Out in the Cold: Australia's involvement in the Korean War

Australian relations with Koreans

Around Pusan wharf there are hundreds of children in rags, standing in the bitterly cold wind. This is the first shock that new troops get on arrival The dead litter the road from the North.

Squadron Leader Esmond New, Australian Chaplain

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Two Korean children, 1951. 147393


Foreign occupation and national struggle was nothing new to the Korean people in 1950. Once ancient empires fought over the peninsula; in modern times, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States had each occupied the country at some time. Today, Korea is still divided into two nations.

During the war, an influx of millions of North Korean refugees swelled South Korea's population of 22 million, placing severe strains on its war-torn economy. Father Philip Crosbie, an Australian priest working in Korea during the war, and later taken prisoner of war, described watching people leaving their homes:

Young and old, rich and poor, weak and strong: all alike were there. The majority carried some of their belongings with them - the women gracefully upright with huge bundles balanced on their heads and sometimes babies tied to their backs, the men bowed down under great loads carried on their backs.

The Australians encountered Korean civilians every day. For the combatants on the ground and in the air, it was often difficult or impossible to identify the enemy, as the war was fought within a single people whose nation had been politically divided.

The South Koreans regarded us with indifference. The overwhelming majority were seemingly illiterate to semi-literate peasants, eking out a subsistence living in a harsh environment, or refugees existing as best they could. Their attitude was understandable, given the war weariness and the utter devastation which their entire country had suffered - and would continue to suffer.

Private Desmond Guilfoyle, 1 RAR

Many Korean families had been separated - relatives were either trapped in the North or the South and unable to get home, or lost contact in the war's chaos and destruction. Orphanages were established to cope with tens of thousands of homeless children.

The devastating impact of war on Korean civilians and refugees weighed heavily on some Australian service personnel.

The worst feature of the war is the terrible conditions for the children. This has so touched the hearts of the troops, that hardly a unit can be found in the UN forces that has not adopted a small boy. In a country where war had bred callousness and cruelty, and a complete disregard for human life and personality, the care of these lads has had a beneficial effect on the troops - keeping alive some spot of human sympathy and tenderness.

Squadron Leader Esmond New

The members of 77 Squadron, RAAF, expressed their concern for local people by "adopting" a Seoul orphanage. The adoption of these eighty children in 1953 was organised by the Squadron's Medical Officer, Flight Lieutenant J. Morrison, and a RAF Medical Officer, Flight Lieutenant David Hills.

They wrote:

Ranging in age from two to six years these tiny waifs of war are suffering from malnutrition, protein and vitamin deficiencies, dropsy and allied illnesses caused by the acute shortage of proper foodstuffs in Korea Many of the children, stranded by the tide of war, have been picked up in the streets where they have been living on scraps and what they have been able to beg from the UN Servicemen.

The officers and men of the 77 agreed to contribute more than £25 a fortnight to buy food for the orphans. With the money, the orphans' hospital staff were able to buy eggs, cases of tinned meats and fish, fresh vegetables and fruit for the children.

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Wearing national costume, two Korean village elders squat and smoke traditional bamboo pipes. The man on the left is wearing a traditional straw hat, an emblem of authority in his community. P01813.597

Corporal C. J. Henderson lights the cigarette he has just given to the leader of a nearby Korean village. HOBJ3120

Frank Norton, Refugee huts, Village Beach, Taeyonp
Yong Do

AWM 147378Korean civilian refugees rest near the 38th parallel. 147378

Chan, an orphan of the Korean War salutes Corporal E. G. Dowell in thanks for a wooden toy truck made by members of 1 RAR. HOBJ3125

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Flight Lieutenant Jim Morrison, Medical Officer, 77 Squadron, helps the struggle against malnutrition among Korean orphans. JK0466

AWM JK0763Flight Lieutenant Lionel Rasmussen and Ross Alexander of 77 Squadron play with children from the from the Orphans Hospital, Seoul. JK0763


Contact between Australian and South Korean soldiers was infrequent, although there were times when the 27th Commnwealth Brigade served alongside the 6th Republic of Korea Division. South Korean soldiers known as KATCOMS (Korean Augmentation Troops, Commonwealth) were attached to some Australian battalions.

South Korean soldiers also sometimes joined Australian troops to act as interpreters. Despite cultural differences and different reasons for being there, Australians came to respect these allies and their bravery.

Enemy Soldiers

There were encounters with the other side that revealed a common humanity. Jim Pashen remembered the mutual and very human understanding established between his unit and the enemy:

The toilet pit was located right on top of the platoon position, in full view of the enemy, as it was the only place it could be sited. When the need arose to use it, you exited out of your bunker waving a newspaper over your head. This indicated to the Chinese your intentions. They allowed you to sit in peace for a reasonable time. If you were too long they would fire a few rounds to let you know that they had you under surveillance. Constipation was never a problem for most of us, believe me.

When Private Eric Donnelly was taken prisoner, at one point he found himself in a cave, next to a wounded Chinese soldier. Donnelly was in terrible pain from his own wound; many years later he remembered:

the armless Chinese soldier [who] rolled over and lit a cigarette for me which he placed in my mouth. I smiled my thanks for his compassion, and he smiled back without either of us saying a word. He lit a cigarette for himself, smoked it and straight away died. I often think of this soldier, even after all these years

Chinese troops were also known for allowing rescues and evacuations of wounded UN soldiers during battle without attacking the medical personnel, and for generally respecting the emblem of the Red Cross.

Corporal Ray Webb, 2nd Battalion, 2 RAR, looks on as Private Kim Jin Tai, a KATCOM, is trained on the Vickers .303 medium machine- gun by Private Norm Macleod. HOBJ4200

Soldiers of 2 RAR and a Republic of Korea soldier work together constructing a bunker. HOBJ4621

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Hill Salmon, Korea, April 1951. Members of C Company, 3 RAR, mingle with soldiers of K Company, 19th Regimental Combat Team, 6th ROK Infantry Division. P01813.535