Veterans' Stories

Click badge for menu

Going On Leave

by Allan Helleur 3400341 1RAR & 2RAR

The summer of '52 sees me with 9 Section, 3 Platoon, on the forward slopes at '187', getting shelled almost daily. Top trench-ring forward facing on '187' is a particularly bad spot but the other platoons and coys are getting it too, and the jeep-head supply point; the Chinese try to be fair. It certainly was a long, hot summer that year.

Days on the hill, hot and dry; the ubiquitous tiny bees zoom in after your tinned 'C' ration fruit on the plastic spoon twixt can and mouth. Nights down in the humid valley on patrol, probing towards the deadly dangerous foothills of enemy-held '166,' and the mosquitos, numerous enough, and big enough, to pick you up and eat you whole are always game to try. Mosquito repellent? It is supposed to repel 'em but nobody told the mosquitos. They are malaria-carrying, and if you've the sense, you have taken your daily palladrin tablet and have not thrown it into the bushes.

September comes came with the days still hot and dry and the air ominously heavy; the regular shelling has churned much of the thick bushy green of '187' to a bare brown, and the singular smell of newly churned earth and explosives long remains with me. My delayed R&R leave in Japan is coming up at last - can't be too soon.

But the rains come first.

Yellow-brown mud everywhere you move: in the crawl-trenches, the weapon-pits and the long, winding foot-trail to the jeep-head. You try to keep the weapons dry and patch up the bunker water-proofing where you attempt to live and sleep. But there is an 'upside' to it all at first. The shelling becomes less and less and after 36 hours rain there is only the occasional in-coming shell. The Chinese and North Koreans are having their own monsoon problems. We count our blessings - but the novelty wears off quick. The Monsoon is now the Enemy and our problems increase. A saturating, grey stillness envelops the whole front. The rough water-proofing of our bunkers where you try to live and sleep is increasingly found wanting despite frantic repairs. Mud in your food, your sleeping-bag, soggy cigarettes - it's hard to laugh and even the cynical, curved grin is rare. The crawl-trench drainage blocks and you wake up to water pouring into your bunker doorway hole. More frenetic repairs. The monsoon is relentless and some bunkers started to collapse; matches useless; canned-heat useless, it is sheer misery. Heavy, laden skies across the peninsula; it stops, starts, stops, belts down - respites are brief.

But I'm going on R&R leave in two days. Sorry mates. Lucky me.

Another unspeakable night but never mind, one down - one to go, Tokyo, here I come - wow!

Then the news filters through; the lmjim River is in full flood. Well, it would be. It happens every year. But this time it's so bad it's threatening the Pintail Bridge! The only bridge that can be counted on to withstand the mighty Imjim in full flood is closed! And the Pintail crossing is the only way to Seoul's Kimpo airport and the DC3s to Japan. Wretched news.

But in the morning comes hope. The bridge has re-opened, though traffic is strictly limited. Instead of the usual almost bumper to bumper two way stream of traffic over the long, high crossing, only one vehicle is allowed to cross AT A TIME - first one way, then the other. And the leave truck has low priority. Nevertheless, the order comes, "stand by to move."

We get away on ten minutes notice in the late afternoon. I was ready in five. A dozen of us on R&R, plus three or four more 'time-expired' en-route to Kimpo airport, Seoul, via the Pintail crossing, hanging on, bouncing along in the back of the inevitable three-tonner.

Soon it's dark, and pissing down. The truck grinds and swishes slowly on along the tortuous route, skirting bleak, forbidding hills - can't see a thing. A quick stop at rear echelon for paperwork, tea and sandwiches and banter then off again on what passes for a road; slow, slow, stop: stop-start, stop-start. It dawns on us that we are now in the Pintail crossing monsoon queue.

At first all there is the hiss of rain and water draining from the hills in the middle of no-bloody-where. Then we hear rumblings, and an impression of some sort of light ahead. Thunder? A storm? Heads crane from the three-tonner straining to look ahead.

As we slowly approach the Pintail crossing and the sight and sounds take shape and it's a scene we'll never forget. There are many sounds, but the background noise is the continuous frightening roar of the lmjim River, higher than we've ever seen it before, rushing through the stalwart frame of the bridge. Hell, will it hold? The whole area is illuminated by searchlights and flares and Centurion tanks are on both banks of the swollen river 50 yards or so up from the Pintail Bridge. They are firing into the river! Up-stream. The heavy machine-guns of the tanks are firing more or less continuously, and the 20 pounders blast away at intervals. The mighty swollen river is bearing along its broad back all sorts of heavy, wooden jetsam - the remains of flooded out villages and god only knows what else. And the tank-firing is to smash up the big lumps, the roofs of houses and what-have-you, into tolerable size and shape before it rushes into the Pintail superstructure! The shells get at the really big stuff and the machine-guns do the slicing up. The final scene in this fantastic drama is at the foot of the bridge super-structure itself. Engineers are somehow (I'm not sure how) safely secured on pontoon-like shelves right across the river, wielding long, heavy poles. And with the poles they are constantly prodding and poking and making sure that the continuous stream of chopped up flotsam flows between the bridge stalwarts and does not jam and build up, which if it did, would come quickly and be an obvious threat to the crossing.

What a picture! And high on the bridge itself, in splendid, illuminated isolation, a lone vehicle crosses - slowly, slowly, don't rock the 'boat!' After an age, it's our turn. Slowly, slowly does it. It's hairy all right; dunno' about the others, we aren't chatting, too much noise. For myself, I feel scared but yet fascinated as we cross the roaring middle of the mighty Imjim. Then we are across, and on the way to Seoul airport and Ebisu leave camp in Tokyo - and all that.

But hell, what a way to go on bloody leave.

First Published in The Voice, April 1997. This is a re-edited version.