The Korean War and Australia
Australian War Memorial Anniversary Oration by Robert O'Neill 11 November 2003
I am delighted to have been invited to speak this evening, to help commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the opening of the Australian War Memorial in 1941. The Memorial has been a major influence in my life. I had the support of the Council and staff for twelve years while I was working on the official history of the Korean War. In this task I was helped significantly by former staff members such as Bill Sweeting and Darryl Macintyre. Even more importantly, from my first visit here some fifty-two years ago, the Memorial has deepened my knowledge and understanding of war, giving me intellectual resources and standards which have been useful throughout my professional life.
I was a frequent Sunday afternoon visitor here while I was a cadet at Duntroon in the 1950s. The Memorial was then a pleasant stroll away from the College through bush covered hills, in the midst of which sat a collection of humpies known as Toorak. I never found out who the inhabitants were, and their appearance did not encourage pausing for a chat. But they never sought to impede my passage so on I went to and fro through their midst over four years, thinking especially on my homeward journey, about how and why Australians had been committed to some of the perilous and dramatic situations that the Memorial portrayed so graphically.
The Memorial's original displays had many virtues, the first of which was cohesion. The individual cases, maps and dioramas gave one a picture not only of individual episodes but also of a campaign as a whole. And by paying regular visits one could build up one's knowledge of campaigns into an understanding of the full course of a war. A second virtue of the dioramas was their outstanding artistic merit. With a little professional knowledge such as I was acquiring at Duntroon one could closely empathise with the detailed portrayals of human experience that their gifted designers and sculptors had created.
The Memorial in the 1950s was essentially focused on the two world wars and the scope of its material was more operational than strategic. The First World War was better explained than the Second. But that was not a bad way in which to begin. I am delighted to see the continued expansion that has taken place both in the scope of exhibits and resources and in the lines of approach to the understanding of international conflict. Changes in the techniques of display – the moving image, sound, the third dimension and intelligent, comprehensive captioning – are all matters for commendation. As a connoisseur of national war memorials and museums who has lived much of his life outside Australia, let me say that the Memorial remains in the first rank of such institutions taken world wide.
When fortune took me to Europe in the early 1960s I was able to visit the war museums and memorials of the principal belligerents of the past few centuries. The French and Austrian collections were the most impressive of the continental European museums. It was unforgettable to look down on the folding field bed of Napoleon knowing that millions of people had died as a result of the decisions reached by the diminutive man who had fitted that mattress, and to look at the simple accoutrements of Emperor Franz Josef as he struggled vainly during the First World War to prevent the collapse and partition of his great empire which spanned Central and Eastern Europe. But setting aside these spectacular relics, visits to European museums made it clear to me that the quality of the exhibits and documentary resources of the Australian War Memorial put it in a special class world-wide. We can all rejoice that the achievements of Dr Charles Bean and his generation of artists, historians and other skilled helpers such as Colonel John Treloar, followed by Major John McGrath, Bill Lancaster and their successors as directors, especially Noel Flanagan, have been further enhanced by the developments of the past three decades. The expansion of the Memorial's range of offerings and capacities during Steve Gower's tenure of the directorship has been outstanding.
When I first came to know the Imperial War Museum in London in the early 1960s it was not in the same class as the Australian War Memorial, but under the leadership of Noble Frankland as Director-General it rapidly ascended the ladder of quality. His successors Alan Borg and Robert Crawford have continued the upward trend, and the size of British resources and generosity of major companies have enabled them to add new dimensions to the Imperial War Museum so that it embraces not only the main building in Lambeth Road but also an airfield and dedicated air war museum, a major warship and the political nerve centre of the Cabinet War Rooms. The standard of exhibits and special exhibitions, access to documentary, sound and film records, and conservation has continued to rise and offers useful benchmarking possibilities to the Memorial. Our two institutions have a very close and warm relationship in which to exchange thoughts and compare experiences. We have similar but not identical missions and we share the challenges of attracting and maintaining public attention, political support and a flow of financial contributions from the private sector. As a former Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Imperial War Museum I know that in London there is the utmost goodwill towards and respect for the Memorial. In an era of growing international co-operation, this link stands out as one to be continually cultivated and exploited to the advantage of both sides.
The Korean War
One conflict on which the displays of both institutions were deficient until relatively recent years is the Korean War. The armistice agreement which ended major hostilities in Korea was signed into effect just over fifty years ago. We now have a long perspective down which to view this intense and cruel struggle and draw some conclusions relating to its impact. On the commission of the Australian War Memorial I wrote a book titled Australia in the Korean War. Let me now turn the telescope around and offer you some thoughts on the Korean War and Australia – in other words on how our participation in that war affected Australia's future course. Several major issues stand out for mention and review.
East Asia and Australia
In mid-1950 the Australian Government was focused not on the prospect of immediate conflict in East Asia but on how to play its designated part in providing forces for the Middle East. Britain wanted a strong Commonwealth contingent to plug a gap which the Americans could not cover in the event of a world war initiated by the Soviet Union. Ten days before North Korean forces rolled into South Korea the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir William Slim, was in Australia to urge the government to commit its forces firmly to the Middle East. Menzies and his colleagues however were more concerned about South-east Asia.
The government's dilemma was resolved by Kim Il-sung. Despite the miniscule size of Australia's armed forces, naval and air contingents were swiftly committed to Korea, followed four weeks later by an infantry battalion. From that commitment onwards Australia has become primarily involved in conflicts in East Asia: the Malayan Emergency, Indonesia's confrontation of Malaysia and the Vietnam War. Recent commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding, our principal strategic focus since 1950 has been directed on East Asia. The Korean War reminded Australians of the volatility of many parts of the East Asian region, their importance to the security interests of the several great powers whose spheres of influence intersected in the region, and the possibility of further unfavourable consequences for Australia if conflicts occurring in the Asian-Pacific region were not at least contained.
Despite the government's despatch of a small RAAF contingent to the Middle East from 1952 to 1954, the Korean War marked the end of the planned major Australian force commitment to the Middle East which included three infantry divisions, an armoured brigade, 132 combat aircraft, two aircraft carriers, two cruisers and six destroyers.
The United Nations and Australia
The United Nations quickly accepted responsibility for the defence of South Korea. The Security Council resolved on 27 June 1950 to provide assistance to repel the aggressor, and vested the United States with overall authority to command the necessary forces. A Soviet veto was avoided through their deliberate absence from Security Council meetings at that time – a tactic which was dropped by Stalin once he saw what was at stake. The Chinese veto was then in the hands of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan and not Chairman Mao Tse-tung in Beijing. Russia's absence from the Security Council was lucky for the West and an ill chance for Kim Il-sung. Nevertheless that is the way the pieces fell on the day of choice.
However, having won the approval of the Security Council it was no easy matter for the Truman Administration to keep the General Assembly on side during the course of the war. The West was in a minority in the Assembly, the war proved after its first year to be increasingly protracted, bloody and indecisive, and the United States, in attempts to break the deadlock, used force, especially air power, in ways that many other governments found unacceptable.
None the less Secretary of State Dean Acheson never gave up on the UN and assiduously sought to explain and justify the American position and the actions undertaken by the UN Command in Korea. In this he was largely successful. This priority accorded well with Australian preferences. There had been bilateral support in the Australian Parliament for commitment to the war, and both sides believed in working through the UN, not least because it offered a forum in which the middle and smaller powers could state their views and gather support for their objectives. The Australian Government, when under pressure from left wing critics of its war policies in 1952 and 1953, was able to rely on the legitimacy conferred by the UN to maintain essential public support through a long and frustrating conflict, into which increasing numbers of Australian servicemen were drawn.
Although the path for South Korea has not been an easy one since 1953, it has at least retained the blessing and support of the UN in essential matters whereas North Korea has mostly been on the defensive vis-á-vis world public opinion. From the time of Australia's initial commitment to Korea in 1947 as a member of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, Australia has been seen as a strong member of the UN team. Since 1953 we have taken part in many peace-keeping operations around the world. Despite the problems of the Soviet and Chinese vetoes during the Cold War, for Australia the UN has remained a central element in the preservation and strengthening of international security. The Korean War showed what could be achieved and sustained for over fifty years when the world body gave its approval and support.
The United States and Australia
Australia's involvement in the Korean War transformed the nature of its relationship with the United States. Until late 1950 all Australia had from the Truman Administration by way of assurance regarding its future security was a diplomatic file containing expressions of American good will. Furthermore the US was becoming increasingly involved both in Europe through NATO, and in the Middle East through the creation of new treaty linkages there. Britain in 1950 boldly sought to reassure Australia that it need not worry – the new Britain under Clement Attlee was committed to the defence of Australia's region, especially the Malayan Peninsula, and regarded any Australian quest for a treaty with the US as undesirable.
Fortunately for Australia External Affairs Minister Percy Spender had heard all this from Britain before – he had been Minister for the Army in 1941 when the limits of Britain's military power were plainly revealed. As Spender argued to a sceptical, even dismissive Menzies in July 1950, the Korean War offered Australia a rare opportunity to obtain a formal alliance with the United States. Spender, with all the flair and initiative of a fine politician, converted a courtesy call on President Truman on 13 September 1950 into a pitch for what became the ANZUS Treaty. When admitted to the Oval Office Spender exploited every possible approach, beginning with outrage at press criticism of the singing abilities of the President's daughter and culminating in advocating the creation of a body to determine global strategy for the Western alliance collectively. He succeeded brilliantly. Truman proved to be a warm and responsive listener, recalling to Spender the fighting abilities of the First AIF in France as he had seen them when a battery captain there in the American Expeditionary Force under General Pershing. Although Dean Acheson did not like the idea of an alliance with Australia, and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff recoiled in horror from yet another commitment, Truman had his way. When the draft treaty was initialled in Canberra on 18 February 1951 a surprised but very satisfied Menzies toasted Spender in his best cognac.
Not many Australians even today would see the attainment of the ANZUS Treaty as a backward step, and even fewer were to do so in the 1950s and 60s when Menzies was able to win election after election with America's commitment in his pocket. In a practical sense it greatly raised Australia's profile in Washington. That capital is a world hub in which thousands of interests compete for attention and benefits. To have the status of a warmly regarded ally confers many benefits that the great ruck of others cannot have. Had the Korean War not occurred, and had Australia not been willing to commit forces to it promptly, we would have faced the future with much less assurance and probably needed to spend much more on defence than we have over the past fifty years.
The Commonwealth and Australia
One aspect of the Korean War which most people know nothing about is the role played by the Commonwealth as a sub-system within the United Nations during that conflict. The Commonwealth, you will recall, had evolved dramatically out of the British Empire in the years after the Second World War. Imperial devolution was the Attlee government's policy and the resulting advancement of India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma to independence in the late 1940s represented a major change in the international balance of power. No longer did Britain have under its command the vast resources of these four South Asian countries. They had become free elements in the global polity, able to decide with whom they would align in a crisis. Because of the dynamics of their recent colonial experience and the impact of the Second World War, there was a risk that one or more of them would choose to align with the opponents of the Western group over Korea.
The state most inclined to leave the Western camp during the Korean War was India, the dominant state of South Asia and one which was widely respected and listened to by other powers around the world. This possibility was clearly recognised by the government of Mao Tse-tung in Beijing, and in September 1950 he used India to bear his warning to the international community: step across the 38th parallel and China will enter the war on the side of North Korea. China's message lost nothing in its telling by K.M. Panikkar, India's very able ambassador on Beijing. As the likelihood of the UN Command's entry into North Korea increased so the Indian government distanced itself from the US led effort, both by refusing to sponsor the creation of the UN Commission on the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea and then by refusing to join it once it had been created.
During the final months of 1950, following Chinese entry into the war, the Americans became increasingly concerned that Nehru would lead a movement in the UN General Assembly to condemn the US for its handling of the Korean crisis. If carried, such a motion could have given Mao and Stalin a splendid opportunity to isolate the US and its allies diplomatically in the sight of the many new nations coming into existence as a result of decolonisation. Australia at that time had special concerns about Indonesian attitudes, the deteriorating course of the Emergency in Malaya and the increasingly desperate position of the French in Indo China, all problems which could have been exacerbated by any such action on the part of India. Australia could have found itself isolated and an object of disapproval in its own region if India had decided to put its weight behind a move to condemn the United States in the UN.
In October 1950 Attlee called a Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference to meet in London early in the following January. This conference assembled at a time when there was strong support in the General Assembly for a cease-fire in Korea. The Communists then held Seoul and a good slice of South Korean territory. Nehru proposed in London that there should be a cease-fire in Korea, diplomatic recognition should be withdrawn from Chiang Kai-shek, China's seat in the UN (including permanent membership of the Security Council and the veto power) should be transferred to Beijing, and Taiwan should be placed under Beijing's rule. Menzies and others succeeded in persuading Nehru to compromise – not to the extent that Acheson wanted but enough to enable the Americans to support much of what came out of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference. The US avoided isolation and gained a diplomatic breathing space in which General Matthew B. Ridgway was able to swing the balance of military advantage in favour of the UN Command before cease-fire negotiations were launched in July 1951.
The Commonwealth held together as a group under the stresses of the Korean War. It did not play into China's hands and although its policies were not always agreeable to the Americans, it held onto India and played a role in preventing the isolation of the US and its closest friends in the General Assembly and before world public opinion. Australia continued to regard the Commonwealth as a useful council for the handling of international crises affecting the broad span of its members, and has gone on co-operating with it in many ways, especially in helping to secure the futures of small states within its membership.
Ridgway's strategy and the “Australian Way in War”
Another little appreciated aspect of the Korean War is the skill with which General Ridgway conducted it strategically as the Commander in Chief, United Nations Command, in 1951-52. He took over command of the Eighth Army from General Walton H. Walker in late December 1950, becoming in effect the ground forces commander in Korea. The UN front had crumbled badly during December. The Chinese and North Koreans soon took Seoul and by year's end held a broad swathe of South Korea from coast to coast. General MacArthur panicked, calling for a total withdrawal to Japan and the opening of direct hostilities against China. Truman barely tolerated him in the early months of 1951. By April MacArthur had exhausted his President's patience and he had been replaced by Ridgway.
In the mean time Ridgway had conceived of the strategy by which he was able to conduct a controlled war against a numerically superior enemy, securing essential UN and South Korean interests without at the same time leading to escalation of the conflict and possible nuclear war. Ridgway chose attrition – a term that may surprise you. Most people today think of it as a strategy discredited by costs and results in the First World War. Attrition is not a game for the faint-hearted, but if properly applied it can enable a numerically inferior force to wear down a much larger one at an acceptable level of cost by inflicting far heavier casualties on the larger enemy than the attritionists themselves suffered.
Ridgway's purpose was not to annihilate the Chinese and North Korean armies in the field in Korea. That aim was beyond his forces' capacity. What he could do was to take the initiative and launch a series of cleverly conducted offensive operations against the Communists in which they would lose several times the numbers of casualties suffered by UN Command forces. As a variant on this strategy Ridgway would sometimes ease the pace of his offensives and allow the Communists to bleed themselves by hurling their own men onto strongly prepared UN Command defensive positions.
The essence of success in this strategy lay in convincing his subordinate commanders to be very economical in spending the lives of their own men while causing the maximum casualties to their enemies. This strategy ran counter to the natural inclinations of successful commanders who often prefer to keep on attacking until a specific ground objective is taken or until the enemy breaks and flees. Ridgway was asking his commanders in the field to exercise a much finer level of judgment. While ground was important, he argued, it was not the dominant factor. The UN Command could not bring the war to a decisive end by taking any particular line of high ground. Strong defensive positions, once gained and fortified, were useful in themselves, but their possession would not bring victory. That end would be achieved only if the enemy regarded the losses they were suffering as not worth the gains offered by military action. If Western public opinion regarded the resulting allied loss rate in Korea as acceptable over period of months, or even years, a UN defeat could be avoided. Ridgway's strategy was an excellent accompaniment to protracted armistice negotiations. The longer the negotiations continued the more, relatively, the Communists were likely to suffer and the more likely they would be to agree to a compromise settlement.
While there were some notable exceptions, US corps and division commanders generally put Ridgway's grand design into effect as he had wanted. There were episodes such as Pork Chop Hill and Hamburger Hill in which the level of US casualties was excessive. But the series of offensives Ridgway conducted on both the large scale in mid to late 1951 and on a lower level thereafter generally proved sustainable. Analogies drawn by some between the battle lines in Korea and those on the Western Front in 1916-18 were badly flawed.
This is not to say that taking part in military operations in Korea during the more static war of 1951-53 was a low risk commitment. The South Korean Army played a larger part in these two years than in the first year of the conflict and bore a higher proportion of the casualties. None the less there were times when the likely costs of operations ordered by US commanders seemed to their allied subordinates, especially those in the First Commonwealth Division, to be unjustified by the likely results. The American willingness to accept casualties was, unsurprisingly for a large nation whose forces were equipped with superior offensive power, greater than that of their Commonwealth allies.
As a counter, commanders of the Commonwealth Division had been equipped with a national command directive which required them to report home on any orders which seemed likely to place their force unduly at risk. When orders arrived for extremely dangerous and probably fruitless tasks such as attempting to snatch prisoners out of the Chinese lines, the British Commander of the Commonwealth Division would make indirect reference to the British Government's directive when speaking to his American superior. This device became known as “waving the paper” at the Americans. They were not inflexible and the combat reputations of Commonwealth forces were anything but low. Consequently a modus vivendi was reached without too much trouble or ill-feeling, by which the rougher edges of Ridgway's strategy were trimmed off to meet the concerns of Commonwealth commanders.
A longer term consequence of this experience was that Australian officers in Korea from the level of Brigadiers Daly and Wilton down to platoon commanders recognised that when operating again under US command, in Vietnam, it would be wise to obtain our own area of operations, in which Australian doctrines could be applied and the balance of costs and gains could be adjusted for maximum effectiveness from our national perspective. The application of this approach in Vietnam, has been well covered by Ian McNeill and Ashley Ekins in their two volumes on the Australian Army in Vietnam, most particularly in Ekins's final chapter of the recently published second volume. These issues were relevant in the New Guinea and Pacific Islands campaigns of the Second World War and they remain relevant today. Korea was a particularly valuable learning experience in fighting under US command.
Korea and the Australian Army
The Korean War came just in time to save the Australian Army from slipping into insignificance. At the outset of the war Australia could muster about two battalions' worth of infantry, spread across three nominal units, 1, 2 and 3 RAR. Recruiting trends were bad, reflecting the poor conditions of service offered by both the Chifley and Menzies governments. The stimulus of action brought forth several hundred experienced volunteers, enabling first one battalion, 3 RAR, to serve effectively in Korea, and then two battalions served together from June 1952. The K Force veterans were only a temporary relief for the Army however because after return from Korea they tended to go back to their civilian pursuits.
The Korean War raised public consciousness of military danger to Australia and of the need to strengthen the armed forces. More young Australians than before responded to the challenge of professional service. The Army utilised the War to post as many recent Duntroon and Portsea graduates as possible into the theatre of operations to give them the most essential phase of military education that there is. Officers destined for many other arms and services of the Army served with the infantry in Korea. The war gave the Army a leavening of combat experience on which high professional standards were built and maintained until the Vietnam War made its own contribution of a like kind. In its last two years in particular the Korean War could be characterised as more of a platoon commander's war than a general's. Those who survived a year of operations in Korea knew the essentials of infantry tactics, especially patrolling, and passed their knowledge on to those who served under them in the following three decades.
It is a pity that there were few positions available in higher operational staffs and headquarters for Australian officers, and that the government did not press for more to be opened. At least through Australia's control of British Commonwealth Forces Korea, the logistic support organisation for the Commonwealth Division based in Japan, some Australians received broader experience than that afforded by combat infantry operations.
This is not to take anything away from the value and effectiveness of combat experience. Time does not permit me to expand on that topic, much as I would like to do so. Suffice it to say that 3 RAR won a Presidential Citation for its conduct in the defensive battle of Kapyong in April 1951, and then went on in October, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hassett, to achieve at the battle of Maryang San, or Hill 317, one of the best battalion victories in our national military experience of over a hundred years. In a day of hard combat 3 RAR fought their way up a steep hill well defended by Chinese infantry on positions up to 600 feet above the assailants' starting point. They took and held the hilltop and cleared much of the crest line. The Australian success paved the way for British battalions to clear the slopes and ridges of the hill from a different direction. Two Chinese battalions were destroyed and routed for the cost of twenty Australians killed and eighty-nine wounded. Hassett and one of his company commanders, Major Jack Gerke, received the Distinguished Service Order for their part in the operation. Nine members of the battalion received the Military Cross, two the Distinguished Conduct Medal, nine the Military Medal, one the MBE, and fifteen were mentioned in dispatches.
It is clear that the Australian Army's service in Korea enhanced its reputation with allies, thereby strengthening Australia's modest leverage in security co-operation with the United States and Britain in the 1950s and 60s, before the Vietnam conflict put the Korean War into its shadow.
Korea and the RAN
The Royal Australian Navy was not quite in such danger of decline as the Army in 1950 because it had recently received a new aircraft carrier and had a second carrier and several other major ships on order. This programme was lagging however and recruiting was inadequate to man the fleet. In early 1950 the strength of the Navy was 10,900 men while target figure was 13,300. The stimulus of war eased the manpower crisis but competing demands on British shipyards lengthened delivery times for the major warships. The first aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, entered service in mid-1949. The second aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, did not join the fleet until 28 October 1955, despite having been ordered in 1947. The British government lent HMS Vengeance to the RAN from late 1952 until Melbourne was available for duty three years later.
The Australian naval commitment to the Korean War was essentially one destroyer and one frigate for the duration of hostilities. They operated mainly in the shallow waters of the Yellow Sea, close inshore on the West coast of the Korean peninsula. Kim Il-sung clearly had no sense of maritime strategy when he launched his war. He had no navy to speak of yet he was extending vulnerable flanks far down the Korean peninsula which could be engaged easily and economically by a superior sea-power. UN Command naval operations did much to counterbalance the numerical superiority of Communist ground forces by tying them down in expensive coastal defence garrisons, necessary to guard against naval bombardments of their supply routes and to ward off commando or marine attacks on their stores and other facilities.
The missions conducted by Australian vessels were challenging and hazardous. Ships had to navigate shallow waters where 30 foot tides and 8 knot tidal races shifted the mud banks around at a speed which soon made charts obsolete. Navigators required old-fashioned seaman's methods and a good deal of intuition to avoid going aground. The Communist shore batteries were formidable and were often manned by clever crews who concealed their position until a ship was close inshore looking for targets, when they would rapidly open fire in ambush. The Australian ships had some close shaves. Several incidents occurred in which one of our ships could have been lost. In one operation in the Han River estuary HMAS Murchison was holed by seven shells, including one into the engine room, and scarred extensively by bullets and shrapnel. Disputes had arisen between British and American admirals over the effectiveness of operations entailing such a high level of risk. The US Commander of Task Force 95, Rear Admiral G.C. Dyer, had already experienced one of these operations on board Murchison and seen the bravery of Commander Dollard and his crew at first hand. The RAN thus did not bear all of the strictures that the Americans directed at the British for questioning the wisdom of some of the operation orders they received.
The British were fulsome in their praise of HMAS Murchison. When the ship completed her tour of duty in early 1952, Admiral Sir Alan Scott-Moncrieff, the force commander, signalled to Commander Dollard:
I dislike the thought of continuing the war without Murchison but I will have to accept it now as a fact. You have been a tower of strength and your good name will always be associated with the infamous Han. No ship could have done better. For fine seamanship and steadiness under fire you have proved yourself beyond reproach.
In response to British requests the Australian government sent the navy's only aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, to Korea for a four month operational tour from October 1951 to January 1952. Although this was the one and only conflict in which Australia has deployed an aircraft carrier as such in combat operations, the results achieved were highly satisfactory. Most pilots flew two sorties a day, despite snow and ice. Typhoons were a problem, but even more of a danger was enemy defensive fire. Sydney's aircraft were hit by flak on ninety-nine occasions and nine aircraft were lost. But Sydney was able to destroy 66 bridges, 7 tunnels, 38 stretches of railway line and many other items including enemy guns, sampans and rolling stock. Overall the RAN's performance in Korea reinforced the results achieved by the Army. And the war gave the RAN a stimulus and level of development that laid the basis for the growth of a medium level force capable of operating throughout the Pacific region.
Korea and the RAAF
The RAAF was the first of the Australian services to hit the headlines in the Korean War. The Australian air commitment to the conflict was essentially 77 Fighter Squadron, equipped initially with piston-engined P51 Mustangs and then from July 1951 with Meteor VIII jet fighter-interceptors. Despite a high level of pilot skill the squadron was increasingly outclassed by its Chinese opponents once they were equipped with the Soviet MiG-15 jet fighter. Yet in the early months of the war, before the MiGs were in service, the Australians achieved a formidable record in strikes against enemy ground forces and logistic systems. On 22 August the Commander of US Far East Air Forces, General George E. Stratemeyer, invested the Australian squadron commander Wing Commander Lou Spence with an immediate award of the Legion of Merit when Spence returned from a hard day of air combat. At a time when few things were going right for the UN Command in Korea, the results of Spence and his men received considerable attention. Reports on the squadron's proficiency had come to the State Department in the weeks before External Affairs Minister Spender made the visit to the White House that put the ANZUS Treaty on the President's agenda. Truman referred to the squadron's prowess in his conversation with Spender. It is all the more poignant that Wing Commander Spence was killed on operations on 9 September, four days before Spender crossed the threshold of the Oval Office.
Conversion to the Meteor brought many problems, particularly because it was a very early aircraft of the jet era and easily outclassed by the Mig-15. After heavy losses in air to air combat the squadron settled for a ground attack role – the least ineffective way in which the Meteor could be used. In this mode 77 Squadron achieved useful results at the cost of thirty-seven pilots killed in action and a further six taken prisoner. For Australia the main dividend from the deployment of 77 Squadron came in the early months of the war in the form of a strong argument for Truman to use for the ANZUS alliance in the face of reluctance from his own lieutenants. And, as in the cases of the other two services, the Korean War raised the profile of the RAAF, stimulated recruiting and above all gave a level of combat experience which was to carry the RAAF forward into a new era of jet air operations. At the same time the Korean War was Australia's swan song in terms of classic air to air combat.
The Korean People and Australia
Thus far in this lecture I have focused on Australia and Australians. It would be remiss of me to fail to observe that the principal burden of the Korean War was borne by the Koreans themselves, on both sides. The North, initially, was by far the better prepared and equipped for war. But the terrible punishment inflicted on them by Ridgway's strategy of attrition in 1951-52, and then by his successor General Mark Clark in the final year of the war, cost them between two and four million killed, and unnumbered others were maimed or disease-ridden.
The economy of North Korea was shattered but it was still under the control of Kim Il-sung. The war assisted him in implanting over the North Koreans one of the harshest dictatorial regimes seen anywhere in the world in the 20th century. As a result of North Korean conduct in the war, especially their horrifying treatment of UN Command prisoners of war, the name of North Korea became blackened by the war and very little has happened since to improve that reputation.
And today we have to consider dealing with the government of the aggressor's son, Kim Jong-il, who probably has at his disposal several nuclear warheads to which he should be able to add five or six annually for the indefinite future. The combination of nuclear weaponry and substantial conventional forces makes North Korea a formidable strategic problem for all friends of the South, or to give it is proper name, the Republic of Korea. We must not forget that the Korean War was concluded only by an armistice, not a peace. Australia still has the strongest reasons to remain actively involved in the diplomacy of containing North Korea, and in any consequent military operations made necessary by the failure of political constraints.
The South Koreans, by contrast, have picked themselves up from the ruins of war, developed a highly successful national economy and then gone on to reach the political status of a democracy. The war was a horrible test and the South Koreans nearly succumbed. But for the help of UN Command forces they would have. Yet from the earliest days of hostilities the South Koreans showed courage and determination. Their political leader, Syngman Rhee, authoritarian though he was, drew forth a huge national effort while avoiding the worst excesses of dictatorship of the North. There are people I know personally in the ROK who swam the Han River in the last days of June 1950, went on to serve as platoon commanders in their army and then rose through education to leadership in politics, diplomacy, industry and academia. For the last year of the war, the ROK Army manned over half the front line across the peninsula. We, the allies as a whole, played an important role in the Korean War but the South Koreans ultimately played a bigger one in their own defence.
Today South Korea is essentially self sufficient in defence terms, although its UN Command allies, including Australia, remain obliged by their signatures on the Joint Policy Statement of 27 July 1953 to come to its aid if hostilities break out again. The situation is gravely complicated by the prospect of North Korea having not only nuclear warheads but also nuclear weapons capable of reaching Japan and possibly the United States. Most South Koreans feel today that any return to the use of force on the peninsula by either side would be disastrous. Yet diplomacy may be unable to cope with the challenge of a nuclear armed North Korea. We can only hope and pray that political and economic pressures will achieve the desired result. But they may not. Korea, sadly, remains a major international flashpoint. We are not yet finished with the burden we took up on 14 November 1947 when Australia was elected a member of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea. The long history of the Korean War and Australia has yet to receive a final chapter.
- Tuesday 11 November 2003
- Robert O'Neill