|Three Brave Men|
Accounts of the efforts of three brave men, which highlight the maintenance of the spirit of the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, during the static period of the Korea war.
Pre-dawn minefield checking was another form of patrolling. It was generally less hazardous but no less important than recce and fighting patrols, as shellfire frequently destroyed the single marker wire. It was most unfortunate that Lt. Ray Burnard, my talented mate who was as efficient in the line as he had been in training, was one morning caught out by the arrival of daylight while on a minefield check. With regrettable and near fatal results.
While not A company's responsibility for checking, the particular field was well within our area of interest from a defensive point of view. So when in the half light, one of our Diggers who had exceptional eyesight, spotted three figures on our side of the field he called his section-leader. The NCO referred the sighting to Platoon HQ which confirmed to the best of its ability, that the minefield in question was not listed for checking by anyone that morning. It was considered safe to assume that the three distant figures were enemy and fair game for the Bren gunner. He set his sights at 700 yards and fired one burst, laying the target low.
Unbeknown to him, his target was a battalion officer.
Through the efforts of another Battalion Officer, Alec Weaver, I have recently made contact with Ray. The following is his reply to my letter.
"You are the first person to ask about the incident on 16/17 May 53. An event still pretty vivid in my mind. This is what I recall:-
"The checking party comprised a sapper from the British Field Squadron, my signaller and me. We had a late start time, probably to avoid clashing with other patrols. From memory it was about midnight when I phoned Bruce Trennery the Company Commander, that I was leaving.
"We had no problem with the inner fence but the outer fence was a bit of a mess. We had located and recorded a couple of breaks and were heading for the minefield gap to go home. Suddenly the sapper, who was leading stopped, turned and whispered.
`I think we are in the bloody minefield.'
"He got down on his hands and knees and began feeling and prodding his way toward the inner fence with the two of us treading carefully after him. I can't remember how long it took, but it seemed like an eternity. Dawn was breaking as we reached the fence and the mist which had pervaded throughout the night, lifted quite suddenly.
"No sooner had we crossed the fence than we were fired upon by, I gather, a Bren gun from A Coy. I was shot in the base of the throat with the bullet leaving a rather large exit hole in my back. Unfortunately, although I was wearing a `flack jacket' I hadn't zipped it right up. I can still remember the strange sucking sound coming from my back! My signaller [I think Pte White] gave me a shot of morphine and I was out to it."
Ray had taken a plunging shot through his throat. The .303 bullet proceeded down into his chest clipped the top of one lung and passed out through his back. It left a hole, that you might have been able to cover with your outspread hand. If you had a big hand.
Ray taking up the story again:-
"I gather the Sig radioed for help [or did they return to get it]. In any event a stretcher party from A Coy, led by the CSM, that great old warrior Jack Morrison, came down under a white flag to get me. Some years later when Jack was serving with me in Vietnam, he said it was the most eerie experience he had known. He said it was deathly quiet and he knew a thousand pairs of eyes were watching them - and `half of them were slanty eyed bastards'."
Ray was evacuated to a MASH, where there happened to be one of America's top plastic surgeons visiting from Stateside. The medical team not only saved him, but the visitor ensured that he was not disfigured.
"I was carted off to the RAP where I must have been semi-concious for a while, as I clearly remember someone saying `I don't think he is going to make it.' How wrong he was. I was flown off to the Norwegian Mash in one of those helicopters with the pods on the side. When I awoke a day or so later [after surgery which obviously saved my life] I remember the shock when the first person I saw was a Chinese in the opposite bed! I was reassured by a nurse that I was not `in the bag' and that the chap was a P.O.W.. I then disappeared into the American evacuation system via 121 Evac Hosp in Seoul. [A horrifying experience as for some reason I was put in the burns ward]. Then on a giant Globemaster to Tokyo Army Hospital which became `home' for the next four months."
"By this time my bride of eight months was frantic. She had been told that I was on the `dangerously ill' list. Unfortunately the Aust Army had lost contact with me but after a couple of weeks the International Red Cross came to the rescue with updates on my progress."
"I was the only Commonwealth officer in the hospital, with a dozen or so British and Canadian soldiers. We were given an allowance of $US1 a day [as our Brit currency was unacceptable]. They even tried to give me a 'purple heart' which I diplomatically declined. We were treated very well indeed and toward the end of my stay I was allowed to recuperate at Ebisou between operations. This was not such a good idea as I got caught up with my mates on R & R and I returned to hospital a bit the worse for wear.
"One amusing incident was when the ladies of the Canadian Embassy invited the Commonwealth patients to an afternoons entertainment. We all arrived dressed in our pyjamas and striped dressing gowns and to our horror, found that we had to sit through a two hour recital of chamber music by a string quartet. The Scots, Geordies and French Canadians were not amused and one by one went outside for a smoke. At the end, only three of us were left and I had the job of thanking the ladies and saying how much we enjoyed the recital.
"Anyway after four months in hospital, I was asked whether I wanted to go home or return to the battalion. Much as I very much wanted to see my wife, I realized that as a professional soldier there was only one answer."
I was back with the Battalion myself, when Ray returned from his convalescence. Like the rest of the Mess I was astounded but delighted at his amazing recovery. The only indication of the entry of the bullet was a thin scar-line in the centre of his throat, which a neck tie would have hidden. His back of course was a different story. But to return after such an experience, was something in itself and we were all very pleased for him. To give him a chance of seeing out his tour of duty, the CO put him on the staff of BHQ, where Ray's remarkable talents were probably better employed anyway.
Unfortunately Bernie Cocks was not so fortunate. I had never considered the possibility of such an experienced war worn soldier (New Guinea WW2, two T.O.D. Korea ) not surviving. It hit me hard. We had been great friends, leading a great team. Bernie was killed later on the same morning that Ray Burnard was brought in.
Kevin McKenzie told me when I visited him in hospital, that someone had decided that the Mungandi Diggings should be reoccupied during the day to lure the Chinese into sending a patrol there to investigate. Mungandi had been established by the Canadians on a little spur in the narrow valley between 355 and John, 400 metres from Dog Outpost. A strong bunker facing us on the upper slopes of John, it totally dominated Mungandi 100 metres lower. Months before, Mungandi had proved too costly to hold and had been abandoned. However, No 1 Platoon got the job of being a decoy.
Not surprisingly, the plan went wrong. Instead of waiting until dark and sending a patrol into an obvious ambush situation, the Chinaman took the more cost effective action that had caused the outpost to be abandoned in the first place. He mortared it. Casualties were suffered and Bernie Cocks, who had been lightly wounded the day before and had returned to the company after treatment, was the first to reach them. He was dragging the wounded under cover, when joined by Lt. Charlie Yacopetti, Corporal Kevin McKenzie and another great Digger, `Bodgie' Kieseker. No. 1 Platoon's stretcher bearer.
The Sydney Daily Mirror staff reporter in Korea was quoted in the May 22nd 1953 edition as saying:-
" Lieut. Charlie Yacopetti told me, that when mortar bombs landed within 10 M, as they were trying to pull the men out. He told Sgt. Cocks to take cover in the pits. Bernie replied, quote 'I am all right Sir. We have to get these wounded back.'"
According to the same report, two seconds later Bernie and Kevin were hit and Charlie who was only a metre away from Bernie, was sent sprawling on his neck. Kevin McKenzie told me, when I visited him in hospital, that the 81 mm mortar bomb landed about a metre in front of Bernie and exploding upwards, blew his lungs out through his back. According to the Daily Mirror, Bodgie Kieseker and Charlie Yacopetti brought Bernie's body back to our lines when more help arrived for the original wounded. These included L/Cpl. Lyons, Pte. McGee, Pte. Ralston and Pte. Smart. All my original 1 Platoon men.
The night following Bernie's death. Charlie Yacopetti, who now had command of No.1 Platoon, my platoon before I was wounded, took out a fighting patrol.
Lieutenant Alec Weaver was good soldier and a good mate of both Charlie and myself. We are still great friends. Alec, keen to get to know the ground in the patrolling area at the other end of Hill 355, volunteered to go along as a supernumerary sub-machine-gunner. The following is Alec's own account of the action.
"When the patrol took up a position on the forward slope in front of the minefield at the left flank of Hill 355, it was a full moon,which no doubt enabled the enemy to clearly observe its movement.
"Some time after a short period of quietness some enemy soldiers stealthily crawled closely to the patrol's position and threw a number of stones. Their movement could be clearly seen in the shrubs in front of the position.
"And only then Charlie ordered "Grenades' in accordance with Operational Procedure so as not to disclose the patrol's exact position when firing weapons early in an encounter. "This was immediately followed by an assault by a large enemy force throwing grenades and firing their weapons The vicious close quarter encounter involving the patrol of only seventeen men resulted in the patrol being severely mauled. "Charlie managed to say to Alec:-
'Alec, I can't walk and no one can help me.'"
He would not accept any help and asked Alec to get the Diggers out the best he could. Then Alec was crippled in both arms and hit by a stun-grenade. He got Private `Chalky' White MM to take his grenades which White used to good effect, but, in the confusion of the battle, amidst screams of pain in Australian as well as Chinese voices, it became impossible to tell friend from foe.
Alec luckily knew the way back through the minefield at the distant right flank of Hill 355 and was able to shepherd the walking wounded as far as his own position on the hill, where he collapsed into the arms of his waiting Platoon sergeant.
Charlie Yacopetti had been completely immobilised with severe gunshot wounds to his legs as was also the case with his trusty medic. They were eventually snatched by the enemy who were keen to get prisoners, hence the use of stun-grenades as well as fragmentation grenades.
Alec and the rest of the survivors had no opportunity of calling for artillery or mortar support to cover their withdrawal as the radio set had been shot up. They therefore had to conduct a fighting withdrawal.
Luckily they passed a standing patrol position from where the badly needed interdiction fire could be brought down preventing the enemy from effectively pursuing the battered remnants of the patrol any further. This was of course no help to Yacopetti and his medic or in retrieving the bodies of their mates who had been killed in the action!
Alec recommended White for a bar to his MM in reward for his excellent and steadfast conduct under fire (this was later granted).
When I eventually returned to A Company, the general opinion was that Charlie was dead. Some Diggers were still muttering to their mates `Poor Charlie. He was a good bloke.' As for what really happened to him, came to light when Charlie was released in the prisoner exchange after the Truce. The following is as near as I can remember of the account given by our representatives who debriefed him.
After the initial action there was a lull around Charlie, as the enemy harried the withdrawal of the rest of the patrol. Charlie gave himself a shot of a morphine, to ease his pain. Patrol commanders carried small tubes with the attached needle protected by a glass cover. He went out like a light. Unfortunately, he came-to, to find the Chinese had returned and were souveniring his webbing and searching his pockets. They had thought him dead. Once they realized their mistake, he was unceremoniously hauled to his feet and promptly collapsed again. So they carried him. Then his ordeal really began. This was in May 1953 and being a POW for four months may not sound much.
But he was a prisoner of the Communists.
The first few weeks he was kept under guard in a front-line position directly opposite Hill 355. The only medical treatment available for his legs, which were full of burp gun bullets, was boiling water. No antiseptics or antibiotics what so ever. Nothing. He stated that the Chinese wounded got no better. Whenever the area in which he was held was shelled by our artillery, he was bundled at the point of a bayonet out into an exposed trench. Covered by his escorts he was forced to endure our bombardment in the comparative open. When the shelling stopped the interrogation began again.
`They did not wish him any harm. But where were the weak spots in 355's defences? Which were the best approaches? What sort of weaponry could be brought to bear in the case of a full scale attack?' But they could not have had a tougher minded prisoner to work on. Eventually they gave up and he was sent to a POW camp where his wounds healed, to some degree.
Now these camps were run by guards who were notoriously ruthless. In that dreadful environment began Charlie's `Finest Hour'. The Communists could not do a bloody thing with him. He bucked all their systems. He quickly became the leader of the British prisoners.
As the date of Queen Elizabeth's coronation approached, Charlie, with the assistance of the `Old Hands' in the camp, organized the acquisition, by devious means such as bribing the guards with cigarettes and sweets or whatever, to accumulate a small quantity of rice wine. Carefully hidden, there was eventually enough saved for a nip in each Commonwealth prisoner's mug. At the appropriate time on the great day, 21st June 1953, this game Australian officer formed up the British's troops. Quickly sharing out the wine, he proposed the Loyal Toast. `Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second'. The guards belatedly caught on when he called for three rousing cheers for her Majesty. He had pulled it off. But the parade was savagely broken up with the application of rifle butts by very angry guards, whose loss of face made them more severe than usual. And that is saying something as the guards were infamous for their ruthless harshness.
Charlie's guts had finally changed his luck. He was released in the exchange of prisoners in the month following the Truce. After the Commonwealth troops from that camp were debriefed, his name went forward for recognition. He was decorated with a Military Cross for his conduct of the patrol action and subsequent behaviour or misbehaviour, in captivity .
A nice twist to the story is that Alec Weaver, because of his special language skills, was posted as a liaison officer to operation "Big Switch" at Panmunjong, where the prisoner exchange took place. He was one of the first United Nations officers to welcome Charlie back to freedom; and of course the first Australian.
Major Bruce Matthews MBE, ED.
|© Australian Album ©|