Korean memories turn 60


Friday marked the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, a conflict South Africa participated in as one United Nations. Egged on by Soviet leader Stalin, North Korea invaded the south on June 25, 1950.

Brooks Spector writes in the Daily Maverick that

Stalin did so in part because American secretary of state Dean Acheson, describing the American defence perimeter in East Asia following the fall of Chaing Kai Shek’s Nationalist Chinese government, had inadvertently failed to include Korea in a speech. “In addition, it seems Stalin wanted to make a point to the west following the failure of the Berlin blockade [ a year before] as well as send a message to the independent-minded Yugoslav leadership under Josip Broz Tito. In addition, Stalin appears to have wanted to use the assertion of North Korean power to box in the new communist leaders in China as they strove to achieve influence in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.”

He notes that on Friday The New York Times reminded

its readers of the 60th anniversary of what has sometimes been called, except by the Koreans perhaps, “the forgotten war”. The Times’ article begins by explaining: “Sixty years ago today, units of the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel, invading South Korea and starting the Korean War — which grew into a cold war clash between the United States and China. Although more than two million soldiers and civilians died over the next three years, including more than 54,000 Americans, the war is now an overlooked part of United States history.” This is true also in South Africa.

SA’s shed its blood there too, 20 paying the ultimate price, 16 more surviving with wounds. SA’ contribution was modest, just one fighter unit, 2 Squadron, currently arming at Makhado with the Saab Gripen advanced light fighter. (The Korean memorial in Pretoria lists 28 names and eight as still missing in action.)

The SA Air Force history records the Union Government offered the services of the Squadron to the UN shortly after the invasion. “The offer was quickly accepted, and on September 26, 49 officers and 157 other ranks of 2Sqn, all volunteers, left for Johnson Base in Tokyo prior to their deployment in Korea. The first flight of four North American F-51D Mustangs departed for Korea on November 16 and the first operational sortie was flown three days later.

“The first operational sortie was flown at a stage when the United Nations forces were retreating in front of the advancing enemy. In freezing cold and poor weather, the aircraft had to continue operating and by maintained and armed in the open, moving from K-24 (P’yongyang East Air Field) to K-13 (Suwon Airbase), K-10 (Chinhae Airbase) and finally K-55 air base at Osan in January 1953, Here the squadron immediately started to convert to the North American F-86F Sabre jet fighter.
“During the Korean conflict the squadron flew a grand total of 12 067 sorties for a loss of 34 pilots and two other ranks. Aircraft losses amounted to 74 out of 97 Mustangs and four out of 22 Sabres. The South African squadron was awarded both US and Korean Presidential Unit Citations. Some of its members were also awarded both US and South African decorations for extreme bravery. The F-86F Sabres were the first supersonic aircraft used by the SAAF in operations and were well liked.” Their role was mainly flying ground attack and interdiction missions as one of the squadrons making up the USAF’s 18th Fighter Bomber Wing.

There is great irony in these men, all white, fighting for the freedom of an Asian people half a world from home as part of the UN, when the same National Party government that had sent them was stepping up racial and political repression at home; but it does not diminish their sacrifice. Let us remember them.