The 70th Anniversary of the Korean War: Remembering the Forgotten War

In 1950, despite still recovering from the devastation of World War Two (WWII), Australia was once again called upon to support its allies in a foreign conflict.  This was the Korean War (1950-1953), often forgotten and overshadowed in Australia’s military history by the events of WWII. Korea was a place that Australians knew little about until rising tensions and hostilities in the region escalated into a brutal war.  Some 17,000 Australian defence personnel from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Royal Air Force (RAAF) and the Australian Army served in this conflict, supporting South Korean Forces.  This year on the 25 June 2020 we mark the 70th Anniversary of the beginning of this war and pause to pay tribute to those who served, ensuring their important legacy is not forgotten.

Headline from the Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), Monday 26 June 1950, p.1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56947966

Following WWII allied forces were entrusted with control of the Korean peninsula following 35 years of Japanese occupation. The United States helped govern South Korea, assisting in the establishment of a provisional democratic government.  North Korea was controlled by the Soviet Union who fostered a communist government. Cold War tensions and differing political ideologies created open hostilities between these zones. In the pre-dawn hours of the 25 June 1950, 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean’s People Army poured across the 38th parallel into South Korea. Within a week they had captured the capital, Seoul, pushing South Korean and American forces down to Pusan. The United Nations (UN) responded by asking its members to commit troops to help maintain peace in the region and protect South Korea from North Korea and its Chinese allies.

Headlines from the Queensland Times (Ipswich), 27 July 1950, p.1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article117261233

Despite being weary from WWII, within weeks the Australian government had assembled troops, ships, aircrafts and medical teams to be deployed to Korea. Australia became the second nation after the United States to commit troops to the UN’s multinational force deployed to the region. Prime Minister Robert Menzies declared that the events in Korea had threatened world peace and that Australia must “not only be willing, but ready to stand by our sister nations” (Maryborough Chronicle, 7 July 1950, p.1). For the last time in Australia’s history the government called upon volunteers for an overseas military expedition. Those who enlisted were required to serve a three-year period in the defence force, with one-year active service in Korea.

The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton), With the Fighting Services, Thursday 18 October 1951, p.11, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75332257.

The HMAS Shoalhaven and HMAS Bataan alongside the Royal Australian Regiment 3RAR and RAAF squadron no.77 were some of first military units to be deployed to Korea. HMAS Sydney, HMAS Warramunga, 1RAR, 2RAR and squadrons 805, 808, and 817 would also serve in this conflict. Throughout this three-year war Australian forces fought in several significant battles, including the battle of Kapyong and Maryang San. In an interview, Australian veteran Ron Perkins recalls the bloody fighting, supply issues and numerous casualties that occurred during the Battle of Kapyong. You can listen to his experiences of the Korean War here:  Ron Perkins (interview transcript).

Battle of Kapyong

Headlines of the Cairns Post, Friday 27 April 1951, p.1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42706022

Fighting reached a stalemate at the end of 1951, leading to peace talks. After two year of negotiations an armistice was signed at 10am on 27 July 1953, halting all hostilities. Australian forces would remain in Korea for another four years as military observers. Commitment to the Korean War came at the cost of 349 Australian lives. An additional 1,200 individuals had been wounded and 29 had been taken as prisoners of war. This conflict also had immense implications for Korea, particularly for its people. It is estimated that more than two million Koreans died during North Korea’s attempt to unite the nation under its rule. Countless Korean civilians also become homeless, many separated from their families. Today, South and North Korea remain divided and tension in the region continues.

Anzac Day Procession on Adelaide Street, Brisbane, ca. 1954, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg. no. 65577

Australia was widely praised by other nations for its involvement in this conflict. Awards and decorations were given to 615 Australian defence personnel for their bravery and service. Another 173 Australians received awards from foreign nations. Australia’s involvement also resulted in many political and security benefits, including the signing of the ANZUS treaty with the United States and New Zealand. Despite this being an important part of Australia’s military history, the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War”. This conflict involved relatively few Australians in comparison to the 1 million that served in WWII and it was also seen as less of a threat to the Australian mainland. Consequently, over the years the service and sacrifice of our Korean veterans has often been overshadowed by the events of WWII.  A permanent national memorial for those who served in the Korean War was not dedicated until 2000.

Korean Veterans Memorial Plaque, Anzac Square, Brisbane, Post 1945 Gallery

This year as we mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War let us ensure that our Korean veterans are not forgotten. There are many ways to commemorate their service, including a self-guided minute of silence, visiting your local memorial, learning more about a family member or friend who served in Korea, or dedicating time to read about this conflict. These are simple ways to ensure that that legacy and sacrifice of these veterans is not overlooked.

Korea, Malaysia and Borneo Memorial Statue, Anzac Square, Brisbane

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