s treatment of prisoners of war exemplified his compassion and humanity and I thank him for his service to our country.”

In a letter to Mr. O’Neill, Senator Gillibrand wrote, “[T]hank you for your service in the Army during the Korean War…Your service in Korea and your efforts in changing the environment of the Koje-do Island prison camp are sources of great pride.  In the fog of war, we often lose sight of the humanity of our foe-in-arms. Too often, we concentrate our praise on acts of aggression, and not the simple acts of human kindness. To have such a peaceful mindset in a tense and hostile situation is a rare and valuable talent. 

During his service, Mr. O’Neill recalled that when prisoners were assigned work details, they would all volunteer to work with him. The prisoners addressed him politely and looked him in the eye, demonstrating signs of respect that were not easily obtained from these POWs.  By the time the camp was closed in 1953, many of the prisoners did not even want to return to their home countries. 

At the urging of his brother-in-law, Mr. O’Neill reached out to Senator Gillibrand’s office and shared his story.  After discovering his service records were destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Record Center in 1973, Senator Gillibrand’s office is currently working with the Army and Department of Veterans Affairs to collect information to help secure an award for the veteran’s service. Mr. O’Neill has received the UN Service Medal, Korea Service Medal with two Bronze Service Star Appurtenances, and the National Defense Service Medal.

Mr. O’Neill is married to his wife Josephine and has five children and 13 grandchildren. The veteran spent most of his life in Rockland County, and moved to Warwick three years ago.

Full text of Senator Gillibrand’s letter to Mr. O’Neill is below:

Dear Mr. O'Neill,

Thank you for your service in the Army during the Korean War. The sacrifices made by every soldier and their families should be honored by all Americans.

Your service in Korea and your efforts in changing the environment of the Koje-do Island prison camp are sources of great pride. In the fog of war, we often lose sight of the humanity of our foe-in-arms. Too often, we concentrate our praise on acts of aggression, and not the simple acts of human kindness. To have such a peaceful mindset in a tense and hostile situation is a rare and valuable talent. Such skills continue to be relevant for soldiers operating in contemporary military environments.

Your work is an example to all service members, both past and present. You have rightfully earned the respect and praise of your fellow soldiers and the POWs over whom you presided. I hope that you are as proud of your work as I am to serve constituents like you.