Every year they return to South Korea. Every year, they are fewer in number. The ravages of time are winnowing the ranks of Korean War veterans far more effectively than any North Korean bullet or Chinese hand grenade. Yet still, they come back, these old soldiers in their 80s – invited by Seoul’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs to see how the land they defended from 1950-53 has repaid their sacrifices and made good.
Fading survivors of the national contingents from the 16 nations that made up the US-led UN Command come at different times of the year to visit different battlefields. Last week, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a dozen Commonwealth veterans visited the former killing grounds at Solma-ri, just south of the strategic Imjin River. Here, the memorial to the British troops who – after the US, made up the second largest group in the UNC – stands.
The memorial commemorates the Gloster Battalion. In April 1951 the unit was surrounded at the epicenter of the biggest Chinese offensive of the war – a massive attack which the Korean Institute of Military History has dubbed, due to its staggering scale, “The Armageddon North of Seoul.” Outnumbered nine to one, the Gloster fought for three days and nights. Their hilltop strongpoints were overrun, one by one. The constricted unit was finally annihilated after a last stand on the napalm-seared summit of Hill 235 – today, known as Gloster Hill.
After a service of remembrance at the memorial, the veterans and family members boarded a bus for a tour of a front-line South Korean observation post overlooking the DMZ. There, many could see the hills they had fought over so long ago, squatting abandoned in the center of this silent No Man’s Land.
Then and now
Snapshots of the 1950s are seared into veterans’ memories: South Korea then was an economic basket case, a devastated land of burned-down villages, desperate poverty and denuded hills. “It was bare hills, dusty roads and parts of Seoul were just rubble; there were refugees filing south, us heading north,” said Bernard Hughes, one of the band of veterans. “It’s been 66 years….”
“When we arrived, you could see the pitiable condition of the people,” added Arnold Hayman, a New Zealand artillery veteran. “But what was striking was their resilience – their sheer bloody stubbornness!”
Today, that hard-working people have built a new nation. South Korea’s is now the world’s 11th largest economy, boasting a high-tech infrastructure, global brands, a vibrant democracy and a self-confident swagger. Yet its people still exhibit enormous gratitude toward the old soldiers.
“I really am moved by the generosity and the kindness,” Hayman said. The receptions veterans and their family members receive from locals is overwhelming.
“It is so emotional, the gratitude is incredible,” said Nigel Majury, whose late father, James, fought as an infantry officer, was captured, and spent two and a half years in prison camps in North Korea. “The school children flock to the veterans like rocks stars, they all want to shake hands and say ‘thank you’ in English.”
The war the veterans fought was one of the most savage, most lethal conflicts since 1945. Operations took place over cascading hills and jagged mountains, in conditions of monsoon heat and freezing blizzards. The UNC deployed firepower against manpower – but even so, much fighting took place at horrifyingly close range, as the Chinese launched midnight “human wave” assaults.
Korea, which took place so soon after World War II and engendered no great films or novels, was dubbed “The Forgotten War.” But many men who fought there cannot extinguish traumatic memories.
Albert Morrow, a stretcher bearer, recalled a vicious battle in winter 1951, during which men of his battalion, the Royal Ulster Rifles, were killed by incendiary phosphorous grenades in night combat. At daybreak, he was sent up the ridge to retrieve the dead. “We put them on the stretcher, and the bodies were still smoking,” he recalled. “In the open, the wind caught them and set fire to them again, and they burned right through the stretcher.”
The names that soldiers gave their positions – which were usually just contour lines on maps – tell their own stories: “Hellfire Valley,” “Bloody Ridge,” “Happy Valley.” Peter Clarke, an infantryman with the Duke of Wellington battalion, recalled the fighting that surged over one of the worst battlefields, a ridge known – from its shape on maps – as “The Hook” or “The Bloody Hook.”
“We lost D Company – it is a silent company [in the regiment] now – but I was lucky,” Clarke said. “We had been in the line, pinned down for a week by 4,000 howitzer shells. We were exhausted, sleep deprived. I got down at 02:30 that night – and that night they came.”
Pauline Cleverly did not fight in Korea, but her late brother, Edward Rose, did. He was with the Glosters, the battalion wiped out at Hill 235, the site of the memorial. He only ever spoke about the war on one occasion, she said. “Once, our son asked him, ‘Did you kill anyone?’ and he answered, ‘Hundreds. They were coming over the hill in droves.’”
The destruction of the Glosters, and the wider Battle of the Imjin River, remains the bloodiest action fought by the United Kingdom since World War II. The trauma of it lingers to this day among the survivors.
After his experiences in Korea, Rose – who returned to the UK in 1953 – could never again bring himself to enter a church, Cleverly said. Another Gloster survivor who was visiting the memorial last week, declined to discuss his memories.
Peace at last?
Formally, the Korean War never ended. An armistice brought the fighting to the end, but a peace treaty was never signed. Some 28,500 US troops are still stationed in Korea, and the peninsula has been a Cold War flashpoint for decades. The old Gloster fighting positions are still entrenched as fallback positions for South Korean infantry. The DMZ is just a 15-minute drive north.
But now, on the eve of the first-ever North Korean-US summit, there are hopes. Given that the process of denuclearization – if, indeed, it happens – is expected to take years, some pundits expect a peace treaty to be the outcome of that summit, set for Singapore on June 12.
Hayman, the New Zealander, recalled the truce village of Panmunjom where, during the war, ceasefire and POW negotiations took place. During his visit last week, US and North Korean officials were ensconced in the same village, hammering out summit preparations.
“When I arrived in 1952, you could see the barrage balloons and searchlights over Panmunjom,” the artilleryman recalled. “We all felt we had done only half the job in 1953.”
That job could, at last, come to an end.
“I know it is the ‘Forgotten War,’ but look what the South Koreans have produced: They are now the 11th largest economy in the world,” said Majury. “If ever there was an example of fighting for freedom, this was it, and if ever North and South Korea could come together, the expansion would be amazing.”
The Singapore summit, one veteran hoped, will open a new chapter for the Koreas.
“It is a wise move, it would have a great effect,” said veteran Reginald Waite. “There should be no hesitation, it is essential to get on with it. I hope Mr Trump sees the benefits – it has to be a team effort!”