TO BE A SOLDIER
We have resisted publishing anonymous articles. The Editorial Advisers have recommended that we include this one as it encapsulates some of the experiences and attitudes of Australian soldiers in Korea. The basics have been confirmed by some who served with Snowy. He is well known to many Korea War veterans. He did not complete his 12 months obligatory tour of Korea, being seriously wounded some 10 months after his baptism of fire. Prayers for the dying were administered to him by an Army Chaplain. He was evacuated via a number of United Nations MASH units and eventually to the British Commonwealth Hospital in Kure, Japan. After many months, he was one of the last of the wounded to be repatriated to Australia and spent months in the Repatriation Hospital, Concord. He was discharged with rank of Sergeant. He is still in full time employment and devotes much of his time to veterans and community organizations in a voluntary capacity. For reasons of his own, his post war friends and business associates are not aware that he is a military veteran and this is way he wants it.
I think I always wanted be a soldier. My father and his 4 brothers served on Gallipoli and on the Western Front in World War 1. As a very young boy my Dad would take me into Sydney each Anzac Day to watch the March. He did not march, never wore his 3 medals (which we only found after his death), never joined the Returned Soldiers League (RSL) but did make regular donations to his Battalion's Welfare Fund. Sometimes this was difficult in the depression years coupled with the fact that he had a large family to care for.
After the march he would meet with his brothers and other members of his battalion, and standing on street corners would reminisce about "old times". Never in my presence would they talk of their combat experiences. It was usually the funny and the humorous. Their escapades with British officers, their confrontations with the Military Police, their occasional leaves in France and England and sometimes (with discretion) their relationships with English and French girls.
Came World War 2 and again my father and progressively, as they became of age, four of his five sons served as combatants. Being the youngest I was denied military service, I did make some clumsy attempts to enlist (under age) and spent 6 weeks in the 2nd AIF at Greta Camp in New South Wales before I was "sprung". I was escorted home by two burly Military Police officers who gave me a hard time as their weekend leave had been canceled for my escort duty, Some months later I managed to enlist in what was then known as the American Small Ships. I was issued with some kind of a uniform, given very basic training in seaman's duties and allocated to an old "rust bucket" berthed at Darling Harbour. We eventually set sail for New Zealand but after 2 days were re-routed to Brisbane. On arrival, at the dockside an officer of the Department of Manpower, a rather oldish army officer and a social worker greeted me. Again I had been "sprung". I assumed (in later years) that for a variety of reasons it was obvious that I was much younger than I claimed. At ablutions I was the only one who did not shave. I did not even own a razor. I was escorted home by the social worker.
On the odd occasions when my father and my brothers were home on leave at the same time I would listen in awe to their stories. Like my uncles and their father before them, it was always the humorous and the comical. Never their combat experience. To me they were all heroes. World War 2 finished and my mother's prayers were answered. Her "baby" would not have to serve. She had already lost one son over Europe and my father had been seriously wounded in the Middle East.
My opportunity to be a fighting soldier came with the Korean War of 1950-1953. When the call for volunteers went out I enlisted in the Army. I was not a good soldier. Just average, I guess. Along with hundreds of others I underwent basic training at Puckapunyal then to the Commonwealth Battle School at Haramura in Japan and finally posted as a reinforcement (usually referred to as REOS) to the Royal Australian Regiment then fighting in Korea. My moment of truth had come. The "playing" at soldiers was over. This was the real thing.
As a reinforcement one was most conscious of the fact that you were replacing someone who had been killed or seriously wounded. Would you complete your 12 months obligatory service in Korea or would you also be replaced due to death or wounds? The alternative was not attractive to me. I was in a group of nine REOS and as we were escorted progressively through the Battalion's positions we were individually "dropped off" at platoons or sections where we were needed. I was the last one. I don't remember drawing straws but obviously I must have had the shortest. We were greeted by those who had preceded us with calls such as:
"you will be sorry"
"have trouble getting your tourist visa?"
"did you miss the bus?"
"catch the wrong tram - did you?"
"you didn't hear the bugle - only the bloody echo"
"wrong place mate. The Holiday Camp is a 100 miles to the rear?"
All "reos" received the same or similar greetings.
The Battalion at that stage was "dug in" in a static position with several battalions (some claimed that it was 3 Brigades or a Division) of Chinese communists a few hundred yards to our front. I was escorted to a "foxhole" which I later found out was the furthest outpost of the Battalion's defence. Accompanied by the Platoon Sergeant, I crawled the last 75 yards loaded down with equipment including an Owen gun, ammunition and entrenching tool (shovel). I slid into the "hole" and propped in the corner was another soldier with a cigarette stuck to his bottom lip. The Sergeant popped his head over the rim of the "hole" and said, "Mumbles - this is Snowy - show him the ropes" and then crawling away said to me "and you .......... start digging!!" After the minimum of courtesies with my new mate I started digging in my part of the hole. Being over 6 feet tall, when I stood erect my head, shoulders and part of my chest protruded over the rim. I needed no encouragement to dig. Even though it was very cold I was soon sweating. Having deepened my part of the hole considerably, I turned to "Mumbles" and said "What do you think?" If I expected any sort of compliment for my efforts, it was not forthcoming. "Bloody idiot" said Mumbles "If it rains we will both drown. If I wanted a watery death I would have joined the f..... navy." Mumbles, whose nickname originated from his manner of speech, was a man of few words but when he did speak you were never left in doubt as to what he meant. All the time I was digging he sat propped in his corner continually rolling and smoking cigarettes. I did suggest that maybe he should be looking to our front for any sign of enemy movement. He nonchalantly replied that "you will hear the bastards before you bloody well see them", I was soon to find out what he meant.
As I said before, we were literally out front. Our nearest support was at least 75 yards to our left and right rear. I don't know what prompted me to think of the old Australian expression of being "like a shag on rock" but that is exactly how I felt and very vulnerable at the same time. Night approached and we took it in turns of "standing to" but I had very little faith in Mumbles ability to stay awake for any length of time. My fears were unfounded, as I soon realized, that, when appearing to be asleep or dozing, Mumbles could be awake and on the alert in a flash with an instant appraisal of the situation. He in some ways resembled a cat and later proved to be a good mate and was instrumental in me surviving the war. Darkness fell. I spent a very anxious and fearful night. After darkness we lost our communication with our support to our rear, which in the main consisted of hand signals and the odd shout. Just before first light we heard movement to our immediate and left front. Then all hell broke loose. Mortars, artillery and flares rained down on our positions. This lasted for about 20 minutes. Mumbles and I "stood to" checking our Owen guns and placing ammunition clips on the rim of our hole. Mumbles turned to me and said "Good luck Snowy - they are on their way ." Then we heard them. Bugles, rattles, screams and yells and then they appeared out of the smoke and mist. They charged up the slight rise packed shoulder to shoulder. Our mates to our rear opened up first, firing over our heads, but only just. We then followed suit. As the enemy were hit they would fall backwards, knocking over those who were following. Despite our withering fire they still came. To us they appeared to be "doped" up to the eyeballs. I do not know if this was ever substantiated. They appeared to have interminable numbers to throw into the battle. Casualties did not concern them. They just kept coming up the slope. Eventually our mortars ranged in on them - sometimes horribly close to our hole.
After what seemed like hours - but in actual fact was about 40 or 50 minutes - the Chinese withdrew. Mumbles and I took the odd shot at those retreating but really did not take any specific aim. We slumped to the bottom on our hole - exhausted. He had six rounds of ammunition left and I had four. Mumbles said " You OK." "I think so" said I, looking at my hands which were both blistered from inadvertently grabbing the hot barrel of my Owen gun. I then patted myself all over - looked at my hands again and found that they were covered in blood. Christ - I thought - I'm mortally wounded but am feeling no pain. I had visions of my body being placed in a shallow grave, covered only by my poncho - there were no Body Bags in those days - then snow placed over it - which would eventually melt and expose my mortal remains to the elements. I looked up and hanging over the rim of our hole was a Chinese soldier - no more than 16 or 17 years of age - his head, right arm and shoulders dangling inside our refuge. His blood had been dripping onto my outer clothing which was the blood on my hands. His eyes were staring blankly into the coming dawn. I reached up and closed his eyes as gently as I could and pushed the body away. All I could mutter to myself as "Poor bastard - thank Christ it was not me."
A few minutes later we heard yells and screams from our rear. It appears that during the engagement our rear echelons had called in for air support. This was forthcoming albeit 20 to 30 minutes too late. The American aircraft either misread their map grid references or mistook our positions for the enemy and off loaded napalm and phosphorous. Our fellows had the choice of being burnt alive or exposing themselves to enemy fire. They chose the latter as did Mumbles and I. I hid behind what I thought was a boulder but in actual fact was not much bigger than a piece of rock candy. Mumbles found something similar about 30 yards to my left. As the smoke began to clear this apparition appeared, lumbering towards me with arms outstretched and his outer clothing smouldering. It was grotesque. At this stage I was lying on my back and then sat upright. It was like something out of a modern day horror movie. He stood immediately to my front and stared down at me. His nose, both ears and upper lip were missing. What skin was left on his face was visibly blistering. I vividly remember his gleaming white youthful teeth. He thumped down beside me and stared intently into my eyes. He then put his arm around my shoulder and said "we are not having the best of days - are we Snowy." We sat like that for what appeared to be an eternity but was only a few minutes. The stench from his burning flesh was overpowering. I was powerless to do anything to assist him and under the immediate circumstances there was nothing that I could do. He then staggered to his feet, looked down at me, stiffened in a death throe, spun 180 degrees and fell prone on his back. His arms were outstretched, his ankles crossed and his head titled slightly onto his chest. A Christ like pose. In a space of 15 minutes, I again closed the eyes of another soldier. I don't know who he was. I do not want to know, but he certainly knew me. Possibly someone that had trained with me at the Commonwealth Battle School at Haramura.
A short time later Mumbles and I again sought the protection of our hole. The Platoon Commander and the Platoon Sergeant crawled down to our position. "You two OK" asked the Commander. We nodded in the affirmative. I did note an air of concern in his voice but it was obvious (to me) that what we had just experienced was to be regarded as an every day event in the life of an infantry soldier. They pushed a rucksack of ammunition into our hole. The Sergeant advised that Mumbles and I were going to be pulled back 75 yards in line with our other forward positions. This gave me some comfort. We were then told that this was not to be regarded as a retreat - but a withdrawal - or an attack in a different direction. Australian soldiers never retreat - they retire. As they crawled away the Sergeant looked back and in a loud voice said "and you two - shave - now" Jesus Christ. I thought, there is death and destruction all around us and the bastard wants us to shave. I was later to learn that the simple act of a shave and a wash can do wonders for morale.
Mumbles and I remained in our hole for another few hours. We exchanged a few words. I was more than impressed with his coolness and only by his example was I able to survive my baptism of fire. Believing him to be a hardened, experienced combat soldier I innocently asked "How long have you been over here". "Four days before you" replied Mumbles. Christ Almighty - I had placed my very life in the hands of someone who only had 4 days experience more than I. You learn fast in the infantry. You have to if you are to survive.
We were eventually withdrawn to the main Platoon positions. Reinforcements were led into the area to replace our dead and wounded. They were greeted by the usual shouts of
"Where have you been"
"You will be sorry"
"Have trouble getting your tourist visa"
"Did you miss the bus"
"Catch the wrong tram -did you"
"You didn't hear the bugle - only the bloody echo"
"Wrong place mate. The Holiday Camp is a 100 miles to the rear"
I was shouting as loud as the others. I had been blooded. I was now a real soldier. However I soon realized that real soldiers were made of sterner stuff than me. A civilian in uniform.
Obviously I survived the war. Not through any skills or expertise of my own but only through the individual and combined efforts of my fellow "diggers". Some were "as rough as guts" but underneath their various facades they showed a caring, a compassion and even a love of their fellows which I have never experienced in civilian life. On more occasions than I care to remember I have seen them lay their lives on the line for their mates. I have seen and heard them attempting to comfort the dying - tenderly, if somewhat clumsily - and with tears in their eyes.
The conditions under which we served were primitive in the extreme. The wildest of animals could not be expected to survive the circumstances that we endured. Most people in Australia were not even aware that Australia had forces in Korea and in 1994 it is even less. Approximately 17,000 Australians (RAN, Army, RAAF) served in the Korea War. Fight and survive most of us did. In the 3 year war the Australian casualties were nearly 400 dead and thousands wounded and sick. Most of the time we had insufficient or inappropriate clothing. Food on most occasions was basic and sparse. Our weapons were inferior to that of our then enemy and our allies. Temperatures of 30 degrees below zero were recorded and I have seen and heard grown men cry with the pain of the cold. The death and carnage has never been fully recorded of the civilian casualties but estimates run to two and a half million. At some periods it was Dante's Inferno, circa 1950.
It was not uncommon to go for weeks without a proper wash or shower. On occasions troops would urinate or defecate in their clothing. To expose oneself for such basic calls of nature could mean instant death. We stank, we were dirty but at all times we remained human beings, still instilled with the basics of normal and acceptable codes of human behaviour.
Visits from VIPs from Australia were rare but on odd occasions they did come. I remember on one occasion a politician who was also a Cabinet Minister arrived to address us. The Battalion had been "in the line" for months and the night previously we had just been withdrawn to a reserve position. It was usual practice that the day after withdrawal arrangements with the Americans would be made for their hygiene caravan to come to our area. It was a massive trailer like construction, fitted with delousing equipment (DDT), showers etc. The diggers would line up, section by section, platoon by platoon, company by company until the whole Battalion passed through. At the entrance at the rear, we would strip naked and pass through the various sections of the caravan being deloused, showering and even having your head shaved - but this was not obligatory for the Australians. On exiting one was handed a complete set of clothing, usually recycled - including underwear and outer garments which had to last for months. In typical Army fashion the clothing that we were issued with came in two sizes - too big or too small. The next thirty six hours was spent by the soldiers wandering through the reserve area attempting to exchange more appropriate sized clothing with their fellows. Some of the deals that were made would put many of the current crop of entrepreneurs to shame. The timetable of this particular politician was such that we did not have time to go through the delousing process. A makeshift platform had been erected from which he was to address us. We were paraded before the platform and ordered to sit on the ground. Naturally we did not sit very close to one another as we all smelt liked a garbage dump or a sewage treatment works. The great man appeared on the stage, large and corpulent with what is generally referred to as a "beer gut". None of us in any way could be regarded as being terrific but we were trim and taut. He was resplendent in brand new Khaki Drills (KD's), starched and immaculately pressed, webbing belt with polished brass, shiny boots complete with gaiters.
This was crowned with a fur felt (slouch hat) which many of us would have like to have "souvenired" as we could get at least US$25 for it off the Yanks. To his credit he did not wear any insignia or honorary badges of rank. I cannot remember much of the details of his speech. It was the usual political rhetoric - "how proud we are of you - the support that you have from Australia. You are the torchbearers of the ANZAC spirit" etc. We were all too busy scratching and attempting to eliminate bugs from our outer clothing to absorb much of the thrust of his speech. He finished with a typical political promise (probably never honoured) and with an upward flourish of both arms in Richard Nixon style, obviously expecting wild applause from his captive audience. Deathly silence. Then, a real Ocker voice from the middle of the Battalion "Careful there Josh - you could be charged with impersonating a soldier". In the terms of the Thespians it brought the house down. The offending digger was immediately placed under arrest by MP's and we understand that the charge was "using offensive language to a Minister of the Crown". Our Company Commander soon had the charge dropped and we believe that the offender was promoted to Corporal. The Minister went on to strut the International political stage extolling the contributions made by Australia to the United Nations in Korea.
Service in Korea affected us all in some way for the rest of our lives. We had some joys and we had some fun and we certainly had our season in the sun but mingled with it was considerable darkness. When I finally returned to Australia I was often asked what was it like. I remembered my Father, his brothers and my brothers. I now understood why they never spoke of their combat experience. This is the first and it will be last time I have spoken or written of mine. If it ever gets to print I shall not read it. Besides, most people will not believe me.
I vividly remember my baptism of fire but many other similar incidents fortunately have faded with time and memory. Most Australians of the Korea War regard themselves as the forgotten veterans of a forgotten war. Unlike our gallant younger brothers and sisters and in some cases our sons and daughters who later fought in Vietnam, we never had a Welcome Home Parade. There was no such thing as a Counseling Service for those who suffered traumas. Any entitlements that we had from the Veterans' Entitlement Act (the Old Repatriation Act) had to be justified and fought for, for years after our return. Many in high positions of the RSL saw us as new comers. Until recently, 1995, no Federal government has believed that our 400 dead are worthy of a National Memorial in Canberra or to recognise our service with an Australian medal. They left that to the Brits or the United Nations.
Forgotten veterans from a forgotten war.
Maybe that is how it should be!!
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