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Tough Love: Kayforce Engagement with the Korean People

COLONEL (RETIRED) RICHARD HALL OBE, MNZM
Pou Maumahara Volunteer

With the passage of time, it is difficult to confirm the reasons why almost 6,000 New Zealanders volunteered to serve during the Korean War as part of Kayforce. Some, like Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Richard Long, may have found it difficult to settle down in the post-war world. A dairy farmer in Taradale when he volunteered to become part of Kayforce, Richard had served during World War II with the artillery in the Pacific and, then later, as a pilot with the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). Some may have felt the call of adventure, having ‘missed out’ on the opportunity to serve during the last war. Gunner Ronald MacDonald probably fell into this category - a recently qualified mechanic from Palmerston North aged just 22 years old. Some even may have felt the calling to resist communism. Almost certainly, most of them would have known little about Korea, its people and its culture. How then did the New Zealand soldiers engage with the local population, the very people on whose behalf, they were fighting?

In the early stages of the war, the United Nations (UN) forces were overrun by the communist North Korean army, grimly holding onto the Pusan1 perimeter on the southernmost part of the Korean peninsula. By the time the ship ‘Osmonde’ docked in December 1950, and the New Zealand troops disembarked, the tide of war had changed, and the North Korean forces were in the process of being pushed back. As they retreated, they left behind partisan groups who operated in the recently re-taken areas. These groups blended in with the local population, seeking protection through anonymity. Immediately, New Zealanders were faced with the problem of differentiating between those they were supporting and those they were fighting.

16 Field Regiment’s (16 Fd Regt) first fatalities were not as a result of action on the front line, but by a partisan ambush. On 13th January 1951 WO2 Long and Gunner Ronald MacDonald of Kaikohe were both killed at Samnangjin-Ri as the Regiment deployed from Pusan to the front line. They had been in Korea for less than two weeks and had only driven about 20 kms from Pusan, in a supposedly safe area. Their deaths would have brought home the reality of war to their fellow soldiers. It is probable that this early exposure to partisan warfare caused a hardening of attitudes and an increased distrust of all Koreans, regardless of their political alignment. With interaction limited due to language difficulties and a huge gap in cultural norms, the room for misunderstandings was huge.

Any such mistrust was exacerbated by the North Korean tactic of infiltrating large numbers of troops behind the UN forces' defensive positions. Modern western armies are heavily reliant on complex supply lines to conduct their operations. This in turn requires a significant logistic effort to keep the force operating. As armies have become more sophisticated, this logistic ‘tail2’ has grown as a percentage of the force. [In the Korean War it has been estimated3 that there were 3 non-combat troops for every soldier on the front line]. Amidst the wooded, hilly or mountainous terrain that makes up much of Korea, the UN forces became heavily reliant on the existing road infrastructure for their logistic support and sited their defences accordingly.

The North Korean Army was not hampered in this way. It exploited gaps in the UN’s defensive line to insert lightly armed and self-reliant troops through areas of difficult terrain to cut transport links and attack logistic areas or headquarters. Early in the war, this led to ‘bug out’ fever as panicked front-line troops would abandon their positions to avoid being cut off and surrounded. In the heady mix of panic, confusion and fear, there were occasions when refugee columns were fired upon in case they contained infiltrators.

Hobson, Phillip Oliver Korean refugees walk along a railway line carrying their possessions in bundles. Snow lies on the fields next to the railway line. The refugees\u0027 clothing and footwear appears inadequate to cope with the freezing Korean winter. Australian War Memorial (c. November 1950)

Hobson, Phillip Oliver Korean refugees walk along a railway line carrying their possessions in bundles. Snow lies on the fields next to the railway line. The refugees' clothing and footwear appears inadequate to cope with the freezing Korean winter. Australian War Memorial (c. November 1950)

Public Domain ‘HOBJ1850’
To reduce the ease with which the North Koreans could move undetected (and to avoid civilian casualties) the areas around the front line were forcibly cleared of the local population. According to Captain Colin Petersen this "was not the best of jobs ejecting - sometimes at the point of a gun - elderly people and occasionally very pregnant women from their homes especially in the middle of winter."4 As Lance Bombardier Les Bielski also noted "I feel very humble among these poor tortured people for all they want is to wrest a meagre existence from the unwilling soil…"5

Cleared areas would be controlled by Korean police and, at times, wider areas would also be checked. For instance in December 1951, Operation Skunkhunt, a sweep of the divisional area led to 600 civilians being screened, 200 evacuated further to the rear and 12 held for interrogation6.  

Meldrum, Donald Albert, One of the many and varied tasks that fall to the Regimental Police with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment in Korea, is checking the credentials of the indigenous labour. Examining a Korean workman\u0027s pass here is 35206 Lance Corporal (L Cpl) William George \u0027Kiwi\u0027 Mitchell, who makes his home at East Geelong, Vic. As his nickname implies L Cpl Mitchell is a New Zealander who has migrated to Australia. He served in Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) in the 2nd New Zealand Division Cavalry Regiment, and in Australia before joining the Australian Army, he worked as a rigger at the Shell Oil Company\u0027s Geelong Refinery. Australian War Memorial (9 January 1954)

Meldrum, Donald Albert, One of the many and varied tasks that fall to the Regimental Police with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment in Korea, is checking the credentials of the indigenous labour. Examining a Korean workman's pass here is 35206 Lance Corporal (L Cpl) William George 'Kiwi' Mitchell, who makes his home at East Geelong, Vic. As his nickname implies L Cpl Mitchell is a New Zealander who has migrated to Australia. He served in Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) in the 2nd New Zealand Division Cavalry Regiment, and in Australia before joining the Australian Army, he worked as a rigger at the Shell Oil Company's Geelong Refinery. Australian War Memorial (9 January 1954)

Public Domain‘MELJ0537’
Despite these precautions, partisan activity and booby traps were ever-present threats leading to complaints that the troops had to "get more and more alert on picquets at night."7 The frontline troop’s interaction with the local civilian population was thus a combination of sympathy and mistrust - a conflict between common humanity and a desire for self-preservation.

The relationships between the New Zealanders and Koreans were not helped by the lack of respect given to the fledgling South Korean Army. Hastily thrown together, often under duress, the South Korean Army was thrown into battle with little training or experience, insufficient weapons and equipment, and poor leadership. Not surprisingly, most of these units did not perform well and they were considered unreliable by their allies. The battle of Kap’yong, 16 Fd Regt’s first major action, began with the collapse of 6 ROK8 Division which fled from the frontline. The Regiment had to hastily withdraw to avoid being overrun by the rapidly advancing North Koreans. Panic-stricken South Korean soldiers, some of them sobbing, tried to clamber aboard their already overloaded vehicles, but were clubbed off. "It was a matter of self-preservation. In the confusion no one could tell friend from foe, and no chances were being taken."9 Such incidents do not foster close working relationships, nor comradeship and mutual respect, the glue that holds disparate forces together.

While in general "there was very little friendship between the South Koreans and our troops"10 many units relied upon local Koreans, particularly when in static locations. Some units ‘employed’ Korean boys to help with routine tasks, some of whom remained with them for long periods. These boys were often homeless orphans who were trying to scratch a living in the midst of war. For instance, Richard Horner, part of the logistic unit, had a Korean boy to help with washing dishes and other tasks. He became an integral part of the organisation: "we used to give him bars of chocolate… he was practically one of us.”11

Korean houseboy and New Zealand soldiers. New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. War History Branch :Photographs relating to World War 1914-1918, World War 1939-1945, occupation of Japan, Korean War, and Malayan Emergency. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Korean houseboy and New Zealand soldiers. New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. War History Branch :Photographs relating to World War 1914-1918, World War 1939-1945, occupation of Japan, Korean War, and Malayan Emergency. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

All Rights Reserved. ‘PA1-f-115-2049’
Moreover, many forward units relied upon Korean porters to bring ammunition and other essential supplies to their forward battle positions in the midst of fierce fighting, often risking their lives to do so, and carrying out the wounded on their return journey. The image of a Korean porter with their typical ‘A’ frame on their backs became so much an iconic image that after the war The Gloucestershire Regiment commissioned a silver statuette of a Korean porter as a mark of respect felt towards the Korean porters who often risked their lives to support them. Later in the war the Commonwealth Division was also reinforced by KATCOMs or local Korean troops who were integrated into the various units to provide extra manpower. Based with, and fighting alongside, the Commonwealth troops built trust and mutual respect.

New Zealand soldiers with Korean soldiers attached to Commonwealth units (KATCOMS). New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. War History Branch :Photographs relating to World War 1914-1918, World War 1939-1945, occupation of Japan, Korean War, and Malayan Emergency. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

New Zealand soldiers with Korean soldiers attached to Commonwealth units (KATCOMS). New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. War History Branch :Photographs relating to World War 1914-1918, World War 1939-1945, occupation of Japan, Korean War, and Malayan Emergency. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

All Rights Reserved. ‘PA1-f-115-2039’
Yet not all interactions with the South Korean population were based on self-interest. For many soldiers there was a genuine sympathy for their plight and the harshness of their existence. For example, Driver Maurice Bolton came across a woman who had been bitten by a snake and left to die on a railway track by a column of refugees. He dragged her to safety and then drove her to the nearest medical facility. In another example, Captain Alan Cull, the Kayforce Dentist, provided dental care to the local population whenever he could. Furthermore, the more static logistic units would regularly support some of the many orphanages that sprung up due to the war due to the large number of fatalities.

The Korean War was a brutal civil war with families split both politically and geographically. Both sides committed atrocities and it has been estimated 2.5 million people were killed, a large proportion of whom were civilians. For the UN troops, partisan activity and the North Korean infiltration tactics sowed confusion and led to suspicion of all Koreans. This mistrust, combined with the difficulties of language and culture, created a gulf between them and the people they had come to assist. In war self-preservation is a powerful motivator: keeping one’s distance from the local population was often deemed to be the safest course. Yet throughout the conflict, members of Kayforce were often deeply moved by the hardships faced by the local population and tried to alleviate their predicament when they could. Despite the somewhat ambiguous relationships between the UN Forces and the Korean population, more than 70 years after the armistice, the current population of South Korea continues to demonstrate immense gratitude and respect for those who either served or those, like WO2 Long and Gunner MacDonald, who died during the conflict.


REFERENCES

1 Modern Busan.

2 This includes communication troops, medical facilities as well as resupply and maintenance troops.

4 McGibbon, I. C. (1992). New Zealand and the Korean War. Oxford University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs. p.163.

5 Ibid p..164

6 Ibid, p.242.

7 Ibid, p.242

8 Republic of Korea

9 Ibid p.119.

10 Desmond, Pip. (2013). The war that never ended : New Zealand veterans remember Korea. Auckland, N.Z. : Penguin. Alan Cull, p.140.

11 Ibid Richard Horner, p.181.

 

About the author

Colonel (Retired) Richard Hall OBE, MNZM, has volunteered in Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre since March 2023 . Richard has extensive military experience, serving in the British Army for 24 years, including service in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. He also commanded 150 New Zealand troops in the Bamiyan province in Afghanistan. He has written a memoir on his experience A Long Road to Progress: Dispatches from a Kiwi Commander in Afghanistan (2010).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official stance of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira or its employees.

Cite this article

Colonel (Retired) Richard Hall. Tough Love: Kayforce Engagement with the Korean People. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 25 March 2024. Updated: 16 April 2024.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/Tough-Love