All fell silent except for endlessly chattering magpies as the bagpiper played
his lament for the thousands who gave their lives in the Korean War.
Old soldiers from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Turkey this month
came to pay their respects at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan,
South Korea, where 2,300 casualties of the "forgotten war" that ended in 1953
lie buried but not forgotten.
They were just a few of the hundreds of veterans who returned to Korea this
year for the 60th anniversary of the start of the war in June 1950. They have
been deeply moved by how generous the
South Korean government has been in expressing its thanks for helping to save
their country from North Korean-style communism.
At the UN cemetery, several of the veterans found the graves of close comrades,
and there was an added poignancy in the fact that the bagpipes that Edward
McHale of the Black Watch regiment played were the very same pipes he took to
Korea all those years ago.
The veterans were glad to be back in Korea, in many cases for the first time
since the end of the war, even though many had witnessed appalling bloodshed
and endured terrible cold, heat and filth. Winters in the mountains of Korea
are bitter. "We were freezing. We were still in our summer gear. The ruts in
the roads were like concrete. It was so cold that when you stopped marching the
sweat in your boots would freeze," recalled Harry Spicer of the Middlesex
regiment, who was among the first British troops to be sent to Korea.
"The worst day that I had when in Korea was at the time that we were heading
North ... I had the horrible feeling that I was going to be killed that day,
and it would not go away," he added. A pal suggested that he tell his platoon
commander of his fears, in the hope of being put in a rearguard position. "I
could not get myself to do that. I had eyes at the back of my head all day, but
those fears went when I woke up the next morning. That day was probably the
worst day of my life," recalled Spicer, aged 79, who emigrated to Australia
after the Korean War.
Despite the miseries of conflict, Spicer and the other veterans I spoke to had
relatively positive memories of their time in Korea - after all, they were the
lucky ones who did not get killed or seriously injured.
Their resilience is remarkable. Henry O'Kane, who was captured after six months
in Korea and spent two-and-a-half years in a Chinese prison camp, harbors no
bitterness. "The next day after I was captured there were 36 guys being buried.
They had died of malnutrition.
"I was taken with 30 Filipinos. They looked after me and made sure I got enough
to eat," recalled O'Kane, of the Royal Ulster Rifles.
He describes his Chinese captors as "not too bad"; unlike many prisoners of war
he received medical treatment, in his case having shrapnel removed from his
There were 500 British and 1,800 American prisoners in the Chong-song camp.
Living conditions were dreadful; and prisoners had little to eat except rough
corn twice a day, later replaced by millet that was even worse. Scabies, lice
and dysentery were endemic, and the prisoners' mouths became raw from
There was also constant political indoctrination to endure. Lectures on Mao
Zedong, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin would last up to four hours, and prisoners
would be tested on whether they had been converted to communism.
Audaciously, O'Kane, when asked who had started the war, would sometimes reply,
"North Korea." But after a beating he would generally come up with the
"correct" answer, which was South Korea. "This would usually produce a smile of
understanding and a cigarette. It was a very dangerous game," he said.
Another veteran, John Douglas Slim, now 83 and the second Viscount Slim, was a
captain in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Korea. He had been deployed
on the Naktong River near Busan in support of the Americans who had "taken a
bit of a licking" before being sent north, advancing to within a few miles of
the Yalu River on the Chinese border.
They were taken by surprise, however, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese
"volunteers" entered the war in support of the North Koreans.
"We woke up one morning and there were a lot of Chinamen around," he recounted.
"We thought we were winning and suddenly a new army appeared, so we had to
fight going backwards." It was a "controlled withdrawal", added Slim, who lost
about 40 comrades during the war, several of whom are buried at Busan.
Slim is the son of one of the great military heroes of World War II, Field
Marshal William Slim, who is perhaps best known for leading a crucial offensive
in Burma (now Myanmar) against the Japanese towards the end of the war.
"It's amazing what progress [the South Koreans] have made," said Slim, echoing
the thoughts of all the veterans as we hurtled down a freeway lined with
skyscrapers on the edge of the capital, Seoul. "When we were here last this was
a peasant society, just rice fields and devastation all around."
More than 1,000 British troops lost their lives in Korea, the second-highest
number of casualties after the United States. Yet many feel their sacrifice has
been neglected, even forgotten.
"Korea was the bloodiest and most brutal war fought by British soldiers since
World War II, including Afghanistan and Iraq," says Seoul-based writer Andrew
Salmon, whose second book on the Korean war is due out next year.
"It's surprising in a nation like Britain with such a strong interest in
military history that the extraordinary stories of these veterans remain
largely untold," he added.
Michael Rank is a London-based journalist specializing in Korean and
Chinese affairs. A graduate in Chinese from Cambridge University, he was a
Reuters correspondent in Beijing from 1980-1984.