RECOLLECTIONS OF KOREA JULY 1953
Brian Cooper was born in East Perth, WA in 1933. He joined the Regular Army on 1 October 1951. After Recruit Training he was posted to 2RAR at Puckapunyal and assigned to the MMG Platoon. He was promoted Corporal in 1952 and Sergeant in 1953. After his Korean War service he remained in the Army until 1968 reaching the rank of WO1 (RSM). He had many postings including Exchange Duties with the US Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. He wrote and rewrote numerous Infantry Training Manuals. He later specialized in heavy weapons and Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Warfare. Since leaving the Army he held a number of senior executive appointments with National associations and organizations. He established his own consultancy in 1988. He is active in community life being the Secretary of the Geraldton Sub-Branch of the RSL and a member of the Royal Justices Association. He is married and lives in Geraldton, Western Australia. Brian was awarded the Military Medal (MM) for bravery whilst serving with 2 Battalion RAR.
After joining the regular army on 1 October, 1951, aged barely 18 years, I completed recruit training in WA and eventually was posted to 2 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) located at Puckapunyal Victoria where I was assigned to the Medium Machine Gun (MMG) Platoon. Following concentrated training at the School of Infantry, Seymour Victoria, I was made a Corporal gun number one in 1952 and a Section Commander, Sergeant by February 1953, still aged 19 years. We embarked for the Korean War, early March 1953. I believe I was appointed Sergeant because of the expertise I had shown with the handling, employment and fire control of Medium Machine Guns. I could not have had any idea of what commanding ten men in battle might have meant to me mentally, or, for that matter, what close combat with a determined enemy would be like.
The first tour of duty in the line of " Hill 159" was not too stressful, with just a few skirmishes with the enemy. After some six weeks in the line we were relieved and rested as Brigade reserve. It was June 1953 and we could hear the constant pounding of heavy artillery on what we eventually learned was a feature called "The Hook". This notorious piece of Korea had a reputation for some of the bloodiest encounters of the Korean War. The United States (US) Marines had defended it at great cost, as had the United Kingdom Black Watch Regiment. Now it was the turn of The Duke of Wellington Regiment to contest ownership of "The Hook". It was said that more men perished on its slopes than on any other single battleground in Korea.
2 RAR was warned to prepare for defence of "The Hook". My section was assigned to occupy Point 111, a small feature to the West from where we could give flanking fire to the forward company on the principal feature. When I went forward to familiarize myself with the tasks and ground, a section of the Kings Regiment had the 111 position with the major defence left to elements of the Turkish Brigade. When I eventually arrived with my section and relieved The Kings, the main defenders were the US Marines. I believe we arrived on the 8 or 9 July, I had eight gun numbers, two of whom were corporals, a radio operator, a KATCOM (Korean assistant) and a cook located some 600 metres to the rear in a more secure position. About 500 metres to our front was the enemy. The ground between was heavily cratered by shellfire. The forward Australians were some 1100 meters to my right front (north) on the "The Hook" and Hill 121 was to my right flank (east). Between my position and the nearest Australian troops were US Marines, with the rest of the Marine Division extending westward to my left. My position had two machine gun bunkers, with my small command bunker between. The defences were run down. With a single sand bag taken from my bunker wall, I was looking across no man's land.
My only contact with my countrymen was by radio. My only visitor was my Company Sergeant Major (CSM) who brought ammunition and supplies to keep us fighting. The US Marines were engaged with ferocious battles on features to the West, known as Vegas, Carson, Reno, East/West Berlin and others.
It was obvious from the frequent rotations and the status of the Marines who came and went, that they were resting exhausted troops on Point 111, regarding it as an inactive area. We were well prepared and armed, including 50,000 rounds for the MMGs. We commanded the communication trench system from the rear of the feature to defences on the forward slopes of Point 111. There was no chance to get to know the US Commanders, since they came and went too frequently. Whilst my main task was the defence of "The Hook", a secondary task was to liaise with the Marines about their patrol movements so that clashes of friendly forces could be avoided. The routine was to sleep by day, except my radio operator who rested at night, and repel the enemy at night. Things were relatively quiet, with only an occasional skirmish, until 19 July.
Sunday 19 July, with my regular ammunition re-supply, came a sandbag full of bottles of Scotch whiskey from officers and non commissioned officers (NCO's) of my Battalion to be exchanged for weapons and equipment from the Americans. Australian Officers and NCO's had a monthly ration of one bottle of Scotch. US troops were dry in the field. I felt bad about what I was expected to do, because it was against US regulations and against what I believed to be right. But I knew that I was a small pawn in the game and outranked by almost all those who sent booze to trade. The Marines were very keen and would have traded almost anything to get Scotch. The trading was done and we had some extra weapons and equipment..
At last light that night, a heavy bombardment commenced and was followed by an attack on the Marine perimeter. A fierce fire fight followed with the Marine 60mm mortar on a rear position struggling to supply illumination with flares. I got my 2 inch mortar into action from the trench floor firing illuminating flares. The fight was short but spirited; our first hard encounter with the enemy. Some of the wounded Marines ended in my command bunker. One of them was slightly wounded, but had a bottle of whiskey smashed in his hip pocket and his buttock was badly cut with slivers of glass, but surely well sterilized. Those Marines rotated to one of the "Berlin" features and one of them had souvenired my 2 inch mortar. This might have meant a court martial for me, given the current, Australian Army policy about lost equipment. I was deeply concerned about this possibility, so I decided to let one of my soldiers go to wherever the Marines had gone and retrieve the mortar. The seriousness of my action struck me later. What if he was killed or taken prisoner? How would I explain that, since I had not sought permission. I sweated out a couple of days delaying any report of my actions, but my man returned with the stolen mortar. Routine activities resumed until Friday 24 July. In the meantime, another MMG section was warned to relieve my troops around the 30th of July (the war ended on the 27th).
Friday 24 July 1953, at last light, a very heavy bombardment of Point 111 commenced and it was obvious that it would be followed by an attack. Subsequent battalion intelligence reports showed the counted incoming enemy artillery pounding Point III as 4500 rounds on the night 24/25 July alone. Bunkers and trenches caved in under the concentrated blasting. Barbed wire and mines were neutralized. A number of rounds exploded near the parapet knocking me to the trench floor and wounding Pte Mudford and Corporal Franklin, both of whom were unfit to fight and needed evacuation. Platoon Sergeant "Doug" Jordan obtained a Canadian half - tracked vehicle and we saw to their evacuation along with as many wounded Marines as the vehicle could fit on board. This was all achieved under bombardment and attack. There was no other medical evacuation attempted that night from Point 111, to the best of my knowledge. The US 60mm mortar, so effective on Sunday 19 July, was one of the first targets to be neutralized by the accurate enemy fire, directed by a fire controller on Point 111 as we were to discover later. Fortunately, I had requested and received a large supply of illuminating rounds for the returned 2 inch mortar and I was able to put up a steady stream of light for the Marines to fight by. The fire fight was prolonged and furious before the flares ran out. My machine guns remained manned and pointed at their Defensive Fire SOS (Save our Souls), or primary target, the defence of our fellow Australians on "The Hook". But they were never attacked in strength. The enemy assault on our forward Company faltered under severe artillery bombardment.
My part of Point 111 came under enemy infantry assault in strength. Just prior to this, some eleven Marines had made their escape back to our position, most of them out of ammunition. We had kept the weapons of the evacuated and dead Marines, which the survivors now eagerly took to continue the fight with. We had also primed box after box of grenades, which were now being furiously thrown at the enemy around us.
I believe that the eleven Marines were the only fit survivors of what must have been 50 at the start of the battle. I also believe that my small area was the only part of Point 111 not in enemy hands and that, as a result, I was in command of the hill and all the friendly forces that fought for it. To a man, we all believed we were destined to die that night, and we were hell bent on taking the enemy with us. A strange thing happened at that time. Despite the danger of the moment, it seemed to occur to all of us at once, that we might die with a man and not know his name. We all made sure that we learnt each unknown man's name, despite the obvious dangers of the battle. Still my machine guns remained steadfastly aimed at "The Hook". We were losing the situation and were completely overrun. Enemy infantry were attacking us on all sides. The only course of action I could see, given that we had some cover and the enemy none, was to use my radio to call friendly artillery fire down upon our own position, I did, and it was delivered with great accuracy and deadly effect. I repeated that action several times that night until the enemy assault had faltered and broken up. Friendly artillery fired 13500 rounds in that battle and much of it fell on our position. I was personally stressed by the blast that knocked me over. For all I know I was concussed. I was certainly feeling exhausted. The radio was also a stress in one sense since my own unit was constantly after information about the state of the battle for Point 111. This pressure certainly complicated my ability to appreciate situations and command. I was informed that a company of the Durham Light Infantry was amongst our unit reserves and preparing to counter attack our position should all seem lost, which gave rise to requests for information. There was a real threat of being attacked by friendly troops, on ground unfamiliar to them. During the action and in the dark, a figure moved slowly toward where I was located. The silhouette was unmistakably Asian with a characteristic bandy legged movement. I held a point 45 calibre Colt pistol cocked and ready until his face came in to contact with the muzzle. A panicked voice gave out: "No Sergint! Me SOO." It as Soo Kyo Soong, South Korean Soldier (KATCOM) under my command. I came within an ace of blowing him to kingdom come. I found I was calm, my hand steady. At daylight, the tattered remnants of my command, including Marines, set about looking for wounded comrades. The Chinese had come to stay and were occupying all strong points by this time. One bunker had a Chinese soldier in it and he was armed and firing , but quite ineffectively. My men tried to coax him out, Pte Cranston suffering grenade fragments to his buttocks; but languages may have confused the messages. My men asked what to do. I ordered them to kill him. His fate was decided by grenades and the Owen gun. We found many corpses; enemy and friendly. The gruesome sight of some live with me forever. Like the one hit with a flame-thrower and from which an occasional blister would burst and send up a puff of smoke. Another Marine carcass had the top of the cranium sliced off to reveal the contents of his head. Others were headless, limbless or with large holes through the torso. Other US Marines arrived before long and used the security of our position, and our 3.5 inch rocket launcher, to commence retaking their lost defences, such as they now were. This was achieved by last light, still under bombardment.
On the night of 25/26 July 1953, the enemy once again mounted a concerted attack on Point 111 and Hill 121, but the weight of artillery fire now given in support and the reserves committed to the battle, meant the enemy infantry assault failed. By then, the Marines were also taking Point 111 more seriously. The enemy body count when daylight came was about 300 on the forward slopes. The war came to end on July 27, about two weeks before my 20th birthday.
Another incident I found quite distressing following the battle of "The Hook" was having to escort a private soldier from D Company to 90 days imprisonment in Japan, to be followed by dishonourable discharge; his courts martial sentence for cowardice in the face of the enemy. I completed my recruit training with this man and shared the same hut. He was a wonderful person. He had completed several patrols in no man's land and on one, had to remain out all night with his mates, all of whom had been either killed or wounded. On a subsequent patrol, he got to the wire and was unable to step once more into no man's land. His nerve had gone. One of the casualties of war. To this day I share the pain of his loss.
Australian author, Patsy Adam Smith was recently on radio claiming that Australia has always sent its boys off to war. This was certainly true in my case and most of my comrades weren't very much older. But when boys are also given responsibilities for the actions and lives of others, even though they accept it willingly, the outcomes can often be a personal tragedy for them.
If most of what we are and the way we respond to the world is as a result of learning, then in my case, I believe the experience I had of war in Korea, at the age of 19 years, had a more profound effect on my personal life and subsequent behaviour than any other event, before or since. That experience shaped my behaviour and personality in ways I think I would have preferred to have avoided, and much of what I was when I returned from Korea is still with me today. The past is unalterable, but to the extent it continues to invade the present and future, so will it dominate the quality of my life, as it has done for the past forty years.
(For the above action Brian Cooper was awarded the Military Medal -
Some Laughs at Vickers Village
It was in May 1953 that 2RAR went into action for the first time at Hill 159, a line of relatively low hills next to 355, or "Little Gibraltar". My MMG section was assigned to a lightly wooded spur line running east toward 355, and part of a platoon of four guns. Our task was to give defensive fire to rifle Companies and protect patrol movements when they ran into the enemy in no man's land. We had clear line of sight to the main enemy feature, 227, or "John" as it was known. Other enemy "Apostles, Luke, Mark and Matthew" stretched westwards. One dark night, the listening post down the spur from our Command Post, telephoned to say that there was enemy movement to their front. Sergeant "Barry" Maxwell was sent to investigate. He stayed a while with the two men there and observed; but could discern no movement. He did hear some rustling noises around the barbed wire, but this was not unusual because earlier occupants had thrown empty food tins to the wire to give way enemy movement. The rats that now foraged amongst them made equally as much noise. Barry had noticed a dark tree stump and cautioned the men not to stare at it as the eyes might create movement. Some time later, the phone rang again with the same duo reporting enemy movement. They were advised to keep watch and call again if there was further enemy activity. It wasn't long before the Bren LMG at the listening post burst into life and several grenades exploded down the slope toward the wire. Maxwell took some reinforcements to the listening post to help beat off any attack. Meanwhile, Battalion Headquarters and the nearby Rifle Company Headquarters were on the radio trying to find out how serious the enemy incursion was. Maxwell changed sentries and the rest of the night passed without incident. First light revealed the true extent of the damage: a tight group of fresh .303 holes and bullets in the middle of that stump. A true testimony to the renowned accuracy of the Bren!
One too many
"Vickers Village", as we called our position, could only be reached on foot and re-supply was by 'Noggy Train', the colloquial name for the Korean porters who trudged each evening and morning with Herculean loads of food, water and ammunition from the jeep head to our gun lines. We always provided an armed escort because it was not unknown for the enemy to infiltrate by adding one or two 'extras' onto the Noggy Train. The escort had to know how many carriers he started and finished with. Not an easy task since the only Korean language we knew was some of the unmentionable terms and the Koreans could speak only broken English, mostly for begging purposes. One night just on dusk, the area behind us was punctured with the unmistakable sound of a burst of automatic fire from an Owen gun. A few of us sped toward the sound and came upon one of our soldiers menacing a number of Korean porters, who had jettisoned their loads and were cringing in fear of this seemingly enraged Australian about to end their careers. His explanation was that he had started with eight porters and now he had nine. There was obviously a 'Gook' (enemy) among them and he would get him even if he had to shoot the lot. Such was his indignation. With a combination of sign language, broken English and even worse Korean, and with the seriousness of the situation in mind, we discovered that the ninth man was the cook for the porters. It seemed that there was just too many stores for eight porters and he had volunteered to help his mates out this time by carrying a load too. I doubt that he ever volunteered again.
Don't Get Snaky
Late one afternoon after checking that all posts and guns were manned and that troops were properly equipped for the long night, I headed up the communication trench toward my post at the command bunker. The communication trench was deep enough for all but the tallest of men to walk erect without being seen. I carried my 9mm Owen gun and plenty of spare magazines, all filled with 32 rounds. Up ahead of me I sighted a snake of small size by Australian standards, coming down the trench-line. We were on collision course in the narrow confines of the trench. I had no idea if it was venomous or if it was likely to attack in the circumstances. In a moment, I had slid aside the safety slide of my trusty Owen and fired down upon the slithering form of the reptile. It wriggled out the last of its life as I hastily reloaded and troops came running from bunkers to find out what all the shooting was about. Of the 32 rounds I had fired, the score was 2 hits and 30 misses, which brought peels of laughter. Then someone suggested that I come down from on top of the communication trench where I was standing in full view of the enemy. I hastily did as suggested. To this day, I cannot remember getting out of the trench, which I must have done with lightening speed. Yet it was over six feet deep!
Watch Our for Thieves
We arrived in Pusan, the Southern Korean port city and the United Nations (UN) toehold on the Korean peninsula for many of the early battles. There we were equipped with clothing and other material for the battle ground ahead. In that brief encounter at a British transit camp, we quickly learned that the Korean people had next to nothing and would steal anything they thought they could get away with. The risks were great. Getting caught for a Korean could mean losing their life if the Police took a fancy to that notion. Soon we were bundled onto a train and heading north toward what was for most of us, our first experience of battle. At one point along the way at some indecipherable siding, a large number of Korean youths and men emerged as the train slowed, almost as though it was planned to do. Running alongside the carriages, just out of reach of the troops, the Koreans held up pornographic pictures of almost endless variety. Eager hands soon reached out for them, but when they did so, the watches they wore were quickly torn from the wrist and the culprit sped away into the distance. Soldiers quickly learned that an offer was not always as it seemed to be in a country torn apart by war and its people driven to desperation. The perpetrators of this deed had a well rehearsed routine carefully nurtured with the passage of a thousand troop trains. The train crew probably came in for a cut too. There seemed no other reason for the train slowing at that point. Perhaps the thieves just had time on their hands?
Which Way Did They Go?
For Sergeants and Warrant Officers, when your unit was in reserve, it was not unusual to go visiting other unit Sergeants' Messes. This was usually just a marquee or two set aside from the main camp area, with a few 'acquired' comforts to make it seem more civilized. A makeshift bar, a few improvised chairs and the faithful 44 gallon drum filled with ice from who knows where and Japanese beer. The evenings were often long and inebriating. After all, none of us was sure just how long life might continue with the next tour of duty into the line. On one particular night I can recall traveling to the Mess of The Kings Regiment in the company of my Company Sergeant Major, "Les" Foale, and our Regimental Sergeant Major and ex Coldstream Guard Sergeant, "Peter" Steere. We left our hosts in good spirits and rather full of good cheer ourselves. Peter drove his own jeep; a most ungainly sight with his six feet six inches coiled in the front seat. We came to a 'Y' junction in a gravel road (they were all gravel or worse) and Peter asked which way to go. I asserted to the left whilst Les urged go right. The debate continued for some seconds between the two back seat drivers whilst the vehicle continued straight ahead, down an embankment, over rough ground, coming to rest with some barbed wire across the windshield and a small metal triangle (the universal sign for a minefield) clanking against the glass. Silence prevailed. Les shone a torch. As we had suspected, we were in a minefield. Not a word was spoken. Peter put the jeep into reverse gear and without turning the wheel, took the same line out as we had taken in. From that moment onwards, it was an amazing transformation form inebriation to sobriety. The silence was deafening for the rest of our journey.
Taking souvenirs on visits to friendly units was all part of the ethos of calling on friends. If you could get away with something to take back to your unit, it was a mark of your daring and skill, as well as one up for your unit. On one visit to the mess of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, I noticed some kerosene heaters in the mess warming the interior of the marquees. I let my companions, Steere and Foale, knowing that I intended to acquire one. Of course getting caught meant quite a roughing up at the hands of the owners. My companions created a diversion whilst I pretended to go to the toilet. I was actually strapping one of these units still alight onto the back of Steere's Jeep when I was discovered. With the onset of the rough stuff, my companions jumped into the jeep and were speeding on their way. I was thrown bodily onto the top of the canopy and spent some anxious moments at high speed until my friends discovered my plight.
Words of Wisdom from Trash
To support the forward troops of 2 Battalion RAR, on The Hook, in July 1953, my section of Medium Machine Guns was attached to the US Marine Corps located on Hill 111. From there I could deliver flanking machine gun fire across the forward positions of our Australian mates. A secondary task for me was to make liaison with the local US commander to find out patrol movements and relay this information back to 2 RAR HQ so that friendly forces avoided shooting one another in the darkness. A favourite method of patrol action of the marines was to make enough noise to attract enemy investigation. Then, sitting back to back in a circle formation, await the arrival of enemy and blast them at close range with the pump action shot guns they carried.
Like all such patrols, the marines were checked off when passing through a guarded point on their way out and then back in. It was not unknown for the enemy to attach one or two troops to a returning patrol as a means of infiltration. For some reason, the marines on 111 seemed to use a particular check point guarded by a Negroid American character known as "Trash". I believe it stood for Black Trash, in a good humoured way. This character was held in high esteem and the name was used with respect and good humour, the way it was received. Trash guarded the route out and in with his trusty A4, a .30 cal machine gun on a bipod, belt fed and with a butt stock. One particular evening I approached a group of marines obviously getting themselves and their weapons ready for patrol action. Trash was smoking a cigar and cleaning his A4. I asked how many men would be going out on this patrol. One marine reckoned it to be eight. Another asserted that to be wrong and said that it was definitely ten. Yet a third claimed that they were both wrong and that the number was nine. Trash carefully ashed his cigar and said, "you guys better get a good count of yourselves cos I am shooting every son of a bitch I counts over eight."
I withdrew and headed for the marine command post.
"Trash" Sees the Light
Early one morning the reverse slope of Hill 111 was bathed in warm sunlight and men stood casually around relaxing and sunning themselves after some tense nights. In a shallow bunker Trash lay on a bunk reading some ancient paper or magazine. A fellow marine casually approached the doorway to the bunker and used the framework for a leaning post. A laconic voice came from within the bunker as Trash said: "Hey buddy. This here light takes fifty thousand light years to get to me and you have to stop it in the last three feet." The intruder moved away.
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