A South Korean Honor Guard escort the remains of Bill Speakman, VC, to his final resting place. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Sixty five years after the guns fell silent in Korea, the ashes of veteran William Speakman were lowered into the ground on Tuesday at the United Nations Cemetery in Busan, South Korea.

Under grey skies, it was a poignant ceremony. Young men killed in combat are customarily buried in the soil on which they fight, but it is a rarity for old soldiers to be interred in distant battlegrounds – particularly Western troops who fought in the Asian wars of the 20th century.

But Briton Speakman, who passed away in June 2018, had demanded he be buried in South Korea. And he was no ordinary soldier.

Slaughterground: Hill 217

His early military career had not been promising. Too young to fight in World War II, stationed in Germany, Italy and Hong Kong, “Big Bill” – so named for his six-foot-six height – had often been in trouble for drinking and brawling. Keen to depart barrack for battlefield, he volunteered for Korea, where war had been raging since North Korean invaded South on 25 June 1950.

It was in Korea, on 4 November 1951, on the frozen slopes of Hill 217, that he achieved nobility.

Speakman was assigned to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, a British infantry battalion fighting under the United Nations Command, the US-led multinational force assisting South Korea against, first, North Korea invasion, and subsequently, Chinese intervention. By November 1951, the war had become a meat-grinder: A hideous struggle for barren hills along what would subsequently become the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.

Thunder in the hills: Korea at war, 1951. Photo: Mervyn McCord/Royal Ulster Rifles Museum

Hill 217 was one of those strategic sites. On November 4, Chinese artillery began to thunder down: “It started boiling that afternoon,” Speakman recalled in conversations with this writer in 2015. Some 6,000 shells churned up the KOSB positions. The terrain was cratered, trenches collapsed and huge palls of dust spread across the darkening sky.

The storm of high explosive and whirling steel was just preparation. In late afternoon, thousands of Chinese infantry stormed the positions held by the 600 Scots.

Speakman was in the rear, tasked with priming crates of grenades. As radio reports came in of position after position being swamped, Speakman stood. Asked what he was doing, he replied – in the harsh frontline argot of the time – “I’m going to shift some of those bloody Chinks.”

He acted without orders. “We had to get the wounded off the hill: that was big for me, while I was able bodied, I had to get them down,” he recalled. “I felt the need to do my little bit.”

“My little bit.” It is difficult to imagine the nightmare scenes that unfolded on the rocky contours of Hill 217 as evening fell and as Speakman single-handedly charged up the hill into the midst of the enemy troops swarming over the strongpoint.

Aimed fire was impossible, he remembered; there were too many enemy, and no time to work the bolt of a rifle. Instead, Speakman had filled his pockets and pouches with the grenades. These became the primary weapon in the close-range maelstrom the former bar brawler became embroiled in. The soil was frozen solid, so when Speakman volleyed his bombs, they bounced and detonated in the air, creating a wider spread of shrapnel, and inflicting greater casualties, than if they had burst on the ground.

Other men, inspired, joined Speakman as he made repeated attacks, returning to the lower slopes only to obtain more grenades. Wounded in the shoulder and leg, he had to be ordered to receive field dressings. Then he continued attacking. Along Hill 217’s ridges, the bodies literally piled up.

Some would later attribute Speakman’s berserk fury to drunkenness. A legend arose that when he ran out of grenades, he hurled beer bottles at the enemy. He angrily denied both rumors. “Take it from me: No beer bottle was thrown – our business was to fight, not drink!” he said.

William Speakman, VC. Photo: The Speakman Family

Victoria Cross

Given the whirlwind confusion and trauma of the night’s battle, it is unsurprising that Speakman could explain little about it and recalled few details, even though he fought for a remarkable six hours: His first post-battle memory was waking in hospital in Japan. He was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross – the highest award for gallantry in battle that the UK can bestow.

Although more Britons were killed in Korea than in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghan conflicts combined, just four VCs were awarded in the three-year war. One went to Colonel James Carne, commander of the “Glorious Glosters,” a battalion that was annihilated after a desperate three-day stand against a Chinese division.

Two were posthumous. Both were granted to soldiers taking part in actions very similar to Speakman’s.

Major Kenny Muir of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders won his when, after his battalion had been mistakenly napalm bombed by the US Air Force, he led 12 men to hold off counter-attacking North Korean troops. He was killed directing a last-ditch defence which won time for the smoking wounded to be evacuated. Lieutenant Philip Curtis of the Glosters won his by single-handedly taking out a Chinese position that had pinned down his overrun company, enabling survivors to escape. (In a tragic footnote, his men subsequently learned that Curtis had volunteered for Korea after losing his wife and baby in childbirth.)

War and peace

Uncomfortable with the fame of being the only living Korean War VC – Muir and Curtis were dead; Carne was in a POW camp – Speakman volunteered for a second tour in Korea. After that conflict wound down, he joined special forces and served in Malaya, hunting Chinese communists through the jungle.

But although he denied ever suffering from post-traumatic stress, he was a troubled man.

A heavy drinker, near the end of his two decades of military service, he was convicted of stealing. He married three times and divorced three times. Broke, he sold his VC to subsidize repairs to the roof of his house. (He would later obtain a replica.) He joined the Merchant Navy, and subsequently moved to South Africa, where he worked in security, before returning to the UK in his twilight years.

And he mellowed. He gave up drinking, and felt no hatred toward his former foes. “You can’t have enmity,” he said of the Chinese. “In this day and age, you have to get on with people, we are so cosmopolitan now, even in our own country. It’s nice to have them.”

Invited to visit Korea by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, he was amazed and moved at the progress the formerly war-shattered nation had achieved. An agrarian, peasant economy in the 1950s, South Korea was a high-tech powerhouse and thriving democracy by the millennium.

“They have made South Korea into a wonderful place,” Speakman would enthuse to a comrade, as recalled by British Ambassador to Korea Simon Smith. “It was worth it going over there. I really do love Korea and its people.”

On his last trip, in 2015, the craggy, wheelchair-bound warrior was photographed hugging Korean children. At a ceremony in his honor, he donated his medals (in fact replicas) to the Minister of Patriot’s and Veterans Affairs. “I decided before I died I would do something with this VC,” Speakman said. “Because it originated in South Korea, I thought it had to come back to South Korea.”

The set is today displayed at Seoul’s War Memorial.

‘Welcome back’

Four relatives accompanied Speakman’s ashes to Korea. They were greeted at Incheon International Airport by a South Korean honor guard and the Minister of Patriots’ and Veterans Affairs. A letter from President Moon Jae-in was read out.

In 2015, Speakman had asked to have his ashes scattered over the Imjin River, the strategic valley that ran through the war like a blood meridian; Hill 217, or Mount Maryang, today lies just miles north of it, in the DMZ. However, ash scatterings are illegal in South Korea. As a compromise, he was laid to rest at the UN Cemetery in Busan.

“His life changed here [in Korea] so it is only fitting that he lies here now,” his daughter Susie, one of the visiting relatives, told Asia Times. “It was Dad’s final wish, and it is great to see him on his way.”

Members of his family bury the ashes of Bill Speakman, VC. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

His funeral was attended by local veterans, officers of the UN Command and diplomats. A piper’s lament was played and wreaths were laid by diplomats, ministers and generals  A salute was fired as his ashes were lowered into the grave.  .

“The most fitting place for him to be was with his former comrades,” said his son Caspar, referring to the 885 British soldiers buried in Busan – including fellow VC holders Curtis and Muir.

Members of the Speakman family at the UN Cemetery in Busan, with a bagpiper from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who had flown from the UK for the occasion. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Local school children gave gifts to the Speakman family and laid wreaths. National media was in attendance and Speakman’s return did not escape the attention of netizens,

“RIP, sir,” wrote Sung-min Lee, a restaurateur and former soldier on a social media post. “And welcome back.”

The British sector of the UN Cemetery, Busan, South Korea. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Join the Conversation

594 Comments

  1. After going over a number of the articles on your website, I truly like your technique of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back in the near future. Please check out my website too and tell me how you feel.|

  2. Hi! I’ve been following your website for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the excellent job!|

  3. Spot on with this write-up, I actually believe this site needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the info!|

  4. Hi! I understand this is somewhat off-topic however I had to ask. Does building a well-established website like yours require a large amount of work? I’m completely new to writing a blog however I do write in my diary on a daily basis. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my personal experience and views online. Please let me know if you have any recommendations or tips for new aspiring bloggers. Thankyou!|

  5. Interesting blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A design like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my blog stand out. Please let me know where you got your theme. Kudos|

  6. I think this is one of the most vital info for me. And i am glad reading your article. But want to remark on few general things, The web site style is wonderful, the articles is really excellent : D. Good job, cheers|

  7. Nice post. I study one thing more difficult on totally different blogs everyday. It should always be stimulating to learn content material from other writers and apply slightly one thing from their store. I’d choose to use some with the content on my weblog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll provide you with a link on your net blog. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Thanks on your marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you may be a great author. I will make certain to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back from now on. I want to encourage yourself to continue your great work, have a nice morning!|

  9. Hello, There’s no doubt that your web site may be having browser compatibility problems. Whenever I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine however, if opening in IE, it has some overlapping issues. I merely wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other than that, great blog!|

  10. Hi there very nice site!! Guy .. Excellent .. Amazing .. I’ll bookmark your web site and take the feeds additionally? I’m happy to find a lot of helpful information right here within the submit, we want develop extra strategies in this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .|

  11. Have you given any kind of thought at all with converting your current web-site into French? I know a couple of of translaters here that will would certainly help you do it for no cost if you want to get in touch with me personally.

  12. I’m really enjoying the design and layout of your website. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more pleasant for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a developer to create your theme? Outstanding work!|

  13. Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely useful info specially the last part 🙂 I care for such info a lot. I was looking for this certain info for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.|

  14. Hey! I realize this is sort of off-topic however I needed to ask. Does building a well-established blog such as yours require a massive amount work? I am completely new to running a blog however I do write in my diary on a daily basis. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my own experience and thoughts online. Please let me know if you have any kind of suggestions or tips for new aspiring blog owners. Thankyou!|

  15. It is really a great and useful piece of info. I’m glad that you shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.|

  16. Most often since i look for a blog Document realize that the vast majority of blog pages happen to be amateurish. Not so,We can honestly claim for which you writen is definitely great and then your webpage rock solid.

  17. Have you given any kind of thought at all with converting your current web-site into French? I know a couple of of translaters here that will would certainly help you do it for no cost if you want to get in touch with me personally.

  18. hello there and thank you for your info – I’ve certainly picked up anything new from right here. I did however expertise several technical points using this site, since I experienced to reload the website a lot of times previous to I could get it to load correctly. I had been wondering if your web host is OK? Not that I’m complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will often affect your placement in google and can damage your high quality score if advertising and marketing with Adwords. Well I am adding this RSS to my email and can look out for much more of your respective intriguing content. Ensure that you update this again soon.|

  19. Having read this I believed it was really enlightening. I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this informative article together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!|

  20. I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post’s to be exactly I’m looking for. Do you offer guest writers to write content to suit your needs? I wouldn’t mind publishing a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write concerning here. Again, awesome site!|

  21. Just desire to say your article is as astounding. The clarity in your post is just spectacular and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the rewarding work.|

  22. Does your site have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating it but, I’d like to send you an email. I’ve got some suggestions for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it develop over time.|

  23. Hey there! I know this is kind of off-topic but I had to ask. Does running a well-established blog such as yours take a massive amount work? I’m brand new to writing a blog however I do write in my diary every day. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my own experience and views online. Please let me know if you have any recommendations or tips for new aspiring blog owners. Appreciate it!|

  24. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back down the road. All the best|

  25. Hi! Do you know if they make any plugins to safeguard against hackers? I’m kinda paranoid about losing everything I’ve worked hard on. Any recommendations?|

  26. You have made some good points there. I looked on the net for additional information about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this website.|

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *