Time to remember for veterans of the 'forgotten war'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 June, 2010, 12:00am

Standing just metres from the concrete block that lies between two blue huts and marks the border between the two Koreas, John Lees and Robison Brown watched one of their former enemies monitor their movements through high-powered binoculars.

Those movements are not as swift today as when they were under arms - Lees is now 78 and Brown is 80 - but yesterday they were among a group of about 100 veterans of 'the forgotten war' paying a visit to the demilitarised zone who received special attention from the North Korean military.

Instead of dozens of uniformed soldiers of Kim Jong-il's army standing toe-to-toe with their adversaries in the uniforms of South Korea and the United States, a solitary North Korean officer stood in the shade of the building set back on his side of the dividing line, watching.

It was as if the North Koreans refused to accept their very existence. Not that the veterans, from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Ethiopia, Greece, Luxembourg, Holland and the US, cared.

Lees and Brown have known each other for more than 60 years, a friendship that started before they boarded the troop ship from England to Hong Kong, grew as they patrolled the border with China as members of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI) and was tested in battle after their platoon landed at Inchon on May 13, 1951.

'It brings back a lot of memories, particularly of the lads that never came back,' said Lees, from Telford in the English county of Shropshire. 'This is the sixth time I've been back since the end of the war and each time the emotions are different because we go to a different place and I remember something else.

'But it's funny, I never remember being frightened when we were in the line. I never once thought it would be my time to die, even when I saw other men around me being killed.'

Lees and Brown share reminiscences as they look into North Korea: of the Chinese tying Christmas cards to the barbed wire in front of their position in the winter of 1951, although the messages inside were less festive, and of one of their mortar teams setting a record for having 32 shells in the air before the first one detonated among the on-rushing Chinese troops.

They remember the heat of the summer and the bitter cold of the winter, when the temperature fell to minus 40 degrees Celsius, diesel froze and soldiers' hands would stick to their rifle barrels if they were not wearing gloves.

Brown, who was a private in the KSLI, said the winter of 1950 was the coldest anyone could remember but that fighting in Korea was the best thing he had ever done.

'There was a comradeship, we were proud that to show that we were as good as any British soldier before us and it was the right thing to do,' he said.

While the South had rebuilt itself spectacularly in the last 60 years, the North remained blighted, he noted. 'It's a dictatorship and you would think that the people would rebel.'

The veterans marked the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the war as guests of the South Korean government.

On Wednesday, they paid their respects at the memorial at the National Cemetery in Seoul, passing between an honour guard of South Korean Marines before the senior officers of the Commonwealth and US contingents laid a wreath at the war monument and lit incense sticks.

James Hughes, 80, laid a wreath on behalf of the Commonwealth soldiers. Hughes was a lieutenant with the 3rd battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment after arriving in Korea in July 1951 with a reinforcement unit.

'The front was yo-yoing a bit at that point, along the Imjin River, although we were involved in a major battle in the first week of October that was known as the Battle of Maryang San,' he said.

'They poured thousands of men into the battle because whoever held the position could control the river and the road to the north.'

Aside from the fighting, his abiding memories were of the extremes of heat and cold, as well as devastating flooding during the rainy season in April. In one incident, a boat carrying six of his soldiers capsized during a river crossing; the three men who died were found only a month later.

'There was a sense of comradeship of men at war, of teamwork,' he said. 'There was a hard core of blokes who had served in the second world war and knew what they were doing and the rest were young blokes like me, who had to learn from them and lean on them.

'I may have had four years of theory from the Royal Military College at Duntroon, but I learned a lot from my first two sergeants.'

Hughes served in four conflicts - Korea, the Malaya emergency, leading an SAS unit in Borneo and then in Vietnam - before retiring as a major general.

Yet the sacrifices made in Korea deserved to be remembered better than they were by the majority of people, he said. 'We didn't get much recognition. The only ones who knew we were in the war were those with relatives in it.'