Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

'Forgotten war' as soldiers saw it

War veterans Jim Newman (left), Wally Wyatt and David Mannering look over some of the photographs.  Photo / Dean Purcell
War veterans Jim Newman (left), Wally Wyatt and David Mannering look over some of the photographs. Photo / Dean Purcell

The memories have come flooding back for three Korean War veterans before the opening of a special photo exhibition that features 150 images taken by Kiwi soldiers.

Jim Newman, Wally Wyatt and David Mannering served during the Korean War, which broke out in 1950. Nearly 6000 New Zealand soldiers fought there between 1950 and 1953 and 33 were killed.

Organisers of the exhibition, officially opening tonight at the Artstation Gallery in Newton, hope it will give Kiwis an insight into a war many know little about.

Mr Newman, president of the NZ Korea Veterans Association, said looking through the old photographs brought back "a mix of emotions".

"These are pictures of old mates, some have passed on and others lost their lives in battle after the photographs were taken," he said.

"But of course there's a sense of pride that we have contributed to making South Korea one of the most powerful Asian economies today."

Mr Newman served in Korea between 1951 and 1952 with the navy, based on board a Loch-class frigate, the Hawea.

Of the suggestion by Prime Minister John Key that New Zealand could get involved in another Korean war in the event of an attack from North Korea, Mr Newman said he would "do it all over again, if I was younger".

He believes about 1200 Korea vets are still around today, but said just 580 were association members.

Mr Wyatt, the association treasurer, said the Kiwis who fought in Korea became "mates for lives".

"We had to trust each other with our lives in the battlefield, and that resulted in us becoming damn good mates," said the 85-year-old, who served in K-Force with the 16th Field Regiment.

He said the exhibition was a timely reminder for Kiwis about what he described as "the forgotten war".

"There's a lot about Gallipoli, but not much to remind Kiwis about the soldiers who died in Korea," Mr Wyatt said.

Mr Mannering, who went to Korea as part of the first replacement draft, said the biggest battles New Zealanders took part in were the Battle of Kapyong and the First Battle of Maryang San.

"The Kiwis played a huge part in helping the [United Nations] forces get over the 38th Parallel and winning back Seoul from the Northern forces," he said.

Mr Mannering's war photographs, along with those by Mr Wyatt and Mr Newman, will be part of the exhibition.

Diane Hye Won Lee, one of the organisers of the exhibition, says she is "forever grateful" to the Kiwis who went to Korea to fight.

When war broke out in 1950, her father and mother fled North Korea by boat in the darkness of the night to seek refuge in the South with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

"When they escaped to the South, all they had was hope," Mrs Lee said.

"They didn't know if they would survive, but they knew that if they stayed back they would be dead."

The story of "what might have been" had the outside world not responded to the UN Security Council's call for aid was one her parents loved to tell.

"Back then, nobody knew Korea and South Korea was nothing, so it was a miracle that anyone would sacrifice their lives or send soldiers to fight," she said.

"But they did, and my parents always said that we should not forget and to always be thankful to those who fought for us in the war."

Mrs Lee hopes the exhibition, organised jointly by the Korea New Zealand Cultural Association and World TV, will give Kiwis "the real picture" of the war.

New Zealand was one of the first of 16 nations to respond to the UN call, ordering two Royal New Zealand Navy frigates to leave for Korea just four days after 135,000 North Korean troops crossed the 38th Parallel in Korea.

A government call for a volunteer military force to serve with the UN forces resulted in the formation of a troop of 1044 men, known as the K-Force.

The force arrived in Pusan on New Year's Eve 1950 and joined the British 27th Infantry Brigade three weeks later. They immediately saw combat.

The navy, artillery and support elements from New Zealand arrived during the conflict.

The last of the Kiwis left Korea in 1957.

Exhibition organiser Tony Keam, Korea New Zealand Cultural Association president, said the initial plan was to publish a book to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the war's end.

But the veterans suggested a public exhibition to get "a wider reach".

"The exhibition is to honour the brave Kiwi soldiers who risked their lives, and to see the war through their eyes."

Veterans Affairs Minister Michael Woodhouse, who will open the exhibition, said New Zealand made a significant contribution to the Korean War.

"The Koreans have not forgotten the assistance provided by New Zealanders during the Korean War," Mr Woodhouse said. "This year it will be an honour for me to travel back to Korea with veterans of the Korean War to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice."

Mr Woodhouse said New Zealand continued to base military observers in Korea to monitor the armistice.

•Korean War Photo Exhibition, June 5 to 22, free admission, Artstation Gallery, 1 Ponsonby Rd, Newton.

Kiwis in the Korean War

3794 served in K-Force
1300 in RNZN deployment
33 killed in action
79 wounded
1 taken prisoner.

- NZ Herald

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