Kiwis in Korea: When the Cold War ran hot
In June 1950, communist North Korea invaded the South. The newly fledged United Nations immediately came to South Korea’s aid, mustering a multinational army in which New Zealand was swift to enlist. In what was the first escalation of the Cold War into open conflict, 6100 Kiwis served on sea and land. But who remembers them today?
Streamers flew and the towering bulk of the troopship Ormonde gleamed white in the morning sun the day Prime Minister Sidney Holland farewelled the soldiers of Kayforce. Thousands of well-wishers jostled good-naturedly on Wellington’s Aotea Quay, eager for a final glimpse, a last goodbye.
It was December 10, 1950, just five years after the sound of the last shots of World War II had died away, and now the thousand or so young men on parade were about to sail off to fight yet another distant battle for democracy.
Most had boarded trains at Waiouru in the early hours to reach the capital by dawn. They were in high spirits, loudly cheering the opposition leader, Walter Nash, when he spoke, but giving Sid Holland a cool hearing for his decision to tax them while they fought on foreign soil. Some had enlisted for wild adventure, some to obey the voice of conscience. Others sought occupation for idle hands or strove to emulate the deeds of fathers and brothers a decade earlier. A few had run from debt or from relationships gone bad.
Some had seen it all before, some were innocents abroad. All had volunteered. None knew what to expect, and most would return changed by their experiences. Thirty-one would not come back.
Two New Zealand frigates were already in hostile waters. Brigadier Ronald Park and 21 others had also gone on ahead, by air, to make preparations for the ground force now embarking.
The ships were bound for Korea, where Kayforce (also referred to as “K Force”) was to join allied combatants from 15 other countries and five continents in what was to be the first test of a newly minted world body, the United Nations. In all, some 6100 New Zealanders would take part in this, the most important war ever waged between communism and the West.
The conflict would see the use of fierce new weapons napalm, jet aircraft and brainwashing and the threat of atom bombs. Fought by turns in numbing cold and sweltering heat, over craggy mountains and muddy fields, in snow and driving rain, it would drag on inconclusively and with great suffering and bloodshed for three years, only to end where it began, becoming lost in the pages of history between the last world war and the horror of Vietnam.
Much later, those who wrote of it and few did would call it “the forgotten war.”
The Korean War had started without fanfare six months before Kayforce’s mobilisation, at 4.00 A.M. on Sunday June 25, 1950. Supported by mortar and artillery fire, North Korean tanks and infantry attacked across the demarcation line which bisected the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel, first in the remote Ongjin peninsula to the west, then elsewhere, sweeping southwards and scattering the South Korean troops who faced them.
The attack began just after dawn New Zealand time, and it wasn’t until the morning of the next day that the country’s press could begin to report what had happened. Wellington’s Evening Post called it “the most serious event that has occurred since general hostilities ceased in the Pacific and Far East in August 1945.” A New Zealand diplomat in Washington feared it might touch off World War III. Commentators were almost unanimous in seeing the shadowy figure of the Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, behind the outrage.
Though most New Zealanders at the time would have been hard-pressed to say exactly where Korea was, their readiness to point an accusing finger at communist Russia was understandable. Only four years earlier, that defiant old bulldog of democracy, the British leader Winston Churchill, had warned that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Countries liberated from foreign oppression with the overthrow of Nazi Germany had almost immediately found themselves subjugated by the tanks and commissars of a new, Soviet, overlord. By 1948 communist regimes controlled Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and a large chunk of Germany itself.
The big chill of an ideological battle that came to be known as the “Cold War”soon gripped the world, freezing nations into two opposing power blocs: the capitalist West, principally the United States and western Europe, and the communist East, led by China and the Soviet Union.
The long Soviet blockade of Berlin, deep in communist East Germany, had been lifted only in May the previous year, to be followed just months later by the test detonation of a Soviet atom bomb. The ensuing nuclear arms race between East and West prompted the hurried formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) by the United States and its European allies. Closer to home, in 1948 the Malayan Emergency was declared as Chinese communist guerrillas sought to overthrow the country’s British colonial administration. Everywhere, it seemed, the Stalinist tide was in full flood.
In the United States the hard-drinking Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, alarmed at communism’s brazen rhetoric and its evident goal of global domination, launched what was to become an increasingly obsessive witch-hunt to root out communist infiltrators, real and imagined. New Zealand, too, caught the McCarthy fever, and suspected sympathisers were discovered lurking in universities, trade unions and even the civil service. In Auckland, shortly after the war had begun, a Communist Party office was attacked by loyalists. In Hastings, attempts by a communist speaker to address a public meeting on Korea led to pandemonium, with the boisterous crowd bursting into “There’ll Always Be An England” before police were forced to break up proceedings.
As with much that goes on between nations, the origins of war on the Korean peninsula were more complex and less sharply defined than press headlines and patriotic fervour suggested.
A once unified and independent country with a civilisation stretching back thousands of years, Korea has endured countless invasions over the centuries. In 1910, it was the turn of the Japanese. The country was reduced to servitude and renamed “Chosen.”
Emboldened by the looming defeat of Japan in 1945, Stalin seized his chance and sent Soviet troops across Russia’s border with the Korean peninsula. The American War Department, alarmed at the turn of events, gave two young colonels a map and half an hour to find a place to divide Korea. They settled on the 38th parallel for the admirable reason that it would put the capital, Seoul, in the non-communist zone. With the stroke of a pen, Korea had become a volatile part of the global frontier.
Surprisingly, the Soviets accepted the demarcation line and pulled up short of it. There followed a time of consolidation, during which two irreconcilable political systems were imposed on the people of Korea. In the industrial north, the Soviet-trained freedom-fighter and self-declared champion of the people Kim II Sung set up a communist state. In the largely agrarian south, the feisty US-educated exile Syngman Rhee presided over a repressive conservative state backed by the Americans.
Between the two there could be no meeting of minds. It was as though the swirling yin-and-yang symbol of Chinese philosophy had morphed into the blackand-white of political opposites and settled thickly over both ends of the country.
By June 1949, the US had pulled out of Korea under a United Nations plan for national elections, leaving the bellicose Rhee with too little in the way of military hardware to get into trouble by attacking the North. Nevertheless, since partition the two sides had been incessantly snapping at each other like two bad-tempered dogs on the same chain.
Stalin was later shown to be at best a reluctant partner in North Korea’s military adventure, but Western leaders at the time thought otherwise. If world domination was the goal of communism, they reasoned, Korea must be a feint; the real fighting would break out elsewhere.
New Zealand was drawn into the interminable game of double guessing, a game complicated by the gradual British retreat from the Asia–Pacific region. The country’s politicians and military planners were caught between satisfying commitments in the Middle East and getting alongside the new tough guy in the Pacific, the United States.
Working through the UN, the United States soon succeeded in obtaining a mandate to fight in Korea. As was to happen half a century later in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans and Afghanistan, America would steer the military campaign and shoulder most of the fighting while other participants lent the enterprise a moral validity.
When, on June 29, Sid Holland heard that Britain had committed warships, he decided “on the spur of the moment” to offer two New Zealand frigates. The job fell to HMNZS Pukaki, then undergoing routine docking at Devonport Naval Base, and Taira, on its way back from Fiji. These were modern Loch-class frigates, two of six built late in World War II and bought by New Zealand in 1948. As the war ground on, all six were to have at least one tour in Korean waters.
After frantic resupply, the two ships slipped out of Auckland on July 3 and traced what was to become a familiar route to Port Moresby for fuel, then east round New Guinea and the Philippines towards Hong Kong. Day by day, as they journeyed north, the situation in Korea worsened. Communist troops pushed through Seoul and down the old invasion routes to the very heel of the peninsula, bottling South Korean and American forces in a cramped south-eastern perimeter around Pusan.
Immediately on arrival in the Japanese port of Sasebo, the frigates were put to work escorting convoys to Korea as part of the British Far East Fleet. Sasebo had been much expanded and was feverishly busy, crammed with Allied warships and supply vessels a sign of the West’s dominating naval presence.
For the frigate crews, escort duty soon became a fatiguing yet monotonous existence: in blistering heat they would sail from Sasebo shortly after midday on the flanks of a convoy, reaching Pusan early the next day. With their charges safely docked they would quickly steam back, overnight in Japan, then repeat the process. Even during the infrequent downtime in harbour, they had to be ready to begin again at short notice. The job was made more onerous by the need to maintain night blackout at sea, with all doors and hatches closed despite the stifling conditions.
In September, an unexpected change came in the form of “Chromite,” General Douglas MacArthur’s celebrated masterstroke. Defying the caution of men half his age, the US commander conceived of an amphibious landing at Inch’on, near Seoul, as a daring counterstrike well behind the North Korean lines. The manoeuvre threatened to cut the enemy’s stretched supply routes and throw him fatally off balance.
There were risks, however, one being a huge 9.5 m tide, which affected the timing of the landings and produced powerful currents which challenged the armada.
In the event, all went well. In the early hours of September 15, Pukaki joined a protective screen of warships as through the night and all the following day a stream of ships headed for the beaches at Inch’on
The scale of the Inch’on landings impressed the New Zealanders. Engine-room Watson, aboard 2 Tutira, remembered sailing up to the port after the landings. “We steamed for all of one watch, all through the forenoon at half ahead . . . eight to ten knots, four hours between two rows of merchant ships anchored all the way up the harbour. I have never seen such an armada . . . in all my life.”
Meanwhile, on land, the United Nations troops were gaining the upper hand, breaking out of the Pusan perimeter and retaking Seoul. Then MacArthur did something which took much of the sheen off Inch’on; something which added over two-and-a-half years to the war and ultimately got him sacked by President Harry Truman. He invaded the North.
To begin with, MacArthur’s “Home by Christmas” November offensive seemed like a good idea. Push north almost to the border with China, finish off the communists as a military force in Korea and forcibly reunite the country. Unfortunately, 150,000 Chinese troops of the People’s Liberation Army had other ideas.
The Chinese, who had long been threatening to enter the war, now did just that. Having crossed the Yalu River to join their North Korean comrades, they outmanoeuvred and outfought the UN soldiers, forcing them south once more.
Never one to throw in the towel, MacArthur thought up a sure-fire way to regain the initiative. He proposed dropping between 30 and 50 atom bombs across the neck of Manchuria, spreading a belt of radioactive cobalt from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea.
“My plan was a cinch,” he later said. Chemical weapons were also considered it had turned into that kind of war. But somehow nerve failed, or reason prevailed, and the Americans relied instead on massive air superiority to bomb their way free with conventional weapons.
The US and its allies had suffered what leading seaman Ian “Bouff” Stronach, aboard the newly arrived Rotoiti, wryly called “a slight reversal of form.” The reversal took them back across the 38th parallel, and, despite their best efforts, it once again loosed their grip on Seoul.
As if reflecting the change of fortune in the field, winter arrived, crusting the land in ice and chilling soldiers to the bone. Off the coast, the New Zealand sailors were no better off.
“The spray coming over the forecastle was icicles by the time it hit the bridge,” remembered Lieutenant Edward Thorne. “We had heaters, but trying to keep any warmth in the ship was difficult.”
The frigates were not designed for such extremes of temperature, and even the multi-barrelled porn-porn machine guns had to be retrofitted with heaters to stop them freezing up. At times hands were set to chipping ice off the decks.
The crew of Taupo, clad in long johns, the odd fleecy coat and Patriotic Fund balaclavas, resorted to huddling round the funnel or in a jerry-built canvas shelter behind the open bridge to get some respite from the icy wind.
It was at this dire stage of the war and of the seasonal calendar that Ormonde steamed into Pusan harbour with the New Zealand ground forces. They had been a long time coming.
The United States through the UN, had first appealed for ground troops a fortnight after Sid Holland had offered the frigates. With the situation worsening, the generals had quickly come to the conclusion that, in the words of historian and Korean veteran T. R. Fehrenbach, “You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomise it, pulverise it and wipe it clean of life but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilisation, you must do this on the ground the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.” Or, as now in Korea, into the snow.
Reluctant to commit troops, Holland was eventually persuaded that the American plea for help would be looked on as a test for those who might be included in a future Pacific pact. Even so, he delayed until news came that, without consultation, the British had decided to send ground forces.
There followed an undignified scramble to cash in on American goodwill. The Australians made a hasty decision to commit troops while their prime minister, Robert Menzies, was in mid-Atlantic en route to New York on the Queen Maly and therefore not able to be reached. The British were to make their intentions public on the afternoon of July 26, London time.
Holland nimbly beat everyone to the tape, announcing the deployment of New Zealand ground forces at 7.30 P.M. local time on July 26. With an eye to minimising casualties and preserving a sense of the contingent’s identity, the prime minister, himself a former gunner, had decided on an artillery regiment. Supporting it would be several specialist units, including a signals troop and a transport platoon.
Surprisingly, the New Zealand army at the time had no active combat units. Its focus was on readying an infantry division drawn from the Territorials for possible service in the Middle East. To this end, the regulars were busy working on the compulsory military training scheme, conscription having been re-introduced in 1949 (it had been phased out at the end of World War II).
So, like the earlier expeditionary forces of the two world wars and the later Vietnam units, Kayforce was to consist of volunteers. In making his announcement on the 26th, Holland invited men to enrol at army offices from 8 o’clock the next morning. Despite full employment in the country, the response was keen. Within two days more than 3000 men had enlisted, and by the time recruitment closed on August 5 the number had reached 5982 almost six times that required.
Some of those who signed up had professional backgrounds, but most were labourers, farm hands, freezing workers and drovers. Fewer than one in ten had fired, or even been near, a field gun before. Their future commanding officer, John Moodie, was a clothing manufacturer from Dunedin with an impressive service record.
Although strenuous efforts were made to sift out unsuitable candidates, a few got through, among them Bill Hickey, who bit his lips during the medical examination to avoid betraying the fact that he had broken ribs, and another man who enlisted under a false name, having been released on parole from a mental home just days earlier.
Months of training didn’t seem to dampen the recruits’ enthusiasm for active service, and even the voyage out had the feel of a pleasure cruise an impression strengthened, no doubt, by a generous parting gift to the force from Cascade Brewery A brief stop in Manila was the first taste of the Orient for most of the men on board. Indeed, this was only the second time New Zealanders had been to Asia in large numbers. Some in the regiment had served with Jayforce, the occupation troops in Japan after World War II, and now they were back, thanks to Kayforce. (If nothing else, there was a neatness in the alphabetical progression). But for the majority involved in this, the fourth commitment by New Zealand to a foreign war, the Asian experience was wholly new.
When Ormonde docked in Pusan on the morning of December 31, 1950, the men of 16 Field Regiment were confronted by the grim realities of war. The roads into Pusan were choked with refugees fleeing the fighting, old and young alike, weighed down with what meagre possessions they could carry. Everywhere about the town flimsy cardboard shanties had been thrown up, and New Zealanders venturing out were quickly surrounded by emaciated children pleading for food.
It was the first intimation that perhaps this conflict, which had all the hallmarks of a bloody and confused civil war, was going to be neither short nor easy. There was even the prospect, given the involvement of the efficient, battle-hardened Chinese, that it might end in defeat.
Having finally arrived, the men were to endure the most miserable New Year’s Eve most had ever experienced. Suddenly, after a dream cruise through the tropics, five blankets and a sleeping bag seemed insufficient to keep the cold at bay. Even lads from New Zealand’s deep south found it hard to keep warm, and over the coming days a number of the men on guard duty suffered frostbite. Worse, two truckloads of beer were destroyed when the bottles froze, and another disappeared, lost to the black market.
Later, in the field, soldiers would resort to using ice picks to get tent pegs in the frozen ground, or to simply tying their guy ropes to ammunition boxes. Wrist watches would seize up in the intense cold, and men would look on with a mix of admiration and horror as South Korean drivers set small fires under their truck engines to help start them Jack Spiers, a career soldier and one of the few New Zealanders attached to an Australian unit (3 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment), wasn’t prepared for such conditions. “The worst we experienced was 40 below . . . You daren’t touch a piece of metal. The skin would come off your hand.”
Like most soldiers in Korea, the New Zealanders were poorly equipped. The stitching on their boots began to fall apart and their regulation greatcoats were often too small to accommodate the layers of clothing the men had to wear underneath.
Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, from the frigate Kaniere, learned the relative merits of the various standard-issue blankets while helping out at Hero Barracks in the Japanese port of Kure. “When the blankets went to the laundry you had to be very careful because the Americans were the best, then the Kiwis, then the Aussies, and the Brits were the bottom of the heap…they were the size of a handkerchief and not quite as thick.”
The British had it bad in other respects, too. New Zealander Bill Grupen, who served with the First Royal Tank Regiment, noted that “The British were 18year-old conscripts earning 29/6 a week to get killed while I was a corporal earning 32/6 a day
Nor was the food anything to write home about—although, like soldiers the world over, the men did write home about it. After an early route march, the gunners had been astounded to each be given just four slices of bread with margarine and a spoonful of jam. The food served up at the British transit camp was “just muck,” and even when supply lines were sorted out and rations improved the men soon wearied of the unvarying diet, in which canned plum duff “Pusan pud” bulked large.
Spiers, who faced a greater volume of British rations than most New Zealanders did, was singularly unimpressed. “I have never allowed a tin of bully beef into my house since.”
On January 13, 1951, 10 days after the start of a Chinese offensive and the subsequent evacuation of Seoul by the Americans, the New Zealanders left Pusan for the front. This they did in style, leaving a barracks gutted after it caught fire in the early hours when a cooker in a nearby cookhouse exploded.
That very night, in the Miryang Valley, the regiment suffered its first fatalities brutal, messy deaths which the New Zealanders saw as no better than murder. Two men of 63 Battery, Warrant Officer Richard Long and Gunner Ronald MacDonald, were caught in a night ambush by “rice bandits” farmers turned guerrillas on the main road 33 km south of Miryang. badly bleeding, to a nearby village. Locals, fearful of reprisals by the communists, dragged him some distance away and abandoned him. He may still have been alive when they left him his body, when found next morning, was still warm .
The behaviour of the enemy and the villagers left the men shaken and angered. Korea was to reveal itself as a nightmarish, morally compromised war in which civilians suddenly drew weapons on their “liberators” and death rained down indiscriminately from the heavens. It was a land where rural families tried as best they could to get on with their lives amid unspeakable carnage and mayhem, and the New Zealanders grappled by turns with boredom and fear. It was a station on the slippery slope to Vietnam.
At Miryang, 16 Field Regiment calibrated its guns and readied itself for fighting. The gunners then drove 146 km towards Changhowon, passing through a succession of deserted, burned-out villages and towns. On arrival, they joined 27 Commonwealth Brigade, a seasoned outfit often employed to cover the withdrawal of American and South Korean troops. The direct artillery support was warmly welcomed by the brigade, and the New Zealanders were to get a reputation for delivering accurate fire support under even the most trying conditions. To the Australians they became “the nine-mile snipers.”
Throughout the early months of 1951, the men went about the business of war while developing ways of staying effective in the sub-zero temperatures. Vehicles were started every hour through the night, and, where possible, moved to loosen gearboxes and differentials. Thatch was laid under wheels, and glycerol-soaked sacks were draped over the breeches of guns when they were not in action.
Some problems could not be overcome, however. Landlines laid by signallers froze to the ground and had to be abandoned when the regiment moved, causing supply difficulties. The highly technical art of artillery fire was also affected by the climatic extremes, with cold weather severely reducing the range of the 25-pounders. One night the thermometer read –28° C, well outside the official temperature graph used to calculate adjustments for fall of shot.
As Colin Petersen recalled: “After some head scratching (with gloves on), we simply extended the curve of the graph. . . . Fortunately the target was well inside enemy territory and the accuracy of our shooting was never questioned.”
Most targets were at a range of around 8000 m. “The guns could fire for up to five hours at a time and put an awful lot of shells on the ground,” says Wally Wyatt, who joined the regiment with a later wave of recruits. His job at the battery command post was to plot the co-ordinates radioed back from forward observers and get firing data out to the guns. Meteorological reports, based on information from weather balloons, were received every four hours and data from these incorporated into the calculations. The whole process took some 30 seconds.
Battery fire was effective against attacking soldiers but of limited use against troops in prepared positions. Fortunately, the Chinese had virtually no artillery of from the Nationalists (anti-communist forces in their own country), American weapons taken in the field and equipment supplied by the Soviets.
But the enemy troops were not well equipped. As well as having only a patchy supply of ammunition and poor transport they often had to resort to oxen they lacked tents, sleeping bags and waterproof clothing, said Griffith, and for every man with a gun, two went without Because of American air superiority, the Chinese were forced to attack at night. Assembling less than a kilometre away, they would walk to within 400 m of a target, then deploy and crawl as close as possible. Often, fire from the UN troops was the signal to attack. Then, with bugles and much shouting, they would spring from the darkness.
Berry asked whether napalm was troubling the enemy. “Yes, Keith, napalm is a new, horrible and very deadly weapon which is having a big effect,” Griffith replied. Even if the jellied petrol didn’t kill the enemy directly, he explained, it consumed all the oxygen in the air around him and suffocated him.
Whether or not the true horror of napalm registered with listeners in those days before the harrowing television images were beamed nightly into living rooms, news from Korea suggested some such drastic remedy was needed. Berry recorded his interview with Griffith on May 5, 1951, just two weeks after the Chinese had launched a massive new offensive. In the days of desperate fighting this unleashed, Griffith and his fellow officers must have been quietly thankful for anything in the arsenal that had punch.
In that offensive some 270,000 Chinese soldiers pushed yet again towards Seoul, while another formation, the XIII Army Group, swung left towards Kap’yong and the New Zealanders. Unaware of the approaching enemy, the gunners were partying with the departing Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. (It was a mark of the nature of the fighting that this regiment came to be known as the Agile and Suffering Highlanders.) Having requisitioned a farmer’s bullock for the main course, the Kiwis were introducing the Scots to the delights of a hangi. As the evening of April 22 unfolded, news began to filter through of attacks on forward South Korean units. At 9.30 P.M., 16 Field’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Moodie, heard the disturbing news that the front had collapsed, and a little later South Korean soldiers began appearing amongst the guns.
At 3.00 A.M. on April 23, the regiment was put on one-hour’s notice to move, and the trickle of South Koreans gradually became a tide. Gordon Menzies remembered how “They made gestures with their fingers pointing at their rifles which did not make sense to us, but they eventually conveyed that they had no ammunition. . . . They had cleverly decided that they could not be asked to fight with no ammunition. We had no ammunition for their American rifles . . . so our hopes of some infantry protection vanished [as] they vanished down the road when we let them go.”
By 8.00 A.M. the regiment had withdrawn down the valley to a position among chestnut groves it had occupied a month earlier. As had happened the previous day, the situation quickly deteriorated, and Moodie ordered fire into the upper valley.
Suddenly, at dusk, retreating South Koreans were again amongst them. Interviewed weeks later by the ubiquitous Keith Berry, Moodie recalled his surprise when “Thousands came down the road six or seven abreast and running hard.”
Once the human stampede had passed, everything became oddly quiet. The gunners despatched a few more rounds, then word came to leave.
“We just got out of the valley by the skin of our teeth,” said Moodie. “We only got our [gun] trails on the ground when we were asked for fire on to the road that we had just passed over.”
The batteries heaved shells in support of the Australian infantry until 2.00 A.M. on the 24th, when the alarm went out that there were Chinese in the gun area itself. Battery by battery, the regiment’s field guns were moved back another four kilometres. When daylight broke on the eve of Anzac Day, the Australians were more or less surrounded.
Throughout the next day, stripped to the waist and toiling under a fiery sun, the New Zealand gunners helped break repeated Chinese attacks and later covered the Australian withdrawal.
“We wrecked a few guns that day by keeping firing without allowing the guns time to cool,” gunner Frank Gibbison remembered. “The paint was stripping off the barrels and the insides of the bores were in pretty bad shape.”
The men laboured on into the night, with all spare hands guarding the roaring field pieces from nearby trenches. In a single 40-minute action in support of a Canadian unit which in a desperate moment asked for fire right on its own positions-16 Field fired some 2300 rounds.
By daybreak on April 25 Anzac Day the storm had passed. American tanks probing up the Kap’yong valley found few signs of the enemy. The exhausted gunners were called on to fire at this and that target through the day, but, across their sector at least, the Chinese advance had been stopped.
Kap’yong had been the Kiwis’ first real test, and they had proved themselves equal to the challenge. In 40 hours of almost continuous fighting, 16 Field Regiment had fired 10,000 rounds in support of the brigade. They had even captured four enemy soldiers, found hiding in a house. Along with the Australians, they were praised in the press for having prevented the “whole Eighth Army from being split in two” by the Chinese, and for having “grimly upheld the Anzac traditions.”
Jack Spiers, serving with the Australians, summed up the bond of comradeship between the soldiers of the two countries: “Our battalion in the main was supported by New Zealand artillery . . . and we knew they would always be there. In return, the Kiwis knew the Australian battalion in front of them would always stand fast.”
Kap’yong was one of Kayforce’s shining moments.
On July 10, the war took a different turn with the start of armistice talks, for it was becoming clear to both sides that there was little chance of achieving a decisive military outcome. Within months the front line had stabilised along a line not dissimilar to the one that had existed before the first shots had been fired. UN activity on land and at sea now had the sole purpose of keeping pressure on the communists and, when the talks broke down, of encouraging them back to the negotiating table.
Over the next 20 months, fighting on the peninsula degenerated into a bloody wrestling match for ground features given such names as “Old Baldy,” “Heartbreak Ridge” and “Pork Chop Hill.”
Richard Hale, the vessel was required to “make an infernal noise with gunfire at 10.00 A.M. daily.” This coincided with the start of the daily peace talks at Kaesong, and the gunfire was a not-too-subtle reminder to the North Koreans that the town lay within range of UN ordnance.
During this period the New Zealand frigates patrolled the west coast, picking on opportunistic targets and, occasionally, getting involved in more determined actions. Lieutenant David Barratt recalled an occasion when Hawea was standing off the coast and he overheard the radio chatter of spotters for the massive American battleship Missouri.
“It was quite extraordinary to hear the sound of their broadsides coming over, goodness knows how many thousand feet above us.” The roaring 16-inch shells each weighed more than a tonne and cost as much as a Cadillac.
The frigates also made forays to the east coast, normally the province of the American navy, to carry out sonar sweeps, land commandos or just to annoy enemy transport. A favourite diversion for the crews was “railway tag,” which involved trying to catch trains or repair gangs on open stretches of track between the region’s many tunnels.
On cold evenings the steam of approaching trains was visible from quite a distance, allowing the frigates time to close for action. The ships would then light the scene with searchlights or star shells, lob a few bombs and open up with their 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns.
Taupo’s Lieutenant Hale described the battle of wits that ensued: “The trains used to hide in tunnels for varying periods of time then make a dash for the next one. In spite of numerous trains being knocked out by the ship’s guns, and bridges being blown up, we were never able to completely stop the southbound traffic. Wrecks were cleared from the lines and bridges rebuilt in incredibly short periods of time.”
With the conflict having disintegrated into a bruising war of attrition and tedious negotiation, public interest in Korea evaporated. New Zealanders back home let their attention wander. As early as November 1951, Parliament was debating whether or not Kayforce was a “forgotten force,” and later recruitment drives to relieve the men in Korea were not greeted with enthusiasm.
Wally Wyatt’s experience was typical. Returning temporarily to New Zealand to help train new recruits in Waiouru and Papakura, he took time out to meet up with his old mates in Devonport. “They looked at me and said, ‘Where’ve you been?’ They didn’t know what I had been up to, and weren’t really interested.”
The heartbreak that was the Korean War ended on July 28, 1953, with the signing of a ceasefire. The New Zealanders began to drift home in a drawn-out process that took several years. There was to be no rousing homecoming.
“Vietnam took all the glory. It still does today,” says Wyatt, lamenting the way the high-profile war in Indochina eclipsed the efforts of New Zealand soldiers in Korea.
For the Koreans, there was never any prospect of glory. Three million men, women and children a third of the population—were dead, wounded or missing. And to little purpose.
Even the redoubtable Winston Churchill said in 1953: “Korea does not really matter now. . . . Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the rearming of America.”
For Jack Spiers, and for so many men of Kayforce, Korea taught one of the oldest of all lessons: “I realised that war wasn’t very romantic at all,” he said. “I saw lots of my Australian friends killed and wounded. It makes you wonder: Was it worth it?”
Sober-minded politicians and military planners in the West, with pensive frowns and grimly set jaws, would have answered Spiers’ question in the affirmative. They had stopped the unrolling of the Red carpet; had stood firm against world-conquering communism. Even the troops referred to Korea as “Joe Stalin’s mistake.”
The price may have been a terrible one at one point, even battle-hardened General MacArthur told the US Congress: “If you go on indefinitely, you are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind.” (And that was just a quarter of the way through the fighting). Yet it was a necessary war, the politicians and planners would have said a demonstration of the West’s solidarity and determination; a field trial for the young United Nations.
Ironically, the rigid national boundaries set up by the policy of containment formed a shelter-belt for communism, and the worldwide face-off created a space in which regimes with fatally flawed economic and political systems could grind on for decades unchallenged by capitalism.
The Korean peninsula just happened to be the place where, for a time, the Cold War ran hot.