Their shoulders held the sky suspended — A. E. Housman
PAJU, SOUTH KOREA – Exactly 70 years ago, Hill 235, overlooking a narrow road in South Korea’s Imjin Valley, 35 miles north of Seoul, was a scene of chaos and bloodshed.
The ground at the foot of the hill was a mass of wrecked and burnt-out vehicles. Its lower slopes were piled with the bodies of Chinese troops, killed as they advanced into the fire of artillery and massed automatic weapons.
And on its summit, a decimated battalion of British troops, cut off from all friendly forces, held out in all-round defense against 9-1 odds.
Exactly seventy years later, on Thursday, April 22, the memorial park set at the foot of a 235-meter hill just outside the village of Jeokseong, in the county of Paju, south of the DMZ, was quiet — unusually quiet.
Usually, on the anniversary of the battle — which was fought from April 22-April 25 1951 — the park’s plaza is abuzz with uniformed troops, bandsmen, be-suited VIPs and members of the expatriate community.
The seats of honor are occupied by aging veterans of the 1950-53 Korean War — both locals and be-medalled visitors from the UK and the Commonwealth, who are flown in at the expense of the South Korean government.
Not in 2021. Though major commemorations had been planned for the 70th anniversary, Covid-19 put paid to that.
As a result, the crowd was sparse: VIPs, serving solders, a handful of expatriates and just a single aging veteran — a local who had served with British forces during the war.
Speeches were given, a South Korean Army Band played and the Last Post was sounded.
But the most moving eulogy was delivered, via Internet link on a giant screen set up specially for the occasion, by a veteran of the battle, speaking via live Internet link from the UK.
“I feel sad — and it is unfortunate — that veterans are not here today for the big commemoration,” Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs Hwang Ki-chul told Asia Times. “But we remember them.”
Indeed. South Korea’s national existence is owed to those who fought for it between 1950-53 — and few nations remember, and honor — foreign veterans as generously as this one.
A wartime tragedy is memorialized
The memorial park — complete with a wall of honor, a giant reproduction of a soldier’s beret and statues of troops on patrol — commemorates the bloodiest British action of the three-year struggle: The Battle of the Imjin River, fought from April 22-April 25, 1951.
The action was fought at the key breakthrough point of the biggest Chinese offensive of the war — an attack so massive it has been dubbed “The Armageddon North of Seoul.”
For three desperate nights, the UK’s 29th Infantry Brigade — four infantry battalions, with attached armor and artillery — held off China’s entire 63rd Army, comprising 24 battalions.
Hill 235 was the site of the last stand fought by 29th Brigade’s Gloster battalion — named after the county it recruits from in southwest England — who had been surrounded by Chinese forces. They were finally overwhelmed on the morning of 25 April.
“We come here, every year, to this extraordinarily peaceful, beautiful piece of countryside that is today so tranquil,” UK Ambassador to Korea Simon Smith told Asia Times. “But we are aware of the ghastly things that happened here.”
Today, the memorial park below Hill 234 — since renamed “Gloster Hill” — serves as the de facto commemoration site for all British troops who served in the three-year war.
“I had heard that the UK was a kingdom of gentlemen,” said one young Korean soldier of the 25th Infantry Division, which today holds the ground formerly held by the British troops in April 1951. “But now, I want to say they are a country of brothers.”
But though a union flag flies over it, not a penny of the cost of the park — close to $1 million — was paid for by the British government. It was funded entirely by voluntary donations from the citizens of Paju, the county in which it lies, and unveiled in 2014.
A nation remembers
South Korea in the 1950s was an economic basket case ruled by an authoritarian government. Post-war, it made all the right moves. In addition to winning full democracy, its zero-to-hero economic trajectory — last year, it entered the ranks of G10 economies — means it can afford to be generous to the men who fought for it.
Through 2019, the MPVA has invited over 33,400 veterans and their family members back to the country, Hwang said. Seoul pays for their flights, accommodation, food and transport in South Korea.
“The reception the Koreans give to veterans is like none other in the world,” said Charlotte O’Kane, a British widow of a Korean War veteran who is active in veterans’ affairs. “They are so thankful.”
Retired British soldiers — and those of other nations of the US-led UN Command, which defended South Korea against both North Korea and China — who return to the veterans’ visits say they receive a warmer reception than on any of the other battlegrounds.
“They venerate us, we really are welcome there,” added Tommy Clough, 90, a survivor of Hill 235, who spoke to Asia Times by telephone from the UK. “They really are grateful for what the UN Command did back in the ‘50s.”
The tour buses that convey them around the war sites often raise cheers. On the streets, they are especially warmly greeted by the older generation.
And meeting the cheery, noisy, upbeat children of today — a stark contrast to the often-silent, traumatized and orphaned children of the war years — is often a deeply moving experience for the old soldiers.
“It’s all high-fives from the kids,” said Clough.
With Covid-19 being particularly dangerous for senior citizens, last year, the MPVA — leveraging the services of the Korean diplomatic services and its armed forces — distributed Covid-19 masks to veterans around the world.
Hwang says that his ministry is currently working on producing educational materials to raise awareness about the Korean War among the younger generation.
‘The Forgotten War’
But despite the efforts of bodies like the MPVA and Paju’s local government, in many countries that deployed troops to fight under the war banner of the UN Command, the war is forgotten or unknown.
Korea did not feature in Western popular culture the way Word War II and Vietnam did; there are few noteworthy novels or movies covering it. As a result, it is dubbed, “The Forgotten War.”
And as the wartime generation fades away, so, too, do the memories of the veterans’ experiences
“Sadly we are coming to the end of remembrance,” said O’Kane. “We need to take very possible opportunity to get the memories of those veterans who are still with us.”
But Korea was a particularly cruel war.
Starting out as a civil war that pitted brother against brother, it spiralled into a Cold War clash between east and west.
For UN Command soldiers, the nature of the combat was particularly traumatic. Battles raged over harsh terrain, often in extreme weather, against a determined enemy who deployed close range mass attacks, usually at night.
Many veterans, to this day, are unwilling to speak of their nightmare experiences.
“Many are not willing to talk, sad to say, so their families have no idea of what happened,” O’Kane, who is herself the widow of a Korean War veteran, said. “Once we lose them, those memories are lost forever.”
Looking to posterity
Hwang is determined that that will not happen. “We will expand our veterans’ affairs activities into cultural activities,” he vowed. “We are planning to produce educational materials for all levels of schools, and also for teacher training.”
The country is also raising Korean War memorials not just in Korea, but in locations worldwide. A new Korean War memorial is currently in the works in Washington DC.
“We will do our best to make the Korean War veterans proud,” he said. “Even after they have passed away.”
But there is no denying that the 70th anniversary events planned for 2020 and 2021 would have been a “last hurrah” for many veterans.
The ravages of time mean that South Koreans must cope with the fact that their oldest and firmest friends are now passing into darkness.
“I am truly sorry that our veterans are getting old, and their health conditions are deteriorating,” said Hwang. “However it is our duty to ensure that their sacrifice is remembered … many veterans did not even know this country, but they fought for our freedom.”
Many veterans believe that the freedom they fought to defend — and the great leaps South Korea took in its national development after their sacrifices — made their war a just one.
“I have got mixed feelings, but I think the war was worthwhile, eventually,” Clough said. “South Korea is different to North Korea.”
The anniversary of the battle “brings it all back” Clough said.
And amid grim recalls — of the sufferings of refugees struggling through south through winter snows, the devastation of cities, towns and villages and the deaths of so, so many — the 90-year-old lives in hopes of a final resolution.
“What veterans would like to see is North and South Korea reunited peacefully,” said Clough. “I’d love to see it before I die.”