poppy field



(A Northumberland Fusilier's experience of the Korean War)

My battalion took part in an action in Korea to take a hill called Mariyan San.  It was a piece of high ground that had a commanding position overlooking both our and the enemy positions.  For my part, I only had a very limited idea of what was happening during our attack.  It was a complete and utter shambles.  After a long approach march lasting the whole day, eating on the move from our tins of compo rations, we could hear our guns firing on the Chinese positions and their return fire.  As night fell we halted in the dusk and started to dig in, in two man teams.  One man dug whilst the other snatched a little sleep.  As soon as we got down three feet or so, we ceased digging and one man sat on the edge of the slit trench watching his front while the other made some sort of meal from the remaining cans of food.  It soon became pitch black, with no moon or stars to be seen.  I think I took the first stag (guard).  We did not have a watch so it was done by instinct as to how long my turn on guard was.  The clouds dispersed somewhat and I could just make out some small shrubs 20 yards or so away.  It was an open front and the possibility of a passing Chinese patrol.  We were rather windy and I sat on the edge of our slit trench with a round up the spout and safety catch on.  In my imagination the shrubs seemed to move.  My 'oppo was gently snoring away in the bottom of the slit trench, out to the world.  Suddenly there was a chattering of either Korean or Chinese in the valley just below us.  They seemed to be quite close.  This really put the wind up me, but whoever it was, it eventually passed on.  I didn't wake my mate up at this stage as we all had to maintain silence.  Anyway I eventually woke my mate up and got a few hours kip.  Come the dawn and we stood to as usual.  'Watch your front,' said the sarg' 'and keep quiet.'  After a cup of tea and some hard tack biscuits, we saddled up and started to trek up the hill and down dale, wading through a small stream; I started to climb up to our objective.  In our army there was no excitable yelling or waving of arms as you can see on the cinema screen and TV.  We were not excitable Americans.  There was not even an order to march.  We just started walking.

It was the end of summer and still quite warm and you soon got a sweat on during the long approach march over the valley floor.  We started to climb up a gradually increasing slope, the small shrubs and trees slowing our progress.  However others had been that way before us in the to and fro of infantry warfare.  So at least we did not have to hack our way through.  The sound of firing increased sharply now, with the occasional overshoot flying over our heads.  A young 19-year-old national serviceman near to me hit the deck and lay there obviously terrified.  I tried to get him going by telling him 'Its ok, those rounds are miles away, you're ok.'  His eyes were rolling around wildly and he was obviously of no use, so we left him and trudged on up the hill.  The action was pretty hot by now, the chatter of bren guns and rifle fire very close.  We came to a trench to our front, about ten yards away and went to ground.  There was no sign of any enemy, although shots were coming our way.  No one was in charge anywhere.  We had no NCOs or officers with our particular little action.  I could see an officer about 100 yards away standing up and firing at someone with a revolver.  I lay behind a tree wondering what the hell to do.  So I pulled the pin out of a grenade and threw it in what I thought was the general direction of the enemy.  They were so well camouflaged and dug in it was impossible to locate where they were firing from, but there was return fire.  The lad next to me raised himself up to pass a full magazine to the bren-gunner.  He fell back, shot through his thigh.  I pulled him to me and rolled him over.  The blood was pumping out of two bullet holes.  I with another fusilier dragged him into some dead ground.  I ripped off his jungle greens and stuck my thumbs into the holes in his thigh, while my mate ripped open his 'First Field Dressing,' a padded bandage we were all issued with and I put it around his leg.  I was soaked in his blood by this time.  It was pumping out like a fountain.  Having done what I could, we both started screaming for the medic.  Eventually he turned up and I administered an ampoule of morphine into his leg.  The medic then went off to attend to the other lads who had been wounded.  He was kept very busy that day.  We sustained 13 killed and 84 wounded out of quite a small force of three companies.  The battalion had been in Korea for 12 months and had sustained many casualties during that time, which may go some way to explain the lack of leadership and equipment.  For instance, I only saw one stretcher for the wounded.  Fortunately most of the wounded were walking wounded and we just about able to make their way back to our 'B' echelon, which was the main support base some 6 kilometres back from the firing line.  The young lad we took out unfortunately died as we both knelt over him.  He just said 'Mother!' and died.  He was just 19 years old and had come over from Germany as a reinforcement.  It was his first and last action.  I had seen a few battles in Palestine, but nothing to compare to this.  We left the boy at the side of the track I busied myself taking off the dead lad's two dog tags, to be handed in to an officer at some stage to account to account for his death.   Suddenly a Chinese grenade landed alongside of us and it went off with a terrific bang.  I was showered with small metal splinters on my knee and right arm.  We got ourselves into some dead ground and lay there for a while getting our wind back.  Leaving the dead boy by the side of the track I began to crawl back to regain our positions where we had left our rifles in our haste to aid the wounded lad.  Suddenly several men came racing down the hill.  'Come on Lads,' they called.  'We're bugging out.  The Chinese are coming!'  I learned later the Chinese had indeed put in a counter attack and we had had to call off our own attack.  We looked at one an other and took off after the others down the hill.  We passed an officer who was bring up ammunition carried by about 6 to 8 Korean porters.  I halted and said to him ' We are pulling out, sir.'  He just looked at me and nodded and then after a pause, carried on up the hill.  As by this time I had been wounded by the grenade, I could only just hobble along and had no means of defending myself.  We joined the rest of the lads who were trudging along back the way we had come.  There must have been 50 or so of us.  After we had covered maybe a kilometre or so there was a loud screaming in the air.  The Chinese  were mortaring us.  They were 6-inch mortars, which projected a powerful bomb.  The blast knocked all the wind out of me and the dust was raised like a fog.  We were out in the open with nowhere to take cover so we just lay there and said our prayers.  There were no unbelievers that day.  After what seemed ages, the Chinese  decided to have a tea break so we all sat up and the fags came out.  I have been a life-long non-smoker but that day I puffed away like a 20 a day man.  It seemed to have a calming effect so we started off again to our base.  We eventually arrived and threw ourselves on the ground.  I can't remember much else.  I think we got a mug of tea, no rum though.  I expect the base-wallahs had drunk it all.  No one came near us to enquire after our health and we were all just numb and sat there staring into space.  Eventually an officer came over and said 'You lads go over there, there's a war correspondent wants to talk to you.'  He was sat there, freshly shaved and done up like a pox doctor's clerk.  After a few daft questions he hardly got a word out of us, so he soon left, probably to have a coffee in the officers' mess.

We must have had a meal, though I cannot remember much else.  Toward evening we went into some tents.  There were blankets in a heap, so I took a couple and lay on the bare stony ground.  I was soon out like a light.  Next morning I arose and went to a pool of water that had been made by damming a small stream and had a quick wash and a shave.  Later on in the day, I was wandering about and an officer said 'What's wrong with you, lad?'  as I was hobbling a fair bit.  'I've got a bit of grenade, Sir,'

So he called a medic over.  There was not much to see, just a few small punctures, though my knee joint was like a football.  So I joined a few more lads who were going down to Indian Parachute Field Ambulance camp.  Once there I had a brief looking over by an Indian Medical Officer.  While I sat waiting my fate a tall, bearded Sikh orderly came up and said 'Cup of Chai Sahib?'  It was heavily sugared and tasted wonderful.  I'll never forget his kindness.  After a while a couple of ambulances turned up and we all got in to go to the Yankee airbase.  The ambulance was driven by a mad Canadian medic, who took off like a rocket over rough, unmade roads.  We were all moaning about his driving and soon we were shouting at the stupid so and so.  He didn't take a blind bit of notice.  My knee was really painful at this stage.  If I had got a rifle with me I would have put a round into the bulkhead behind the driver.  On arrival at the airfield, he flew in and bashed into another ambulance and burst his radiator, which gushed out steam and water.  He then promptly took off.  He was most likely drunk.  Those colonials were a law unto themselves.  We wandered off to the side of the runway to wait for our Dakota, which was to fly us to Japan for proper treatment in the British hospital in Kurea City.

Whilst we were waiting a group of American nurses joined us.  They were probably going on leave to Japan.  Anyway, they didn't come near us and they totally ignored us, but began chatting amongst themselves.  To my ears their nasal twang was rather unpleasant.  In any case we were all far too gone to be bothered with them.  There was a Yank cookhouse a few yards away and I went over and asked a big black cook if I could have a cup of coffee.  'No,' he said 'We're just going off dooty.'  Rotten sod, I thought.  Bloody Base-Wallah.  The Yanks were mostly regarded with contempt by the British regiments and they usually kept themselves well away from us, especially when on leave in Tokyo, where they regularly got beaten up as they were too prone to bragging and throwing their money about, which made it difficult for our lads as we were on about a quarter of their wages.

Eventually the plane turned up and amazingly it was a civilian aircraft - a QUANTAS Dakota.  Once aboard with comfortable plush seats a lovely stewardess came around giving out sweets.  How strange with men fighting and dying only about 20ks away.  After a short flight of about an hour we landed in Japan.  There was a fleet of elderly Austin box ambulances waiting for us, when we got of the train that took us to Kerea.  A couple of burly RAMC lads half carried me out of the station to the ambulance.  A steady run to the hospital in a well-sprung ambulance sensibly driven by our Royal Army Medical Corps driver was a real treat.  It was good to with our own kind once again.  On arrival at the hospital we were put to bed and shortly after I was taken down to the operating theatre and the surgeon produced a long syringe about the size of a thermos flask and stabbed me in the knee joint and sucked out about half a pint of fluid.  It was a bit painful but I tried not to shout out for my mummy or cry.  Anyway, it was back to bed and a hot meal - lovely.  There was an Indian lad in the next bed.  He was possibly a Hindu, but whatever, he was forbidden to eat meat because of his religion, so I kindly helped him out by scoffing all his rejects.  We were mostly Brits on that ward along with the odd Yank.  They were not at all happy, not being used to our plain fare.  No ice cream or coca cola etc.  There were some quite badly wounded men in there.  One poor lad in a screened off bed in the corner of the ward was so badly burned that he cried and moaned all of the time.  After a few days he died, a welcome relief from his suffering.  A bloke who I knew slightly arrived with a collapsed lung.  He had a long needle, the size of a knitting needle in his side into his lung.  A rubber pipe led down to a jar under his bed into which the fluid dripped out.  When we were allowed out of bed me and another lad would go over and try to cheer him up.  We were all good comrades and would do anything for each other.  In a way we were closer than family.  One of my old mates from the Palestine days used to smuggle a bottle of whisky in under his tunic and cheered us up no end.  The nurses in QARANC (Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps) were wonderful with us.  They would often sit on the beds and chat to the lads.  They were all commissioned officers and had to be treated with respect and they were.  When I was allowed out of the hospital, I decided to see what Kurea had to offer.  So off I went down town.  There was a bar on the corner where a few Canadians and Australians were gathered, so in I went and was made quite welcome.  Straight away all the Commonwealth soldiers were good mates and went about together, visiting the many bars, strip shows and brothels down the main drag.  After a couple of weeks in dock I posted to J.R.B.D, (Japanese Reinforcement Base Depot). The main British camp in Japan.  After a spell there, the camp commandant sent for me and another fusilier. 

'Would you like to do an assault pioneer course at the battle school at Hara Musa?' He asked. Hara Musa was a village about 10ks from Kurea.

We immediately agreed.  Anything for a new experience and a change of scenery.  So we packed our old kit bags again and of we went.  When we got off the train it was a quick march to the Battle School.  This was the place where soldiers from the troop ships from UK were sent; time permitting, to harden them for Korea.  Running all day up mountains, hills and dales; live firing attacks, some were killed or wounded during these exercises.  The course I was on was demolitions, field engineering, building bunkers etc and dealing with mines and booby traps.  It was interesting stuff.

Our time over at the school it was back to JRBD.  After hanging around camp for a while I was posted to Guard Company Pusan, the main base in Korea.  My time in Korea was nearly up and the army, so after a couple of months it was time for the troop ship.  A wonderful 6 week holiday, warm weather and cruise.  There were just a few duties to do.  Then it was back home for 28 days leave, then to my regimental depot and the de-mob centre in Woking to pick up my de-mob suit, which was the first suit I had in my life.  After 8 years wearing a khaki suit it was quite a change.

Then, back in Civvy Street to start a new life, I really missed the army.  I pined for my old mates, however given time, a wife and children you get reconciled to it.


Some after thoughts:

Why, I wonder, were we so ill equipped for our action?  There was no proper medical equipment or proper training during our six-week voyage from UK.  There were no radios for communication between sections, no bunker busting bazookas.  The medic had only a small bag with very little in it.  There were no stretcher jeeps to hurry the wounded to the aid station.