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A Korean Four Leaf Clover
by Michael Muschamp
The four leaf clover is a universally accepted symbol of good luck, especially if found accidentally. Former sailor and KVAA member, Michael Muschamp, certainly must have had one sitting firmly in his pocket whilst on service in Korea. Here he recounts how he survived a quartet of potentially fatal incidents, one for each leaf of his metaphorical clover.
The First Leaf
In 1950, the Royal Navy trained junior officers from pretty well all Commonwealth countries, as well as a few from such 'friendly' nations as Egypt (pre-Nasser) and Iran.
After a year's training as cadets we (Australians, NZ'ers, Indians, Pakistanis, Burmese as well as about a hundred RN types), were posted to 'The Fleet'. In those days, Britain did have quite a fleet, a couple of battleships, sundry aircraft carriers and a dozen cruisers. There were plenty of other smaller craft, destroyers, frigates and submarines amongst the number but, on promotion to the exalted rank of midshipmen, ("the lowest form of animal life aboard") we were dispatched to either a battleship, a carrier or a cruiser.
With two other Kiwi midshipmen, three RN and a couple of Indians, having chosen the Far East Station as it was closest to home, we were appointed to the Colony Class ship, HMS Jamaica. With the main armament of nine 6" guns, eight 4" 'dual-purpose' guns and an assortment of anti-aircraft weapons as well as 21' torpedoes, the ship was classified a 'light cruiser', a 'heavy' one being a vessel with 8" main armament.
Leaving Hong Kong in mid-June, we were on our way northward to 'fly the flag' on a visit to Japan. A day out of our first port of call, Nagasaki, the Korean War broke out and we were immediately attached to the US Seventh Fleet.
Early on the morning of the first Sunday in July, we encountered what transpired to be the whole of the North Korean navy, or at least the seagoing portion thereof.
A brilliant summer morning, the sea glistening, the land to our port side grey and unwelcoming, we were off the east coast, just north of the 38th parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Korea set in stone by the post-WWII disarmament conferences. Was this the 'Land of the Morning Calm'?
With our ship sailed an American light cruiser, the USS Juneau, and a British frigate, HMS Black Swan. Sighting half-a-dozen small craft, all wearing the North Korean ensign, all three ships opened fire.
As they say, 'a brisk action followed'. The enemy, identified as E-Boats (fast motor torpedo boats), only fired small-calibre guns at us despite the fact that we were sitting ducks for a close-quarter torpedo attack.
It was all over in less than an hour.
Four of the E-Boats were sunk (three by our guns), one ran aground and one high-tailed it seawards. Black Swan was ordered by the Admiral in Juneau to chase, a somewhat futile gesture as, 'downhill with wind astern', the frigate's top speed was about 18 knots while the MTB could easily manage twice that. Obviously, the worthy Admiral had not consulted his 'Jane's Fighting Ships'!
Survivors were fished out of the water and interrogated by our RoK (Republic of Korea) liaison officer.
"Ask them why they didn't fire their torpedoes," he was told.
"They say that the Russians were going to teach them how to fire them next week."
Blimey Charlie! as the Poms would say. Had they been able to use their torpedoes, it might well have been a very different story. We were only a few hundred meters off the very unwelcoming cliffs in a broadish bay.
What was a UN naval 'triumph' might well have been a disaster, with ships sunk and plenty of casualties.
The Second Leaf
A month or so later, we were again off the east coast, bombarding the railway line which ran along the cliff face. Unfortunately, a shore battery 'got our range' and the Jamaica was hit several times.
The main damage was caused by a hit on the mainmast, with shrapnel raining down on the guns' crews beneath. Several were killed and ten or so wounded and, from my action station on the gun direction platform, directly abaft the bridge, I looked aft to see, to my horror, a headless corpse. Not a pleasant sight for anyone, let alone an eighteen-year-old.
I quietly mused, "If that shell had hit the foremast instead of the mainmast, that headless body could well have been mine".
All those killed, save one, were soldiers from the Middlesex Regiment. They had been part of a draft of about thirty who had taken passage in the Jamaica en route for some "R & R" in Japan.
When hostilities started, the Captain had asked if any of the army personnel would be willing to spend two weeks on board, rather than visiting the fleshpots of Tokyo. To a man they volunteered. This was an enormous bonus as the Jamaica was at 'peacetime complement' and without the 'brown jobs' we could only man half our main armament and 4" guns. The casualties were all on the after-gun deck, manning the anti-aircraft weapons. As if that weren't bad enough, when the regiment was sent, en masse, to Korea in September, the first casualties they suffered there were as a result of 'friendly fire', our valiant American allies mistaking one hill for another a few miles away.
The Third Leaf
Three months later, the North Korean army had pushed the UN forces back to the 'Pusan Perimeter', an area of about 80km by 80km in the south-east corner of South Korea. Things were not exactly looking rosy for it seemed highly likely that the Communist north would achieve its primary aim, that of an ice-free port on the Korean peninsula.
To the rescue came none other than General Douglas ("I shall return") MacArthur. In a master-stroke, he led an invasion force of some 80,000 troops well behind the enemy lines at the west coast port of Inchon.
With total mastery of the seas, a powerful naval force, which included the battleship USS Missouri, several US heavy cruisers and two RN cruisers, Jamaica and Kenya, as well as a score of destroyers, bombarded the port for two days before the troops landed. Only fairly light resistance was met and Inchon, the port of and gateway to the capital, Seoul, was secured within a few days.
At dawn on the second morning after the landings, the ship's company of Jamaica were at "Repel Aircraft Stations" (where all but the main armament guns are manned), when two propeller-driven aircraft appeared over the fleet, which was at anchor a few hundred metres from the shore.
Now, while the NK army was very substantial, nothing had been seen of any air arm and it seemed that these planes were, perhaps, from the RN aircraft carrier HMS Triumph (the two US carriers at sea being off the west coast and equipped with Phantom jets). We were soon disabused of that guess.
One plane dropped a bomb close to the US cruiser Rochester, causing no damage. Our American cousins were obviously having a Sunday morning lie-in, for they studiously ignored the attack. This aircraft then turned and strafed the Jamaica, causing some damage and several casualties. As it passed overhead, without any apparent sound, it exploded, having been hit by our anti-aircraft guns on the port side.
I was at my Action Station which, as it was on the starboard side, received only a few bits of shrapnel. Several of these, struck the gun-sight which I controlled, and one, a 20mm shell, passed between my legs. I did, in fact, sustain a 'wound' - a tiny shard of glass on my forehead, but thankfully nothing worthy of the name of a 'real wound'.
The second aircraft, having seen the fate of its mate, decided that discretion was definitely the better part of valour and sped away without firing its guns, echoing the non-action of the US Navy.
I had a small piece of anonymous fame when the London Sunday Express, which had a journalist aboard Jamaica, reported that 'a midshipman had a narrow escape when the gunsight he was working was severely damaged'.
The Fourth Leaf
Almost exactly a year later, by this time promoted to the dizzy rank of Acting Sub Lieutenant, I was serving in the frigate HMS Amethyst, a ship which had, two years earlier, attracted world-wide fame when she escaped from capture by the Chinese communists as they made their way south in their overthrow of the forces of the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. She had made her way, without anything like adequate charts, some 200 miles down the Yangtze, under almost constant fire from the shore, finally breaking out of the river and into the sea south of Shanghai.
The Captain thereupon sent the memorable signal, "Have rejoined the fleet. God save the King."
Several other RN ships had come under fire and one, the heavy cruiser London, was badly damaged. Her place on the Far East Station was taken, towards the end of 1949, by the Jamaica.
Stirring stuff, indeed.
In parentheses it is worth mentioning that the Jamaica had been transferred from the America and West Indies Station. By the time the vessel finally reached England, in March 1951, she had spent almost three years away from her home port and the same applied to most of her officers and ratings.
This time Amethyst was not 'up the Yangtze' but in the Han River estuary, on the west coast of Korea, a few miles north of the 38th parallel, conducting a survey of a large tract of virtually enclosed water.
This, even in peacetime, would have been quite a hazardous operation, for the tide rose and fell some 10 metres and the current often exceeded six knots.
In wartime (o.k. "peace action"), it was another matter altogether for, while friendly forces controlled the southern shore, Very Unfriendly Folk were encamped on the northern one.
Amethyst, because of her comparative size, was at anchor, out of range of the unfriendly fire, while a small RoK gunboat, with the frigate's navigating officer, a couple of ratings and the Acting Sub Lieutenant (me) slowly made its way to a point about four kilometres from Amethyst.
Aboard the gunboat was a small motor-boat, which would carry the 'Sub' and a leading seaman, to a point about 800 metres from the shore, the whole performance being recorded by a cameraman from the British forces film unit on board the gunboat. His remit was to produce a film for consumption on American TV in the hope that the Great US Public might be persuaded that nations other than their own and South Korea were in the 'great struggle against Carm-you-nism'.
My job was to take 'horizontal sextant angles' (no GPS then). The leading hand would record them and they would be analysed by the navigator, who had been doing the same highly technical piece of work aboard the gunboat.
The motor-boat was about to be launched when the Unfriendlies started to shell the gunboat, their first shots falling well short. Then a large splash close to the ship suggested that they were getting the range.
Standing in the 'eyes of the ship' (as far forward as he could without actually falling overboard), the cameraman thought, "the next shot will hit the bridge. What a pic that'll make."
The next shot, fortunately a small calibre one, hit the bollard alongside the cameraman. He broke the world record for the 15 metres, while the gunboat got under way in a hurry.
I watched this performance from the comparative safety of the 'disengaged side', thanking my stars as we quickly got out of range. Sad to say, that same cameraman was later captured by the Chinese and imprisoned under the vilest of conditions for more than two years.
Next day, in the safer surrounds of the lee of the southern shore, I was in the small motor-boat, doing my horizontal sextant act, when we were 'buzzed' by a low-flying extremely fast jet aircraft.
I was almost certain it was not a MIG-9 from the Chinese or North Koreans, but, taking no chances, I slid over the side of the motor-boat and into the (very shallow) water.
"Not to worry, sir," quoth the leading hand, as we clambered back aboard, "it was a Yank."
About a month later, the Captain of the Amethyst, Commander Peter Fanshawe, sent for me. He was a somewhat austere man and, many years later, I discovered why he was not exactly a 'Cheerful Charlie Chester'.
He had been shot down as a naval flyer in 1941 and sent to the infamous Stalag Luft Nord. There he was one of the chief planners of what became known as 'The Great Escape', though he himself did not escape.
"Oh, Sub.," he said with a quiet grin, "You know that aircraft that buzzed you in the Han River?"
"Yes, sir, of course."
"Well, I've just heard that it was indeed, a US Navy Phantom. You were bloody lucky. The clot of a pilot had mistaken the White Ensign you were flying for the North Korean flag. The only reason you weren't shot up was that he had expended all his ammunition."
A sideline to all this occurred a couple of months later.
With another Kiwi, I had applied for permission to 'find my own way back' to the UK, where we were due to spend two years on technical courses. Courtesy of the Royal Canadian Air Force, we flew via Shemya in the Aleutians and Anchorage, Alaska to Tacoma in Washington State.
From there, we thumbed and bussed our way down the west coast to Los Angeles and one day, standing on the famed corner of Hollywood and Vine, a very pretty girl came up to me and said, "Gee, can I have your autograph?"
Fame at last, I thought. That film must have hit the TV screens in California.
She examined my signature.
"What's this? Ain't you Richard Widmark?"
First Published in The Voice, October 2010