Voices from the Korean battlefield

by Glyn Harper / 18 April, 2013
Veterans’ memories of a conflict that remains both unresolved and forgotten.
A New Zealand gun crew in Korea in 1953.

As North Korean President Kim Jong-un has recently demonstrated, the Korean War is not over. Major combat operations ended with an armistice signed on July 27, 1953, but there was no permanent peace settlement, and hostilities, including several military clashes, have continued. The War That Never Ended: New Zealand Veterans Remember Korea alludes to this in its title.

The book is the latest oral history from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. It was produced by freelance writer Pip Desmond, with Ian McGibbon, general editor of war history at the ministry and author of the two-volume official history of New Zealand in the Korean War, providing a succinct, scholarly and very readable overview.

Twelve veterans discuss their experiences. Their backgrounds and military service vary widely. Three were regulars who served in the Royal New Zealand Navy. The remaining nine were short-service volunteers with the New Zealand Army – one the official photographer; one Kayforce’s dentist; the others gunners, signallers, drivers and mechanics.

Despite these differences, many connecting themes emerge. Not one of the veterans joined up to fight Godless Communism. As with those who had gone before them, the war offered the chance of a great adventure: an opportunity to travel – to see the world and get paid for it. No one ever thought they would become a casualty. As one of them recalls, “‘I’ll be all right, Jack, I’m as good as gold.’ When you are young, you don’t think about these things much.”

All the veterans were influenced, to some degree, by the experiences of their fathers or uncles in the two world wars, often seeing them as role models. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, knowing what was ahead for the young volunteers, most of these older ex-servicemen did not support or welcome more young New Zealanders going to another war.

Food and women were perennial concerns. Although most interviewed here are coy about their contact with the opposite sex, McGibbon writes in his introduction that a third of Kayforce contracted a venereal disease as a result of liaisons in Korea and Japan. Clearly, much contact did occur and it should not be a surprise. Professor Richard Holmes once described the British Army’s fight against venereal infection as its longest campaign.

An extensive literature warns historians about the unreliability of oral testimony, especially when it is recorded so long after the event. Memory can be selective and one person can only ever see a fraction of the total picture. Participants also have a strong tendency to incorporate themselves into the standard myths of their culture and their generation. Yet oral testimony has much to offer. It can provide a graphic first-hand account of what it was like to be there. It also gives voice to those who were on the battlefield. These are the great strengths of The War That Never Ended and it makes for compelling reading.

More than 6000 New Zealanders served in the Korean War. Forty-five paid the ultimate price, and all who went were affected. That service was ignored when these veterans returned home and the Korean War became largely overlooked.

With the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice just months away, this book is timely. It gives a strong insight into what New Zealanders experienced during their time in Korea, in a conflict that remains both unresolved and forgotten. George Santayana’s warning that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it may just prove prophetic. That indeed would be a tragedy.


Glyn Harper is professor of war studies at Massey University


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