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The Bombardment of Chinampo

by John Boyer 28486 HMAS Bataan

Response to a new threat.

With the entry of the Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA) into the Korean War, the UN forces became hopelessly outnumbered and a general retreat began along the entire front. HMAS Bataan, having already been detached from the US 7th Fleet and ready to return to Australia, was immediately ordered to sail to the west coast of Korea and commence patrol operations at the mouth of the Yalu River, the border between Manchuria and North Korea.

On the 4th of December, 1950, Bataan was ordered to proceed to the Taedong River estuary and join her sister ship HMAS Warramunga, three Canadian destroyers (HMCS Cayuga, Athabaskan and Sioux) and the American destroyer, USS Forrest B Royal. In total darkness and being blacked out, the ships dropped anchor and the captains held a conference on Cayuga, being the senior ship, to decide what moves would be appropriate given the present situation. Communication with the threatened forces in Chinampo confirmed the decision to proceed up river to cover and assist in the evacuation of the UN troops.

A nightmare journey begins.

At 2200 the order was given to sail and so began a nightmare journey. A blinding snowstorm immediately enveloped the vessels making visual observation impossible. Each navigating officer would have his ability and skill tested to the utmost facing the hazards that lay ahead.

The available charts were old and probably no longer accurate. The treacherous eddy and flow of the river current meant constant wheel changes by the ever-alert helmsman. Mud banks, large and small, and the varying depth of the riverbed all contributing to a most unpleasant voyage. Added to this were the minefields. Uncharted and unknown, this was the most serious threat to face each ship.

Within an hour of departure, Sioux signalled that she had run aground and was stuck fast. Shortly after that Warramunga suffered the same fate and both ships were left to their own devices, being advised not to attempt to refloat until daybreak.

The remaining destroyers cautiously carried on with their mission, and after long and nerve-racking hours, finally arrived at Chinampo at 0400. It had taken six hours to traverse the 45 kilometres. It was a tired but relieved crew that settled down at relaxed action stations to await the coming daylight.

Astonishment is the only way to describe the feeling of those on board when it was realised that the entire city was ablaze with lights. Frenzied activity was taking place along the whole of the waterfront. After being in near total darkness and restricted to minimum physical movement, it took some time for the scene to register. The morning light began to reveal what was actually occurring. Equipment was being swung inboard and lowered into the holds of waiting craft, orderly lines of troops making their way along the jetties and up gangways onto transports. Individuals in khaki were rushing backwards and forwards indicating with their arms at who knows what. Then, as the sun rose higher, another drama began to unfold. Further along the waterfront, away from the controlled loading of the troops and equipment, were several jetties jammed with panic-stricken civilians.

The death of innocent civilians.

To escape the oncoming Chinese troops, they had fled towards the river and were trying to board the small craft tied to the wharves. In the mad rush to get to the boats some were pushed off the wharves. Others fell, while still others were carried over by the constant surge of people behind them. Others were trampled on, some were crushed between the pier poles and the boats and even then, after making the sanctuary of the craft, some were bodily thrown overboard to make room for others following behind.

It was complete chaos and the onlookers could only stare in disbelief at what was happening, unable to intervene. On the river, large and small vessels were scurrying downstream as fast as they could. A constant flow of humanity sailing past the anchored warships with one common purpose - escape!

Suddenly it was realised that many small boats were making their way towards the destroyers, no doubt seeing them as a means of rescue. Unfortunately for these poor people, the warships could not cope with an influx of such numbers. The Canadians, being closest inshore, were first to react. Fire hoses were directed at the oncoming craft with immediate and disastrous effect. The leading boats took the initial blast of water and the occupants began a mad scramble to the rear to dodge the water jets. This caused the stern to dip and in no time water began to pour in.

Knowing their boat was doomed they tried to move forward again, but were caught in a fight with those who had stayed put. Then the boat sank and its entire load was now struggling in the water. Being dressed in heavy winter clothing, some soon disappeared from sight. Others now tried to swim to the nearest boat but were quickly dissuaded by those onboard, who beat their hands or hit them to make them let go.

In an effort to escape the freezing jets of water, the following boats tried to turn around and some were rammed. Others were flooded and more people went into the icy river. The whole scene could not have lasted for five minutes but it was long enough for other escapees to know there was no rescue to be had. For several minutes pathetic bundles drifted slowly downstream before finally sinking below the surface. And still, oblivious to the happenings around them, fleeing ships went downstream ignoring the cries for help from those unable to leave.

Disquieted, the crews are called to action.

For the destroyer crews going about the various duties there was a feeling of disquiet. They were witnessing the other side of the coin of war, and they were unable to change what was unfolding. Then, at 1600 the signal was received that the evacuation of the 8000 American and South Korean troops had been successfully completed and the transports were already leaving.

Another signal was then transmitted saying, "Destroy everything that could be of use to the enemy." Then came the announcement "Hands will go to action stations at 1630." Every man on board began to ready himself to carry out his allotted task when the time came. At 1630 the order was given, "Hands to action stations." And the waiting began.

Enduring images of war: an eyewitness account.

An uneasy calm seemed to settle over the scene as those on board prepared for their next task. At 1700 the order was given "Commence firing." Immediately the silence shattered as broadsides fired from the ships, each shell landing into a preselected target area. With each blast the destroyers rocked and heeled. Asbestos began to fall from pipes and trunking in the mess decks and the other spaces where the material was in use.

Following a direct hit ashore, an enormous smoke-ring mushroomed skywards. It was huge and it rose majestically upwards. It stayed visible for a long time before finally dissipating and losing its shape high in the still atmosphere. The shelling continued unabated, the orange and yellow shell bursts preceding the clouds of dust and smoke.

As the firing went on the smell of cordite began to permeate the entire ship. Mess decks, magazines, store-rooms, boiler rooms, engine room, all compartments being filled with the acrid fumes. Asbestos dust now floated lazily about and covered most flat surfaces.

The noise of the gunfire was deafening. There was the heavy blast of the 4.7 inch, the lighter crack of the 4.0 inch, the peculiar 'cough, cough, cough' of the 40mm bofors, and the rapid 'pmmf, pmmf, pmmf' of the 20mm pom poms, all adding their own contribution to the cacophony of thunderous sound.

Fires were now beginning to show ashore. Some were large, some small - all starting to burn out of control. Slowly and efficiently the calculated placement of shot was not only destroying the targeted area, but was providing the fires with a steady supply of material to burn, assisting in the destruction of the city.

Darkness fell quickly and now the fires were becoming the focal point of the operation. Explosion after explosion hurled flaming debris high into the darkness. It fell back into the raging inferno below. Tracer shells glowing red sped through the dark and disappeared into the flames. The whole waterfront was now ablaze. At 2000 came the order "Cease firing." The guns fell silent and an eerie hush prevailed.

To the onlookers the scene was awesome. As far as the eye could see in either direction was one unbroken wall of flames. Their reflections danced on the inky black waters and a bright red glow dominated the skyline. For several minutes those responsible surveyed the results of the bombardment, then it was time to leave.

One by one the ships slipped away from the devastation and began the journey downstream. There was no jubilation or bravado amongst the crew. There was subdued talk. Snatches of quiet conversation like "Point blank range," "Just like target practice," "Couldn't miss at that range," and "God help those poor bastards ashore," seemed to sum up the mood of those on board.

Fifty years on: a symbol of hope

On the 25 June 2001, I attended the annual Korean War Memorial service held at the Korean Uniting Church in Malvern. For the first time in years, I felt that here in this church was perhaps the reason for the wastage of Chinampo. The congregation were free to worship and live the life that was theirs by choice. At least that is what I hope.

This is an edited version of the original 2001 piece.
First published in 2001 in Do This In Remembrance: Healing the Wounds of War Addresses, Sermons and Scripts
from the St. George's East St. Kilda Uniting Church Annual Memorial Service 1992-2001
(ed. John Bottomly)