The Korean War: from Playing with Keys

How did it all begin?  The Korean peninsula is a hot topic in the news right now. The Korean War began in 1950 and ended with a ceasefire in 1953. Being curious, I decided to write it into my novel set in 1961. Here’s a little chapter:

In the quiet of evening after dinner, Sandra went to look for her father in the garden. Since Meredith told her a little about William going to the Korean War, disturbing thoughts had plagued her. Why didn’t anyone talk about the war – wasn’t that the best way to make sure it never happened again?

She found him seated beneath the peach tree. The warmth of the spring day had passed with sunset and he was stretched out on the garden seat, puffing on his pipe. He shifted along to make a space for Sandra.

‘This is very pleasant,’ he said. ‘For once we don’t have to drive hundreds of miles for Christmas, and . . .’ he breathed out a stream of smoke, ‘I can watch the tennis at home.’

A smell of newly mown lawn filled the garden; an occasional drift of tobacco. Sandra kicked off her sandals and dug her toes into the warm grass. Should she let her father know that Auntie had told her all about William . . . but how else to begin?

With a glance at her father, she said, ‘Dad, can I ask you a question?’

Don smiled. ‘You can ask me anything you like, you know that.’

‘Auntie told me she had a friend called William who went to fight in the Korean War—’ She hesitated and Don pre-empted the question.

‘So Meredith’s told you about William, has she? Your mother says there’s a photo of him in her bedroom.’

‘I asked Auntie about the photo and she told me about how they met, because she said it was like me and Nick and how we each had to say goodbye . . .’ She rushed on, before words failed her. ‘She wanted me to keep the story of William a secret—’

‘That sounds like your Aunt Meredith. She can be melodramatic at times. Still, it was all pretty shocking. Your mother doesn’t know the full story – she never approved of how Meredith ran off – but the last couple of years she’s swept it under the carpet.’ He continued to puff on his pipe.

This was going to take some digging. ‘But Dad, if William came home and the Korean War ended not that long ago, why doesn’t anyone talk about it? I’ve never heard anything, even in school.’

‘It’s a mystery to me. I can only think perhaps it was too soon after World War Two. Around 40,000 of our forces died back then – that’s a huge loss for a country of only seven million or so. In the shadow of that global war, maybe people didn’t see the Korean War as a real war.’

‘You’ve never said anything either. So if it wasn’t a real war, tell me what happened?’

Don didn’t immediately speak as he considered where to start. It was true that no one seemed to talk about the war these days, least of all Meredith.

‘Well . . .’ he began. ‘Since 1910 the Empire of Japan controlled all of Korea, but after Japan’s defeat in 1945, America, with Soviet agreement, divided Korea into roughly equal halves at the 38th Parallel—’

‘Auntie told me that.’

‘All right, so you know all about it?’

‘No, sorry, Dad.’

‘Then don’t interrupt when I’m trying to think. In the south, the new Republic of Korea was supported by America, and in the north, the Korean Democratic People’s Republic, supported by the Soviet Union. By 1949 both the Soviets and Americans had withdrawn their armies—’

‘She said it was complicated.’

‘That’s true. The story goes there was a civil war when thousands of Koreans died fighting each other. There were supposed to be elections within a year to unify the country, and although the United Nations declared the Republic of Korea in the south as the only legal government, in 1950, with Soviet and Chinese back-up, North Korea invaded the South to try to bring the entire country under Communist rule.’

Don paused as he struck a match to relight his pipe. ‘South Korean forces and the American forces that rushed to help were pushed down towards the southern tip of Korea. It wasn’t looking good, so the United Nations called for international support—’

Sandra resisted a comment that Auntie had also told her this. Instead, she said, ‘Is that when William volunteered?’

‘Hold your horses, I’m getting to it . . . Menzies announced we’d send troops, along with Britain and New Zealand, to fight under British command. He was afraid the commies would infiltrate the trade unions and the Labor Party – the so-called Reds under the Beds. Menzies was very against the Communist Party of Australia and dead keen on Britain testing bombs in the middle of Australia. It was very divisive.’

‘I have heard of Reds under the Beds.’

‘The United Nations gave command of the troops to Douglas MacArthur, the famous American general, and together with the South Koreans, they pushed the North Korean army through the mountains and right up to the border with China. That certainly put the cat among the pigeons and the Chinese invaded – an enormous army that pushed the U.N. and South Korean troops all the way down south again.’

‘Did William talk to you about it?’

‘When he eventually came home . . . the only time we spoke together. After that day I didn’t see him again. We sat over a beer or two, and while he was talking, his hands shook so badly that his glass rattled on the table. He said at night they could hear the Chinese communicating with whistles and bugles, and it was terrifying because they knew what was coming . . .’

For a moment, Don didn’t speak, then he said, ‘Think of it, Sandy, thousands of Chinese – wave after wave charging with mortar and rifle fire, some of them carrying only buckets of grenades. The way William described it – my god, the hand-to-hand fighting—’

‘Did William fight like that, too?’ She held her breath, afraid of the answer, regretful that she’d wanted her father to explain the war.

‘I have no doubt, William too.’

While Don drew on his pipe, Sandra picked idly at a paint bubble on the garden seat. Over the back fence, she heard the murmur of their neighbours’ voices, the chatter of birds as they settled for the night in nearby camphor laurel trees.

‘If General MacArthur was so famous, how come the fighting was so terrible?’ she asked.

‘Macarthur wanted to take the war from North Korea into China. He wanted to use the bomb, but President Truman worried it would lead to world war three – Russia had tested an atom bomb in 1949, China had gone Communist – so in 1951 Truman sacked him.’

Sandra rummaged in her brain for something to say. Her father had painted a frightening picture of a remote war that had dragged people like William away, then sent him home, only to inexplicably vanish from Meredith’s life. She felt compelled to ask, ‘What happened after Macarthur got the sack?’

‘Fighting went to and fro till the armistice was signed in 1953, and Korea remained cut in half at the demilitarized zone. We lost over three hundred Australians, but thousands of Americans died – there’s still no final count, even today. As for the Chinese and Koreans, who knows . . . a million or more? And the poor civilians trying to escape the bombing and strafing, nowhere to go, everything destroyed.’

Her father’s story was getting worse and worse. Sandra wiggled her toes in the grass, finding comfort in the simple barefoot pleasure. ‘Can you tell me more about William?’

Don frowned into the bowl of his pipe. ‘He was pretty cut up. I don’t know how those blokes managed after the war – after any war. He told me that one day American planes accidently dropped napalm – that’s jellied petrol – on some Australian troops. He saw their terrible burns. Two men died that he knew of. A mistake, for god’s sake!’

Silence settled over the garden seat, Sandra’s head a muddle of ugly thoughts. ‘Auntie didn’t tell me anything horrible like that. All she said was William came home after the armistice. So how come we don’t see him, ever?’

After a long pause, Don said, ‘You asked me about the war . . . as for William, I think that should remain Meredith’s story. If she wants you to know, she’ll tell you.’

He puffed on his pipe and it gurgled unhappily. ‘The borders on either side of the two and a half mile-wide DMZ are probably the heaviest fortified borders in the world.’

Dissatisfied, Sandra continued picking at the paint bubble, turmoil in her mind. She heaved a breath, asked: ‘How do wars happen, Dad? How do people get like that?’

Don took her hand, held it loosely in the warm evening. ‘Power, greed . . . possession. Religious beliefs. Trade. Lots of theories, dear, lots of theories. And people become swept up in the conflicts and lose sight of themselves. Strange things happen – a couple of months ago, East Germany built a wall overnight, right around West Berlin – it’s hard to understand sometimes. So we’ve still got the Cold War but perhaps that’ll be a balance between the great powers, and perhaps this time, Neville Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” might last.’

Sandra could hardly see her father, close by in the fading light; the rare comfort of his hand holding hers. The Cold War didn’t mean anything to her right now, or Chamberlain, whoever he was. Not tonight. She tried to blot out the picture of men rushing at each other, filled with furious efforts to kill, terrified of dying. William among them . . . his face from the photograph.

Tomorrow was her music exam. Concentrate on that now.

I hope that helps answer your question?’ Don tapped his pipe on the garden seat. ‘We’d better go in before the mozzies find us, eh?’


Oh, the irony of Don’s recollection of ‘peace for our time’

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