Australia and the Korean War
Friday 15 April, 2016
On 24 April this year we commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Kapyong (1951); a major battle of the Korean War (1950-1953) in which Australia’s 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) played a significant part. Later this year we will commemorate the Battle of Maryang San; another major battle in which Australians fought in October of the same year.
As highlighted in the Think Piece by Colonel Peter Scott DSO, (Rtd) published on 8 October, 2015, 3 RAR has a strong connection with South Australia. The regiment’s headquarters were formerly based at Woodside in the Adelaide Hills prior to their re-location to Holsworthy in 1983, and more recently to Townsville where the Battalion currently resides. 3 RAR has seen active service in Japan, Korea, Malaya, South Vietnam, East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Formally known as the 67th Infantry Battalion, 3 RAR was one of three Australian units sent to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) at the end of the Second World War. The regiments were raised from Australian Divisions stationed in the New Guinea mainland and in Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and New Britain.
At the outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950, 3 RAR was preparing to return to Australia, but after a short period of intense training and re-organisation the battalion was deployed on 28 September to Pusan, Korea to provide assistance to the United Nations forces fighting in support of South Korea.
The backdrop to Australia’s involvement in the Korean War was complex. It was driven by the change in the relationship between the US and Soviet Union following World War II. The threat of communism and the desire to forge closer alignment with the US, which had come to Australia’s aid in the Pacific when the advance of the Japanese had threatened our relatively small nation with full scale invasion, were further considerations.
Korea had been under Japanese rule since the start of the 20th century. In the land divisions that followed the end of World War II the Allies had agreed that an undivided post-war Korea would be placed under four-power multinational trusteeship, which included Britain, the US, the Soviet Union and China. This agreement was later modified to become a joint Soviet-American occupation that saw Korea occupied by the Soviets from the north and the Americans from the south, divided at the 38th Parallel.
By 1949, two new states had formed on the Korean peninsula. In the south, the anti-communist dictator Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) had the reluctant support of the American government, while in the north, the communist dictator Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) appeared to have the support of the Soviets.
However, neither Korean dictator was content to remain on his side of the 38th Parallel. Border skirmishes were common. Nearly 10,000 North and South Korean soldiers were killed in battles before the Korean War even began. To complicate matters further the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had been established in 1949 after the Chinese Communists emerged victorious from China’s Civil War.
By this time the post World War II ‘superpowers’ of the US and Soviet Union had become fierce competitors on the world stage. This competitiveness later extended to the ‘space race’, but more worryingly to a nuclear arms race, which over the following decades lead to such a build-up of arms that it would ultimately reach a ‘mutually assured destruction’ standoff.
This state of political and military tension that prevailed between the powers in the Western Bloc (the US and its NATO allies and others) and the powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact) became known as the ‘Cold War’.
Kapyong Valley, Korea. 1952-04-16. An elevated view of the Kapyong Valley and surrounding hills where 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) were in position during the Battle of Kapyong 1951-04-26.
The term is believed to have been taken from an essay written by English author George Orwell, titled “You and the Atomic Bomb”. Published in the British Tribune on 19 October, 1945, Orwell wrote about a world living in the shadow of the threat of nuclear warfare. He had based the essay on American philosopher and political theorist James Burnham’s work.
Burnham had predicted a polarized world much like the one that appeared to be emerging. A radical activist in the 1930s and an important factional leader of the American Trotskyist movement, Burnham had left Marxism and turned to the political Right, serving as a public intellectual of the American conservative movement. By the time Orwell wrote his essay, Burnham had produced The Managerial Revolution (1941); the work for which he is best known.
Added to this was Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” speech given at Westminister College in Fulton Missouri, on 5 March 1946. In this speech Winston Churchill had described “a shadow” falling over Europe. He went on to describe Stalin as having dropped an ‘Iron Curtain’ between East and West. Stalin responded with an edict stating that co-existence between communist and capitalist systems was impossible and in mid-1948 the Soviet Union subsequently imposed a blockade on the Western Zone of occupation in Berlin, which would remain until November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down as Soviet Russia began to collapse.
The Cold War is typically considered to have commenced in 1947 and to have continued through to 1991. It was renowned for espionage, political subversion and proxy wars that included the Korean War, 1950–53, Malayan Emergency, 1950–60, Indonesian Confrontation, 1963–66, Vietnam War, 1962–75 in which Australian forces participated.
As far as the Americans were concerned the advance into South Korea in June 1950 was, therefore, the first step in a communist campaign to take over the world. Non-intervention was not an option. In fact, in April 1950, a US National Security Council report known as NSC-68, had recommended that the United States use military force to “contain” communist expansionism anywhere it seemed to be occurring, “…regardless of the intrinsic strategic or economic value of the lands in question.”
“If we let Korea down,” said US President Harry Truman (1884-1972) “the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.”
This fed into the strong fear that prevailed in Australia at the time; a fear amplified by the racist propaganda Australians had been bombarded with during World War II, threatening them with the ‘yellow peril’ of Japanese invasion. The propaganda now changed to target communists with communism portrayed as ‘red scum’; a disease that was spreading; determined to destroy the Australian way of life.
Australia, under the leadership of Robert Menzies, strongly believed there was potential for communism to advance as Truman had described by ‘domino effect’ inevitably to impact Australia.
“(Menzies): Can we doubt that under these circumstances the complete socialist state would be set up in Australia? And that, in consequence, we would have the all-powerful state? How would we like to be living in a country where the state was all-powerful?”
Inevitably, when the United Nations asked its member states to help fulfil its charter of maintaining international peace and security by assisting South Korea to resist invasion from the north, Australia was one of 21 countries that responded to the call. Troops, ships, aircraft and medical teams were assembled within a matter of weeks.
Just two days after armed forces from Korea’s north crossed the 38th Parallel in June 1950, Australia’s Federal Cabinet began discussing plans to make military training compulsory leading to Australia’s first National Service Act (1951) requiring Australian males 18 years of age to attend three months mandatory military service. The program continued through to 1959 and was recommenced in 1964 for twenty year old Australian males, many of whom would serve in the Vietnam War (1962-75).
Recruitment offices around Australia re-opened in 1950 and a flood of volunteers signed up, says Melbourne University’s Richard Trembath. 
“It was an enthusiastic response. I think Korea in some ways was a war which the Australian population understood a little more clearly than it understood Vietnam. The world response was a lot more united. The United Nations was the one calling for action, so it had the mark of being something right to do. In fact, the Korean War is the only time the United Nations goes to war until the Gulf War of 1991; until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.“
Already involved in fighting a Communist insurgency in Malaya (as it was called at the time) Australia was the first country, following the US, to commit units from all three military services to Korea.
“We were anxious to be seen as very quick to put our cards on the table; we originally only committed air forces and naval forces, but when it was found out in Canberra that Britain was going to commit land forces, we jumped to beat Britain – we actually beat them by about a day or two – to show that we were firm in the alliance with the United States,” said Trembath.
Australia’s principle motivation was to firm the alliance with the US with our engagement in Korea eventually becoming one of the major factors in the formation of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951.
But what became of 3RAR on 23 April, 1951 – just two days before Anzac Day? In the Korean Spring offensive of 1951, 3RAR captured a number of important features and had advanced as far as Kapyong when it was relieved by 6 Republic of Korea (ROK) Division. On the night of 22nd April 1951, the Chinese launched an offensive and 6 ROK Division withdrew in disorder through the battalion’s position. The following evening, on 23 April 1951, the main Chinese force had reached the battalion’s perimeter at Kapyong and in the face of a continuing series of attacks, 3RAR held its ground. The Chinese turned their attention to the Canadians on Hill 677, but during a fierce night battle were unable to dislodge them. Success on both the Australian and Canadian fronts ultimately exhausted and demoralised the Chinese who withdrew back up the valley the next day to regroup.
The actions of the Australians and Canadians at Kapyong helped to prevent a breakthrough to the United Nations Command central front, and ultimately the capture of Seoul. They had in effect stopped an entire Chinese division from advancing. Today, the battle is regarded as one of the most famous actions fought by the Australian and Canadian armies in Korea.
For its part in this action, 3RAR was awarded the United States Presidential Citation. The battalion suffered 28 KIA, 4 died of wounds, 3 were taken prisoner and 59 wounded.
Stan Connolly served with the 3 RAR at the Battle of Kapyong. He and other veterans have told their stories as part of a film archive of Australians at War, curated by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (2001).
“We charged and we began to get shot down. I remember my good friend Gene Tunny on my right falling in the advance and then my big mate Rod Grey on my left, went down shot through the chest and the bullets were cracking, cracking, you can, as they go past you can hear them cracking, you know, because they sort of break the sound barrier. It’s louder than the crack of the weapon firing them. And it seemed to me that there were so many bullets coming that it was like walking or running into a very stiff breeze.“
3RAR subsequently became part of the 28th Commonwealth Brigade moving north to the Imjin River where it was involved in the Battle of Maryang San (Hill 317) which took place from 2-7 October, 1951. 3RAR was not only involved in the capture of the division’s first objective, Hill 355, but went on to capture Hill 317 after a series of company and platoon attacks orchestrated by what Colonel Peter Scott (DSO, Rtd) describes as ‘our brilliant CO, then Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hassett’ who was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order. At Maryang-San, 3RAR suffered 21 KIA, with 104 wounded.
On 27 July, 1953, an armistice was signed that ended the Korean War after three years of heavy fighting. More than 36,000 Americans died in the conflict, making it the fifth deadliest in US history, along with an estimated 5 million Koreans and at least 150,000 Chinese. 
More than 17,000 Australian sailors, soldiers and airmen served in the Korean War. Australian casualties were 339 killed, 1216 wounded and 29 prisoners of war with 43 Australian servicemen still listed as Missing In Action. The Korean peninsula is still divided today.
Australia’s participation included the following units:
Royal Australian Regiment 1RAR, 2RAR, 3RAR, 1st Commonwealth Division, HMAS Shoalhaven, HMAS Bataan, HMAS Warramunga, HMAS Shoalhaven, HMAS Sydney, 805 Squadron, 808 Squadron, RAN 817 Squadron, RAN 77 Squadron RAAF.
Battles in which Australian’s fought in Korea include Sariwon, Yongju, Kujin, Congiu, Pakchon, Uijeongbu, Chuam-ni, Maehwa-San, Kapyong, Maryang San, Samichon River
 Stan Lowe, Emirits Wymong Veterans’ Association. The Korean War: A forgotten war?, July 2, 2013 http://casperjournal.com/news/opinion/editorial/article_adbb6091-7425-5280-aeb8-07a9c0fb0f17.html
 Nikki Canning, “Australia’s Role in the Korean War.” (Transcript) SBS Radio World News Australia, 25 Jul 2013, http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2013/07/25/what-was-australias-role-korean-war
 “The History of 3 RAR” – http://www.rar.org.au/documents/3RARHistoryComplete.pdf
Think Piece: Colonel Peter Scott DSO(Rtd)