THE GREAT ADVENTURE 1950 - 1951
Joe Vezgoff joined the Australian Army in January 1950, six months before the Korean War started. His overseas service includes Korea (1950-51), Malaya (1955-57) where he was on secondment to the British Command at the Jungle Wing Warfare Centre, Kota Tinngi, Johore and with the AATTV in Vietnam (1962-63). Other postings were 2 Battalion RAR at Holsworthy, Instructor at Ingleburn and Puckapunyal, The Royal Australian Regiment Depot Company, the Officer Cadet School, Portsea and the Methods and Instruction Team at Army Headquarters, Ingleburn. He left the Army in June 1970 with over 20 years service with the rank of Warrant Officer First Class. He was then appointed to a large national public company as Training Superintendent and retired in 1989. He has an active retirement and undertakes military research and has had articles published in the Australian Army Journal and other publications. He is a prominent landscape painter. Joe is married with an extended family and lives at Austinmer, NSW.
"I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine.
It is only those who have never fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and
groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more
desolation. War is hell."
There is a saying - "Look at an infantry man's eyes and you can tell how much war he has seen". Hopefully my meanderings will show humour as well as a certain sadness in some situations. Life is both sweet and sour, as I was soon to find out as I set out on my great adventure.
When we boarded our DC4 at Mascot, we were farewelled by a brass band, camera crews, reporters and dignitaries. Patriotism was in the air that evening. They say that vigour is found in the young. We were young, a strange land beckoned, adventure was ahead, and we knew that nothing great would be achieved without enthusiasm. Discretion was for the older men, not in the young soldiers that evening at Mascot. The only recollection I have of our prior briefing at Ingleburn about Korea was that there were "tigers" there! We were soon to find out that there were other dangers as well. The desire for glory clings to man longer than any other passion. We were off on our great adventure.
The Journey Begins
The first leg of our flight was a one night stopover at Clark Field in the Philippines. On landing we were shown to our barracks, then a dozen of us decided to visit the American canteen for a few beers, little realizing that it was about ten miles away. Walking into the canteen, I immediately realized that this was the first time that these Americans would have seen slouch hatted Aussies. Silence descended amongst the hundreds there as we made our way to the bar. I produced a five pound note and asked for a beer. The barman looked at what he considered to be Monopoly money, and said could not accept it. I asked for the manager, who eventually arrived. He concurred with the barman and we were at a thirsty impasse. I suggested that a way out of our predicament would be if we could raffle some Australian money, and he agreed.
Climbing up onto the stage with a microphone I introduced us as Australians who were on their way to fight alongside their American allies in Korea. You could say that this was a good build up to my scheme, as it managed to capture both their patriotism and their attention. Holding up my crumpled five pound note, I asked the audience for a bid. The response was terrific. I ended up with my own money plus cartons of beer carried to our tables, with our new found friends treating us like celebrities. Somehow or other, in the early hours of the morning, half a dozen of us became guests in an American serviceman's home where more hospitality was extended.
It seemed no time at all till it was 3am, and our plane was due to take off at 5am. Even in our rather merry state, panic arose and we hastily departed and headed for the road. At that time of the morning there was no traffic and panic levels were rising. The thought of missing both the plane and our great adventure sobered us quickly. Luckily we saw headlights in the distance, so I stood in the middle of the road and the sight of a great coated figure in a slouch hat brought the truck screeching to a halt. As politely as I could I asked the driver to take us to Clark Field. Taking pity of the apparitions he was confronted with, he agreed and we soon found ourselves on the outskirts of the landing field. Unfortunately, it was surrounded by a three-metre high fence with no visible gate. Climbing over the top, I found myself staring into a double barreled shotgun as I descended the other side. I'm not sure who had the greater shock, the security man or me. However, after a short discussion he sent us on our way to the barracks where we just had time to shave and to re-pack before we enplaned. This was my first encounter with Americans, whom I found were friendly, generous and appreciative of a selling job on their canteen stage.
Settling into Japan
On arrival in Japan we were allocated to our Company and Platoon, kitted, bedded, and given our lectures and films on Venereal Disease (VD) which were effective for at least a week! With route marches to Haramura and back several times over the following weeks, our feet, legs and condition were fine tuned, and this stood us in good stead over the following year. An odd spot of leave was also thrown in for morale.
I had the distinction of being the first person in the reinforcement group to be promoted to the distinguished rank of Lance Corporal. How that arose was due to a request to our Company Commander for a transfer to A Company as my Ingleburn Platoon Sergeant, George Harris was there. I was offered a bribe of one stripe to stay with the Company; and being mercenary the stripe took precedence over friendship.
Arriving in Korea
We arrived at Pusan on the "AIKEN VICTORY", and were met at the wharf by an American band. One of the numbers they played was "If I'd Known You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake". I think they should also have played "Home On The Range", as we were quickly herded onto huge cattle trucks.
The Adventure Begins
We settled in at Teagu and began patrol work in the area. Our first casualties occurred; the sad loss of our 2 I.C., Lieutenant Hummerston, whom we had seen as a caring person who had seemed to be interested in our general welfare. He and his driver were blown up in an unmarked minefield. This was our first realization that the great adventure had its danger. 'Snowy' Lowe was also killed from another section, an artillery tree burst over our Platoon position.
Hurry Up and Wait
Our initial patrol work was in mountainous country, and we returned to continuous digging in, sometimes three times in one day as we pushed forward. The shovels soon began to show the wear, and we were getting frustrated by the continual changing of orders.
Nearly Caught a Company Commander
On October 22nd, 1950 we resumed the role of spearhead formation with, at least, a clear objective. The 187th, United States (US} Airborne Combat Team were cut off in the Yongu area north of Pyongyang, their mission had been to cut off the escape route of the North Koreans, however they were in deep trouble, being surrounded by North Koreans themselves. Our company was the lead company as we arrived on tanks at a place known as The Apple Orchard. Jumping off the tanks, the company charged the North Koreans with bayonets fixed. During the melee I detached my 2 inch mortar crew from Platoon Headquarters and took up a position on a large knoll overlooking a road.
'Shufti' Frazer was one of the great characters in the Platoon, a Regular Army Private, he was my number one mortar man. My number two was Tilney, who had the unusual habit of eating his C ration in one meal and then spending the rest of the twenty-four hours with a hungry look on his face. The diggers dreaded sharing a foxhole with him as they prepared their meals. Looking over the road I saw a group of North Koreans moving away from the battle across the paddy fields. 'Shufti' I said "let's lob a few mortars into them".
But first I should tell you that we had been carrying the same twelve mortar bombs since we had arrived in Korea. They had been exposed to the elements and unknown to us, the cartridges had been affected, 'Shufti' took the cover off the mortar and started to remove from the barrel some cigarettes, socks, handkerchiefs, letters and matches and the odd biscuit. I watched this with amazement, wondering how he could fit in so many items. Between us and the enemy, an American tank commander was talking with our Company Commander, Captain "Arch" Denness, pointing to the running enemy. "Range two-fifty". The first and only mortar was fired by 'Shufti'.
We felt apprehensive as soon as we heard a feeble 'pop' as the mortar went off. We watched as the mortar barely came out of the barrel and wobbled on its way towards the American tank and " Arch Dennis". The bomb landed alongside the tank, and amongst the confusion we heard the tank commander yell out "Goddam, the Gooks are shelling us". With that he battened down the hatches and moved off. "Arch" took to his heels and the secret remained with our little group for the remainder of our tour. Needless to say somebody will, or has, found on the knoll eleven mortar bombs and perhaps wondered why they were there. Despite our effort with the mortar, the operation accounted for 150 enemy killed and 239 captured. We sustained seven wounded. Shortly after that I was promoted to Corporal with my own section, probably as a punishment or with the aim of removing me from this mortar crew, as a protective measure for them.
Shortly after, "Shufti" disappeared for over 4 weeks. Apparently he went to have his arm X-rayed as he thought he had a fracture. The location of the X-ray unit was supposed to cater for all United Nations members. Due formalities proved that the arm was O.K. and 'Shufti' wandered off to an assembly area where somebody in authority called out "Anyone for the 27th?". "Shufti" said, "yes", and was herded aboard a truck with numerous Americans. This should have aroused his suspicions, however he went with the flow. At that time we belonged to the British 27th Brigade. "Shufti" mistakenly ended up with the 27th Combat Wolfhound Regiment, where he became virtually a Unit mascot for the Americans. However, all good things must end, and when Shufti returned to us loaded down with American equipment, such as jackets and shovels, which at that time was sorely needed, he was threatened that next time he left our unit he would be ticketed like Paddington Bear!
Home by Christmas - Loss of Our Commanding Officer
We had marched thirty-one miles in twelve hours and were at Chongju after having crossed the 38th, parallel twenty-two days before. The Battalion was resting and thinking that soon we would be home for Christmas. However, fate was to deliver a cruel blow. That evening six shells landed in the Battalion Headquarters area, one outside the Commanding Officer's tent which inflicted a mortal wound to him whilst he was resting on his stretcher. Lieutenant Colonel Green, an outstanding commander, was killed in action.
The Chinese Are In
We departed Chongju at odds with what we had expected. Later we were told that the Chinese had entered the war and were making rapid advances on our flanks against the Americans. We took up positions near the Pakchon-Sinagu road and prepared for our new enemy. Our indoctrination that night was the sound of bugles and whistles, mortar and machine-gun fire on our positions. The night was mayhem as several of our companies withdrew under enemy attack and passed through our positions suffering twelve dead and sixty-four wounded; a bad tactical decision had been made by some one. Jerry Wallace, who was in the adjoining section, was one of the original members in that first plane load of reinforcements from Australia who received a near fatal wound that night. Jerry had often said that he was a Roman Catholic, an "RC", Retired Catholic. When he got his wound, he nevertheless managed to crawl into a near by rice stack in an effort to keep warm. He later said that he began his conversion from the status of retired Catholic to Returned Catholic by saying lots of Hail Mary's, till suddenly his protective covering was set alight by an incendiary bullet and he started to burn alive. Fortunately someone heard him and managed to drag him out alive. He later decided that he must have said too many prayers, and that he should have stopped as soon as he was just warm. The Chinese withdrew for some strange reason and we gained a new Commanding Officer (CO) Lieutenant Colonel I.B. Ferguson. The next day our company advanced, took a feature and saw the enemy retreating across the paddy fields. The sight brought joy to our faces as this was our first encounter with the Chinese. The following day we spent patrolling. We captured a few Chinese, however the main force had vanished into the hills.
Comes the Winter
Late in November the frozen winds from Siberia arrived and the temperature dropped below zero. On the odd occasion when bottles of beer arrived, they had frozen and cracked some bottles. Frozen beer iceblocks are not the same as normal beer, that I can guarantee! Hands would freeze to the bare metal of our weapons which had to be constantly handworked to prevent the moving parts from sticking. We slept with our weapons tucked against the body to stop them freezing up. Drizzling rain did nothing to improve the situation, turning the dusty roads and tracks into a slippery glaze. Tanks with their rubber tracks constantly slipped off the road and into paddy fields. I had a few older (late twenties?) second world war (WW2) members in my section and some mornings had to physically pull them out of their foxholes and support them by walking around our defensive perimeter until they regained the use of their legs. Shaving was difficult at times, as the hot water, boiled in the dixie, would freeze in just a few minutes. Washing clothes was out of the question, unless one wanted to wear a temporary bullet-proof shirt or underpants.
We were due for a rest after fifty-four continuous days in the line. We had suffered the heaviest casualties in the Commonwealth Brigade, but we had accomplished our task of holding open the escape route after the First Cavalry Division disaster at Unsan.
An Academy Award Film
One of our chaps had picked up a reel of film in a large canister. There was no title on the can but it was carried about with the hope that one day we would see it when a movie projector became available. At the rest area we divested ourselves of our lice-ridden clothes and availed ourselves of the first hot showers in several months. Joy of joys, we soaped up and re-familiarized ourselves with parts of our bodies we hadn't seen for months. That evening an American film unit arrived to screen a film. A large screen was erected; the Battalion Commander (CO), Officers, Padres, Medical Officers and visiting American dignitaries settled down in the front row, with the remainder of the Battalion seated in the paddy fields awaiting our first entertainment since our arrival in Korea. What a shock they were to receive!
Prior to the beginning of the session we had approached the American screening unit and asked them if they would run our captured reel of film before the main feature. This they agreed to do. As the last light of day disappeared, the screen lit up with a scene in black and white; the period was about 1930, the film silent with a grainy, jumpy effect. The immediate reaction from the diggers was loud cat-calling, boos, and bad language. How dare they show some old reject from the past when expectations of a high quality Technicolour movie had been raised?
Suddenly the booing and cat-calling ceased as the old film really got under way and we realized that it was a pornographic film with no holds having been barred! It received cheers and clapping worthy of an Academy Award movie as it concluded. It was shown again the following night, there being no censorship imposed. We then sold the film to the Americans so heaven knows how many showings it eventually had in Korea.
Fun Run New Years Day
By New Years Day we had covered at least four hundred miles going forward and backward depending on tactical situations. On New Years Day we were advancing, this time on trucks driven by American transport drivers. We were in a valley with high hills on either side. We noticed as we drove forward that on either side of us there were figures on the hills, silhouetted against the sky, and going in the opposite direction. They looked to be about Battalion strength. We assumed that they were South Korean troops deploying.
Suddenly, all hell broke loose, with bullets whistling around us as we hastily jumped off the trucks. It seemed that the South Koreans were in fact Chinese. There were paddy fields all round, with snow six inches deep, which in a way helped us as we could pick up the path of machine gun bullets as they erupted round us, requiring some fancy footwork to dodge them.
The trucks were turned around with the instructions that half of us would hang on each side of the trucks, the idea being that we would run alongside them as they moved slowly back up the valley. At least that way we would be being fired on from one side, the truck body protecting us from the other and giving us some help to run. However, disaster struck when the drivers either panicked or thought that running pace was seventy miles an hour, as they took off scattering us on both sides into the snow-covered paddy fields. Those drivers did not earn any Brownie Points that day!
The great race back to safety began. Run, fall, observe the fire pattern, run fall, pick up somebody. Much yelling of orders, fire and movement, till eventually a mile or so back down the road we ran into Captain "Bill" (Later Sir William, A.C., O.B.E., M.C.) Keys who stood in the road and took charge, deploying us into a defensive position. It amazed me that we only had three wounded on that fun run day, and if Bill Keys had not been there to reorganize us, I reckon we would have broken any long distance record.
I would like to digress for a while and write about George Long. George was an Australian Chinese with whom I shared most of my time in foxholes. George and I gained some form of notoriety in the Battalion when he and I found ourselves as the most forward outpost in a Battalion position. We were about a mile forward of the Battalion, with the responsibility of racing back when we saw any large troop movement on our front. Myself being of Russian origin and George of Chinese, caused some consternation when someone back at Battalion Headquarters asked who was in the forward outpost. "A Chinese and a Russian" came the reply!
Before we had left Australia we had occasionally visited Chinese restaurants. Whilst four of us would do the right thing and order Chinese, George would always order steak and eggs, much to the consternation of the Chinese waiters.
On lonesome nights with a clear moon and 100% stand to, we had a game to pass the time. We called it 'Find the Pin'. The rules were simple, we closed our eyes, threw the pin up in the air, opened our eyes, and the first to find the pin was the winner, and so the game continued.
George managed to get himself wounded one day, in reserve on the "Lozenge" feature. A film unit arrived in our location and wanted to film a platoon attack, without enemy of course. George assumed the role of firing the two inch mortar, the film crew filming just behind him. Unfortunately, George positioned himself under a dead tree, fired a round which managed to strike an overhead branch with the exploding fragments showering George and the film crew. The film crew left hurriedly, probably to claim danger money and never to be seen again. George received a slight fragment wound to the hand, and was never to fire a mortar again.
George had a problem when he had to pass on the section watch to the next relief. Having oriental features, he feared he would be mistaken for the enemy. He overcame this by approaching the foxhole and saying as he approached, "Do you want to buy a truckload of bootlaces? It must have worked because he survived Korea. The irony was that George died in a car accident shortly after coming back home. I miss him.
The Passing Parade
During my tour in Korea, I saw the rotation of four Company Commanders, four Platoon Commanders, numerous Company Sergeant Majors and soldiers. One of my Platoon Commanders was "Jock" McCormack, a reinforcement officer who quickly fitted in with our Platoon. He had the nickname of "Dinna Mind The Thorns". This was received when we were charging up a hillside and ran into a thicket of thorns and heard a thick Scottish accent calling "Dinna mind the thorns". He was a born top flight leader, one of the better ones.
I am not sure if I saved his life or not, but I was instrumental in his re-posting to assault pioneers. The story goes like this. I had just had three weeks leave in Tokyo, and returned with a kitbag full of Suntory whisky. On arrival in my section area, I invited Jock plus half a dozen members of the section to my two man tent where we proceeded to sample the whisky. Shortly after, Jock disappeared and apparently wound his way down to Company Headquarters where "Reg" Saunders, Australia's first aboriginal officer, resided. Some drunken words were exchanged, amongst them being "black bastard". Reg Saunders was one of the best Company Commanders I had served under and was admired by the Company as an excellent leader and an excellent example of the Aboriginal race. Reg exchanged some Company Commander advice interspersed with soldier language which is unfit for printing, and told him to get back to his platoon position. Jock must have lost his sense of direction as he ended up in the area of our support Kiwi Artillery and proceeded to give them fire orders. The next day Jock disappeared, re-posted to the Assault Pioneer Platoon..
I saw Jock in Singapore in 1956 when I was at the Jungle Warfare School at Kotta Tingi, and needless to say we had a few whiskies, though not Suntory. It was not until over thirty years later at the book launch of " The Battle of Maryang San" that the full story came out. Apparently, when Jock arrived as a reinforcement at Company Headquarters, he had reported to the Company Sergeant Major who disappeared into the Company Commanders tent, and then he heard Reg say, "Not another bloody Pommy". The stage had been set. Calling a Scotsman a Pommy was to have unfortunate repercussions later. Meanwhile, going back to the incident, we were still managing to demolish the remainder of the whiskey and nearly lost the section in the process when Bushy, one of the originals left in the Platoon, managed to spray our tent with a burst of Owen gunfire. To this day I don't know how anyone survived. I can guarantee, though, that it had a sobering effect upon us all.
Two Embarrassing Moments
It was our turn to go into action and take a position. Our objectives were two features called '"Sardine"and "'Salmon"' which formed part of a razor-back ridge. The Middlesex Regiment had already had two unsuccessful attempts against Sardine. A Company of our Battalion took the objective and by nightfall we and the Middlesex were dug in on the mountainside. The next morning our Platoon moved off towards Salmon. Due to the narrow ridgeline approach, our sections leap-frogged each other till I found that in the rotation process I was to lead the section in the final assault. Heavily laden with grenades on my belt plus numerous Owen magazines, we plunged ahead in our moment of glory. The section spread out and we advanced, firing from the hip at the trench lines ahead. Twenty yards from the objective my pants fell down due to the weight of armoury I was carrying. Tripping and falling, with one hand attempting to pull up my trousers, I must have been a sight as I fell into the forward Chinese trench and managed to adjust my dress. In the trench we found two dead Chinese. There were no casualties to our section, apart from my ego. The Chinese must have been a rearguard group left behind. I wondered if the fear of rape by a hairy Aussie was so great that the others had fled the scene. Wishful thinking.
Another embarrassing moment occurred early in our tour when I was on sentry duty for my section. At that time information was scarce about friendly troops in the area. We thought at the time that we were in the front-line. 0200 hours (2 am) came around; another half hour before I was to wake the next relief. Suddenly, to my left I saw about thirty lanterns slowly coming down the far hills and heading for our position. Though I thought it was strange that the enemy would use light at night. I woke our Platoon Commander, Lieutenant "Robin" Morrison, and informed him that the Chinese were coming. I managed to convince him, and we all stood to. In actual fact it was the first time that we had observed parachute flares being dropped in front of an American unit to our front by a plane. Rather embarrassing, but the mind plays funny tricks in the early hours of the morning, and I had convinced myself that the flares were hurricane lamps in the hands of the Chinese! "The King has no clothes" said some wit in the Platoon, having seen the ridiculous situation in its "true light". I slunk back to my hole in the ground.
We were in a rest area near a village called Chovidae, northwest of Kapyong. Patches of snow were still visible on the distant hills. We were prepared for a welcome and long awaited stay. The Turkish Brigade was camped a few miles away, and preparations were being made to hold a combined "Anzac" Day service, which would be the first occasion on which Turkish and Australian troops would join together on such a historic occasion. I had been nominated by Reg Saunders as part of a group to organize a football (soccer) match between the Turks and ourselves. We were all looking forward to this historic occasion.
As usual, however, fate intervened. "Prepare to move in one hour," interrupted our plans. The twenty-third of April 1951 was to be the start of the Battle of Kapyong. Between us and the enemy was a division of South Koreans and American divisions. We wondered what the hell was going to happen to us.
It appeared that there was to be a big enemy push and we were to take up a blocking position. We appeared to have to hold a two battalion position with just one battalion. We trucked up the road and after several miles started to pass masses of South Koreans soldiers heading in the opposite direction to us, divesting themselves of equipment and boots, and replacing the boots with what we termed running shoes.
As a Company we were fortunate in being chosen as mobile reserve, and placed slightly west and in the rear of A Company. Once again, digging in was not possible; the hard, rocky ridgeline caused us to build "sangars", an above ground shelter built of rocks.
We watched that evening as bedlam broke loose, bugles, whistles, tracer-fire from the Chinese straight in the air from their flanks so that they could advance along that axis. No sleep that night, as we were prepared for a counter attack role which did not eventuate. There was only one small probe on our front which was repelled. The next day we observed B Company launch an attack below our position, which was successful. Late in the afternoon we withdrew to a position in the rear where the Battalion re-grouped. This was an occasion where we as a Company were avid watchers, rather than doers, and all tributes must be given to the remainder of the Battalion who covered themselves with glory under repeated night attacks followed by day assaults.
The young soldier goes to war with a feeling of immortality. It is like driving a car, accidents happen to other people, and thank God for that feeling which kept us soldiering on under dire conditions. However, there comes a time when this illusion is shattered; maybe by the death of a close friend, or by one's own moment of truth.
My first realization came when we passed through Battalion Command Post. There, by the Regimental Medical Officer's (RMO), tent lay four figures covered by groundsheets. The sight of boots and gaiters protruding from the groundsheets gave an indication that they were our boys. There they lay in their final anonymity, faces covered. Death had arrived amongst us. I guess that this was when my illusion was first shattered, and I realized that this was no game.
Another moment of truth occurred when we were attacking a virtual cliff-face where all hands and feet were needed to climb to the summit. One of my soldiers received a burst, which luckily only creased his head as he came tumbling down, followed by a shower of long "Potato Masher" grenades (Chinese anti personnel grenades on a wooden throwing stick). One of them landed between my feet. It seemed an eternity as I looked down at this gift from above, the seemingly endless pause was followed by some quick tap dancing as I kicked the grenade downwards to where it finally exploded harmlessly. We withdrew shortly thereafter as the situation, as well as the light, was rapidly darkening. Next morning we moved up again, but the enemy had gone.
'Duke' King was my forward scout on the next operation. Duke was the best storyteller of jokes in the whole platoon. Eventually, on his return to Australia, he became a church leader, but whether his experience in Korea played a part in his future career path or not, only Duke could tell you. On this particular operation, we were advancing along a snow covered ridgeline, with Duke scouting ahead. He called me forward, and as I joined him, nestling into the thick snow drift, he informed me that he thought he had seen some movement several hundred yards away by a bush, which he pointed out silhouetted on the skyline. I had been carrying an Owen gun ( Australian designed sub machine carbine), and swapped this for Duke's rifle, which I aimed and fired at the bush in question. At the same instant some mighty force hit the pack on my back and sent me toppling down the slope. We beat a hasty retreat to re-assess the situation and study where the bullet had hit. The hole right through the pack and my half-man tent indicated how close it had come. Last light was arriving, so we dug in on a knoll where I must have had a reaction to my close shave as I shook all over. Funnily, it was important to me that I made sure that no-one could see me experience this moment of truth, when I learned another lesson about the fragility of our feelings of immortality.
Things come in three's, as the old saying goes, and it came true again on Operation Maryang San, part of Operation Commando. By this time it was October, 1951, and I was one of the few originals left in our Platoon, 7 Platoon, C Company, 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (7Pl C Coy 3 RAR), having seen all the original BCOF members rotated back to Australia and most of our original group who had come from Australia as reinforcements shipped back home due to wounds or illness. I would soon be due for rotation. Lieutenant "Maurie" Pears, a recently graduated subaltern, had taken over from Lieutenant "Dick" Battersby as platoon commander. Jokingly, I vowed that if there was a next time I would change my name to one that began with an "A" rather than a "V", as I felt that the alphabetical system of rotation had been used. (I'm sure that was not really the case, however).
On 'Operation Maryang San' our objective was a hill called 220, north and to the rear of Hill 355. We moved off in the lead, around 5am, and descended into a valley of mist and ground fog, which thankfully gave us cover from the enemy positions. From the comparative safety of the valley floor we started up the ridgeline, where our cover disappeared. My section was to remain as reserve to the impending attack. "Maurie" laid out a marker panel in my section area, which we hoped would give our air support and artillery an indication of our position in case of need. Unfortunately, it gave the Chinese the same information. My section of six was in reserve and ready to leapfrog the other sections as it advanced. Suddenly, all hell broke loose; our forward sections were attacking, and the Chinese began a barrage of mortar shells on them and my section position. My real moment of truth had arrived. There was a shell burst fifteen feet away. I felt my head jolt and my slouch hat disappeared as a gush of blood from a head wound splashed around me. Another burst of exploding mortar shells hit me in the thigh and ankle. There was no time to dig in, and the rest of my section were receiving fragment wounds as well along with the platoon sergeant "Alby" Hart. Sorry, Maurie, we were in no condition to assist we were all taken out of the game..
What seemed a long time later, two Chinese prisoners arrived and I organized them to carry me and the other casualties, down and across the paddy fields on the hillside, being shot at all the way by the Chinese. In spite of all that was happening, I couldn't help but be amused by my two carriers, who seemed to be taking exception to their own people firing at them. I was evacuated to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), and at one stage I remember peering over the edge of the operating table and seeing arms and legs on groundsheets in the corner. I hastened to inform the Doctor that I wasn't in that category. I was eventually flown out to Kure, Japan where I was operated upon, and awakened after the operation to find a patch of sticking plaster on my chest containing the fragments that had been removed from my body. My final moment of truth had caught up with me in a relatively benevolent way, and the great adventure was coming to an end.
After several weeks of recuperation on the island of Miya Jima, I was flown back to Australia. Drizzle was falling at Mascot as we landed. Several of us found an Army truck on the tarmac and clambered over the tailgate for our drive to Marrickville. I thought back to our departure fourteen months previously, with brass bands, politicians, dignitaries and reporters. How different it all was from the completion of the cycle, devoid of razzmatazz. The great adventure was over; the rest of life had yet to begin.
It is claimed that one hour of an Infantryman's life consists of fifty five minutes of boredom and fatigue preparing for five minutes of terror and a furious fight for survival. The following falls into the fifty five minutes category.
After our early withdrawal through Seoul we spent our first night billeted in a deserted Korean village. It was the first time that any of us had been inside a Korean house. The Koreans had (and still do have) a heating system consisting of a simple wood fired oven cased in clay and situated under the floor boards. We stoked up the fire as the temperature was far below zero and promptly went to sleep. Later, the smell of smoke and fire woke us and we all stumbled (in somewhat of a panic) outside into the snow and cold and watched the house burn down. Another cold and fitful night and we were back to normal!
I understand that a lowly worm in the ground is safe from a mighty elephant's foot. This understanding came about, during Operation "Commando", by watching a full Divisional Artillery bombardment on Hill 355 (whilst we were preparing to attack the rear), laying down a continuous barrage which gave an image of a volcano erupting from the apex of the hill. One could just not visualize any living thing surviving on that feature. The barrage was lifted and an attack was launched by The Kings Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB). This was repulsed by the Chinese who reappeared from their holes in the ground and assumed control of the Hill once more only to be finally dislodged by our own company attack.
3 Battalion (3 RAR) unknowingly had formed a choir which could be heard each evening as dusk fell over the Battalion area. The words were simple with a very short echo chorus which went from platoon to platoon and then from Company to Company. At that early stage in Korea, we advanced so rapidly that food rations could not catch up with us, therefore the chorus of "I'm hungry!" echoing across the valleys, a mournful dirge indeed.
Whilst on the subject of food, the experienced solider learned how to pressure cook his tin of food without opening it. It was said to seal in the flavour and make the meal more palatable. The trick was to judge the bulge in the tin with a great deal of accuracy. Numerous explosions did occur, with new chums (reinforcements) being splattered with spaghetti or some other delicacy and thus missing out on their meal.
One of the most unpleasant locations was taking over a position that had been held by the Northumberland Fusiliers Battalion. This position had been overrun by a strong Chinese attack, a week or so previously. The British troops who had died there were still in their foxholes. The area was littered with empty Bren gun magazines, clothing and other military equipment. By this time decomposition of the bodies had set in with its accompanying smells pervading the whole area. We were instructed not to bury them as the War Graves Unit were to collect the remains. Several days later they turned up and we watched the sad sight of bodies being scooped into rubber bags. We had lived with the dead.
Education was not forgotten when we were in Korea. It is said that only Town Planners destroy towns. We managed, in the middle of winter, whilst in reserve, to completely demolish a two storey wooden school for firewood so as to survive the cold which at that time was 30 degrees below zero in the open.
A souvenir that most members of the Battalion had was a Chinese leaflet, with the heading of TOWSHONG which meant "I Surrender". Of course no one would admit that they would ever consider using it. It was purely a souvenir. However, as toilet paper was not on issue to infantrymen it did have at least one practical use.
It worries me at time how the Lord works. On one occasion only one man from our Platoon volunteered for a Church Service. On the way down from our position to the service he walked into a minefield and lost his legs!!
Watching in amazement as "Soapy" Pyers emptied his pack on one of our horrendous mountains climbs, to remove 5 boxes of matches to lighten his load. It is said that it is all in the mind.
Some of the worst and most scurrilous "furphies" ( a "furphy" is a rumour named after the Furphy water tank trailer, made in Victoria, which came up each evening in World War 1 accompanied by all the latest rumours):
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