Scotland's Forgotten War: Korean veterans make emotional return

Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders soldiers in Korea Scottish soldiers sent to Korea were often inexperienced and ill-equipped

They were an incongruous sight amid the frenetic morning rush hour of Seoul's main railway station.

As an array of coffee-clutching commuters in suits hurried past, a group of war veterans - dapper in regimental blazers, an array of military berets and a cluster of well-polished medals - began to muster on the equally well-polished concourse.

It wasn't only their bearing and their years that differentiated the visitors from their fellow travellers.

The generally 20 or 30-something commuters were making journeys that would shape their future; the veterans' destination was their past.

Trench warfare

They were heading for the climax of a five-day visit to this cosmopolitan capital, a capital that most had last seen flattened and smouldering 60 years before.

But as the group of veterans, some with walking sticks and a few in wheelchairs, began to make their way to the platform, something surprising happened.

Jackie Bird looks at memorial plaques Jackie Bird looks at memorial plaques during her visit to South Korea

Station workers bowed as they passed; staff in the kiosks and small shops stopped selling their coffees and pastries and broke into spontaneous applause. Even some of the hurried commuters slowed and made obvious their respect for their elderly visitors.

South Korea may be a 21st Century economic powerhouse, but it's a grateful one.

The Korean war of 60 years ago may be a footnote in Britain's public consciousness, but its mass loss of life and the sacrifice of the American and United Nations forces who came in its hour of need is ingrained in South Koreans, both young and old.

In 1950 it was the last thing threadbare Britain needed. The country had just emerged from the Second World War and hadn't the stomach for another.

By necessity the Korean fighting force was mostly made up of young national servicemen. The majority were teenagers who'd never ventured outside their home towns when they were packed off to a distant Asian peninsula few had heard of.

Their meagre 16 weeks of training couldn't prepare them for what lay in store: ferocious hill battles; trench warfare and attacking human waves of well-drilled Chinese.

Sense of injustice

After the war ended in a face-saving armistice, territorially the sides were almost back to where they started.

This inglorious culmination didn't help the apathy on the home front - 1,090 soldiers had lost their lives in Korea.

The young men came home to indifference and many have long nursed a sense of injustice.

Start Quote

People would ask me what happened to my father. When I said he died in the Korean war they didn't know what to say. They had no idea British troops were even involved”

End Quote John

As one told me: "We were only young... we'd start to talk about our war and be told: 'Away lad, that was nothing... I was at Dunkirk'. So we just stopped talking about it."

In the brutal cold of a Korean winter and in the searing summer heat, these ill-equipped, inexperienced young fighters had witnessed horrors beyond imagination and had returned to a Britain that simply didn't want to know.

Today's bullet train trip from Seoul to Busan in the far south of the country was a chance for the veterans to pay tribute to their fallen comrades buried in the Commonwealth cemetery.

The South Korean government picks up most of the tab for these "re-visits", as it calls them. Those who come can bring a partner. Usually it's wives, sons or daughters; loved ones who've spent a lifetime listening to a story of war and who find themselves written into this final chapter.

As the train sped past unprepossessing countryside, I fell into conversation with John. Too young to have fought in the war, I presumed he was accompanying a veteran.

He quietly explained his quest was to find the grave of his father, who'd left for a belated national service when John was four years old - and never came home.

John had only just learned of the "revisit" programme which had enabled his trip. It seemed the hurt of a conflict ignored wasn't restricted to those who'd fought in it.

Jackie Bird at cemetery More than 1,000 British soldiers died in the conflict

"People would ask me what happened to my father," he told me.

"When I said he died in the Korean war they didn't know what to say. They had no idea British troops were even involved."

At the cemetery, torrential rain falling vertically and unrelentingly from a leaden sky added to the poignancy of the occasion. The skinny, cocky young servicemen who'd bounded off troop ships 60 years ago were now a fragile cargo.

Young Korean helpers eased the infirm across the slippery, sodden ground and hauled wheelchairs up saturated inclines.

As the wives and middle-aged children huddled inside a tent whose roof groaned under the weight of rainwater, the veterans stood to attention in the face of the elements; dignified in the intensity of the moment and lost in their memories. A small Korean military band played Abide With Me.

As the downpour intensified and the skies grew darker, old men must have been chilled, but they never complained.

As they were given time to roam the cemetery with its hundreds of small Union flags and A4 sized plaques marking each grave, they found their former friends and they knew they were the lucky ones; they'd come home.

Was our neglect of Korea a case of the wrong war at the wrong time? Or, portentously for current conflicts on foreign soil which end without glorious victory, was it an embarrassment conveniently lost in the mists of time?

I last saw John alone, upset and kneeling by the grave of the father he never knew, killed in a war we forgot to remember.

Jackie Bird's documentary, Scotland's Forgotten War, will be broadcast on BBC1 Scotland at 22:35 on Monday. It will also be available for the next seven days on BBC iPlayer.

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