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by Des Guilfoyle 3400632 1RAR & 2RAR
Des Guilfoyle served in Korea from 6 August 1952 to 8 August 1953 where, as he always put it, he rose to the exalted rank of private. Post-war activities included a stint in the 1980s as assistant editor of The Voice, KVAA Inc. pensions officer, and throughout the 1990s he was a member of the KVAA Inc. committee.
My enlistment had only a few more weeks to run and The Hook was the last place I wanted to spend the time. The Hook was a piece of high ground jutting into the Chinese position. Naturally, they didn't like this and made repeated attempts to capture this barren and cratered yet strategic piece of real estate. Every unit that had previously occupied The Hook had found themselves battered by mortar, artillery, and machine gun fire. My chances of finishing my tour of duty unscathed diminished with this posting.
Within days of Don Company moving into place, the number of artillery shells lobbed our way started to increase. Some morbid amateur statistician in the company kept a total of incoming shells. At its peak the barrage exceeded 30 rounds per minute. They caused few casualties. We were too well dug in. However, we found it unsettling for it meant an attack was coming.
They hit us on the morning of July 25th. A U.S. marine company took the brunt of the fighting. Their thrust towards us was a subsidiary attack. Accurate counter battery and machine gun fire halted them. They replied with an artillery barrage of their own which only slackened towards night fall. From experience, we knew they would try to infiltrate our position during the night or perhaps launch an all-out assault. Charlie didn't give up easily.
They did this time. I couldn't believe their offensive had so easily run out of steam. But there was no fighting that night or the next morning. We spent a nerve-racking day under arms in the trenches and hootchies.
Another one of those "peace" rumours did the rounds. We'd been getting these for months and treated this latest one with all the derision it deserved. But this one was different: it had official backing. Formal notification came on the 26th. A cease-fire agreement was to be signed at 10am the next morning and come into operation at 10pm that night.
It didn't exactly have the memorable resonance of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month that brought The Great War to a close. But who cared? Korea was an even more pointless conflict. And it was ending.
There was one anxiety left: the reaction of Charlie. Would he make one last grab for The Hook; one last supreme effort? We spent a tense night waiting for the answer. By morning it was clear that the Chinese commanders had decided against the idea. To me it indicated that the current front line was not to be the new boundary between the Koreas.
To my amazement our OC ordered us to assemble to have a statement about the peace treaty read to us. This was before 10am. The treaty hadn't yet been signed. What was to stop Charlie from lobbing a few shells onto the gathering for old times sake? I thought the idea insane and foolishly expressed this opinion too loudly. An officer heard me and I received a thorough dressing down.
For reasons of their own Charlie decided not to interrupt the gathering. Despite this I stayed at the very edge of the crowd and within diving distance of the nearest bunker. Just in case.
During the day the Chinese sent in a few mortars and we replied in kind. No one suffered any injury. I think both sides did it more to relieve the tension than in anger. That night we sent the usual patrols out. No contact was made with the enemy and, frankly, contact was the last thing the soldiers in these patrols desired. Who wanted to be remembered as the last battle death of the war?
I spent the time sitting anxiously in a hootchie and constantly looking at my watch. How those last hours dragged. At last 10pm came and went. An immense feeling of relief washed over me. I'd survived.
There was no movement along the lines; no light, no sound. One cheered or lit flares. It was different in the rear positions. Flares wound their way into the sky and we could hear the sound of merriment. Officially it was all over. I should have slept well that night but didn't. No one quite trusted Charlie not to make a surprise attack. I have no doubt they thought the same about us and kept their forward troops on alert.
However the night passed peacefully, if uneasily. At first light, and still wary of snipers, we peered over the trenches at the enemy lines and found the Chinese doing the same. We emerged slowly. They emerged slowly. Curiosity impelled us forward. They same emotion was at work on them.
We met in the middle of 'no mans land' and eyed each other. So this was the Red Menace, the Barbarian Horde, the Korean version of the evil Hun. They looked neither menacing nor evil. They were all very young and identically dressed. It was hard to tell one from the other. I could see in their faces that they were having the same trouble with us.
None of them spoke English and our Chinese consisted of a few derogatory words which, given the circumstances, we kept to ourselves. We made do with sign language. After a tense beginning both parties soon got the hang of it. We exchanged cigarettes and smiles. I got the impression that like me they were farmers long before they became soldiers. Someone brought out a bottle of whisky with the idea of drinking a toast to peace.
Before we could do so two differently dressed Chinese made an appearance. They spoke fair English and their faces showed they did not approve of this hobnobbing. I thought them to be political rather than military officers. The Chinese soldiers immediately fell silent and their faces became expressionless. It brought the festivities to a crashing end. The two officers started giving us the standard Peking line about the evils of capitalism and the oppression of the proletariat. Seeing the party was over Corporal Simms made a few choice remarks about Chairman Mao and ordered us back to our own lines. There was no further contact.
A condition of the cease-fire called for both sides to move back two kilometres thus creating the infamous D.M.Z. which still divides the Korean Peninsula. We were given two days to achieve this relocation which meant evacuating everything portable and destroying the rest.
It was an exhausting job in the high summer humidity, one not helped by a myriad of sightseeing rear echelon troops up for their first look at the sharp end of the fight. The OC finally ordered all unauthorised visitors back to the rear. Much to our delight, one group which managed to evade this stricture was caught and found themselves ordered to join the working parties.
The Chinese were not inactive either. Their first task was to remove those who died in the battle on the 23rd. Caught in the open they had been cut down in droves, their bodies littering the approaches to our position. Summer and corpses did not go well together. We saw a hospital tent spring up indicating that some of these casualties had survived.
On schedule two days later we moved back to our new quarters spending a miserable night under pup tents in the pouring rain. It soaked everybody to the skin. The morning brought the return of the summer sun and we all dried out in no time. Later squad tents arrived and I spent my last nights with the unit in comparative comfort.
My travel orders came through. John Land and Roy Clayton also received theirs. A year before four of us had arrived together to join Don Company. Three were going home. Ron Rackley's luck ran out six weeks before the cease-fire.
First Published in The Voice, June 2013