Today, 27 July, is the anniversary of the end of the Korean War in 1953 – a war in which millions died, and which only ended with a ceasefire, Korea remaining divided by a heavily guarded border for fifty-five years now. Jennifer Barclay marks the occasion.
He was eighteen years old, with two years of national service ahead of him. After eighteen weeks of training at Woking, they were off on the troop ship. Like many of his comrades, he hadn’t heard of Korea before. ‘We knew that the communist North Korea was likely to take over the country and the western world should resist the spread of this evil regime and protect the people of this “Land of the Morning Calm”… You just got on with the job you were trained to do.’
It took five weeks to get there by troop ship, and they arrived, somewhat apprehensive, at the docks in Pusan in August 1951. The war was then 12 months old.
‘There were no civilians on the docks but there was a welcoming band (provided by the US military) and plenty of streamers, we thought everything was going to be a sort of picnic holiday and the war would be over very soon.’
The Battle of the Imjin River had taken place in April, and was one of the most decisive points in the Korean War. The Chinese forces attacked the UN line, which was mostly defended by the British. Over six hundred British soldiers were left killed, wounded or missing, many were taken prisoner, mainly from the Gloster Regiment – but they severely blunted the Chinese offensive.
The job of the Royal Military Police was security: controlling traffic, patrolling the sector and providing close protection to VIPs such as the General commanding the division.
‘We manned the bridges over the river. The river was spanned by a single line bridge with one person on either side communicating by hand operated telephones. We also had to monitor the prisoners of war – they were captured by the infantry and handed over to us on the bridges to be transferred to a holding post in Seoul. Then there were the night patrols on villages…’
As police, they would inspect these no-go areas for troops who’d gone out of bounds to raid the villages for ‘young ladies’. They also escorted the British wounded to holding places and manned camouflaged roads, which were covered with netting so that it looked like greenery to allow the tanks and supplies to get through, until the Chinese got wind of it and shelled it.
He would spend 15 months in Korea. ‘In Afghanistan and Iraq these days you only do six months at a time. But there it was like the Second World War – once you got there, you were there for the duration of your service!’
Being responsible for the roads, they had to pick up refugees who were in danger walking through a war zone. ‘One of the most satisfying things was when we’d pick up children who’d been orphaned, who’d been detached from their villages… They’d be barefoot, with no food, like you see in Darfur today. We’d take them to safety. It would be interesting to know if those children are still alive, if people today in Korea remember being rescued.’
In the North, the civilian population stayed in their dugouts, in pits, and the war went on around them; there was no evacuation. ‘They had nowhere to go – they were very, very poor – and a lot got accidentally killed, which was never broadcast.’ The Chinese and North Korean dead were buried on the spot. It was difficult for them to know who was Chinese and who was North Korean, he says, but most of the North Korean army was annihilated.
‘I have two very vivid recollections. Ask any veteran and they’ll tell you – the cold! We were living in dugouts and tents, and it got down to minus twenty, minus thirty – the winter in 1951 was particularly bad. But it was a dry cold,’ he says lightly. ‘Crispy cold… Freezing cold!’ They couldn’t light fires because the smoke would give them away, so they improvised, creating heaters out of petrol cans. ‘And we relied very much on the Americans and Canadians, who provided us with extra food and clothing – they had much better equipment.’
‘The other thing you remember – the rats! With troops living in dugouts and trenches, and the way cans and foods were disposed of, it encouraged rats. Oh, and also the noise! There were howitzers going over our heads, and of course when you’re eighteen you don’t wear ear plugs… Many veterans now suffer from bad hearing.’
‘But it was very pleasant in the summer,’ he says. Between the horrific times, there were pauses in the battle, for example when negotiations for a peace deal were happening. They’d play sports, have parades and attend variety shows.
‘Stars came out from the UK, and we had to look after them – especially the girls! There were no women, you see… We didn’t have women in the army in those days. Only nurses, and they were great! Relief from the war was by way of being flown from Kimpo airport to American occupied Tokyo for R&R or rest and recuperation – a change of uniform, a good bath, and plenty of good sleeps.’
He particularly remembers the Korean people being very friendly and appreciative of the British contribution to the war. ‘We obviously did miss home but were able to write letters almost daily and the postal system was very efficient, although sometimes batches of letters would come all at once… Occasionally a parcel of home comforts would arrive, and these were most welcome! I think the comradeship, the sharing of each others’ thoughts, parcels and letters became the norm.
‘We came back home on the troop ship from Pusan, via all the lovely places: Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, through the Red Sea, along the Suez Canal. It was quite a nice cruise! But it was a great relief to sail up Southampton Water… All the families had come to meet us.’
Having spent most of his National Service in Korea, he returned home with many memories and a few souvenirs, two years older and ‘a lot wiser, a changed person from the young Military Policeman that left England… Fortunately, my old job was available and my girlfriend was still waiting!’ She later became his wife; and after recovering from a spell of malaria, he found a more challenging career in sales with the Bowater Organisation, where he stayed for almost forty-three years.
The British Korean Veterans Association has about four thousand members, most of who are now in their seventies. Peter formed the Surrey West branch himself, though he tends not to go to many parades any more. ‘After my hip operation I find it a bit exhausting to walk distances of more than a couple of miles!’
The memorial at the Imjin River is still visited every year by veterans for a commemorative service. He went in 1995 with his wife for a week, and was happily surprised to be surrounded by Korean schoolchildren asking for his autograph. He remarks on the generosity of the Korean people.
‘The transformation of the country was remarkable. I did not recognise the places. I remember the Han River when you could walk across it! It was tidal, you see, and didn’t have dams in those days. Now there are dams all the way to the sea, as on the Thames. But then it was just a little stream, with pontoon bridges across it. Now there are highways along the river bank… The one bridge that was never demolished was the railway bridge, it’s still there. The cathedrals seemed to survive, as cathedrals tend to – think of Dresden and Cologne.’
He remembers going to church once in Seoul during the war. ‘All the women wore traditional dress. There was very little western dress in those days, except a few academics. In all the villages, people wore the traditional creamy white dress, and the men carried bales of rice on A-frames, like rucksacks, all wood. And they wore the big round hats, and baggy trousers – they weren’t in touch with the outside world.’
As I speak to Peter, he’s sitting in his study, surrounded by mementoes – pictures on the wall of meetings with defence attachés when he was Korean Liaison Officer of the veterans association. Last year he had an email from a man in Perth, Western Australia, who was in the same unit and had found him through the BKVA website.
‘Dusty, we called him, and he emailed me and said have you got Skype? We’d chat quite frequently and I went to stay, marched on Anzac Day, and they made me an honorary member of the Western Australia branch of the Royal Military Police Association.’ The photo of their meeting made it into the local paper and then the BKVA Morning Calm magazine and in response he received a whole lot of communications and photos from other RMP veterans.
‘They all look a little older now, but it’s amazing how faces don’t change very much,’ he says, reflectively. ‘Bodies change, but you can still see that they’re the same people as they were at eighteen in Korea.’