Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Men of 'forgotten war' remember

34 Kiwi veterans are back in Korea to pay tribute to their 45 fallen comrades 60 years after conflict ended

Sandy Herlihy was 17 when he left for the Korean war.
Sandy Herlihy was 17 when he left for the Korean war.

This morning, almost 60 years to the day since the Korean War ground to a halt, 34 New Zealand veterans of the conflict will look across the heavily fortified demilitarised zone at their former North Korean enemy.

For some, this will be the first time they have been back since the war. For the vast majority of the group, who arrived in South Korea's capital, Seoul, yesterday, it will be the last.

The youngest of the group - those who were just 17-year-old "seaman boys" who served on the six New Zealand frigates deployed during the war - have just turned 80, or are about to.

This is the last major anniversary NZ veterans of the war will be able to travel to in any number. For that reason the visit is particularly significant, says Returned and Services Association president Major-General Don McIver, who is with the group.

The visit will be an emotional time for the veterans, particularly as they remember 45 mates who died during the conflict.

But the war - an early arm-wrestle between the United States-led Western world and the communist bloc - and the role 6000 New Zealand soldiers and sailors played in it as part of a United Nations force is not well remembered by many Kiwis.

To most, it's probably best known via endless reruns of the television comedy M*A*S*H. "The Korean War has often been known as the forgotten war," says General McIver.

"That's largely because it was in a country a long way away from New Zealand, not well known at the time."

Communications between Korea and NZ were poor.

Servicemen didn't ring home and there were no TV cameras on the battlefield as there were a generation later in Vietnam.

With the Kiwis coming home a few at a time, there were no large-scale celebrations to mark their return, as in World War II. Many felt their efforts and sacrifice were unappreciated.

Despite that, it was NZ's deadliest conflict since World War II.

The veterans in South Korea this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the July 27, 1953, armistice that ended large-scale hostilities are accompanied by Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael Woodhouse and Korean Kiwi MP Melissa Lee. Prime Minister John Key arrives tonight before Saturday's armistice commemoration.

Thirty-four of New Zealand's dead are buried at the UN war cemetery in the southern port city of Busan. The group will travel to Busan on Sunday for a service to remember them.

General McIver hopes New Zealanders back home will spare a thought for those buried at Busan and their mates visiting their graves.

"These people served well for New Zealand and sacrificed for our commitment to international peace and understanding so I think they deserve to be remembered this time around."

Veteran recalls narrow escapes

Just 17 when he left for the Korean War, Sandy Herlihy celebrated his 18th birthday aboard the frigate Taupo as it dodged sandbars and North Korean guns along the Han River near Seoul.

Now 79, the Takapuna man recalls the ship temporarily ran aground, leaving it a sitting duck for North Korean and Chinese artillery batteries.

"We were lucky; they never opened up on us," Mr Herlihy said.

He puts that down to the presence of the Royal Navy warship Black Swan, which would have bombarded any North Korean guns that gave away their position.

Mr Herlihy recalls another narrow escape during a battle off the east coast of Korea, which could have ended in catastrophe.

The Taupo went to the aid of the South Korean garrison on Yang-do Island, which was under attack from an amphibious North Korean force.

Enemy batteries opened up on the Taupo and "straddled" the ship - with shells from a salvo landing either side of it, indicating the hostile gunners had an accurate bead on the vessel. One shell landed close enough to drench crew operating the Taupo's guns.

"We were just very fortunate - they never hit us, although we did get 27 splinter holes in the starboard side of the engine right alongside one of the gun decks."

News cadet manned the big guns

A journalism cadet when he volunteered, Milford man Arnold Hayman fought in Korea because, "believe it or not, I thought the United Nations was worth sticking up for".

By the time he arrived in 1952 as a 20-year-old artillery man, the war had virtually settled down to trench warfare.

"We didn't move more than 10 miles in the time I was there."

Mr Hayman's 161 Battery was stationed about 3km back from the front line.

"By artillery standards we were pretty close."

The three New Zealand batteries were part of a Commonwealth force which held a 7km stretch of the frontline across the Imjin River about 50km north of Seoul. The area had been one of the major invasion routes for communist forces.

"The artillery had the light end of the stick. The North Koreans and Chinese didn't use their artillery much against us; it was the UN infantry that had the heavy end of the stick. Our nearest kin there was the Australian battalion."

Nevertheless, "we got our share of what was going".

Mr Hayman lost no close friends, except a lad he'd shared a hut with in training who was killed when 163 Battery was shelled.

- NZ Herald

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