Caught In A Minefield
27th/28th May 1953.
Prelude to Story
I joined "K" Force in March 1952, starting off at the barracks at Marrickville, Sydney. Three of the men I joined up with are mentioned in the following story and the fourth and fifth mate; who joined up in Victoria, I met up with, at Kapooka near Wagga Wagga, N.S.W. where we did our three months basic training.
On Tuesday 31st March, 1953, Maurice Sharp and I went to a tent picture theatre somewhere near Camp "Casey". I think this was about 20 miles behind the front lines. As we sat on sandbag seats and accompanied by our 303 Rifles, we saw the picture "The Merry Widow". While changing the reels about half way through the film, they lifted the tent flaps to let the light in. In the distance we heard boom! boom! of the artillery being fired by the Americans or New Zealanders, firing on to the Chinese/North Korean front.
I looked at Maurie, and he looked at me, he said we would soon be up amongst that! I remember the cold shudder that went through me and then I dismissed these thoughts. Little did we know of the actions that Maurie and I would be going through together on the morning of 28th May, 1953, only about six weeks away. This action would change both our lives forever, and bring us back together after another 35 years.
On the night of 27th/28th May 1953
1 was with a lot of other men going up to "C" Company position to man the trenches all night, till after stand-to at dawn the next morning, normally a quiet and uneventful night. I was stationed in the far left bunker with another mate (don't know this soldier's name-he was simply in the bunker with me), and our 303 rifles, tin hats and blankets to take turns sleeping for a while. The two of us had a Bren Machine Gun between us on the edge of the bunker to protect us.
My mate was lying down sleeping with his blanket over him- my job was to watch through the slit in the bunker until midnight, in case the Chinese tried to creep up on us. No danger at the left as there was a mine field there. At five minutes to 12 midnight, I looked at my watch and thought I would let the other soldier sleep for a while longer as everything was quiet and so peaceful, cool and crisp and a cloudless night, the full moon lighting the hills and valleys in front of us. I felt quite happy.
Then everything happened. At exactly midnight the Chinese sent over a Mortar and artillery barrage all along our position. I watched mesmerised as shells exploded in the mine field on our left, the showers of orange/yellow sparks as each one exploded, somehow captivated me. I did not have to wake my mate up, all this commotion woke him. At exactly 1 am the Chinese lifted the barrage.
Quite a few of my mates who were in the open trenches were either killed or wounded. I don't know how many. Some I saw in the British Commonwealth Hospital, Kure, Japan a few weeks later. The two of us in the bunker had no injuries after this one hour barrage.
While looking out front a while later I saw about eight Chinese soldiers, about 300-400 feet away, moving along in leaps and bounds, springing like Jack Rabbits in the moonlight. We thought the Chinese would attack us in the next hour as our patrols from 2nd Battalion were sent out all over the place, at one time only about ten of us were holding "C" Company positions. If the Chinese knew this they would have overrun us very quickly. I heard later that the enemy had captured an observation post out front ( I don't know the fate of the Australians in it ). The enemy turned the captured Bren Gun around and in the moonlight fired into slits in the bunkers. One soldier (21401296 Pte. John George Brear, Marrickville, Sydney) I knew was injured when a piece of shrapnel from a mortar took off the top of his left ear and deafened him. He came to see me about three months later while I was in Concord Repatriation Hospital in Sydney.
Patrols started to come back in later, one of the men (2/40 i 367 Pte. S. Carroll "Snowy" (Sydney somewhere)) I had joined up with was in shock and shaking badly; all he could say over and over, again was "There were hundreds of Chinamen out there, they were all around us!" I didn't know any words to say to him.
About 3 am. we were ordered out on a search and rescue patrol. A three man (2/401399 Pte. John Bernard Barden, Boggabilla, N.S.W.; 1/400258 Pte. Robert James Hipworth, Cairns, Qld; 3/3706 Cpl. John BerkeleyAshe,Cholsea,Victoria) reconnaissance patrol had been attacked by the enemy and was trapped out in "no man's land", somewhere near a mine field.
I always went on patrols well prepared, either a Bren or Owen machine gun and always wore a bullet proof vest ( you picked up these vests each time you were going out on a fully organised patrol ). On this patrol there was no bullet proof vest and only my trusty 303 rifle and two hand grenades!
After searching for about one hour, looking behind clumps of bushes etc, ( Chinese could be hidden behind these with "Burp" machine guns) and me with only my 303 rifle ready to fire one bullet at a time. We found no enemy, or the three men lost on patrol, and trudged back to the safety of our lines.
At about 5am. we were ordered out again. There must have been more radio contact with the "Lost" patrol. I remember the sounds that went tip amongst the men as it was getting close to 'flrst light', no one wanted to get trapped in "No man's land" in broad daylight. Once again I had my trusty 303 rifle and no bullet proof vest.
At first light we came across two of the men (2/401399 Pte. John Bernard Barden, Boggabilla, N.S.W. 1/400258; Pte. Robert James Hipworth, Cairns, Qld.). They both had light injuries, one had Russian "Burp" machine gun bullets through his hand and the other up his backside. They said Cpl. Jack Ashe was still missing in the mine field, badly injured or killed. My mate, Maurie Sharp was upset because Jack Ashe wasn't found with these two men. He said he was going down to the mine field to look for him. I said to him, "can I come with you?" He agreed - I was always the adventurous type!!
Away we went down the valley to look for Cpl. Jack Ashe. Maurie had an Owen machine gun and a field radio on his back, me with the 303 rifle and two hand grenades in my jacket pocket. -After waildng a few minutes- now broad daylight, I suddenly stopped as I looked at a wooden box lid marked with a "Skull and Cross Bones" and the words "DANGER MINES" printed on the lid. It was off a box that the mines are in before they had laid out in the mine field. I said to Maurie "we better watch out, we are near a mine field". I looked ahead and saw red triangles on the fence about 200 feet down the valley ahead of us. I said to Maurie, "we are okay, the field is down there"
Little did I know that we were the mine field already, and looking at the outside fence. The top fence must have been pulled down at some stage. At this point "Providence" must have stepped in somewhere to protect us both, as for the next 100 ft or so, we wandered through the mine field. (Sappers later found 7-8 mines getting to Maurie and me.
Maurie was on my right about twenty feet away, when one of us tripped up an American "Jumping Jack" mine, half way between us. We were both thrown to the ground by the explosion, and were badly wounded by the shrapnel, but still able to talk to each other. Maurie yelled "Quick kid, grab your rifle, the Chinese have attacked us". I said back "I can't, I am lying on it and I can't get up". Maurie thought I was dying and I thought he was going to die too. We were both white and in shock, and losing a lot of blood. We both evaluated the situation over the next few minutes, both together in the mine field in broad daylight and unable to walk.
It was about 6am. Maurie had a rolled up bandage in his left pocket and got it out to unroll it, and try to stop one of his legs bleeding, but be was lucky, a large piece of shrapnel had embedded itself right through the bandage. and be couldn't unroll it. This bandage probably saved his life, cushioning the force of the high speed metal.
I remember as I was thrown to the ground there was a small bang! about three seconds later, this puzzled me and I discovered I was covered with yellow amatol powder. "Providence" ruled again, the powder was the explosive used in hand grenades. A piece of shrapnel from the anti personnel mine had hit the hand grenade in the right pocket of my jacket with such force that it had broken open the casing of the band grenade, spilling the powder, and three seconds later when the detonator went off, there was no explosion. I wouldn't have survived had the hand grenade exploded on me.
Maurie managed to get through on the undamaged radio to Battalion Headquarters using the right call sign after a while. He told them that the two of us were injured in the mine field, the signaller at the other end told us to walk out the same way we had come in. Maurie was upset at this command and swore over the radio to headquarters - not heard of before! ! Awhile later two Sappers turned up and gradually marked their way to us, telling us to try not to move as we could trigger off any other mines near to us. The Chinese must have been in a happy mood that morning and took pity on us, because, as the Sappers came closer to us I heard about three bullets whine through the trees overhead. I thought to myself - this is it, the Chinese knew where we were and could mortar us all, including the ten or so Australians standing up on the hill watching the Sappers work. I watched as two stretcher bearers waved their stretcher over their heads to let the Chinese know they were attempting to get injured men out of the mine field - no more shots were fired by the enemy, even after they got us out and were taking us up over the exposed hills and back to our friendly lines. The Chinese mustn't have hated Australians! !
When the Sappers and Medics got to us they gave me two injections of morphine, probably for shock, within minutes I was as "High as a kite" and telling everyone which was the best way to go over the hills. We passed the other soldiers and our Lieutenant at the top of the mine field; as we went past these men our Lieutenant said to me "Private Holden, you could never look after yourself, could you".
As I passed my mate Des Fitzgerald back at the trenches on the front line, (he had joined up with me) I told him I felt uncomfortable, I was lying on my left side on the stretcher, as my back and right thigh were very sore. I didn't realise I was resting on the hand grenade still in my left jacket pocket. It was digging into my left side. He gently got the grenade out from under me worrying all the time if I had already pulled the safety pin out of the gtenade to throw it at the Chinese. I could have been resting on the striker arm, and if the pin had been pulled on the grenade, it would have exploded three seconds after the arm was released. But all was well as I had not pulled the pin out earlier. We were both taken back to 2nd Battalion Headquarters and bandaged up etc. Two Sikorsky S-51 rescue helicopters landed; one helicopter for each of us ! They took us to Mash (M.A.S.H.) 43-44 Mobile Hospital about five nidles south down the valleys, we were in clear plastic pods on the side of each helicopter. Before I left Australia for Japan I told friends I always wanted to ride in a helicopter. Here I was high as a kite' on morphine sitting up on one elbow, with blood in a bottle above me "filling me up", enjoying the scenery and my first helicopter ride. (hell of a way to qualify for a free ride in a helicopter). After operations in M.A.S.H. 43-44 we were moved in a US Hospital train to Seoul and a R.A.A.F. Hospital and then flown by R.A.A.F. DC-3 "Dakota" to lwaku-ni, Japan, and another hospital train to the British Commonwealth Base Hospital at Kure, where I stayed for about one mouth.
Maurie and I were side by side in the hospital beds, so sick and sore that we didn't talk to each other for about one week. When we did speak to each other again, he said I had tripped the mine up and I said he had. To this day we don't know who had the big clumsy feet! !
After about one month Maurie decided to go to the Island of Miyajima to recuperate. I chose to come back to Australia. I left Japan on June 27th, 1953; the day after I turned 21.
I was taken to Concord Repatriation Hospital in Sydney after three days flight from lwakuni in the Qantas DC-4 "Skymaster" via Guam and Port Moresby. I stayed in Concord Hospital for about three months before getting my medical and a discharge in November, 1953. Maurie Sharp came back to Australia in August and eventually, in around 1980, was granted the T.P.I. Pension, and moved to Inverell N.S.W.. I didn't realise this, and thought he had gone back to England to live. I was granted a T.P.I. Pension in 1988 and I joined the T.P.I. Association in Sydney. My name was in the magazine as a new member. Maurie saw my name and contacted me again, it had been 35 years. Since then he has helped me put together the details of 27th-28th May, 1953
1 see Jack Barden most Anzac day marches in Sydney and he made the trip back to Korea with me for the "40th Anniversary Truce Tour" on the 27th July, 1993.
To this day Cpl. Jack Ashe is still listed, missing in action as of 28th May, 1953.
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