The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Local soldiers in historic roles duirng Korean War
Nobody paid much attention, but last week marked the 57th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, an historic struggle in which two soldiers from Darien had extraordinary roles.
One, Capt. Joseph "Pippy" D'Arrigo, was on the front lines when the shooting began in June, 1950. The other, Master Sgt. Spencer Birchard, was finally liberated from a North Korean prison camp when the guns were silenced by the armistice signed on July 27, 1953.
Both soldiers had been in the thick of the first armed conflict of the "cold war" between Soviet-style Communism and American-style democracy. Because it was sandwiched between the global struggles of World War II and the horrific bloodshed in the Vietnamese jungles, the fighting in Korea has been termed "the forgotten war" and was commonly referred to as "the Korean conflict" because war had not been officially declared. Yet, it was milestone in the international tensions that gripped the globe for decades.
In reality, the Korean War was an extension of World War II and the uneasy peace that followed. In post-war settlements, the victorious allies bowed to pressure from the Soviet Union, much as they had in Germany, and agreed to the partition of the Korean peninsula, setting the 38th parallel as the dividing line between the two nations created there. North Korea was backed by Communist forces from Russia and China while South Korea was supported by "free world" soldiers from the United Nations, almost all of whom were from the United States and were either drafted or on extended World War II hitches.
The fragile détente collapsed in June, 1950, when North Korean forces, bolstered by Soviet and Chinese troops and weapons, swarmed across the 38th parallel. The invaders encountered only minimal resistance and the lone American soldier still on the front line there was Capt. D'Arrigo.
Reporting on his lonely battle, news dispatches in The New York Times described the valiant D'Arrigo as "the shirtless captain from Connecticut" and called him "the first real hero of the Korean Conflict."
D'Arrigo lived to fight another day and after a counter-offensive was launched by the U.S. at Inchon, the tide of battle shifted and the invaders were driven back to the 38th parallel. What ensued there was one of history's great military/political arguments. Gen. Douglas MacArthur favored pressing northward, but was fired by President Truman who feared that would trigger full-scale intervention by the Soviet Union and China. Instead, the DMZ (demilitarized zone) was established at the 38th parallel and remains today as a fragile divider between the rival Korean nations.
But at least in July, 1953, an armistice finally brought a halt to armed hostilities and allowed "the shirtless captain from Connecticut" to return home, a weary warrior after the heat of combat in World War II and then Korea. Back in Noroton Heights, he tended happily to his backyard vegetable garden again, quite content to limit his excitement to his prized tomatoes.
Meanwhile, the Korean experience was quite different for Sgt. Birchard who spent much of the war in a Communist prison camp in mountainous territory close to the Chinese border north of Pyongyang.
According to news reports of the day, soldiers captured by the North Koreans were forced into slave labor, working 12 or more hours every day in primitive coal mines or lumber camps. Some news dispatches estimated that as many as two-thirds of the prisoners perished from diseases, malnutrition or abuse.
For soldiers like Spencer Birchard, existence there was unimaginably far from the life they had know back home. He was from a working class family in Darien. His mother, Ruth, was a teacher at Baker School on Noroton Avenue and his dad, Spencer, Sr., worked for the New Haven Railroad. He also had a brother, Walt, who was in the U.S. Navy at the time.
So, when the armistice set him free 57 years ago, Spencer Birchard came home to neighbors who were as elated and relieved to see him again as he was to be there.
In fact, the people of Darien quickly organized a celebration, spearheaded by local veterans' groups, to welcome him home. After a cavalcade of cars through town, cheered along the way by curbside spectators, an official greeting was extended by town officials at a gathering behind St. John's Church.
George Pleasants, a local man and aspiring actor and radio announcer with a flair for the dramatic, was master of ceremonies, recounting the privations of the North Korean camps and the prisoners' courageous resistance to captors trying to persuade them to renounce American democracy and capitalism and to embrace Communism.
Then the keys to a brand-new Ford, a gift from the people of Darien, were presented to the young soldier and Pleasants, reporting that people from all over town had contributed toward the purchase, said the new car was "just a token of our admiration, respect and appreciation for your bravery and for what you have done."
Interestingly, Birchard was accompanied at the celebration by another sergeant, Donald Hussey of New Canaan, who also had been a prisoner of war for almost three years in North Korea, though not in the same camp. During that same summer in 1973, Birchard returned the favor. He was at Hussey's side during a similar welcome home party in his home-town, also highlighted by the presentation of a new car, a gift from the people of New Canaan.
The Korean War forgotten? Not as long as the bravery of men like Capt. D'Arrigo and Sgt. Birchard is remembered.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review during the '50s. He can be reached at email@example.com.