A new friendship was formed on the Korean battlefields between two Tasmanian diggers 60-years after the last guns were fired in aggression.
84-year-old Korean War veteran, Wally Perkins of Georgetown, and 65-year-old Hobart born Lieutenant Colonel (LTCOL) Graeme Henley, met in South Korea during services commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice that brought an end to the hostilities at the time.
Wally was selected by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to join 14 other veterans of that war to return to Korea for the commemorative services.
Wally enlisted in the Australian Army in September 1949. In May 1950 he joined the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) in Japan, as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. He arrived in Pusan, Korea, with the first group of Australian soldiers of 3RAR on 28 September 1950.
He was with 3RAR on its advance up the Peninsula in October 1950 and through Yongju, Pakchon and Chongju and on the battalion’s retreat south, slowing the advance of Chinese forces.
Significantly, Wally was also with the battalion during the Battle of Kapyong, returning to Japan and then Australia shortly after the Battle of Maryang San.
Although he was with the battalion for some its best known actions, it is not the memory of battle that Wally thinks of when he recalls his service. Everyday moments of life, lived in the context of war, are his strongest memories.
Wally remembers a time when he and his mates were in reserve, and after a month without the opportunity to wash, felt the need for a bath. Using a hammer and chisel he removed the top off a 44-gallon petrol drum, filled the drum with water from a creek and lit a fire around it. Once heated, he gently lowered himself into the bath, carefully avoiding the jagged edges. After witnessing Wally’s enjoyment his mates followed suit. Wally recalls the group smelled much better for their efforts!
On another day, while taking a jeep and trailer to a rear area to collect and learn how to operate flamethrowers, Wally was stopped driving south by a road block. He noticed a woman on the side of the road, leaning against a wall crying, and a young child ran over to Wally, imploring him to follow. Hesitating at first, concerned that it may be a trap, he relented and followed the child to discover that the woman was in labour. The woman was in difficulty and indicated to Wally that he should pull the baby out. With some experience in birthing lambs, Wally remembers he was willing to ‘have a go’. He managed to successfully deliver the child and both mother and baby survived the birth.
Wally returned to Australia in October 1951, where he attended an NCO school and achieved the rank of Corporal. He then worked as an instructor at the National Service training camp. This was followed by a posting to Enoggera to draw and set up transport for 1RAR when they returned home. Finally, he served in the Royal Australian Army Service Corps, running the heavy transport section in South Melbourne. Wally was discharged in September 1955, having completed his initial six year engagement period. He returned to his previous trade as a tool maker and eventually worked as an aircraft mechanic until his retirement.
Thinking of his time in Korea he recalls that his mates ‘backed each other up’ and helped reinforcements acclimatise to battle. He also remembers happier times off the battlefield, sharing a beer with mates when it was available.
LTCOL Graeme Henley enlisted with 44th Transport Company, Royal Australian Army Service Corps (RAASC), a Citizens Military Force unit in Devonport in October 1965. He trained and qualified as a Driver and in May 1966, enlisted in the Regular Army. Since then he has served in most states of Australia and operationally in South Vietnam, Solomon Islands, East Timor (Timor-Leste), Iraq and Afghanistan. Graeme retires from the Army later this month.
Graeme said “Joining these Korean War Veterans on this commemorative trip is certainly one of the highlights of my time in the Army. Supporting them and assisting DVA has been a great privilege. Traveling with them to the battles fields and looking at the terrain and hardships they faced has given me an even greater respect for them”.
The veterans visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and were provided a conducted tour of the Join Security Area bordering North and South Korea. A visit to Conference Row where the terms of the Armistice were determined, provided an opportunity to once again step on to what is now North Korean soil, this time without fear of losing their lives.
Following this, the veterans visited Observation Post Tai Poong to remember the battle of Maryang San. Maryang San is located about 20 kilometres over the North Korean border and OP Tai Poong is the closest they could get to it.
Over the subsequent week, the veterans visited the site of the Battle of Kapyong, a poignant moment for Wally as a veteran of that battle. Wally with his old mate, Kapyong veteran Ray Deed from Corindi QLD, laid a wreath during this commemorative service. Our Kiwi partners joined the veterans at the service.
Commemorative service in Seoul and Busan (Pusan) were also attended by the veterans. They had the opportunity to reflect at the beautifully kept United Nations Memorial Cemetery Korea (UNMCK) in Busan. They found the graves of their mates killed during the Korean War and remembered those commemorated on a wall in the UNCMK who are to this day listed as Missing In Action.
The Australian Korean War veterans were greeted as heroes by the citizens of the Republic Of Korea (South Korea) and treated as esteemed guests of honour at the joint commemorative services.
“Very moving and a tremendous experience” Wally said. “Thanks to DVA for providing the opportunity and looking after us so well”.
Australia’s Federation Guard provided ceremonial support for the commemorative services. “The interaction between the Korean War veterans and the young Sailors, Soldiers, Air Men and Women of Australia’s Federation Guard was just great. The heritage of the Korean War, and its Australian veterans is in good hands”. Graeme said.