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Freedom -Whither Thou Goest

  • WriterNeville Russell Hugh
  • Date2010-05-27 15:58:09
  • Count1989

Freedom -Whither Thou Goest
A recollection of events in my life in 1951-1952 following a visit on 25 March 2010 to the
United Nations Memorial Cemetery (UNMCK). in Korea
 
I had come here to pay tribute to the 40,896 UN troops who fell during the Korean War (25 June 1950 - 27 July 1953). They are represented by the 2,300 interred soldiers in the Memorial Cemetery from the 16 nations who supported the United Nations’ defence of the Republic of South Korea, particularly the 281 Australians and 885 British soldiers.
I was standing before the headstone of a British soldier named Reginald Greaves of The Welch Regiment. He and I had been friends and training instructors from 1948 in Brecon, Wales, of national servicemen who would join our regiment and perform so valiantly.

I paused and reflected on some moments of my life in 1951 - 1952:

I recalled the large white troopship with one yellow funnel, which had brought the Ist Battalion The Welch Regiment of the British Army to Pusan in October 1951. I was one of the Battalion’s eight hundred or so soldiers on deck on that cold foggy dawn keen to get a first view of the country we were going to help protect from invading forces from the north.
Disembarkation was completed with great speed. We formed into our company groups on the quayside and commenced the march to the railhead about two kilometres distance. Outside the the gates the roadway was lined by large numbers of aged women clothed in what seemed to be rags, with even larger numbers of of children, similarly clothed, whose ages could have been from three to fifteen. They were begging for food. It was as if the soldiers were participants in an ugly hugely magnified and grotesquely real Dickensian scene. These tragic orphans were an outcome of the cruel invasion. So began my life changing experience.

The damage and destruction we saw during the rail journey deepened the experience.

We arrived before dawn on the following morning at Uijongbu to be introduced to the sounds of heavy and consistent artillery explosions. It was a noise that would ebb and flow greatly in tempo and volume - sometimes with overpowering, frightening mind numbing intensity. It lasted until we left for Hong Kong in mid-December 1952. By truck, we were moved to take up a reserve position about four kilometres from the front line, which had stabilised about thirty or so kilometres north of the Imjin River. In mid November we replaced a Republic of Korea Army Regiment in the front line on hills which became known as ‘The Hook’. The position faced a valley varying in width up to two kilometres and more. It was a patchwork of bunded untilled paddy fields, drained by the Sami-chon River - a small tributary of the Imjin. The North Koreans and Chinese held the higher hills on the other side of the valley. The terrain in front of the enemy positions formed a complex maze of foothills, irregular valleys and re-entrants with more bunded untilled paddy fields. There was one dominant foothill known as Hill 169 (marked on our maps as 169 metres above sea level). It was an area made for ambushes. We identified our positions by map references and hill numbers. The closest enemy at that time was about 80 metres from the left flank of the Battalion position.

We dug deep trenches with fighting bays to the front, and bunkers to the rear, in which to shelter with four feet and more of compacted earth and sand bags for the roofs, supported by steel pickets and strong tree branches when available. Frequently, the nature of the ground required imaginative engineering and a desperate search for other materials in order to build these essential structures. These were our protective homes during the severe cold winter of 1951-1952 when the temperature fell to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit over a period of three weeks. Also, of course we sheltered in them when being fired upon, shelled or mortared.

In front of our trenches we laid barbed wire up to 100 metres and more in depth. In front of the wire we laid dense minefields. These required constant maintenance. The work involved was difficult and dangerous.
The need to know what was happening to our front involved incessant patrolling and reconnaissance. This work was shared between the companies.

As the Intelligence Section sergeant, my job was to support the Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Norman Salmon, who was one of the Battalion Commander’s principal aides. My section and the sniper section had combined (12 soldiers) to act as additional “ears and eyes’. To keep the operational maps up to date we participated in patrol and reconnaissance activities with the companies. We became very familiar with the terrain of no-mans land and its dangers.
Reg Greaves had been a member of a large day patrol into the Hill 169 area. Returning along a narrow track between minefields, at the ford for crossing the Sami-chon, the patrol was subjected to heavy artillery and mortar fire. Reg was one of those killed. He was married with two children.

A few days later with Private Win Price, I joined a patrol into the Hill 169 area under Lieutenant Alan Bentham. We came under small-arms fire and Sergeant Tug Wilson second in command of the patrol was shot in the abdomen. After the enemy had been forced to retreat, how to repatriate the injured sergeant was considered. We were about 3 kilometres in front of our lines. Lieutenant Bentham had been given assignments to carry out and I suggested that, Win Price and I would carry him back. This was agreed to and the Battalion HQ advised by radio.

We used two rifles to carry the wounded man. I led. It was a most uncomfortable journey for him. Whilst under the cover of the shadow of the hills, we could not be seen by the enemy. However, there was no cover over the last third of the distance. The first shell went over our heads, about 50 metres on the track where Reg Greaves had been killed. A second shell exploded about 30 metres to our right in a minefield setting off a secondary mine explosion. Some whining shrapnel came our way.
We realised they were ranging in on us, but could take no evasive action because either side of the track were dense minefields, and there was no undergrowth in which to hide.
Two others exploded close by, showering us with earth and some shrapnel, but without injury. The next one landed just in front of me to my right, and the blast knocked me down. We were stunned. Incredibly, in that instant of time, my mind involuntarily recalled my brother’s death by a German shell, when acting as a motor - cycle despatch rider with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment at Caen in 1944. The shriek of pain from our wounded comrade then dominated my thoughts. We picked him up and recommenced our journey. There were more explosions, but not quite so close. We were able to reach a safe location where a stretcher jeep was used to take the wounded sergeant to Battalion HQ and a helicopter ride to a MASH.
I recall taking a moment to get over the tensions of that experience. There was a dawning that at 21 years of age I was not immortal.
Some days later Alan Bentham was seriously wounded.

The company on our right flank late one night reported a mine explosion and cries for help. The cries persisted throughout the night. At first light on the following morning, I joined a patrol to explore what had happened, taking Sung the senior Korean interpreter with me. It was cold with a very dense fog and visibility was virtually nil. A breeze moved the fog, so that one moment I could not see the end of my gun, and the next I could see about 10 to 20 metres. It was most eerie.
Moaning noises guided us to the badly injured North Korean officer lying about thirty metres in a minefield. He was in a dark uniform with polished leather belt. His hat was on the ground. We removed his gun. He was obviously in a bad way. Through Sung I questioned him. He was able to say that when the mine exploded his men had run off and abandoned him. He could not feel his legs. We found both of his legs below the knees to be seriously affected, one seemed to be held in place only by his sock and trousers.
I had taken off my parka, put it over him and placed my mittens under his head as a cushion from the cold earth. He told Sung that he had expected me to shoot him.
His head was less than half a metre from the three prongs of a mine and I made sure the stretcher bearers took care not to touch them.

Some days before the episode in the minefield, Private John Hampton, a former member of my section before my promotion to sergeant, had been shot in the legs during a night patrol. He had been unable to run and hide. I was a member of a patrol which found his body the following morning. He had been shot several times in the heart. I wondered if the injured enemy officer in the minefield had been responsible.

We remained in the position of the ‘Hook’ until April 1952, followed by three weeks in reserve during which time we played rugby against the 16 New Zealand Field Artillery Regiment. Paddy fields had been bulldozed. The playing area was surrounded by Kiwi howitzers continually blasting harassing fire at the enemy. We lost 3 points to nil. I suffered bad concussion.

In May the Battalion took over the critical Hill 355 from the American ‘Can Do” Infantry Regiment.
Hill 355 was the hinge of the battle front, located on the traditional invasion route into South Korea.
Dominating, craggy, precipitous, it was an unfriendly place. It needed mules to carry the supplies up the steep tracks.
I had thought that no hill could have endured more explosions than Hill 169, but it was small beer compared to Hill 355 - it had been blasted to bare rock, much of it being shattered into pieces.
It was an uninhabitable place, but our companies lived there for five months. The shelling continued.
By some incredible feat, British centurion tanks had established hull down positions at the very top.
In difficult close terrain, patrolling was limited mainly to the night time. It was very dangerous and many casualties were suffered. Our section’s role on 355 was to man the observation posts with limited patrolling. Sniper Corporal Colin Hill, a close friend,was seriously wounded in a night time fire fight.

D Company carried out an attack to dislodge enemy troops from a shoulder of 355. Whilst the attack was taking place I was in an observation post round the corner. I drew the attention of the tank commander to the flash from a heavy machine gun in a black area of an enemy bunker. Two tracer shells were sent hurtling across the valley into the black area as the horrendous boom from the Centurion’s gun added to the incredible noise of artillery and machine gun fire going on.
During the 24 hours of the day when that attack took place, I believe the Divisional intelligence report recorded that the Allied artillery had fired 24,000 rounds in the area against about 12,000 rounds from the enemy.

We received great support from sea borne attack aircraft from the Australian aircraft carrier Sydney and from American vessels. Two, three or more times times a week, a flight of four attack aircraft would begin circling overhead until guided on to the target across the valley by the spotter plane.
Air superiority is a great morale booster for infantrymen.

I began to emerge from my intensely pensive mood and reflected on the great city that Busan had become. But, especially, the wonderful energy and positive development that had occurred among the people of the Republic of South Korea. They have truly shown the world what freedom will allow us to achieve. May their example inspire their fellow Koreans in the North to learn from them.

The Wall Of Remembrance at UNMCK with the names of all 40,896 who fell reads:
“We engrave your names in our hearts with love
We inscribe your names in our land with appreciation”.

We had done our job.

I said good bye to Reg.

The thought that my name might have been on a headstone never leaves me. I have had almost sixty years of life denied to those with headstones. Their memory deserves the dedicated care given to them in the United Nations Memorial Cemetery by the people of the Republic of Korea.
Thank you.


LEST WE FORGET

Neville Russell Hughes
Former Sergeant and Lieutenant in The Welch Regiment 41st of Foot of The British Army
1948 - 1956