Korean war hero Derek Kinne, George Cross. Photo: Derek Kinne and Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
Korean war hero Derek Kinne, George Cross. Photo: Derek Kinne and Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Korean war veterans of Commonwealth units returned to South Korea last week – but their ranks were not graced by perhaps the most notable surviving hero among them.

Derek Kinne, the man Sir Winston Churchill considered the bravest of the brave, will never return to the land where his heroics – heroics which, if they were fiction, would be unbelievable – took place. The Arizona resident and George Cross holder passed away on Feb 6, 2018.

However, it will be a long while before the stories of his relentless courage follow Kinne into the ether.

An ‘obnoxious bastard’ finds his role

Born in Nottingham in the United Kingdom on January 11, 1931, Kinne undertook National Service in the British Army. A big, unruly man at the best of times, Kinne spent 158 days of his 18 months in uniform behind bars.

“I was an obnoxious bastard,” he later admitted to an historian. Upon demobilization, he was told: “You will never make a soldier!”

Kinne left the British army with considerable rancor, and with hopes of joining the hotel trade. Then his brother, Raymond, was killed in action.

That combat had taken place in a nation most Britons had never heard of: Korea. Derek, who had been close to this brother, vowed to find  Raymond’s body and kill as many enemy as he could.

He would fulfill one of those ambitions.

Back in uniform, Kinne deployed to the Korean front line just south of the Imjin River with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers – “The Fighting Fifth” – which was part of the UK’s 29th Infantry Brigade serving with UN forces in South Korean under US command.

The horrors of November to December 1950 – when China, in a shock intervention, had driven UN forces from North Korea in a 300-mile retreat, amid the frigid conditions of a Siberian winter – were over. A gentle spring had sprung over the cascading hills.

Enemy forces had evaporated. Some correspondents, convinced the war was over, decamped to French Indochina. A lull fell over the battlefront – but patrol actions continued.

Off the parade ground and on active duty, Kinne found his calling. “The front line fascinated me – I was one of those nuts who loved it,” said the terror of the parade ground, who now found himself a highly effective fighting man. “I was a walking arsenal – if a bullet had hit me, I would have blown up!”

In fact, Chinese forces, with North Korean units under their command, had only temporarily withdrawn. They had gone into deep cover to prepare what remains – to this day – the greatest communist offensive unleashed since the fall of Berlin: China’s “Fifth Offensive” of spring 1951 would deploy one third of a million men over a 40-mile front.

The plan was to punch through UN positions in the Imjin and Kapyong valleys, key communications lines north of Seoul; cut behind UN lines and annihilate the bulk of the American forces in Korea. With the US knocked out of the war, Seoul was expected to fall into communist hands by May Day.

Kinne, a light machine gunner, was in the eye of the hurricane on the night of April 22, 1951, when China’s “human wave” surged over his position on a hilltop south of the Imjin. In the light of flares and star shells, in close combat, he mowed down scores of enemy. His strongpoint was overrun. Kinne escaped in the darkness and made it back to brigade headquarters.

He was in the thick of combat again on the morning of April 25 when the brigade attempted to break out. Their withdrawal became a death ride down a four-mile enfilade. Kinne’s commanding officer was killed in the rearguard as Chinese infantry charged down the hillsides; melee combat broke out and British tanks churned over both friendly and enemy troops. Captured as he attempted to crawl down a monsoon drain, Kinne would say, years later, that the 25th was the day his war really began.

The war in the camps

On the march north – at night, through a North Korea devastated by UN air strikes – Kinne undertook his first act of resistance. A Chinese soldier asked British troops what a can of fuel was. Kinne indicated it was “chop chop” – food – then swiftly made himself scarce.

In the camps just south of the Yalu River which separates Korea from China, be became a legend among fellow POWs. Once, he promised to accede to captors’ demands that he repudiate his role in the war. Kinne asked for cigarettes as his price. Offered tobacco, he demanded tailor-made. Given that – a rare commodity – he “smoked like a chimney” all night as he wrote 13 and a half pages of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” His captors were infuriated. He was severely beaten.

Kinne was incarcerated in “The Wooden Boxes” – standing wooden cages in which recalcitrant prisoners were placed – which later provided the name of his autobiography. Infuriated, he demanded release and was involved in a fracas with guards. A submachine gun went off. A guard fell dead. Kinne was marched before a false execution squad – then returned to solitary confinement.

He recognized that the Chinese were fairer than the Japanese of World War II – he was surprised that he was not executed for his endless acts of resistance. He also noted the shared humanity of some guards; one consistently dropped him cigarette butts during his many periods of solitary confinement.

But he also underwent severe beatings, tight bindings and torture – particularly from North Koreans, who recaptured him after failed escape attempts.

Kinne would also earn fame for his loud-voiced arguments with Western communist reporters accredited to Beijing, such as Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington, who visited the POW camps in North Korea to lecture captured UN soldiers.

Kinne would never forget men he considered traitors.

He was exchanged with other POWs in 1953 at the end of the Korean War. Upon his return to the UK, to his astonishment, he awarded the George Cross – the highest decoration for gallantry when not in battle that can be awarded by the UK – by the young Queen Elizabeth II for multiple acts of courage in the camps.

His citation, the longest in the register of the George Cross, read, in part: “Every possible method both physical and mental was employed by his captors to break his spirit, a task which proved utterly beyond their powers.”

When  Sir Winston Churchill wrote the foreword to a book on heroes of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross, he was asked whose photo he wanted next to his own. He asked for that of Kinne – who Churchill referred to as “my bulldog.”

The struggle continues: Post-war traumas

Kinne subsequently emigrated to the United States to live, in his words, “the American dream.” But his war was not yet over.

Upon hearing that Burchett, the communist reporter, was speaking against the Vietnam War on US university campuses, Kinne stormed one of Burchett’s speeches. The astonished Australian retreated in the face of the furious ex-POW, who insisted that Burchett should be hung. Later, when Burchett requested donations for his legal action against the Australian government – which had refused to issue him a passport – Kinne defecated in a box and mailed it to Burchett.

But even this most formidable soldier was not immune to post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the 1970s, Kinne was convinced that wall plants were attacking him during a visit to a Chinese restaurant. He was incarcerated in a mental institution and subjected to electric shock therapy. Leveraging his Korean War experiences, he escaped – only to be returned by his wife, Anne. He later became good friends with the doctor who treated him, and opened a laminating business.

In his latter years, the hero returned to South Korea. On one visit, he politely asked, at the British Embassy in Seoul, to be given a tour to his old battlefield an hour’s drive north of Seoul. Brushed off by embassy front desk staff, he thumped the table and roared for the ambassador. Once embassy staffers realized they had a bona fide, George Cross hero on their hands, Kinne’s request was granted.

On his last trip to Korea, in 2010, he was followed around the Imjin battlefield by carloads of Korean TV crews, eager to record his experiences. At the UN Cemetery in Busan, he bowed his head before a memorial marker to his brother, Raymond – whose body was never retrieved from North Korea.

Derek Kinne died in on February 6, 2018, after a long struggle with bladder cancer. He is survived by his wife, Anne, two children and four grandchildren – one of whom, Peter, is an officer in the US Army.

Derek Kinne at his grandson Peter’s graduation. Photo: Supplied

His daughter Deborah recalled what he said in his twilight years: “I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” she told Asia Times. “He always said he never wanted to live with regrets – and he had very few regrets.”

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