Understandably, the agreement of the Singapore Summit on the recovery of the bodies of US military from sites in North Korea has attracted less public interest than the denuclearisation issue. Ian Crawford, National President of National Korea Veterans Association, points to the significant losses Australia suffered in the harsh conditions of the Korean War and particularly attention to the 44 Australians killed in the war in its various phases whose bodies have still to be located. Some could well be discovered in the process of implementing the Singapore agreement. Ian has been actively engaged in the long running working groups between Australia and the relevant US authorities on this issue.
In the outcome of the Singapore summit it is relevant to recall the strategic circumstances leading to the Korean War, very well covered by Dr Robert O’Neill in Australia in the Korean War 1950-53, and how the factors, some of them of longstanding relevance to East Asia, may still need to be considered. Factors which encouraged Kim Il-sung to believe that America was not committed to the security of South Korea were the line taken by Secretary of State Dean Acheson in a speech where he defined the defensive perimeter in the Pacific that did not appear to include Korea and the Congressional blockage of an aid Bill. Could the prospect of the removal of American troops encourage a similar perception?
The Korean War has often been overlooked and became known as the Forgotten War. Also, because President Truman had to respond immediately to the North Korea attack without a formal Congressional authority for a declaration of war, he had to call it a police action; for some for a conflict, when four million people died over three years this persisted. With the growing recognition of what happened these terms have been removed.
Right from the time of increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula Australia responded in May, 1950 to the United Nations Commission on Korea’s request for observers to report on the situation between North and South Korea. The report of Major Stuart Peach and Squadron Leader Ronald Rankin delivered on the day before North Korean units pushed into South Korea across the 38th parallel provided the evidence needed to permit the United Nations Security Council’s resolution.
Of the 17,000 Australians who served in Korea in 1950-1956 probably only 3,000 remain alive today, recognising that 13,000 fought during the combat period 1950-53 and over 4,000 were in Korea between the Armistice and 1956 to reinforce to China and North Korea the determination to secure the independence of the Republic of Korea. Casualties were: deaths during the combat period 1950-53: 340, of whom 44 are still with no known grave; wounded: 1,216; prisoners of war: 29. In the post-armistice period 18 died.
The Korean War is identified by distinct phases.
First there was the withdrawal to the Pusan perimeter, then the ‘mobility phase’ after the landing at Inchon, the breakout from the Pusan perimeter and during 1950 and 1951 the advances well into North Korea and the withdrawals after the Chinese entry in November 1950.
This was followed in 1951 by the ‘static phase’ when the opposing land forces confronted each other and the contestants awaited the outcome of cease-fire talks, roughly along the line that from 27 July 1953 became the De-militarised Zone,.
For the RAN notable actions were the landing at Inchon (September 1950), the evacuation of Chinnampo (November 1950), the withdrawal from Inchon (January 1951) and the Han Estuary operation. The threats encountered were untethered mines, unmarked shoals, shore batteries and the cold.
With the commencement of truce negotiations in July 1951 HMAS Murchison was one of the force of British, New Zealand, Colombian and South Korean ships assigned for a show of force through naval bombardment of the area in the vicinity of the Kaesong truce talks from the Han River estuary. The operation was amongst the most hazardous of the Korean War.
HMAS Murchison was recognised for the seamanship, gunnery and steadiness under fire of its ship’s company and the leadership, competence and coolness of the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander A.N. Dollard RAN.
HMAS Sydney and its Fleet Air Arm squadrons attacked enemy supply lines and supported allied forces. The RAN was the only navy other than the US Navy and The Royal Navy to deploy a carrier capability in the Korean War.
For the Australian Army notable actions were the battles at Kapyong and Maryang San.
Battle of Kapyong 23-25 April 1951
On the morning of 22 April the Chinese launched a huge offensive across the 8th Army front involving some 300,000 soldiers. In the 27 Brigade sector this offensive was designed to recapture the South Korean capital of Seoul. The Third Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, (3RAR) was the battalion facing North East up the Kapyong Valley.
The Australians held their positions against waves of attacks before finally on 24 April being forced to a fighting withdrawal to reform. The Chinese then turned to a point that the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI) on Hill 677 was defending. After a further 24 hours the Chinese finally ran out of supplies and manpower and withdrew. The South Korean capital of Seoul remained in the hands of UN troops and the Chinese offensive had failed.
The casualty rate for the Chinese must have run into the thousands. 3RAR casualties were 32 KIA, 59 WIA and 3 POW.
3 RAR, 2 PPCLI and Coy A 72 US Heavy Tank Bn were each awarded the United States Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for the Battle of Kapyong
Battle of Maryang San
In late September 1951 in an operation to drive the Chinese forces from the high hills. 3RAR, had the task of capturing the northern feature, Maryang San.
3RAR on 5 October captured Maryang San, attacking along the eastern ridges, and withstood repeated Chinese counter attacks and was relieved on 8 October. 3RAR had destroyed at least two Chinese battalions. The Australian losses were 20 KIA and 89 WIA. The Commonwealth Division Commander, later to become Field-Marshal Sir James Cassels, wrote: “The Battle of Maryang San was one of the finest battalion attacks in British history”.
The last 20 months of the war, ‘the static phase’, involved raids against deeply entrenched Chinese positions and nightly fighting patrols to dominate no-man’s land.
Air Force Operations
77 Squadron RAAF entered the Korean War during the first week of the North Korean aggression with the Mustang fighter and remained in action for the entire war as part of the US 5th Air Force. Airpower was critical in defeating the initial North Korea offensive and the Australian squadron earned the highest reputation in giving close air support to ground forces.
The squadron was re-equipped with Meteor jet fighters in July 1951 but this aircraft proved unsuited to aerial combat against the Soviet-supplied MiG 15 and the Australians reverted to the ground attack role where it continued its fine record. Notwithstanding, RAAF pilots destroyed three MiGs in air-to-air combat.
Dakota transports from 91 Wing carried out airlift for all British Commonwealth forces in Korea and flew some 12,000 sick and wounded from the war zone in medical evacuation flights. In this role the contribution by the RAAF Nursing Service proved invaluable
The Korean winter of 1950-51, still a benchmark for extreme cold when bare hands froze to the metal parts of rifles and sea-spray formed ice on ships’ superstructures, created a demand for Australian wool. With the belief that Korea would escalate to a Third World War the demand for Australia-sourced strategic materials of wool and minerals set the scene for decades of economic prosperity that all Australians shared.
The Korean government has paid respect to and expressed gratitude for the sacrifices of all United Nations Forces personnel who defended the Republic of Korea through many generous commemorative programmes including the Revisit Korea Programme.
The Australian National Korean War Memorial on Anzac Parade was dedicated in April 2000. Later the commemorative purpose of the Memorial was enhanced to include horticultural features of the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, Pusan where at the perimeter there are rows of shaped Korean conifers and at each grave stone there is a planting of Korean box. This environment is now projected to the Australian memorial to permit family members to share some features of the setting, which reflects the sentiment of gratitude and respect.
An ongoing sadness for the Korean War veteran community has been the dead with no known grave. There has been frustration at the lack of progress in locating and identifying the remains of the missing-in-action. With the intervention of the Chief of the Defence Force in 2015 efforts to locate and identify were enhanced by the establishment of a working party for a dialogue between Defence and the MIA family community with representation from veterans and the families. There is progress to agreement with US agencies to assign the same priority to identifying Australians using current technology and comfort from the commitment of the South Korean Defence agency tasked to recover remains. There is also comfort from US and DPRK statements from the Singapore summit concerning priority to recovering POW/MIA remains. The concerns persist about the fate of those who died as POWs and the challenges of the DMZ.
Rear Admiral (ret.) Ian Crawford is National President, Australian Council of Korea Veterans Associations. He served in Korea as an eighteen year old midshipman 1950-1951.