For about four years Bona Shin of Theatre for All has been getting to know some of the British veterans from Korean War, particularly those based in the Virginia Water area; and as she got to know them she decided to collect some of their memories and preserve them in documentary form. The resulting two movies, Korean Undertaker and Not One of the Forgotten, were completed this year and were given a special press screening on the 65th anniversary of the start of the war.
In Korean Undertaker you are reminded that in the military there are many ways of performing you national duty. The central figure in this documentary was working as an undertaker when he was called up for national service, and it was therefore perhaps natural that he was assigned those rather specialist duties when he arrived in Korea. But in a normal undertaker’s practice in civvy street the customers are normally intact – on a battlefield the task of cleaning and composing a damaged corpse for burial is a much more gruesome task. And the undertaker’s role in identifying the body is more important. One challenged faced by Jim Grundy in his duties is that occasionally the North Korean or Chinese forces would switch the identification tags on the corpses, making it impossible to be certain which body was which. Grundy is shown standing beside two tombs in the Busan cemetery – presumably ones that he himself was responsible for – where the inscriptions were nameless because it was uncertain which body was which.
Much of the documentary focuses on Grundy’s life in Manchester where he lives in an apartment block not far from where he was born. We enjoy witnessing the close rapport built between Bona Shin, the instigator of the documentary project, and the veteran himself as they spend a few days together, visiting the local cafe for lunch and socialising with Jim’s ageing chum. Grundy was a leading light in the formation of the British Korean Veterans Association, and volunteered to perform a coordination role with the Busan cemetery that he knows so well: he gathers together photographs of the dead soldiers from their families and sends them to Busan so that there can be permanent photographic records of the soldiers who now lie there.
Grundy enjoys returning to Busan to visit the cemetery, and has built close relationships with many Koreans over the years. In particular he has become an adopted grandfather to one particular family whom he visits each year, and seems to be a well-liked figure wherever he goes.
Not one of the forgotten focuses on various veterans in the Virginia Water branch of the BKVA, recording their meetings and social events and getting closer to some of their family members. There is a sense of warmth in the documentary, again attributable to the time taken by the producer Bona Shin in building a close rapport with the veterans over the years. Perhaps an adverse consequence of this closeness – or maybe of editing deadlines – is the failure to explain adequately the background behind one event that many of the veterans felt very strongly about, namely the decision to wind up the BKVA after the laying up of their national standard in Westminster Abbey. The background is given in the Chairman’s announcement reproduced here, and is certainly understandable in the context of the dwindling membership, but in the documentary it was clear that individual members felt that they had been left without a voice, and determined to continue meeting as previously with or without an official umbrella organisation.
It was good to see so many of the veterans present at the special press screening of the documentaries at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. The documentaries deserve a much wider audience as a reminder of the sacrifices made during the so-called Forgotten War, and as an affectionate tribute to some of its ageing survivors. Thanks are due to Bona Shin and her team for putting together these records of a dwindling population on what must have been an extremely tight budget. The results are well worth it.