What was Australia’s role in the Korean War?

When armed forces from Korea’s north crossed the 38th parallel intent on gaining control of the entire peninsula, many Australians could be forgiven for failing to notice.

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First, it happened on a Sunday – June the 25th, 1950.

 

Second, the north coast of New South Wales was experiencing disastrous flooding, with two people dead in Grafton and 9,000 others made homeless in the wintry conditions.

 

Stock losses were described at the time as enormous, and Prime Minister Robert Menzies promised he’d match the State pound for pound in flood relief and assistance.

 

By Monday, the front page of Melbourne’s daily The Argus was reporting the invasion.

 

But it was fighting for space with a report from a weekend Port Melbourne football game where police had to draw pistols and use batons to control more than 1,000 angry supporters rioting after an attack on an umpire.

 

War-weary Australians were still on petrol, butter and tea rationing, and the prospect of another conflict should have been daunting.

 

But that wasn’t quite the response, as Nikki Canning reports.

 

Two days after the invasion in Korea, Federal Cabinet was earnestly discussing plans to hasten the call-up of young men for compulsory military training.

 

However, that same day, the United States offered air and sea support to South Korea, and the five-year-old United Nations asked all its members to assist in repelling the North Korean attack.

 

In all, 21 UN nations responded with troops, ships, aircraft and medical teams.

 

For the last time in Australian history, volunteers for an overseas military expedition were called for.

 

Re-opened recruitment offices were initially flooded with volunteers for Korea, says Melbourne University’s Richard Trembath.

 

“It was an enthusiastic response. I think Korea in some ways, especially in its early year, was a war which the Australian population understood a little more clearly than it understood Vietnam. The world response was a lot more united. The United Nations – which was les than five years old – was the one calling for action. So it had the mark of being something right to do. The Korean War is in fact the only time the United Nations goes to war until the Gulf War of 1991, until the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.”

 

Dr Trembath says many Australians also saw Korea as an opportunity to fight Communism.

 

“Robert Menzies had come to power in late 1949 with a commitment to formally dissolving the Communist Party [in Australia] and that theme would run right though Australia’s commitment in Korea, that Communism was the great scourge and danger. And I think for Australia it accelerated in 1949 because of the Communist victory in China – I mean, Russia was one thing but China was a lot closer. Menzies spoke several times in the early 1950s that he regarded another world war was only three years away.”

 

“(Menzies): Can we doubt that under these circumstances the complete socialist state would be set up in Australia? And that, in consequence, we would have the all-powerful state? How would we like to be living in a country where the state was all-powerful?”

 

Dr Trembath says the other principal motivation was to firm Australia’s alliance with the US.

 

“The new conservative government was anxious to improve the relationship with the United States – our participation in Korea would eventually be one of the major factors in the formation of the ANZUS Treaty, which happens in 1951.”

 

Already involved in fighting a Communist insurgency in Malaya, as it was called at the time, Australia was the first country following the US to commit units from all three military services to Korea.

 

An Australian Navy frigate joined the Korean conflict on the 29th of June, followed a day later by the Royal Australian Air Force’s 77 Squadron.

 

An infantry battalion from the Australian component of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan was called in on July the 26th.

 

“We were anxious to be seen as very quick to put our cards on the table; we originally only committed air forces and naval forces, but when it was found out in Canberra that Britain was going to commit land forces, we jumped to beat Britain – we actually beat them by about a day or two – to show that we were firm in the alliance with the United States.”

 

Pilot Sergeant Milton Cottee was among the Australians of 77 Squadron already in Japan when the invasion happened.

 

He says he had a firm view as to why he should be involved in this war.

 

“There was an overall feeling I suppose of stopping the Red Peril (Communism) coming down to Australia. That was real in those days. We thought we were doing our bit in that regard. I eventually came to a conclusion that many veterans come to in conflicts, I think, by deciding that what I was doing was preserving the Australian way of life for those I might have to leave behind.”

 

As might be expected, the Australian contingent had a variety of ethnic backgrounds, which added another dimension to some events, as remembered in his diary by Private Joe Vezgoff.

 

“We were about a mile forward of the battalion, with the responsibility of racing back when we saw any large troop movement on our front. I, of Russian origin, and George of Chinese, caused some consternation when someone back at battalion headquarters asked who was in the forward outpost. ‘A Chinese and a Russian’, came the reply!”

 

The Korean War also saw the rise to prominence of Australia’s first Indigenous commissioned officer – Reg Saunders, from Portland, in western Victoria.

 

Historian Richard Trembath says while he had been commissioned during the Second World War, he was a high-profile figure during the Korean War.

 

“He came from a military family, in the sense that his father and his uncles and his brothers had fought in both the first and second World Wars. He’s the subject of a biography called ‘The Embarrassing Australian’, by Harry Gordon – later editor of the Brisbane Courier mail and a war correspondent in Korea – which pointed out that though Saunders was a much-feted and much-treated hero during Korea, and the newspapers and newsreels often featured him – he was very photogenic, very media-savvy himself – his private and civilian life saw the usual disasters that could happen to Indigenous Australians in the 50s, ranging from not being served drinks in the pub to not getting employment and things like that. A fascinating character.”

 

As in other conflicts, the Australians and other UN forces often had a difficult time identifying and isolating the enemy.

 

On one occasion, South Korean veteran Kim Yu Seon was serving as a military policeman in North Korea’s Hwanghae province.

 

He says at sunset one day in September, he was with the police commander and saw a number of civilians fleeing south being shelled.

 

[Kim then translator] “It’s September, the sun is about to set,” [Kim then translator] “they were in a car and they saw an Australian airplane.” [Kim then translator] “Oh, and the Australian plane came and they shelled!” [Kim then translator] “So many people came down to South Korea so,” [Kim then translator] “The Australian plane did not know where they were so they just shelled everywhere.”

 

Milt Cottee says such incidents were not unusual.

 

He says UN pilots were often directed to attack groups of people because of fears there were North Korean soldiers among them who would leave the group at night and attack UN ground forces.

 

“There were many occasions when enemy soldiers would get mixed up with South Korean civilians and the North Korean soldiers would mix in with the South Korean civilians, (using them) as shields. We would be often vectored on to groups of people like that and it was a very difficult decision whether to shoot them up or not. And when you have American forward air controllers saying ‘Hey Aussies, those enemy troops mixed in with those refugees, I suppose you’d call them, they’re going to be out after our guys tonight so please do what you can’.”

 

For the troops on the ground, the going was intense.

 

Stanley Connolly served with the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment at the Battle of Kapyong.

 

He and other veterans have told their stories as part of a film archive of Australians at War, curated by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

 

“We charged and we began to get shot down. I remember my good friend Gene Tunny on my right falling in the advance and then my big mate Rod Grey on my left, went down shot through the chest and the bullets were cracking, cracking, you can, as they go past you can hear them cracking, you know, because they sort of break the sound barrier. It’s louder than the crack of the weapon firing them. And it seemed to me that there were so many bullets coming that it was like walking or running into a very stiff breeze.”

 

Maxwell Veale served in HMAS Murchison during the Han River operation.

 

“But this day we went in and they were waiting for us. And we hadn’t turned, we were going up towards the turn, and the lookout looked over, we were at action stations, and the lookout looked over and he said to the captain, ‘Sir those haystacks are moving.’ And the skipper, looking at them with binoculars, [saw that] they were moving, they had anti-tank guns behind them, they were tanks, moving. And they waited until we stopped when we had to turn and that’s when they hit us.”

 

However historian Richard Trembath says Australia’s most controversial Korean War figure was the war correspondent Wilfred Burchett.

 

“He wrote what I think is one of the most enduring pieces of Australian war journalism, at the end of the Second World War: he was one of the first Westerners to look at the consequences of Hiroshima, and that was within a few days of the Japanese surrender – that was an amazing trip, he had a lot of guts [courage].”

 

Wilfred Burchett chose to report from the North’s side of the front – a decision which immediately cast him in the eyes of his countrymen as a propagandist.

 

“He spoke to a lot of United Nations prisoners of war in northern camps. Many of them – perhaps most of them – regarded him as a traitor. It served to damn him politically for almost a generation in Australian eyes. I certainly think he had a great amount of courage but I think he had a large anount of naivete. I don’t think he was working directly for Communist powers but I think it was undoubtedly immature to think that speaking on behalf of your enemies to your own people and expecting a good reaction is probably naive. Some of the prisoners, including a key American, regarded Burchett as helping ameliorate their conditions, which were dreadful, in the camps in North Korea.”

 

However Richard Trembath says there was clearly more to Wilfred Burchett.

 

“A number of Australian journalists found him an unimpeachable source of facts at the Armistice negotiations at Panmunjom because he had privileged access to a large number of people, and as opposed to roneoed (copied) garbage from the United Nations, Burchett could actually tell them what was happening. He saw himself as even-handed: a number of people saw him as a propagandist.”

 

From the 29th June 1950 to 27 July 1953, some 17,000 Australian sailors, soldiers and airmen served in the Korean War.

 

Australian casualties were 339 killed, 1216 wounded and 29 prisoners of war.

 

43 Australian servicemen are still listed as Missing In Action.

 

Yet Pilot Sergeant Milt Cottee believes it was worthwhile.

 

“I think we made a pretty good contribution to the war effort even though our losses were very high. I lost two of my best friends … one was shot down in a Meteor (British jet figher) by a MiG (Russian jet fighter) and my other friend was lost in a midair collision with another aircarft. So one of my best friends is still missing in action in North Korea somewhere.”

 

After the war ended with the signing of the Armistice on the 27th of July, 1953, Australians remained in Korea and continued with a peacekeeping force until 1957.

 

And World News Australia Radio will be broadcasting a special program-length feature on Thursday July 25, at 6.10 am and 6.10 pm, to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended hostilities on the Korean peninsula.

 

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