“I’ve met Tom Cruise, and now I’ve met Sam Mercer. And when I met Sam I was truly star-struck. The man’s a legend.” So said a member of the audience at the Korean Cultural Centre after an instructive talk by Andrew Salmon on the battle of the Imjin on 15 July. Sam Mercer was sitting in the front row of the audience, one of the guests of honour at the event. Private Sam Mercer was one of the survivors of the Glosters’ epic stand on Hill 235, though he lost an eye and ultimately a leg in the battle.
A former British ambassador in Pyongyang said he’d been playing chess in Beijing in a public park twenty years ago with a complete stranger. As the conversation progressed, it emerged that his opponent was a retired soldier from the Chinese 63rd Army who had come up against the Glosters at the end of April 1951. The soldier, like most of the troops in that army at the time, had been recruited from the tropical southern provinces of China, while most of the officers were from the north. The thing the Chinese soldier remembered most was the fear (of the Chinese officers and of the enemy), the cold, and the smell. One of the Chinese tactics in the Korean War was to creep up on the enemy close enough to grab him by the belt – this was a way of neutralising the Allies’ overwhelming artillery superiority. But it involved long hours of crawling through muddy ditches, often over the dead bodies of their fallen comrades.
The building up of a picture of the war through talking to veterans who experienced it first-hand is certainly a way of bringing it to life. It’s what Andrew Salmon has been doing as part of his ongoing work on the Korean War. His well-received To The Last Round is full of vivid character portraits and received a warm endorsement from the President of the British Korean Veterans Association, Major General Mike Swindells, on Thursday. Salmon has also been working with Dan Gordon – famous for his three films about North Korea – filming interviews with the veterans in preparation for a full length documentary film about the Imjin to mark its 60th anniversary next year. The funding is in place, but reasonably enough the backers won’t release the funds unless there is a confirmed outlet for the film. Scandalously, the BBC will not commit to screening it. There was general mystification among the audience as to why Britain is happy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain or Dunkirk, but not the 60th of the Korean War – a war that has never finished. And why, in general, the Korean War is known as the Forgotten War when it is so crucial to understanding both the current state of the Korean peninsula and north east Asia more generally.
Salmon is doing his bit. His talk on the early months of the Korean War and sketch of the situation around the Imjin prior to the onslaught by 300,000 Chinese soliders was riveting, even for those already familiar with the background or for those not in to military history. In a talk illustrated with watercolours from artist Kim Seong-hwan (later known as Gobau), contemporary photographs and just the right amount of maps to provide the context without getting bogged down in detail, the time passed very quickly.
And there were plenty of enthusiastic and well-informed questions and comments from the audience – which included a couple of ex-ambassadors and not a few veterans – which meant that without the disciplined chairmanship of EJ Shin we could easily have carried on for a couple of hours. As it was, it was difficult to drag Salmon away from his book signings to the neighbouring pub.
Andrew Salmon’s book on the Imjin has been a success, and he has being trying to follow up with a number of projects. His book on the Chosin Reservoir break-out will be published next year, and he has also been trying to arrange meetings between British war veterans and veterans from China (again, funding is the problem). Sam Mercer stood up. “If I met any of the Chinese soldiers I faced now, I would welcome them with open arms. I bear no malice at all.”
Photographs of the evening kindly provided by EJ Shin of the Korean Cultural Centre.
- Donate to the commemorative display for Imjin 60 at the The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum
- Read Jim Thompson’s account of the evening on the Anglo Korean Society website
- Buy To the Last Round at Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com
- Andrew Salmon’s To the Last Round website