‘We lived on what you feed pigs, sorghum, and it was full of weevils. You had to cook it first and then take the weevils out, ’cause you couldn’t catch them when they were alive.’
On 25 April 1951 after the desperate three-day battle of the Imjin River, Hampshire man Bob Warrior was captured and held as a prisoner of war in North Korea. He’s one of the few still alive who remember those years; 60,000 British servicemen and women, mostly teenagers, served in Korea, with over a thousand losing their lives. Jennifer Barclay interviews him about it.
Robert Warrior went to Korea at the age of 21. He had joined the army as a regular, signing up to the Hampshire regiment, posted to Egypt and then Jamaica, where they were amalgamated with the Glosters. On the ship it took six weeks to get to Busan, arriving in December 1950.
‘It wasn’t a big place. And they were lining up collaborators and shooting them, only we weren’t allowed to see that.’
By then it was becoming clear that the Incheon landing and subsequent United Nations offensive had not conclusively won the war. Early in 1951 they took a train to Seoul, and went over the 38th Parallel on Centurion tanks, which saw their first action in Korea. The country was rugged hills covered with oaks and pine.
‘We never saw no-one. The Koreans up there were hiding. Conditions were terrible. We were in tents, two in a tent, and it was forty below. We used to have the little lamps to heat tins of beans, and we kept them on in the tent to keep a bit warm.’
On 22 April, the Glosters were occupying an extended position south of the Imjin River, holding a critical route. ‘We were ‘A’ Company, right at the front… headquarters was about two miles back. We went down to the river on a recce, and heard a lot of noise.
‘Twelve midnight the battle started, fighting all night we were. There were hundreds of Chinese and Koreans in the river, dying in the river – they couldn’t get by us.’ Some spoke of the river running red with the slaughter.
‘We lost 14 blokes that night, and ten the next day… We were waiting to be told to get off the hill. At the back of us was a sheer drop. A chap beside me got shot through the neck and we dragged him down the hill, but then we saw he’d stopped breathing – it was early in the morning and in the cold air you could see – so we left him.’
‘A’ Company was isolated and suffered the worst, though Chinese casualties were estimated to be 15 to 20 times greater. They believed the enemy could be held off until a relieving force arrived.
‘Our guns were Vickers, water-cooled they were, they seize up if the water runs out. We were there on the hill for three nights, we ran out of food and water – we couldn’t drink the water because the guns came first. I was on a rocket launcher. The Chinese were three, four hundred yards away, and our hut was down there with our ammunition. “Put a shot down there, Warrior,” I was told – and I blew it to smithereens.’
It was a race against time. But on 25 April, the airdrop never materialised as the countryside was covered in mist. Tired, hungry and without water, with little ammunition and their wireless batteries running down, they realised their desperate situation.
‘Then the Chinese came up under the mist – we’d ran out of ammunition anyway – and they said “put your hands up”. And they put us in a hole, which was the gun emplacement for artillery, it was 14 foot deep, and we thought – that’s it.
‘But then they chucked in bread and water and we realised we were going to be kept alive. We were all taken prisoner, five hundred of us.’ And so began his time as a POW in North Korea.
‘They didn’t believe in the Geneva Convention or the Red Cross. We marched from April until November, all the way to the Manchurian border – we only marched at night times, because they knew the Yanks would strafe us in the day, they wouldn’t know who we were. Once I was helping a friend who was wounded badly, and they knocked all my teeth out and they killed him. They’d been taught by the Japanese, the Koreans had, that’s where they got their barbarism from. The Chinese had a lenient policy – enjoy Communism and you won’t go wrong.
‘The officers, they said behave, do what you’re told. They were then taken away but we remembered and did what we were told. And the reservists that had been POWs in World War Two, they told us what to do, to behave.
‘We lived in a North Korean village, Chong-song, and it was lousy – bugs and everything. There were ten, fifteen of us in a hut, all lying on the floor, which was mud, and you had to light a fire underneath to warm the mud, the floor. The Siberian wind used to come down and by god, it was cold. We had to go and get wood, namu was the word, we had to get a log each to saw up and carry it miles back – by the time you got it back, it weighed a ton!
‘We lived on what you feed pigs, sorghum, and it was full of weevils. You had to cook it first and then take the weevils out, ’cause you couldn’t catch them when they were alive. The guards were not too bad. You could see the Yalu River and they shouted at us when we ran down to the river to get seaweed for the iron, but they didn’t shoot at us – mind you, they probably had no ammunition! The Chinese ate rice and kimchi that they’d eat out of a big communal bowl. We had nothing like that – just pig food. We had dysentery, beri-beri, malnutrition… The Americans died more than us, they couldn’t take the food.
‘We were brainwashed – they told us the American imperialists were dropping germ warfare, they said it to brainwash us – we never did know if it was true or not. On Mayday, Stalin’s birthday, they killed a pig, a huge big sow, and we each got a little cube, size of half a crown apiece. They wanted to convert us, the Chinese. They taught us things once a day, and once a day we forgot it… But three or four ended up going to China.
‘We had a pack of cards, we talked, walked round and round and round, it was a mile and a half around the camp. We’d chat together. We were there for two and a half years, and near the end they let the American Red Cross in. For Mayday the Chinese gave us a football and we had running and football while the Red Cross were there – then they took it away, it was all propaganda, for show. The Chinese took photos to show we were being looked after.
‘We got released in August 1953, something like that, and I was the last out with a name like Warrior – it was alphabetical, there were so many of us, you see. We marched right through Pyongyang, which was flat. The Australians welcomed us back to Pusan, and we were sent to Japan for 31 days, then home on the Empress of Australia.
‘My mum was waiting in Southampton. It was nearly a year before mum knew I was a POW, before that I was ‘presumed killed’. The Chinese didn’t say how many were killed and how many were POWs. It was finally in the News of the World nearly a year later.
‘If it had been a war, we’d have got compensation. It’s called the Korean ‘War’, but apparently it was just a ‘conflict’, not a war, so there was no compensation. Maybe when there’s only two or three of us left, we’ll get it.’
Back at home, he worked as a slaughter-man for 32 years in Chichester. ‘As much liver as you can eat!’ He was married for 47 years, and he has a son and two daughters in Portsmouth.
He keeps in touch with other British Korean War Veterans in Petersfield and Southampton and Bournemouth. ‘I go to army meetings regularly.’ He returned to Korea for a visit in 2005, and was asked to lay a wreath, being the only POW on the trip. ‘Very good the people were to us, put us up in a five star hotel – well, we had to pay for it though, the lottery paid so much and we had to pay the rest, eight hundred pound.’ It’s astonishing that a pensioner would spend so much to go back to the place where he spent a grim few years.
‘You can still see the road we walked up at Imjin River, all the trenches still there.
‘I can remember it all. Sometimes my mind’s a blank when I go into town these days and I can’t remember what it is I’ve gone into town for, but I can remember all that.’
- To the Last Round, a new book about the Imjin by Andrew Salmon
- Jennifer Barclay’s review of Cry Korea and interview with war veteran Peter Poole
- British Heroes return – Ambassador Martin Uden’s blog, 20 April 2009
Jennifer Barclay is author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi