Korea: too often the forgotten war

77 Squadron
77 Squadron

JULY 27 is now known in Australia as the Korean War Veterans’ Day, the anniversary of the Armistice Agreement which ended fighting in 1953.

Although a peace treaty has never been signed, and feelings still run high along the border of the de-militarised zone between North and South Korea, international troops have not been involved in any fighting since the armistice, and Australian fighting men left the troubled peninsula in 1957.

During the Korean War, Australia contributed some 17,000 men from the Army, Navy and Air Force, with 358 paying the supreme sacrifice, including 44 missing in action, and 1200 casualties in total.

Australia was one of 21 United Nations countries who fought to support South Korea in retaining its independence as a democratic nation after North Korean forces crossed the border hoping to re-form the country which had been divided into communist north and democratic south after World War II.

Half a million South Koreans, almost half of them civilians, were killed and approximately two million North Korean and Chinese lost their lives.

Reflecting on the significance of the Korean War, Brigadier Bill Rolfe AO (Ret’d) said the war had historically been overlooked because it did not end in a decisive victory, and was overshadowed in our memories by World War II.

“Many Australians know precious little about the Korean War,” he said.

“The names Kapyong and Maryang-San are not as recognisable as Gallipoli, Kokoda or Long Tan.”

These two names were places where Australian troops were involved in some of the fiercest fighting and most significant battles of the Korean War.

Brigadier Rolfe said the Korean War was a bitter conflict, fought in extreme heat and cold, in a complex political context which was often not clear to the Australian servicemen and women who participated.

What was the Korean War about?

Not long after the end of World War Two, Korea was divided into two zones of occupation at the 38th Parallel. The southern zone was controlled by the American forces, the northern zone came under the influence of the Soviet Union.

Unable to find a solution to the issue of re-unification, the UN decided to establish two separate nations – the Republic of South Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea

In June 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea, pushing the latter’s forces back to the Pusan perimeter.

The United Nations decided to send a force to defend South Korea, composed of contingents from 15 nations including Australia, Britain, United States, Canada, Turkey, Greece, Colombia, New Zealand, The Philippines, France, The Netherlands, South Africa and Luxembourg, and medical units from Denmark, India, Italy, Norway and Sweden. Although the Korean War did not escalate into a world war, it proved to be a long and bloody war.

When the North Koreans were pushed hard to their northern border and were all but defeated, the communist forces of China entered the fray in their defence, thus prolonging the war.

At home in Australia, the Korean War was strongly supported by both sides of parliament, and the population in general.

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