War veterans relive landing at Inchon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 September, 2010, 12:00am

Special forces frogmen dropped into the sea from helicopters, jet fighters roared overhead, and huge fountains of water exploded from the sea as the port city of Inchon re-enacted the daring seaborne landing that turned the tide of the Korean war in 1950.

On September 15, the 60th anniversary of the operation, landing craft circled offshore, then 'Animal Company', 7th US Marines, surged over the sea wall, charging applauding veterans and officials sitting in viewing stands fronting the funfair that now stands on Wolmi Island ('Green Beach' during the battle).

It was part history, part Hollywood - Animal Company commander Captain Michael Borneo strode on dressed as US General Douglas MacArthur, while the 'landing force' charged off under a cloud of inflatable doves released into the sky - as the port city on the Yellow Sea welcomed ageing war veterans.

'There was lots of phoney stuff,' said Father Richard Rubie of Honolulu, a former US marine who landed in the second wave 60 years ago. 'But the memories came back.'

Among the ageing veterans specially invited over by the Korean government for the event were former US marines, British Royal Marine commandos and Royal Australian Navy sailors who had taken part.

'It brought tears to my eyes,' said LeRoy Dennler of St Louis, an ex-US marine medic, of the enactment. 'I am almost speechless.'

The day's events had particular resonance for Brian Lannam from Western Australia. His ship, HMAS Warramunga, took part in the 1950 operation; the current HMAS Warramunga was offshore on Wednesday, taking part in the re-enactment.

'I was here back then, but I never went ashore, I just saw it through binoculars,' Lannam said. 'This is the first time.'

In September 1950, the bulk of the communist North Korean Army, following their June invasion of the capitalist South, was besieging the port of Pusan, 200 miles [360 kilometres] to the southeast. The Inchon landing was aimed at opening a new front to cut off invading North Koreans from their supplies and ensure their destruction.

Ex-US marine William Cheek said: 'It was a risky business. Inchon has 30-foot [9-metre] tides, granting the amphibious forces limited landing windows, and the channels of advance were between mudflats. The US 1st Marine Division would be the first to land, followed by South Korean marines and the US soldiers. Ladders would be used to scale the sea walls. Some 230 ships in a multinational flotilla supported the landing.'

'I found out I was going to be in the first wave, I was a little uncomfortable. I said to the driver of the Amtrac, 'Did you train on this?' And he said, 'No, I've never driven one before',' recalled Cheek of the amphibious tractor he rode on. 'But there were no enemy waiting - we surprised them, thank God.'

North Korean resistance collapsed, but there were terrible sights as the landing forces advanced inland. Among them was Geoff King, a member of 'Pounds Force', a Royal Marine commando reconnaissance unit. 'We came upon this massacre: bodies stripped and left by the North Koreans,' King said.

'One had a grenade up his anus, another one had his guts spread all over the ground, he was still alive. There was nothing we could do: we gave him morphia and pressed on.'

After the beachside re-enactment, veterans were mounted in cars and waved out at cheering locals, followed by a 1.5 kilometre column of South Korean soldiers, special forces and sailors, and US marines and Australian sailors. South Korean tanks and self-propelled artillery brought up the rear.

The parade route wound past Inchon's impressive city hall and gleaming department stores - a big change from the smouldering ruins of 1950.

'I treated a couple of kids wounded by shrapnel, 12, 13 years old, my thoughts were, 'What are we doing here'?' remembered Dennler. 'Now, it's totally different; now I know what it was all about.'

One man watching Wednesday's events with a seasoned eye was Lieutenant General Terry Robling, current commander of the 3rd US Marines Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, Japan.

'Every one of these operations that highlight the need for a Marine Corps is important, we have been fighting for our survival ever since,' he said. 'We have forcible entry capability - two-thirds of the world's surface is water, and I don't think they will always let us land on airfields.'

The landing was a huge success. Inchon was taken with relatively few casualties, but there was savage gutter fighting in Seoul against North Korean diehards. After the capital fell, United Nations forces attacked into North Korea.

In late November, many Inchon veterans fought in the war's most harrowing battle. Following China's shock intervention, the US marine division, reinforced by British marine commandos, was surrounded about 113 kilometres deep inside North Korea's mountains by eight Chinese divisions at Chosin Reservoir.

'Chosin was 30, 40 degrees below zero, dead bodies, frozen bodies,' recalled Rubie. 'We got the hell kicked out of us.'

Even though his convoy was overrun, King - determined not to fall prisoner after the atrocity he had witnessed earlier - was embroiled in hand-to-hand combat. 'This guy ran into me, bayoneted me - I smelt his breath on me,' he recalled. 'When it went into me, I bent forward and let him have it with an automatic rifle. His weapon dropped.'

The marines escaped Chosin, but the war ground on. Mental trauma haunted many veterans for years.

'I was a marine for 14 years and saw so much killing, your mind is not so good,' Rubie said. After leaving the marines, he entered the church.

'I dreamed for years that I had murdered people and buried them; if you are a Christian, and you kill in battle, it does prey on your mind,' ex-commando King said. 'But now, seeing the results are so good, when I go home, my book is closed.'