As British war veterans gather in Korea to mark the anniversary of the battle of the Imjin River, Jennifer Barclay reviews a recently republished eye-witness account of the early months of the war.
Cry Korea is the most unusual book I’ve read about the Korean War.
While interviewing British veterans of that war, I’m often upbraided for my ignorance when it comes to the literature, but frankly I find it all a bit, well, military. Company A manoeuvred into a central position to outflank the platoon and retreated to Position C where it joined the rearguard whatsit and I’m completely and utterly lost. Like Max Hastings’ weighty tome on the subject, they are simply not for the casual reader.
Reginald Thompson, born 1904, established himself as a war correspondent during World War Two. He enjoyed champagne and thought a lot about the atom bomb. He covered the Korean frontline for the Daily Telegraph for the first four months and this personal account reveals much about the life of a war correspondent in 1950, when the face of war seemed to be changing and when copy didn’t always reach home. More than that, it gives a rare glimpse into a country at the start of half a century of division.
With an immediate style and poetic sensibility, at its best Cry Korea is immensely readable, elegant and compelling, occasionally Hemingway-esque: ‘We had a wash and brush-up aboard, and they gave us a meal in the junior warrant officers’ mess, and it was a good meal.’ An American photographer, seeing he has nothing to read, ‘casually tore his paperbacked book in two pieces and gave one to me. It was the last half of a collection of de Maupassant’s short stories, and I doubt whether there could be anything more valuable to a journalist than to read de Maupassant at such a time.’
Thompson is never self-important, and lets you in on secrets. Finding himself in a United Nations ship in Incheon within 24 hours of the landing by United States marines, he is delighted that he’ll get scoop coverage; he wakes at three in the morning to the ringing of a telephone, forgets he’s in a top bunk and takes a dive onto the concrete floor.
He paints a vivid picture of the wardroom ‘overcrowded with correspondents, typewriters clacking away on knees and every available table corner, mattresses on the floor.’ But their copy took second place to operational stuff, so it stacked up until out of date. Meanwhile, the news agency chiefs aboard as guests of General MacArthur had telephones direct to Tokyo.
Unlike most of the servicemen who went to Korea aged 19, 20 and 21, Thompson was already a man of some experience, having lived and worked in South America and Australia before his second world war service in Europe. He is openly contemptuous of the American soldiers, ‘trigger happy’ with their automatic weapons, ‘gook-getters’ many of them, who never saw the Koreans as people. His distaste borders on prim when he talks of the Americans shovelling food in their mouths, never cleaning their boots, swearing, seldom shaving. As for their leaders, he believes they mishandle every situation, especially their slow advance through a barely-defended Seoul, destroying everything as they go.
Most of all, his abhorrence for the new form of warfare is deep and unmistakable. Thompson has seen too much by 1950 of the way twentieth century war desolates whole communities facelessly, inflicting ‘veritable mass productions of death’, leaving masses of people to trudge along roadsides with the bundles that are all that remain of their lives.
The Korean countryside clearly delights him, with its lovely terraced hillsides, ‘the brilliant scarlet of the ripe pimentos in the midst of the green and grey foliage… the tiles of the roofs upcurled at eaves and corners like the toes of oriental slippers… the women wore bright colours, crimson and the pale pink of water melon flesh, and vivid emerald green…’ He watches villages where peasants work ‘harvesting the tall ripe sorghum, unmindful of the war which was about to envelop them.’
The next day, an infantry division had moved over this land, and ‘the bright colours were gone from field and female under the dust pall.’ The advance continued slowly, ‘calling for air and artillery support to break every road block and to blast every building…out of existence.’ Prisoners were taken, stripped naked, marched down roadsides… As Seoul lay burning, the saving of the Korean people took on a terrible and bitter flavour. Yet the people ran to grasp their hands, tears streaming down their faces, sobbing thanks to the liberators.
This is powerful reading.
Thompson, who had quickly grown to despise General MacArthur for his arrogant and relentless control of the news, is contemptuous of his victory speech full of religious rhetoric: ‘One correspondent cabled the lot including the Lord’s Prayer in full at 1s.1.5d. a word.’
It was estimated that fifty thousand civilians had died by the time the UN troops took Seoul. Meanwhile, the North Korean army escaped into the hills. ‘The trap had closed, and it was empty.’ From there the United Nations troops would continue into North Korea, until the enemy reappeared in an unrecognizable form, swelled by the Chinese who would prolong the war for two more years.
‘We did not know then that this was but a foretaste, a first instalment, of the horrible price the people of Korea would presently be called upon to pay. We thought it was over — and it had only just begun.’
From then until he is recalled only four months into the war, Thompson spends much effort trying to cadge a lift in dodgy jeeps to follow the action, and in the second half the book does become baggy and meandering, perhaps overly personal.
But it is worth the read for those details that you get nowhere else. He describes an abandoned hut, where bowls of rice have been laid out, and the ‘huge Korean earthenware storage jars, almost large enough to house the forty thieves’, the tatami mats and the furniture, ‘cheaply made, but with a certain taste and refinement’. And on a bridge, finding notices soliciting custom for after the war: ‘You are crossing the river by courtesy of – Coy Engineers’.
The North Koreans, ‘certainly as politically unconscious as their South Korean brothers’, simply wanted to get on with their lives. He reflected that if the United Nations truly wanted to protect and guide South Korea towards a democracy, this must imply at least a long occupation: “I could not believe in American ‘democracy’, and I could not believe that all her missionary zeal to propagate a ‘way of life’ to which she herself aspires but dimly could result in anything but disaster for the ‘saved’”. General Douglas MacArthur’s cries of ‘home for Christmas’ not only aroused impossible hopes in his men but alarmed him: ‘Seldom in the history of warfare can any appreciation of a situation have been more wrong’.
Outspoken and full of observations with import still today, Cry Korea is a must-read for anyone interested in war reporting and in the realities of the Korean conflict in which 60,000 British servicemen and women served, and helps us to comprehend the little-understood situation in Korea. Reportage Press have done a public service by making available again this rare and valuable account.
Jennifer Barclay is author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi