Remembering SA involvement in Korean War

IN the wake of the recent historic meeting and accord between North Korean premier Kim Jong Un and US president Donald Trump, the Eastern Cape branch of the South African Military Society felt it fitting to reflect on the Korean War which led to the current state of affairs in that part of the world.

DELVING INTO HISTORY: Local historian Dr Dermot Moore presented a talk entitled Korea: The Forgotten War in Perspective for the South African Military Society meeting at Settlers Park recently Picture: JON HOUZET

Local historian Dr Dermot Moore presented a talk entitled Korea: The Forgotten War in Perspective for the South African Military Society meeting at Settlers Park recently. He dwelt specifically on South African involvement in the war, which lasted from 1950-1953.

Moore was previously a teacher of maths and history, then a lecturer in history and registrar at Fort Hare University.

He was co-author with Peter Bagshaw of South Africa’s Flying Cheetahs in Korea, published in 1991 (now out of print).

“There’s a direct connection between what’s been happening between Trump and Kim Jong Un, and the Korean War,” Moore said.

He said the Korean War tended to be a forgotten war between World War 2 and more recent wars.

The global situation after World War 2 required reconstruction of several states which had been decimated by the war, including, France, Germany, Japan, Malaya, Korea and Greece.

“We also had a bipolar world between east and west, democracy and communism. These competing ideologies played out in games in the backyards of other countries, particularly in Korea and Greece, and they played out under the nuclear threat of mutual assured destruction,” Moore said.

There was an escalation of the east/west conflict between 1948 and 1950, beginning with East Germany closing off the Allied corridors to West Berlin, which resulted in supplies being airlifted in for a year. South African aircrews were involved.

Korea was in a strategic position, referred to as a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan.

The USSR tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, and then in 1950, the communists in China achieved victory over their nationalist opponents.

Korea was in a strategic position, referred to as a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan.

Korea had been occupied by Japanese forces between 1905 and 1945, leading to integration in the interests of Japan. By the end of World War 2, the 38th parallel running through Korea was the dividing line for Soviet forces advancing from the north and US forces coming from the south.

There were attempts at reunification along political and diplomatic lines by the US and UN, and in May 1948 the UN supervised elections in the south, leaving 100 seats vacant for the north. Syngman Rhee was elected president.

Meanwhile in the north, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was formed under the influence of the USSR, with Kim Il-Sung as premier.

There were guerrilla incursions into South Korea by communist forces which intimidated and killed government officials and ordinary citizens alike. By 1949 they dominated a large area in the mountains of south-east Korea.

But by early 1950 Republic of Korea (South Korea) counter-insurgency operations had successfully driven back the communists.

Communist forces decided on a conventional invasion in June 1950, with a troop build-up along the 38th parallel.

“The main thrust of the invasion was directly south to get to the capital, Seoul,” Moore said. “They had to contend with rugged terrain with steeps hills and valleys.”

The UN Security Council voted unanimously to support a war against the communist invasion. Moore said the US took advantage of the absence of the USSR which was sulking over the recognition of Taiwan as a nation.

US forces already based in Korea became immediately involved, but they called for assistance from the UN.

The South Africans initially flew F-51D Mustangs against Soviet MIG 15s, and later flew Sabres. They flew 12 051 combat sorties, lost 79 aircraft, and 34 pilots and two ground crew were killed.

“South Africa’s response was initially reluctant – the same people, a group of Nationalists, who opposed South African involvement in World War 2,” Moore said.

“But pressure was put on by the United Party opposition and the press, especially the EP Herald.”

South Africa eventually sent an air force squadron, with Prime Minister DF Malan making the case that aggressive communism could be more destructive in South Africa than elsewhere because of “the appeal of communism to the non-European population”.

The Korean War was essentially a ground war, a battle to capture one bridge after another, but UN forces had the clear advantage in the air. Besides South Africa, there was only one other fighter squadron from outside the US – 77 Squadron from Australia.

Because of the nuclear threat it was fought as a limited war, with fighter squadrons operating under severe restrictions. The main role of the South African pilots was a tactical role in support of ground forces.

The South Africans initially flew F-51D Mustangs against Soviet MIG 15s, and later flew Sabres. They flew 12 051 combat sorties, lost 79 aircraft, and 34 pilots and two ground crew were killed.

Moore mentioned several South Africans remembered fort their valour or skill in combat. Major Jan Blaauw was awarded the American Silver Star – the highest award the US gives to non-American soldiers. When Lt Vernon Kruger, a pilot on his 74th sortie was shot down (they flew 75 sorties and then went home), Blaauw gave air cover to the downed, wounded pilot, keeping communist ground forces at bay, then crash-landed himself to personally defend Kruger until they were rescued by an American helicopter.

Squadron commander, Commandant Ray Armstrong worked out tactics to use the vulnerability of the propeller-driven Mustang against the MG15 jet. Mustang pilots would turn their aircraft to face the MIGs bearing down on them. It was much harder for the MIGs to turn at speed but required steel nerves by the Mustang pilots.

Although flying only 1.16% of the total number of UN sorties, the South African airmen were highly appreciated for their standard of flying and aircraft maintenance.

Two and a half million people died in the conflict, most of whom were civilians.

 

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