Harry and the Forgotten War
By Frank Hampson
There was a muffled clang as the hatch above Harry Edwards' head was battened down with clips to make a waterproof seal. Then in the dim glow of the bulkhead lighting, the RAN electrician's mate began to slide down the steel ladder fixed to the sheer sides of the 3ft. square shaft slicing into the bowels of HMAS Sydney.
It was full action stations for the Australian aircraft carrier during the Korean war( June 25,1950 - July 27, 1953),and Harry was hustling down the ladder to his particularly lonely station, a 10 ft. square chamber filled with electrical dials and control instruments. Here, Harry would sit out action after action, divorced from the gunfire, the roar of warplane engines, or crash landings on the flight deck as damaged aircraft returned from missions against the North Koreans and Chinese troops.
He was 30 ft. down and aft of the engine rooms. But he says the sailors in the engine rooms were in a far worse situation. They consisted more of a series of steel platforms rather than decks, and these descended all the way down to the keel, he says.
Yet there must have been a certain comfort in the noisy company of the
engine rooms compared to the silence, and uncertainty, of Harry's solitary
confinement. He recalls:
Harry had to remain at his post for 4-5 hours or more - however long the call to action stations lasted.
"We weren't allowed to leave until 'action stations clear' was piped."
During this time the only contact he had with
the outside world was through his electrical monitoring devices and his
reports to the ship.s damage control officer:
There were plenty of dials and settings for Harry to monitor. Apart from generating power for operational and defense purposes - "We supplied low electric power to our 40mm.Bofors guns" - the carrier also used electricity to service and move the aircraft for which it provided a battle platform. It carried two squadrons of Sea Furies (fighters), a squadron of Fireflies (fighter bombers), and a rescue helicopter on loan from the United States Navy - the Sydney was part of the American 7th. Fleet. The warplanes saw plenty of action during four months in Korean waters (October 1951-January 1952). By the time Sydney began her return voyage to Australia on January 27th. they had flown 2,366 sorties. Remarkably, despite heavy anti-aircraft defenses, only nine of her aircraft were shot down. Three of these fell during one patrol in the Han River area, when 28 other warplanes from the Sydney were damaged by anti-aircraft fire.
Despite the relatively heavy toll in damage and lost aircraft during the Han River operation, all of the RAN aircrew survived. Harry says one reason for this was the tremendous job the crew of the American rescue helicopter did in retrieving downed pilots.
"I think they had a 100% success rate", he says.
On one occasion a Firefly was shot down and the helicopter came in as the pilot and his observer were using their Owen submachine-guns to hold off some North Koreans who were attempting to capture them. Later we heard that one of the Americans jumped from the chopper and shot two North Korean soldiers while they were creeping up on our airmen from behind. But according to a RAN history, one of our airmen shot and killed a North Korean who was menacing the helicopter. Whatever .. it was one hell of a rescue!
During the entire four months, just three of the Sydney's RAN pilots were killed and another wounded. The first man died early in November when his Sea fury disintegrated after being hit by flak. The following month another Sea fury was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The pilot was killed when his body struck the tail of his plane after he bailed out. Then, early in January 1952, a Sea Fury disappeared in thick cloud. A wide search failed to find any trace of the pilot or his plane.
Four more of the Sydney's warplanes were the victims of accidents-one was lost overboard in a typhoon, while four on the Deck Park were damaged; it was a particularly nasty storm. Most of the United Nations ships in the area hit by Typhoon Ruth on the night of October 14-15, 1951 were damaged in some way. The seas were described as precipitous, causing the carrier to pitch and roll at frightening angles. But the only injuries reported to Sydney's crew were cuts and bruises.
Harry formerly of Moura, Queensland, has since retired to Boonah, where his son and daughter-in-law, Stephen and Linda used to run the Sugarloaf Bakery. But every ANZAC Day he remembers the "Forgotten war". "It was prompted by the Russian-backed North Korean communists invading South Korea", he says. And for the first time the United Nations decided to act to repel armed aggression. It was also a "first" for Australia, when our government decided to honour its commitment as a member of the UN. We were one of 16 nations who rushed fighting forces and arms to the Korean War zone, while other nations provided medical support and various forms of aid.
The Supreme Commander of the UN forces was General Douglas MacArthur and, after some early setbacks, he turned the tide on the North Koreans, liberating Seoul, the South Korean capital, and followed the North Koreans as they fled across the 38th. parallel - the geographical line that divides the two countries. Within a couple of weeks he had taken the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. But week later Communist China had entered the war, driving the UN forces back and retaking Seoul for the North Koreans. However, they suffered severe losses and the war finally ended in July 1953, with the signing of an armistice.
Harry says the war was fought in steamy summer heat and the bitter freeze of a near-arctic winter. He remembers with a shiver the arctic chill on board the Sydney as she cruised through ice flows on her patrols up the Sea of Japan towards Vladivostok. Because the United Nations was involved, people tend to think it couldn't have been much of a war he says. But Rear Admiral Crawford has dismissed any suggestion that it was a brush fire affair or a peacekeeping operation. He told a crowd at the dedication of the Korean Veterans Place at Redcliffe: Let there be no doubt. It was a brutal war, fought in the most appalling conditions, and the Australian casualty rate, taking account of the numbers committed and the three years of combat operations, is second only to the 1st. World War.
The Sydney was just one of nine Australian units serving with the 7th. Fleet which was awarded a special Citation from South Korean President, Syngmann Rhee, on behalf of his government. The other Australian units were the Anzac, Bataan, Condamine, Culgoa, Murchison, Shoalhaven, Tobruk, and Warramunga, and 806, 808 and 817 Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm. The Citation says all units of the 7th. Fleet distinguished themselves in support of UN Forces in Korea by their continued devastating attacks against the enemy, both by way of gunfire bombardment and heavy airstrikes. It concludes: "The efficiency with which the 7th. Fleet accomplished all of its assigned missions was in accord with the highest traditions of the Naval Service and reflects great credit upon the unit and each individual member."
But former sailor, Harry Edwards, is quick to point out that Australia's commitment to the Korean War also involved its Air Force and Army. On July 2, 1950, 77 Squadron RAAF was thrown into action on the Korean peninsula, he says. Showing great dedication and skill its pilots flew in weather when all other air commands wouldn.t move. But their ground crews kept them flying in snowstorms, rainstorms, and duststorms.
In September 1950 the 3rd. Battalion of The Royal Australian Regiment joined the battle, carrying on the traditions that began in the Boer War, set in cement in Gallipoli, and carried through two World Wars. Everyone knows of the battles and campaigns of those two wars, says Harry. But he asks: How many know of Sariwon, Yongju, Pakchon, Maryang-San, The Hook, or the bayonet charge at The Apple Orchard. Possibly the last bayonet charge in history! At Kapyong 35 Australian soldiers were killed and 53 wounded, but they held up the advance of the Chinese Army, allowing the UN Forces to consolidate a new defensive line.
In all of their battles in Korea, the Australian troops never gave an inch and covered themselves in glory. In the end, the total casualty toll for Australia's three services in Korea was: Killed in action 339 Wounded in action 1,216, taken prisoner (POW) 29.
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