RECOLLECTIONS OF WAR
Maurie Pears was born Paddington, Sydney in 1929. He was educated at Sydney Boys High School to 1946 as a Cadet Lieutenant and graduated from the Royal Military College Duntroon in 1950. He served in Japan, after 3 RAR Korea 1951, in the Reinforcement Holding Unit Kure and the British Commonwealth Battle School Haramura before his return to Australia in 1953 for a posting as Adjutant in the Citizen Military Forces 59 Infantry Battalion Shepparton Victoria, School of Infantry Seymour Victoria, various Staff and AHQ appointments in Melbourne and Canberra, Commanding Officer Corps of Staff Cadets Royal Military College Duntroon 1966 and Commanding Officer 1 Battalion Pacific Islands Regiment Papua New Guinea until 1970 when he resigned to take up a personnel appointment with Con Zinc Rio Tinto Australia for Bougainville Copper Limited on Bougainville. From 1980 he has lived on the Gold Coast and has been active overseas as a business man and consultant on PNG affairs for government and foreign corporations, an interest which he still retains.
I often think nowadays how lucky I was to have been involved with the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in Korea and to have survived the war. I was an unlikely Duntroon Cadet, rebellious, insubordinate and close to failure on a number of occasions, and a more unlikely Subaltern, confronting authority at every opportunity. By the Grace of God, the understanding of a few senior officers and primarily the help and support of the Diggers I served with, I managed to resolve my own personal conflict with myself, in Korea and found my way in life and the Army.
My strongest recollections are not the tactics of the battles, but rather the actions and reactions of the colleagues who took part and in particular the diggers of 7 Platoon. Sharing with them their courage and spirit and the challenge of battle was a lasting inspiration to me. In spite of all obstacles the platoon faced, a young and inexperienced officer, an unfriendly climate and terrain and a formidable enemy and firepower, they kept on doing what was asked of them. They stuck to the job and overcame almost impossible obstacles to achieve many victories, over themselves and the enemy. This determined and courageous platoon performance supported by inspired battalion and company leadership was an invincible nexus for 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) victory.
War is a humbling and poignant experience. It changes your life forever. For me, it was my salvation. In battle, many soldiers and their officers, realize, sometimes for the first time, how strong and brave is their fellow man and how deficient is their own character in comparison. Brash and irresponsible young subalterns are pulled together by the sheer guts of their soldiers, the meek and mild of all ranks are strengthened by the performance of their colleagues and the bold are tempered by their fallen comrades. War brings out the best in men as well as the worst. The men of 7 Platoon displayed little of the worst, they were typical Aussie diggers and front-line Infantrymen. Their courage, determination and loyalty were inspirations to me. I was never to meet their equal in Civvy Street.
ALL WARS ARE WON IN THE END BY THE INFANTRY
KOREA - the beginnings
The men of 7 Platoon C Company 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) were led by three now legendary soldiers, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Hassett, Australia's youngest wartime Lieutenant Colonel and at 33 years, now commanding 3 Battalion (and the Australian Defence representative in Korea), Major Jack Gerke, Officer Commanding C Company and Warrant Officer Arthur Stanley Company Sergeant Major. The quality of this leadership was the inspiration which raised C Company and 7 Platoon to the heights of their performance. The other platoons and companies in the battalion were similarly commanded and performed with magnificent dash and courage during the many battles to follow, but this, however, is the story of 7 Platoon, with whom I had the honour of serving. It could well be the story of any other platoon on those fateful days.
January 1951 Ingleburn Sydney, 1 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, the holding area for reinforcements for Korea. Some regular, young recruits and some experienced K Force. Hot humid days of training and preparation, and for a young Duntroon cadet, the beginnings of awareness that his commission entailed responsibilities and example rather than himself, football, pubs and parties. I remember quite early in the piece recovering from the effects of a rolled Morris 40 piloted by a fellow subaltern "Chic" Charlesworth. This was closely followed by some contusions when I went to sleep and fell off the back of Corporal Carstair's motor bike on the way home from the Red Cross ball. He didn't notice and had to come back from Ingleburn to find me still asleep but unharmed under a tree. Later, as a result of a peer group challenge, I crept into the visiting Director of Infantry's room (Colonel Campbell, later to be General Campbell in charge of Administration Japan/Korea) after a late night mess party, to ask him when we were off to Korea. I don't know what gave him the biggest surprise, a drunken subaltern in his room with unknown intentions or the request for a posting, but he did assure us the next day that we would soon be on our way. All of us were flushed with the spirit of adventure and the challenge of war. We knew nothing of what was ahead and in spite of much advice from the returned servicemen and the training, we comprehended little of the challenge which was to confront us. It's good to be young. You are invincible. The worst never happens!!!
The reinforcement draft I was to take to Korea was mostly K Force, a group of experienced and adventurous soldiers recruited especially for Korea. Rough, tough and awesome. The others were regular soldiers, well trained but young and inexperienced as was their Subaltern. We gathered at Mascot, with the help of New South Wales Rail , cold pies and coffee?, for departure by Qantas for Japan. The aircraft was a DC4, an ancient un-pressurised cart-horse by present standards but a dream machine at the time. I do not recollect any families being present and suspect the departure was classified. Before take off I laid down the law for behaviour en route but the draft knew who was Boss and it wasn't me. I decided then and there not to press my new found authority. Instead I worked through the senior soldier who wisely acquiesced. This was my first experience of real soldiering, I had no barracks or unit authority to back me up. I learnt quickly of the dual hierarchy of command, Officer and Non Commissioned Officer. Never the twain shall meet but never can they exist without each other. We ate and drank the magnificent fare of Qantas, the Purser being counseled to slow down the service if any of us made a pig of ourselves, which he failed to do! The beer was cold and FREE!!
We stopped over briefly in Darwin and proceeded to Manila. The city at the time was recovering from War. Civil demonstrations were common and the cities full of American Carpet Baggers and prosperous Filipino aristocrats. It was a wild town. Men were armed with side-arms in shoulder holsters (which had to be left at the front desk), and there was a Bar on every corner. The very rich locked themselves away in the Hotels or mansions and the poor were clustered in tin hovels in the suburbs and around the walled towns. We were transported from the airport on arrival by bus through the outskirts of the city and through the slums of what now is Makati. It was late and we were tired but on arrival at The Hotel Manila we had a new lease of life. Our rooms were sumptuous. Unbelievable luxury to most of us. As a Qantas passenger we got the best. Shortly after arrival we received news that the Huk Balups had cut the road to the airport at Makati and our departure would be delayed indefinitely.
Grand news for the Diggers at present the life of the party in the Hotel bar, the beer provided free by a mass of American ex-servicemen living in Manila, but what about the young subaltern trying to get his draft to Japan without loss? What about the bars, the girlie shows and the red light? Well, he took the standard Army procedure. When in doubt, ask the senior Non Commissioned Officer. We all gathered and discussed the dangers of the sinful city and the result of failure to meet the aircraft departure. In retrospect it must have been a comedy. This serious and nervous young subaltern trying to lecture those K Force veterans on the penalties of sex and sin in the big city! We laid down a few ground rules between us (to include the Yellow Bar ) and off they went with a solemn promise to be back by 0600 hrs. I spent most of the night prowling the bars with one or two soldiers who took it in turn to ensure I didn't get into trouble. Who was supposed to be looking after who? The Yellow Bar was something out of Chicago prohibition. Girlie bar in the front, dancers in the background, a gambling joint in the back room all humming like a giant carousel. Guarded by shoulder holstered bouncers to keep law and order? It was something to see. King's Cross, Darlo, Sammy Lee, Thommos and Ziggies had nothing on it. As it turned out, all were back on time, some decidedly the worse for wear but at least standing and able to sleep it off on the plane. This was a big lesson to me . Good men don't let you down if they feel they are involved, especially if they are part of the decision making process. They may of course give you a hell of a fright at times. By now the Filipino Army had cleared the road and we were soon on our way to Japan. One more step to our individual destinies.
We spent a short time in Japan and then transited via Iwakuni Base by Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) DC3 on a freezing and rattling service flight to Kimpo, Seoul, Korea. The DC3 "Gooney Bird" may be the most reliable airplane in the world but for intercontinental flights it leaves a lot to be desired. Apparently it is normal to see daylight through the fuselage in flight? But not comforting! On arrival we were trucked immediately to the Battalion area. Approaching destination, we decided (on K Force advice)b as a gesture of scorn, to throw our steel helmets into the river. Indeed an unfortunate beginning for this particular subaltern. On arrival at Battalion Headquarters, on report to the Adjutant Captain Bill Keyes, he received the rounds of the kitchen in no uncertain terms. Strike 1!
My Korean career looked like ending then and there. I'm afraid it was a very disenchanted little subaltern who then moved off to the platoon position. Later on in years when Bill was Sir William we were to meet again and recall this incident in a more humorous vein.
My first appointment was to D Company. My Officer Commanding, Major "Daddy" Lukin was awaiting rotation after the Kapyong battles. Kapyong was a tough time for all ranks, and had left a few scars on many individual soldiers. We were the newcomers fresh, brash and bushy tailed and in many ways a pain in the bum to the veterans. My new platoon manned a fearful outpost on top of a high, rocky mountain often in the clouds. The storms were something to behold (one soldier later killed by lightning). This was a short period of indoctrination from which I left with little reputation. Our first patrol into enemy territory was to be a "learner" for me and I was to take instructions from the Platoon Sergeant (another battle weary veteran due for rotation), who was in command. Unfortunately many of the platoon were also ready for rotation and fed up with the war, post Kapyong. The patrol strolled casually along the banks of the Imjin, smoking, contemplating their navel, generally chatting on the state of things at home and taking no steps at concealment. We were lucky, the enemy chose not to react, but for me, there was worse to happen. The Commanding Officer, in the company of American Commanders, was taking over the area and watching the patrol, trying to convince the Yanks of the excellence of his command. They were far from impressed, having lost some men in the same area recently. I received another great rocket on return. No point in saying that I was an observer. C'est la vie. Strike 2!
I did not have much longer in the platoon, as a battalion reorganization was in hand, to cope with the massive rotation. Hardly enough time to get to know anyone, except for the daily short arm inspections, undertaken bravely by myself and the Sergeant. We of course had to inspect each other after examining the men. On a cold wintry morning on the hilltops, on an empty stomach, this is a ghastly display and requires sharp eyesight indeed. I am mindful of the current move to include females in front line infantry. God forbid. The mind boggles.
The monotony of training and preparing for war in a reserve position can cause problems especially when a large number of the Battalion is due for rotation and raw reinforcements are arriving. This may be compounded by the inexperience of the subalterns and their desire to be accepted by their men. We began playing Poker in the slow periods and to gamble with our few pennies. Unfortunately one soldier lost a little more than he could afford, and having no money left after leave, falsified his paybook in an attempt to pay. I was paraded to the Commanding Officer for my stupid and dangerous participation. My military career could have ended then and there but I was saved by the Commanding Officer's understanding. He decided to Give God another Go. Later when I was a Commanding Officer myself, of the Corps of Staff Cadets and the Pacific Islands Regiment, I remembered this lesson and hope I displayed also a little understanding and forgiveness. Strike 3!
Very soon after this the Battalion reorganized and I was posted to C "Charlie" Company Officer Commanding Major Jack Gerke ( many years later I was to hear from Jack that this was a last effort to sort me out), with an old Duntroon mate, Bushy Pembroke, and we set about building a team on the Lozenge. Jack was an outstanding Commander experienced in Africa, The Islands 1939-45 as well as Kapyong. Tough as nails and as subtle as an ax. Brutally efficient and just what the Doctor ordered for all of us. He knew his job and made sure we learnt ours. He was feared and respected. You must certainly fear the enemy but it is better to fear also the Boss! That way you are less likely to lose.
He had with him as Company Sergeant Major another great personality, Warrant Officer Arthur Stanley. In view of what was to come, C Company would not have survived without them. Our morale, over the forthcoming battles, would not have stood up. We are all getting a little old and frail these days but when I see Jack and Arthur on reunions I still visualize the soldiers of old, darting back and forth in battle, always forward with the action and always showing the way.
The build up, to Commando on the Lozenge was one continuous period of activity. We dug and re-dug our positions, sighted weapons and gradually cleared the old mines from our position approaches. We used the face to face method, holding a long stem of grass to pick up the trip wires and a sharpened fork to probe underground. It would take us days, and pints of sweat, both nervous and physical, to clear the track approaches and the paths through the old wire which we subsequently re-laid. Unfortunately there were some casualties. These were the days of getting to know each other and it stood us in great stead when we finally went into battle. We knew and trusted each other. Dutchy Atkinson, Mark Young, Georgie Long, Joe Vezgoff, Jack Neal, Jack Gordon, Shaky Graham, Lofty Watkins, Bill Clements, Keith Smith, Ralph Warhurst, Jim Perry, Shagger Cabban, Jack Curley, Bruce Passfield, Rex English, Ron Quinn, Snow Keenan, Mocka Collins, Ron Curtis, Jim Bennett, Bill Massey, Bruce Harkness ,Ron Curtis, Kipping and Wilson and Alby Hart. The whole platoon (about 20 all ranks) and our neighbours on the hill all doing their own little bit to maintain morale and better the team. I might have the names and numbers wrong but the faces and the places will never be forgotten. We were not in contact with the enemy and the evenings and nights were spent swapping tall yarns on the hillside slowly consuming our daily ration of one Asahi beer bottle after a hard day's dig. Oh, how sweet it is. Beer never tasted better. I learnt a lot about myself (a lot of it not much good) from those guys. In retrospect, we would never have got through Commando without this "togetherness".
We took part in many patrols but the first major contact was operation Minden, a battalion patrol into enemy territory as a precursor to Commando. We were shelled and in contact for the first time. The distinctive swish of a shell and the sense of anticipation of where it would fall, the zipzap of a rifle round overhead and the buzz of Machine Gun fire remained in our memory for future use. The platoon was distanced from the main strike and suffered no casualties but we did see the shells exploding and heard the distinctive swish of "incoming". We watched in dismay as our own battalion casualties were evacuated. It was a minor engagement but an important part of our battle preparation. The intensity of Kowang San (355) and Maryang San (317) was not foreseen. Perhaps all war was as easy as this?
I often think, in cold sweat, of George Long (our Australian born Chinese digger) and the near tragedy of the 2 inch mortar. The perils of " big noting"! A New Zealand Army Public Relations Film team had come to Korea to make a film of the Kiwi gunners and 3 RAR. We were on the Lozenge feature in reserve and were selected to be the actors. We moved out to a forward area, with the cameras, and pointed ourselves towards the enemy ( who were far, far away). We faked attacks, engagements and bayonet thrusts and finally we were asked to fire some mortar to jazz up the film production for the old folks at home. I was so taken up with the sense of movie making and my own importance that, instead of siting the mortar with the professionalism it deserved, I pointed towards a tree selected by the camera team and instructed George to fire a few rounds. George, in his enthusiasm, failed to look upwards. I failed to check the flight path and the round exploded in a branch above causing general mayhem. A few of us received minor shrapnel wounds, which were harmless but bled with the enthusiasm of a haemophiliac. The camera team popped their eyes back in place, decided to call it quits and we all straggled home, me with my tail between my legs and an overpowering sense of guilt in my gut. The platoon were good about it but I knew whose mistake it was. I was beginning to wonder when anything would go right. Strike 4.I did not see George after Commando (he was wounded and evacuated with Joe Vezgoff and the rest of his section during Maryang San, Commando, 317 ) and he died in a car accident soon after his return to Australia.
Good, clean water is vital to the soldier. During one of the many patrols across the Imjin, prior to Commando, I ran out of water. I found out that one bottle is not enough for a 10 hour day's activity on patrol. On the barge, on the return crossing I became delirious from heat prostration (the platoon had no water to help ) and they dipped my head into the Imjin. The temptation was overpowering and I gulped down salty, putrid water, tainted with last winter's dead and local sewerage. Perhaps it saved my life but I suffered from gut problems ever afterwards. I have not run out of water since then and thanks to Arthur Stanley, come rain or shine, water was re-supplied every night. I think I was more afraid of the empty bottle than I was of the Chinese. Later, I was to learn of the death of another Duntroon buddy, Chic Jarman, from heat prostration.. Another reminder of the cruelty of fate. Chic was a champion athlete and footballer from Duntroon days and going places in the Army.
During our stint on the "Lozenge", in the heat, stink and sweat of digging, we used to look up to see Lieutenant Joe Luscombe ( Joe was my Colour Sergeant in Duntroon), flying over in his Auster Light Aircraft on return from his daily reconnaissance. We thought how lucky he was to be in such an adventurous job with a nice bed and comfy quarters at night. On one sortie, his aircraft was damaged by small arms and he was killed, trying to land, crashing into the banks of the Imjin. Another mate had left us. It was a sad and sobering thought.
Before Commando we had detailed briefings of what was to come. Much of it went over my head, except for the medical briefing, which struck a chord, with haemorrhagic fever, a fatal bleeding disease contacted in Korea. There was NO cure! ( In retrospect, was this the first "Ebola" virus?) What with Bilharzia, Leptospirasis, Schistomasiasis, Malaria, angry rats, water snails and mosquitoes I was beginnings to wonder who the enemy really was.
Gladys Moncrief performed for us the night before Commando. A temporary stage had been set up in the valley near the Forming Up Place (FUP) and we were all gathered on the hillside. It was a magic night, clear skies, starlit, deadly quite and calm. You could hear a pin drop. She sang in the open with a sole piano accompaniment. It was almost like Mum saying "Look after yourself". This was the closest we would be to home for a long time.
In the beginning, no one in the platoon, including myself, fully comprehended the scope of Commando. The briefings did not foreshadow the intensity of future operations. We set sail early in the morning almost with a feeling of deja vu. It was as if this was just another exercise, one more Minden, one more experience before we returned home. This may have been fortunate as I am not sure I would have led off the advance with as much confidence as I did if I knew what was to come.
7 Platoon was to advance to our base position east of Point 355 (Kowang San, "Little Gibraltar") near the Imjin River. We were to cross the Imjin at Pintail pontoon crossing. It was a daunting exercise under the circumstances. Inexperienced troops heading into no mans land with an inexperienced Subaltern, reading from a map lacking in contemporary accuracy. I was nervous of making a mistake and leading the company into enemy lines. The platoon, no doubt, were similarly unsure of their platoon commanders ability and would have preferred to see Jack and Arthur up front. (as indeed I would! ) Some how we got there and commenced to dig in. The enemy reacted with shell and mortar fire over the battalion front and our positions copped a few. The hornets' nest had been stirred. Our own mortars (Rene Lemercier was in command and kept popping up to our position to see what was going on), were nestled next to us and drew the crabs. Suddenly our thoughts for food and shelter took second place to the depth of our foxholes. I suppose it was just beginning to dawn on us that we were deeply involved. Information was scarce. The platoon was a lonely place. We took a lot of comfort from the Company Headquarters and Mortar colleagues close by. Late that night Jack told us we were to assault Point 355, (Kowang San to the Brits - "Little Gibraltar" to the Yanks) at first light to assist the British battalions who had been held up. "Bugger the Brits" was the immediate response but.......! We were to learn that the Forming Up Place (FUP) was about 3000 yds? from our position and we were to move to there under cover of darkness. It was a restless night with little sleep. I couldn't help but think of the British battalion "Gloucesters" who were all but wiped out in an action after Kapyong.
7 Platoon led the advance to the Forming Up Place, under the brow of our objective, threading the way through the rice paddies, under cover of darkness and later, heavy fog. It was difficult to maintain direction except for the pinnacle of Point 355, Kowang San, which saved the day. The approach was under the shadow of our objective, Point 355, with steep slopes in front. We led off the first assault with two sections in single file (a one man front) and Joe Vezgoff's section left in reserve with Company Headquarters. The enemy soon reacted violently with light mortars. They were caught with their pants down but they recovered quickly. We were mortared ferociously all the way up the hill, on some occasions the webbing was cut from the advancing soldiers. There were some minor shrapnel wounds and many miraculous escapes, brought about, in retrospect by the speed of our advance. To this day I can only premise that we were saved by racing through the mortar barrage at speed and consequently exposed for a lesser period than the others who were static below. This is a big lesson in battle, he who hesitates is lost. L'audace, toujours l'audace! The major casualty impact was on our reserve section fixed at the base of the hill which suffered 100% casualties from all the overs. We were not to see them again. Unfortunately the Platoon Sergeant, "Alby" Hart, was evacuated with them leaving a serious gap in our manning which had to be absorbed from within. I was informed, many years later, that Joe Vezgoff, though seriously wounded in the head, took charge of the captured enemy and used them as stretcher bearers for our casualties, including himself. Arthur Stanley our trusted Company Sergeant Major now took over as platoon reserve as well as his other duties. We were to know nothing of this at the time as we were relying on our walkie talkies which only worked when they felt like it. Somehow we reached the top in narrow formation and ran into the enemy bunkers and a fusillade of frontal fire.
The front was narrow, one man only in places and we sheltered behind some large rocks like rabbits on the hunt. The enemy was firmly entrenched and reacted with small arms and grenades. We were too close for mortars. We called for our long tube (Bazooka rocket launcher) to blast them out, " the long tube's buggered " was the reply. "Send up the reserve", " what reserve " was the dispirited response. We were held up and sent the remaining section, "Shagger" Cobban, round the left flank but they were bogged down on the slopes and had lost contact with us and the enemy. The remaining section and platoon headquarters (in total about eight of us), held the ridge, hiding behind large boulders, which seemed the size of peanuts. "Mark" Young blasted away with the Owen sub machine carbine. Contact was lost with Company Headquarters. Enemy fire was heavy. I was confused. What was the enemy strength? Where were they? Where were my other two sections? Who was up who? What do I do next? At this stage Jack Gerke dashed into view with his trustee shadow Jim McFadzean hauling the Wireless Pack and Jim Burnett blasted forward with his Bren gun on the hip with great courage and dash. It was the stimulus we needed (myself in particular) and we surged forward onto the enemy positions. The sight of these wild eyed Australians must have been too much for the Chinese. They withdrew. Suddenly there was an eerie silence. A one man section front had pushed over what was , we were to learn later, a battalion position. Speed, surprise and determined diggers had won..
The sheer guts of the platoon and the bold courage of Jim Burnett had saved the day. Arthur Stanley had maintained our base and re-supply under impossible conditions and Jack Gerke had worked his way forward in spite of heavy fire to support us. What would have happened if Jim Burnett hadn't broken cover with a one man assault? What if the Chinese had held firm? What if Jack had been wounded and withdrawn? Who knows? Jim was to receive an immediate award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his courage and remained for the final Commando operations. Jack was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Arthur the Military Medal.
7 platoon, now reunited with the "lost" section, less its reserve section, all 15? of us, flushed with success, now moved forward to the remaining objectives on the way to the summit but it was all over. The Chinese were withdrawing to rear positions. We were able to report the enemy fleeing north. The only sound was the King's Own Scottish Borderers, (the KOSB, "Kossbies") bagpipes howling a prelude to an advance on the fortress which had already fallen. The Brits had a strange "colonial" attitude towards the Australians. I was reminded a little of my readings of Gallipoli. Even to this day British reports of the operation indicate that the heights of Point 355 were taken by the KOSB. They don't say much about the Australians. The platoon licked its wounds and rested overnight (what rest ) in a state of shock awaiting the probable counter attack which never came. Some of us had minor shrapnel cuts. We licked our wounds and thanked our lucky stars. " At last " we all murmured the next morning, " its all over - we can go home now! " Little did we know that, what we thought was our major battle, was a diversion to the central thrust which was soon to develop against Point 317, Maryang San. In retrospect, it never occurred to us that similar engagements were being carried out all around us by the other Companies. Fortunately, in some ways, the battlefield isolates your thinking and telescopes your thoughts to the immediate job in hand. It is only later that you think in the privacy of "stand too", "What the hell am I doing here? - "my mates are at home painting the town and getting rich ", "Why should I risk my life in Korea? " I don't think anyone of us found the real answer.
What was left of 7 Platoon was awaiting developments, not sure whether we had been punched or bored, when I received a message to report to Jack for Commanding Officer's (CO's) orders. I moved to Battle Command Post on a high feature, which may have been 199, where the Commanding Officer pointed out Point 317 and asked if I thought the platoon was up to a final assault on this feature, Maryang San. I looked across the valley at this God Almighty rock with the remnants of battle strewed around its base and prayed that someone would lift me up and take me away, any where else. I was too stunned for a quick reply and I suppose I nodded my head, and the affirmative was presumed. C Company was to rush across the valley and move through B and D Companies who were held up under Point 317, to take the summit from the rear. Surprise was again the tactic, the Chinese being used to the previous massed frontal attacks of the Americans. The battalion artillery and tanks would support us with enfilade fire during the final assault as the approaches to the summit were clear from the Observation Post. I looked with despair at Jack who returned an optimistic " piece of cake " look. I knew from our experiences in the Kowang San battle, that he would be right on my tail, as would Arthur, if we got into trouble. I think Lieutenant "Frothpot" Scott and Major "Jim" Shelton were there also at the briefing with Captain "Bill" Keyes our Adjutant and Lieutenant "Lou" Brumfield Assistant Adjutant, as part of the Battalion Command Post. I returned to the platoon with a quick "trust me " briefing, I was on "auto pilot" by this time and we led off across the wide valley to the base of Maryang San ,Point 317.
I know Lieutenant "Rusty" McWilliam (who was soon to be killed in a mortar attack, post Commando) 8 platoon and Lieutenant "Bushy" Pembroke 9 platoon were on our flanks but we had forgotten them for the task in hand. The battlefield had shrunk to the men of 7 platoon and the monstrous mountain ahead. We had no platoon sergeant and one section had been taken out but we reorganized into makeshift fire groups; "Shaky" Graham, "Shagger Cabban" and "Mark" Young picked up the pieces of command. "Jim" Burnett and his Bren gun was in the background as a proven saviour in time of need. We were now down to 15? all ranks from our start of 20. Someone said, "things are crook in Tallarook". There was no argument with this.
This motley crew, well worn and tattered, headed off across the valley, to battle. Some off us had the webbing equipment cut from the body by mortar shrapnel on the day before. Bits of clothing and equipment had been lost or discarded. We had dumped our heavy packs and blanket somewhere with Arthur but we had all set off with enough ammo (ammunition), food and water, thanks to Arthur Stanley's backup over night. We didn't look too good, certainly not the "model of a modern major general " but we keep pointing in the right direction whipped along by a fear of failure or delay. As we came out of the valley we met what was left of the other companies, badly bruised from heavy fighting. The ground was strewn with the remnants and the haze of battle and there was an overpowering stench of gunpowder and white phosphorous. There were wounded scattered around awaiting evacuation in various stages of repair. It was a scene from the "War is hell " movies. D Company Officer Commanding, Major "Basil" Hardiman and second in command (2IC) Captain "Paddy" Maloney, had been wounded and evacuated. We were in the midst of this company which had taken enough but was still holding firm. B Company was off track on the right flank. We found Lieutenant "Jim" Young (a Kapyong veteran), standing alone and covered in battle grime. He had taken command of the company. I remember thinking " Thank God it wasn't me. I still had Jack!" I was disoriented but could just see the summit of 317 in the distance. Jim told us what he could of the enemy dispositions, which was precious little in the confusion of battle, and pointed us in the right direction. Jack Gerke urged us on. I decided to abandon any caution and headed off with speed for the summit. The platoon agreed, " any bloody place is better than here." We had learnt from yesterday's encounter that the safest place to be was on the objective; the approaches were deadly.
The climb to the summit was a physical effort with a few hiccups on the way. At times we clambered on our hands and knees, drawing tortured breaths in our race to the top, expecting at any minute the frenzy of yesterday but it was not to come . The enemy had been beaten by the efforts of B and D Companies and we had copped the benefits. We finally reached the crest and peeped over the large boulders (like FOO) on the ridge of Maryang San Point 317 and called the others forward. It was a magical moment. We could see for miles in three directions over the surrounding valleys. Some Chinese were fleeing north and were engaged by our small arms with little success. In our enthusiasm we had forgotten the downhill theory of small arms fire! We could see all of our previous day's engagement Point 355 and the British Fusiliers battalion on the west ridge to Point 317. It was a grandstand of great tactical importance. No wonder the enemy were to fight so desperately for it over the next few days. We commenced to dig in or rather dig up amongst the boulders. My trusty offsider Bruce Passfield was smarter than most? and selected a shell hole, to save the extra digging, for our future little home. (Unfortunately, later that night, it turned out to be a white phosphorous shell hole and we lit up like lanterns.) We later surrendered this prime real estate to Company Headquarters which was to be hit by shellfire in the counter attack.
Meanwhile 8 and 9 platoons moved forward into what proved to be major enemy resistance. The Chinese had finally turned and were to put in a major effort to hold what little they had left. Jack Gerke took command of the battle. 7 Platoon set up a base supported by Arthur Stanley and his re-supply ( and casualty evacuation stretcher bearers Bill Massey and Bruce Harkness). At this time Captain "Lee" Greville and the cargo line of Korean carriers (with "A" frames) were battling their way forward under repeated enemy fire, exposed and without pit protection. They may have had a little comfort at night but re-supply was no picnic for any of them this time. Lieutenant "Jim" Stewart, signals officer and his cable party were active, laying the battalion telephone line, which continued to be cut over the next few days with the shellfire. The signalers were working largely in the open, as were the re-supply teams. This was one occasion when the soldiers in the pits in contact with the enemy ("the grunts") seemed relatively safe. The Commanding Officer soon arrived , as was his custom, to be well forward during battle, and B company thrust forward to assist the Fusiliers. It was a tactically sensitive situation. The battle could have gone either way were it not for the determination of the men to keep going no matter what. Any hesitation at this stage could have resulted in the loss of Point 317 and massive casualties to C and B companies forward. 7 platoon maintained the firm base whilst 8 and 9 platoons were engaged in a life and death struggle for the features ahead. "Bushy" Pembroke, "Rusty" McWilliam (C Company), "Hooker" Hughes and Brian Falvey (B Company) and their platoons were to bear the brunt of this vicious operation (they were later all to be decorated). Hand to hand fighting was common, at one stage, over run , they called down their own divisional artillery on themselves in an attempt to hold on. This desperate fighting was successful and at the close of day C Company and B Company were in possession of the features, dead beat, tired and waiting for the eventual counter attack.
These few days and nights were clouded with continuous shelling and probes. Our own reinforcements were arriving but they were fresh from Australia and unsure of themselves, lacking battle indoctrination. Some were wounded and evacuated only hours after arrival. The intensity of operations prevented an orderly reinforcement and there were many casualties. During one such probe 7 Platoon Headquarters (myself plus Bruce Passfield) moved to the front of the hill to observe enemy flanking movement to B Company's forward positions. No one was sure where the next probe would occur and whether the enemy would come right to our rear and cut our re-supply. Jim Burnett and elements of 7 platoon were located with Company Headquarters on the rear slopes which was receiving mortar and shell fire. We lost another comrade, Private "Jack" Neal at the same time as Arthur Stanley was wounded, narrowly missing a fatal hit. I remember Jim Burnett coming forward to my pit and cursing the daylights out of me for not coming back to help Jack. To this day I don't know whether I did the right thing in staying up front. It was a trying time for all of us. It seemed the battle would never end. The long line of casualties, badly torn apart, passing through our forward positions was a sad reminder of our own personal vulnerability.
Late on that day it became quieter, suddenly. The enemy had either given it away or were preparing for a counter attack. We were to find out about 2000 hours (8 PM in the evening) when there was a deathly hush over the battlefield; time seemed to stand still. It was almost supernatural. We all looked at each other in disbelief and wonderment, when suddenly, all hell broke loose with a massive enemy bombardment of all our features. The noise and devastation was intense. The sense of futility overpowering. We huddled in our pits waiting for the one with our name on it, popping up now and then to observe but keeping our heads down waiting for the lull which would herald the infantry attack. It soon came, with bugles and whistles and activity on all fronts, flanks and rear. Bedlam broke out. There were many brave and heroic probes by the Chinese soldiers. It was hard to tell initially where the main thrust would be but it was finally made against the forward platoons who defended and held in magnificent fashion against a vastly superior force. B and C Company "Guts" won the day and finally towards first light enemy momentum was lost and the sad task of collecting casualties was commenced on both sides. Post battle field was a charnel house - Dante would have drawn inspiration from the pain and misery. There was an unofficial truce during this period and fire was withheld on both sides. Maryang San was still ours. The Brits were not so fortunate and were held up on the west spur denying occupation of the whole of the 317 complex to the Brigade, consequently weakening the brigade front.
The 3 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment effort in taking 355 and 317 and the Hinge, was never given the emphasis it deserved in subsequent Divisional and Brigade reports. There is a bitter side to joint operations, but, I suppose this is best forgotten now. 3 RAR was luckier than the other British battalions in that they had exploited the benefit of surprise rather than being committed to a frontal attack. This in no way diminishes the magnificence of the Australian achievement which must remain a classic of Regimental History. Our withdrawal was an orderly one and we were replaced by the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) who were to bear the brunt of further counter attacks, Speakman gaining a Victoria Cross. The enemy was determined to regain the lost ground and regrettably 317 fell to them weeks later, the Australians with a front seat view on the right flank. It was unfortunate that some of the 3RAR soldiers were not to receive the Victoria Cross (VC). God knows. They deserved it.
When we withdrew from 317, Jack and I were evacuated with others, for minor wounds received over the preceding battles, whilst the battalion went into positions on the right flank. It was planned to be a reserve position but, as we learned later, it became far from that. My wounds were superficial and undeserving of evacuation however the offer was accepted and I headed off down the line of evacuation with all the serious wounded. I was pooped and in poor shape and desperately tired, (as were the platoon who remained) They took a brief rest in a quiet location, whilst I took Penicillin shots all the way from the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) to the Swedish Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) to Seoul Base Hospital. A massive overkill for two small pinhole wounds. MASH was between battles. "Hawkeye" and "Hotlips" were no doubt around the corner. I saw my first Swedish female whilst in transit and dreamt of her thereafter . Often, later, in the dark hours of the night I would imagine I was alone with one of these Scandinavian Goddesses or at home with "Dawn", a singer friend from Australia. I hope their husbands never found out! It kept me sane. Seoul Base Hospital was located in the old theatre in the centre of town, or what was left of it, surrounded by many shanties and demolished buildings. The British Mess, (complete with Sherry and Chili sauce and the occasional monocle) was close by. I was a bit ashamed of being there with all the badly wounded and found my way home after a few days.
I stopped off at B echelon on the way back to see the Quartermaster "Reg" Whalley, who was a real mate to me then and later in Japan. He was a bit older than most of us and a good shoulder to cry on. It was his sad task to receive the bodies of the Australians killed in action and to arrange for their evacuation. We knocked off a bottle of rum together to drown the sorrows of the last two weeks. Reg had broken down and cried. I was never to forget his humanity and understanding. We later served together in Japan at the Reinforcement Holding Unit Kure where he got me into and kept me out of lots of strife. Sadly he was to die soon after in Australia.
The new battalion location was supposedly in reserve but turned out to be part of the front line protecting the eastern flank of our old nemesis Maryang San Point 317 now defended by the "Kossbies" who were constantly under attack. It was in many ways worse than "Commando". We were tired and battle weary with little sleep, in a fixed position, enfiladed to enemy artillery with nowhere to go. We took the overs from the Chinese counter attack on 317 as well as some of our own . It is a bad feeling to be shelled from the rear knowing that the enemy watches your every move. There was a lot of activity on our left flank around Maryang San with many enemy probes. It seemed that they were building up to another counter attack on us. "Lofty", exhausted by frequent "stand too's" rolled over in his pit onto his Owen gun and discharged a burst destroying his leg. We were all edgy, tired and rundown from the earlier Commando operations and the subsequent loss of 317 and not in the mood to take much more. We were looking for excuses to go home. Self inflicted wounds and battle trauma were around the corner but were held off by the guts of the men and our need for each other. There was a little bother with lawful commands within the platoon, (but, what is a lawful command in those perilous circumstances?). We dealt with this as a platoon problem and still held together, all 15? of us. I had come to rely heavily on the diggers in the platoon. We were without a Platoon Sergeant and would remain so for the remainder of operations,(until Sergeant "Big Jim" Pashen arrived in January).
"Rusty" McWilliam was killed by mortar fire during an enemy probe, nearby on our right flank one evening. He was an outstanding commander and buddy, and was sorely missed. Stretcher Bearer "Bill" Massey was another fatality of this period. The loss of his cheer in reserve, courage in battle and comfort to the wounded left a big hole in our morale. Eventually "Jim" Stewart (who had been awarded a MC for his courage laying cable under fire), took over but in the meantime 8 Platoon was commanded by Lance Corporal, temporary Sergeant, acting Platoon Commander "Slim" Cotton. Not much has been said about Slim. He was the strong, silent type, accepted into the ranks of the subalterns with pride. He didn't get his name in the history books but I will never forget him or his part in the campaign.
We received our first rocket attacks during this period. They made holes bigger than a 3 ton truck and a noise like a thousand trains. Fortunately they sprayed around a bit and no-one was hurt, but they left an indelible stamp on our memories. The Commanding Officer again visited us forward and walked the line. We proudly? displayed an enormous rocket hole close to our platoon positions. The visit raised our morale but the continued exposure was getting to us all. The enemy was still active and probing the positions prior to mounting their final offensive against 317. Our platoon position was on the top of a ridge overlooking the great valley to the right and behind 317. We looked over the valley every day and noticed in the far distance some signs and buildings which we couldn't decipher by field glasses. We were all a bit troppo and anxious to get off our exposed positions. We badgered the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant "Peter" Scott, for permission to patrol forward and identify the area. After much consideration approval was reluctantly given and we headed off down the slope in single file some two hours before first light to gain the protection of darkness. Unfortunately my assessment was way out and by first light we were still only half way down the mountain and facing many miles in open country across the valley in full view of the enemy. Discretion got the better part of valour and I aborted the patrol. I got a bit of a ribbing from Peter as a result of this but the platoon agreed I had made the right decision.
Afterwards I wondered what they would have done if I insisted we press forward. I'm glad I never found out! Field Marshal Slim used to quote that " courage is like small change in the pocket. We all have some and the brave, more than others, some spend it more quickly but when it is all spent there is none left." We had all spent our small change over the last month and we were "broke". Time to go to the bank and a spell in reserve.
Events afterwards were hectic but never quite the same as Commando. We patrolled again and again in the Arctic cold, frostbite and metal burn taking its toll. Patrolling at night is an eerie experience, and very demanding on the infantryman. We were all battle weary but standing up well. We lived for Rest and Recuperation (R&R) leave and eventual rotation. I never ceased to be amazed at the tenacity and durability of the platoon after all they had been through..
Reserve was taken after each period of action in the line. It was a necessary relief from stress and exposure to the enemy. No soldier can seal off the pressure forever without blowing up. It was a time to recharge our emotional batteries, run flat by many weeks of contact. Every effort was made to make our life more comfortable. There were Red Cross parcels, letters from home, extra beer and hot rations. The Other Ranks', Non Commissioned Officers' and Officers' Messes played long and late. "Bushy" throwing up all over the Commanding Officer's leg, "Roy" Pugh and the "piccolo song" shocking the US Marine mess, "Basil" Hardiman and the "Bastard from the Bush" and frequent visits to the rear supply messes to catch up with my Subaltern mate Ansell Goodall. Chewing glass and fire eating. We all had a thousand party tricks to keep up our spirits before the return to action. Danny Mantello ran the Starting Price (SP) Book (with a blind eye from Father "Joe") and Max Corbett? ran the "two up" swy game (Captain "Rene" Lemercier pretending he wasn't there?) Rene became a Barrister when he left the Army. I hope there is a statute of limitations on swy. Reserve was also a time for contemplation and self recrimination. Did I do the right thing in action? If I had acted sooner, would the casualties have been less? Did I cause Jack's death? What will I do next time? What will I do if one of the men cracks up again? Will I have the guts to call down our own artillery if we are over-run? How many times can we all be lucky and survive? Who'll cop it next.? We all had our own private Hell to contend with, Private or Sergeant, Subaltern or senior officer.
Early in the piece we were visited by the Minister for the Army "Jos" Francis. There was a great parade planned with all the accompanying fuss. No one was too keen to give up their reserve time for such a function and there was much grumbling in the ranks . There was a lot of booze floating around and the soldiers were not in the mood to stand in the sun and listen to a politician who had recently failed to announce some service benefits we all thought were due to us. The atmosphere was electric. Arthur Stanley was well attuned to the mood and stood close to the ranks muttering all sorts of retribution if we didn't behave. The Minister started his address, somewhat pedantic and totally boring. I don't know what votes he hoped to get from us.
" I've come a long way to see you Boys " he announced with pride.
" How f.... far do you think we have come " echoed a voice from the rear. The reply was met with a muttered cheer from the ranks. Afterwards I was inwardly proud of the misbehavior. It showed we still had a bit of fight left in us. I hope it didn't embarrass the Commanding Officer too much. Later when the official party had recovered from its shock and retired to the Officers' Mess we found that someone had stolen the "Scotch" laid aside for the Ministers visit. A double whammy. Politicians and Soldiers don't make a good mix.
Captain Brian Poananga, New Zealand, was a tough Maori officer . A fellow Duntroon graduate and college boxer, he agreed to take part in an exhibition to entertain the troops in reserve on the Lozenge. We were yet to meet the enemy. Brian was a heavy weight and put up against a fellow Kiwi who was a professional before he joined the Army. It was a great spectacle but Brian was outclassed and was thumped out. I've always admired Brian for this sacrifice to unit morale. It was a brave effort. We were to meet again in Papua New Guinea when Brian was New Zealand High Commissioner.
Major "Bill" Finlayson Officer Commanding Support Company and Battle 2nd in command was another legend in his own way. He had an infectious good humour which saved the day on many an occasion. Somehow Bill and the Commanding Officer had got their heads together to get some timber and large fuel heaters to be able to erect temporary Recreation Rooms for all the messes whilst we were in reserve. They had no luck in normal requisitions and I was foolish enough to boast that with a bit of luck you could fool the Americans into making a special issue from Seoul. To my horror they called my bluff and gave me a three day leave pass to Seoul where I had visited when wounded, plus some requisitions and a Battalion stamp. I hitched a ride to Kimpo with an American recce pilot and booked into the British transit mess. From there I graduated, with two bottles of Scotch and an official jeep and headed towards the United States Army (Corps) Supply base. I managed to find " Sgt Bilko " and negotiated some trucks of planks and building timber plus some large space heaters. I rushed back to the Battalion with the booty fully expecting the American Military Police to road block at any time. I had signed for the goods " Lt Ned Kelly 3 RAR " which at the time I thought a pretty smart and original idea. It was only after the war during reparations that I learnt that hundreds of " Ned Kelly's" of various ranks and units had purchased millions of dollars of equipment from the United States of America who were now demanding payment.! On my return to the Battalion the success of the operation was greeted with a magnificent party to celebrate the construction of our new accommodation for all the diggers. Lieutenant George Zwolanski, a Polish veteran, and I put on a wrestling match "Foreign Legion" style from which we both retired with honour but much bruising colliding with nearly wrecking our newly acquired space heater.
The battalion was supported by Korean porters, some Republic Of Korea Army Liaison Officers and a large number of young boy camp followers who did the washing and cleaning up in reserve. The courage and resourcefulness of this group is legend. The porters and Liaison Officers carried to the front line in all battle conditions, often exposed under enemy fire. Always there when needed and never complaining. The Houseboys were wonderful young men, full of cheer and hope for the future. Rhubarb is now in Australia and a successful business man, Kim is in Korea and runs a transport business. Nothing would be too good for them..
THE MORTAR PLATOON
I was relieved as 7 Platoon Commander on Dog/George outpost. A position on the battalion flank overlooked by Chinese positions on "John" Point 227. From the intensity of this posting and during my final reserve before rotation I was appointed Mortar Platoon Commander under Major "Bill" Finlayson Officer Commanding Support Company. Mortars was a great job, challenging and tiring and much more comfortable than the line platoon,. It was a sad departure from the platoon and I was to miss their company. The mortarmen, however, were all ex frontliners and the Mortar Fire Controller's took their turn with the forward companies. They were a great bunch - "Misu", "Don", "Harry", "Blue". The responsibilities were heavy, supporting forward patrol operations and defensive fire. Days and nights were spent in registration and fire on call. Somehow over the last few months I had acquired a Carbine and two pearl handled Colt 45's, both in shoulder holsters. We built a small range not far from our Mortar position and practised being "Quick Draw McGraw".
We were always curious as to what was behind Point 227, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (moving to the east). I applied for an aerial reconnaissance with the Light Aircraft Squadron which was manned with "Austers", a curious little rubber band high wing canvas monoplane which served the purpose. We cruised up and down the front line and behind the enemy positions observing and registering targets for future patrol use. We could not see any indication of enemy occupation whatsoever. They were all living underground or under cover. We had found out earlier from the January raid that there was at least a battalion dug in on the Matthew ridge line. The mortars now knew what their targets looked like when support was called for.
I had to take my turn as duty officer in the Battalion Command Post, during the nights, with the signaler and company picquets. They were long nights of radio static and reports from forward sentries and supporting arms. I was filled with trepidation that I would fail to make the correct decision in the Commanding Officer's absence. The major task was coordinating fire support for the patrols.. I felt for the platoon patrols (including my old platoon) moving through unknown ground, in no man's land, in the dark, unaware of the enemy positions and the old and new minefields. Cold , weary and apprehensive, there is no place so lonely as the patrol at night. Patrolling in Korea was to claim many casualties over the months to follow . It is the ultimate test for the infantryman.
It was very tough in the line in both winter and summer. Doc Barnes had his hands full in action and out. He was a gem. Battalions in action can't survive without good Regimental Medical Officers, devoted Padres, Sallies or Everyman and the likes. 3 Battalion was blessed in this regard.
Holes in the ground don't make healthy homes! In the summer we were pestered with flies, mites, rashes and diarrhoea. A special favourite was the village cucumber which could be picked on patrol. The villages had long since deserted their homes and were living in hideouts or refugee camps.) Unfortunately this refreshing vegetable was coated with many centuries of nightsoil and whilst the cool comfort of a chew after a long day in the hot sun was heaven, the subsequent agonizing cramps of the trots was hard to take. Winter was just as tough. Frostbite and metal burn, especially on patrol at night, was fearsome. The cold at times would freeze a cup of coffee in the open and you had to shave in the bottom of the hutchie to prevent the water freezing on your face. Not quite the Antarctic but bad enough for soldiers from the Sunshine Country. We had a few Islanders serving with us. I doubt if they ever acclimatized. Every time we came back into the line into new positions we faced dirty hutchies and weapon pits left over from the previous occupants. It took days to clean them up and bring them to our Battalion standard. Our first task was always a spring clean. Not all our allies shared the same hygiene standards as the Australians. If you were unlucky you would pick up lice in your head and crutch. Some of the hutchies and pits were filthy and infested with rats and had to be shoveled clean as we moved in.
The treatment for all complaints was simple, Aspirin for a pain, No9's for the trots, mistadtussim for a cough, barbasol shaving cream for a rash or frostbite and wash your head and crutch in DDT to get rid of the bities. Somehow we survived but many have suffered for years afterwards. The liver is never the same after a DDT bath. For all this the Digger received the basic soldier's wage, a bottle of beer in reserve for which he paid and a thankless return home. Years later, weary and older and a lot sicker he had to battle with a much younger bureaucracy for welfare. You don't wander why in the nineteen nineties, some of them get a bit niggly when 15 year olds leave home and get a pension because they can't get on with Mum and Dad.
We were in the line on Xmas eve 1951. It was relatively peaceful. The Chinese crept up to our wire and left banners and Xmas presents to greet us at first light. We had heard some activity but chose to ignore it until first light. We all admired this daring Chinese gesture - propaganda as it was.
R and R - REST AND RECUPERATION
When young men are faced with death and injury, in War, they tend to get a bit wild when they come out of action. Who knows if they will make it home after the next engagement? Known by the diggers under a variety of rude synonyms, but formally Rest and Recuperation, R&R was a period of leave (in peace and quiet?) in Japan. We all prayed we would be around for this, a week of debauchery and wild parties. My first night ended in a back room bar in Shinjiuku, rolled and wallet stolen. The Japanese Police were sympathetic but didn't lose any sleep over it. A subaltern mate, Lieutenant Brian Falvey, helped out and we shared his cash for the rest of the leave. Another night we found ourselves in a Tattoo bar along the Ginza. Thanks to another mate, Lieutenant Jim Stewart, I left without " Dear Mum " on my arm. The Maronouchi Hotel had never seen the likes of Aussie subalterns on R&R. The owner of this quite luxurious Hotel used to sit on a large chair in the foyer supervising the staff. Strangely enough when I visited Tokyo some 30 years later he was still there in the same position. We purchased a small snake from a Japanese herbalist and amused the Americans with many stories about the "Australian one eyed trouser snake " and its activities. One night we celebrated in an off limits nightclub " The Showboat ", out of uniform, as Australian Consular officials. Some of us were picked up by the Military Police and dragged off to the shop. They missed the rest of us, hiding under tables and behind very disturbed Japanese gentlemen, so we trotted off to the station to plead for our mates release with a variety of fanciful stories designed to melt the heart of any hard copper. Not so. The rest of us were booked as well and on return to 3 Battalion I found myself before the Commanding Officer again to answer an American Delinquency Report. Shame. Everybody laughed except me. The Commanding Officer was very understanding. Perhaps some of the Company Commanders had similar reports???
On my final weekend I left the Maronouchi and booked into the Officers Club at Ito near Tokyo. (Ito was for Commonwealth Officers and Fuji was for Americans, the authorities wisely deciding that a mix was undesirable.) It was a magnificent converted mansion formerly the estate of a Japanese Baron? Private Golf course with caddies, luxurious rooms and close to the hot springs famous throughout Japan. Some Army nurses were also on R&R there with us. I palled up with one. We had a great time and on the last night decided to break the monotony and visit these famous Ito baths. We were well briefed for this occasion by the staff and informed that it was customary to bath nude. This was 1952 and not 1992, well before the pill, unisex and sexual equality and nude bathing was a gigantic step, even full of Scotch. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. We weren't about to bring shame upon our Nation. Off we went, with an agreed plan. When we reached the baths we would strip in the separate rooms (separated by a Tatami partition ) and then on cue we would run out together into the bathing area and jump in. Thus hiding our altogethers under the water! The best laid plans of mice and men always go astray. We burst out on cue only to see a full size Olympic Pool with an empty stretch of about 10 yards to the security of the water (filled with fully costumed Japanese!!!). Surrounding the baths were public stands (stacked with fully dressed Parents, friends and Grandparents most of them wearing spectacles). We stood there in our nude splendour, in horror and shock, whilst hundreds of bespectacled Japanese stared at us from the balconies. The chatter had been replaced by a deadly silence. We strode (quickly) hand in hand to the water with as much dignity as the remaining hand could muster, jumped in and as soon as the chatter recommenced, (the Japanese are remarkably well mannered) we cringed back to the change rooms like mongrels at a dog show. It was a long , long walk. Death row must be much the same.
The menu on R&R was the same every day, Asahi for Breakfast, Daiquiris for lunch and Scotch for tea. Dinner was for serious drinking. There were plenty of pickings between meals. The Australian base was run by Lieutenant Frank Guest who was a good friend to all transients. I still owe him for a pair of shoes I lost. We were glad to get back to Korea for a rest!
A well named , isolated , absolute DOG of a position. After a period in reserve, following Commando, we took up a position on the right flank of the battalion next to the US 3rd Rock of the Marne Division. Lieutenant Bob Marshall was the US liaison officer and I was the Australian. Major "Blanc" White another outstanding officer from my Duntroon days, was our new company commander taking over from Jack Gerke. We got on well with the Americans. 7 and 8 Platoons were located together on this small knoll, under the shadow of the enemy on "John", basically an outpost position. The battalion layout was a tactical nightmare, too much space between companies and not enough men . The dead ground could only be covered by supporting fire. Everyone was uneasy about the dispositions but none more than us. Our position was overlooked by the enemy and unsupported by our own battalion small arms. The nearest enemy trench was about twenty yards from us, unmanned by day but active at night. We had some sort of unholy truce with the enemy. They left us alone and we left them alone except when battalion patrols passed through us and the wire. We made no attempt at concealment, it was simply not possible as the enemy on John looked down on us. It was nervous also for our re-supply, departing patrols and visitors, as they had to walk fully exposed over a long distance to reach us. Altogether a "dog" of a post. The trench latrines were in full view of the enemy and they permitted us use of them provided we waved paper in the air as we left our trenches. Under the circumstances most of our activity both colonic and digestive was at night. Only once was the truce broken without cause. Some enthusiastic Chinese hero manning the day shift on John shot off Jack Gordon's nose whilst he was reading outside his bunker. He was later patched up successfully in Australia. The platoon went berserk at this breach of the truce and we poured small arms and fire support onto the Chinese position., some standing and hurling abuse as well as shots. For a short while the enemy returned the fire (perhaps expecting an assault ?) but after a while it all calmed down. The pure frenzy of our response must have made them think as they did not snipe again.
On 25/26 January 1952, soon before I was to be re-posted to the Mortars, we were to secure John as a base for a platoon raid forward by Tiny Hone's Platoon from another company. In preparation we had made a reconnaissance of the area, with a few other desperates, the night before to ascertain enemy strengths. There was bright moonlight and the ground was covered in crisp white snow. There was no cover and it was impossible to conceal our movements. Noise as the ice cracked was inevitable. Every step sounded like a horse chewing wheat. We stood out like udders on a bull. Fortunately there was no reaction to our probe. Either the enemy were asleep or they deliberately did not react. In retrospect they probably observed and took little notice of those crazy Australians crawling around in the snow instead of sleeping peacefully under ground. My experience had been that the Chinese were always tactically patient, preferring to react rather than initiate. They were good counter punchers. I reported personally to the Commanding Officer that there was no reaction from the enemy and that John, 227, did not appear to be strongly occupied. We foresaw little difficulty in occupying it the next night and reported accordingly . I was right and I was wrong. "John" was clear but in position behind was the main defensive line. I had in my mind that the Commanding Officer was not particularly keen on the operation but he was being pressed from above? What would we achieve? If it was heavily occupied we would get a bloody nose; if it wasn't we would have to battle to hold it. Another bloody nose. The Armistice was not far off. No doubt there was a good Divisional reason.
However firm plans were made to attack "the Apostles" and after last light the next night 7 Platoon snaked up the mountain, following the empty trench lines, to the Observation Post on the top of "John". We knew the area well, from frequent incursions, but the risk of booby traps and enemy patrols was always there. The Observation Post was empty but showed signs of recent occupation. We established the firm base without opposition and called Tiny's platoon forward. When they reached the next knoll on "Luke", all Hell broke loose. The enemy was standing too, apparently reinforced from "Mark" and "Matthew" and ready to repel the advance. Opposition was strong and casualties high. Our firm base and re-supply was being mortared and shelled heavily with accurate registration and a number were wounded and killed in action. Our bunker suffered a direct hit and collapsed (some of us were partially buried) and there were further casualties. In the meantime heavy casualties were flowing back from "Tiny's" platoon. I was on radio direct to the Commanding Officer who constantly monitored the position, prior to coming forward. I could feel from the tone of his voice that he was deeply concerned at the casualties incurred and the strength of the opposition. As the situation deteriorated the Commanding Officer ordered the operation aborted. Tiny was to withdraw through our firm base and we were to abandon "John". We managed to hang on and cover Tiny's withdrawal but the enemy were pressing hard against us and there was much confusion. It is at these times that the best in men comes out. In the Observation Post with me was Karl Schmidt, the Platoon ratbag, another "Foreign Legionnaire" and man of mystery. He was always a problem on the outpost, throwing grenades at night to stir up the enemy and making rude and obvious gestures of contempt towards our friendly enemy observing us from "John" each day. However on this occasion he was left with me to cover our platoons rapid withdrawal down the trench line to the comparative safety of our Outpost. He was told to run for the bottom whilst I covered with the remaining grenades " Not f... likely " was his reply. "You p... off and I'll follow ". It was not the time for general discussion or an interpretation of lawful commands. In the end we both stumbled down together, hastily I might add, one on one fire and movement. The aftermath was a sad one, shell fire followed the withdrawal and Arthur Stanley, again in the thick of it was with the Stretcher bearers trying to retrieve the wounded. Stretcher Bearer "Bruce" Harkness was killed. A veteran of every company action, it was a sad loss and a shock. Somehow we all thought he was invincible. In many ways this raid was worse than 355 or 317. You had nothing to show for it afterwards.
THE PLATOON -THE LESSONS OF KOREA
The Battalion and Company tactics were the province of our senior officers, Hassett and Gerke, and have been covered many times before in manuals and tactical exercises. Not much has been said about Platoon tactics, yet, in the words of Sir Thomas Daly
"the battle is fought out on the ground by platoons and sections and it is on them that we are dependent for success. Every man should know the objective and know how it is to be attained, because leaders become casualties and anyone may be called upon to assume command - be it section, platoon or company - and to maintain the momentum of attack".
Platoon tactics are fundamentally different in emphasis, they are minor tactics, in that simplicity, speed of reaction and determination are emphasized above all else - head down and tail up. Platoons don't have time, in the heat of battle, to change plans or vary thrusts. Their tactics are limited to fire and movement and the simplest of tasks in support of the battalion objectives. Lord Admiral Nelson probably hit the button when he directed "Forget the manoevres - just go at them!". Good advice for junior leaders.
"IF YOU DON'T MAKE DUST - YOU EAT IT!!!
The platoon, in Korea, relied on the expertise of the Commanding Officer and his staff and the Company Commander in pointing them the right way, giving them support and an achievable objective, on the 2nd in command for looking after A and B echelons and the Company Sergeant Major for battle re-supply and evacuation. From then on their job is to get on with it as quickly as possible, trust in God and go with guts.
Operation Commando proved that the courage and determination of the leading section determined success or failure. Had they faltered, the whole company (and perhaps battalion) would have propped.
Even a bad plan will sometimes succeed if pursued with determination.
Speed was the essence of our platoon success in battle. You can't allow time for the enemy to react to your thrust. Well trained, well led men, who never give in, are invincible. Our platoon success, also, depended not so much on what force we were but what the enemy thought we had. Why else would he have withdrawn in the face of his overwhelming superiority. In the absence of your own overwhelming superiority, deception (surprise) is therefore vital. In some ways it is like a no limit Poker game, deception or bluffing can win the pot in spite of poor cards. A show of strength and determination can convince the enemy he has lost.
To be effective, Platoon Commanders and all junior leaders must be trusted and well forward so that they can influence, not only the battle but the morale of the men thus supporting and building the "mateship" necessary for success. "Frank" Hassett, a legendary young commander of 33 years, was always forward with the men in times of need and always an example. He was the driving force behind 3 Battalion morale and will to win. Closer to home, for C Company, it was Jack Gerke and Arthur Stanley. Similarly, neither the Platoon Commander nor the Section Commander can lead from behind.
The men must trust their leaders to look after their best interests. They must win this trust and the men will follow. Badges of rank alone won't do it. How the Platoon Commander wins this trust is his problem, but caring is a good start.
Good leadership creates and maintains good morale ("mateship"). Good morale wins battles. Leadership at all levels therefore is the one single secret of platoon success. Each man at each level must display the qualities of leadership, whether it is the section commander to his men or the Bren gunner to the rest of the section or even between two forward scouts. Leadership is not the prerogative of the Commissioned and Non Commissioned ranks. It belongs to every fighting individual. Leadership is the foundation of morale - good morale will achieve the impossible. I can never forget "Jim" Burnett and his single momentous effect on platoon and battalion success. Leadership is the magic that wins wars and lifts soldiers to unbelievable heights of performance. We all must win it and then hold onto it. Others must believe in you and you must believe in others.
A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF A PLATOON TEAM IS A FLOCK OF GEESE
They fly faster in formation than individually.
The leader goose falls back when it is tired and is replaced by another.
THEY ARE ALL DETERMINED AS A GROUP TO GET TO THEIR OBJECTIVE
When one gets tired and can't continue the others land so that he can rest.
They honk at each other all the time so that they all understand what's going on.
And if something threatens them when resting they all attack together.
I learnt many things about battle in Korea, principal of which is "the team ("mateship") is everything". No individual no matter how brilliant can achieve any thing by himself. Korea taught me to care for my men and they will care for me. They were as close to family as I ever got. They proved to be my investment in the future and I was repaid a hundredfold.
I learnt also about humility and how much I had yet to learn about soldiering and soldiers
On my last night in Korea I had withdrawn to B echelon for re-posting the next day to Reinforcement Holding Unit Kure and Divisional Battle School Haramura near Hiroshima, Japan. I was comfortably knocking off a bottle with Reg Whalley when I received a call from the Commanding Officer to come back to Battalion Headquarters for a game of Poker with the Kiwi gunners. To my undying shame, I gave some lame excuse and declined. Truth is, that I was too cautious to risk a stray shell. Japan was too close. As a compensatory gesture, I have never knocked back a game of Poker since!
In retrospect I have many proud memories of Korea and some misgivings, the principle one being my own unworthiness of the magnificence of the men I served with. I cringe inwardly when I think of my behaviour and mistakes. To my everlasting regret I have seen little of them since that time. My own life has been a fortunate one. The fates have treated me kindly with a lot of luck and a wonderful wife and family. I wonder how those men who deserved so much have fared. Regrettably, on return to their Homeland their sacrifices were forgotten conveniently by the general Australian public, their Nation never ever awarded them the honour or rewards they deserved. Some of us were trained and qualified to absorb the emotional blows of battle, to find a vocation in Civvy street and to set our new lives in order. Not so, many of the front line diggers. They absorbed the many scars of battle, pumped up by victory and defeat and supported by an understanding Army system. They then returned to the peace time world stunned by the changes they must accept and often without adequate recognition of their sacrifice. The blow to personal esteem is devastating. Not everyone can handle it. Adequate public recognition and thanks on return to Australia would have helped but it was denied them. They returned home to a "So What!" society, forgotten heroes, to lick their wounds and put their lives together again. This is the real tragedy of War. Not only death, wounds or tactical defeat, but the damage to the spirit of those who participate and the inability to adjust to the future.
Somehow, perhaps in our own solitude, we all think of those times, with 3 RAR in Korea. Horse Goggin firing the mortar without base-plate or bipod, Jack Morrison passing the bottle to cool the Vickers, Jim Burnett blasting from the hip, Mark Young's poker table games, Jim McFadzean in Jack Gerke's wake loaded down with wireless, Joe Vezgoff and Dutchy Holland acting the fool on the Lozenge, finding a piece of ham in the ham and beans, Reg Whalley and his rum issue, trading a bottle with the Yanks, frost bite and the universal panacea Barbasol, the madness that was R&R, the wild parties in reserve, the short arm, the loneliness of patrol , frozen corpses exposed by the thaw, the courage of the Korean bearers, the despair of the Korean refugees, the Chinese bugles and whistles, the sour taste of defeat and the exhilaration of success, the fear of death or cowardice, the massive trauma of shrapnel or gunshot wounds, Arthur Stanley and the courageous stretcher bearers under fire, "Doc" Barnes , Padre "Joe" Phillips and the wounded, our fallen comrades.
"Frank " Hassett and the men of 3 Battalion blazed a path of glory for those who followed. The Commanding Officer and all commanders by their inspirational leadership, courage and example and the others by their grim determination to succeed.
The story of Commando will long endure in Infantry and regimental history.
Age and sickness may dim the lives of those who participated but nothing can take away the pride of their achievements on those eventful days.
Many of us drew life long inspiration from the sacrifices of our colleagues.
"MARYANG SAN" AND ITS SISTER BATTLES "APPROACH TO THE YALU","KAPYONG" AND "THE HOOK", WERE THE FIRST AND THE LAST CONVENTIONAL BATTLES FOUGHT BY AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY SINCE 1939-45. AS SUCH THEY ARE CLASSICS OF BATTALION TACTICS.
THEY REST PROUDLY ON THE REGIMENTAL COLOURS FOR
LEST WE FORGET
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