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Korean veteran and former PoW Tom Clough recalls the Korean War

Date
6 November 2013 13:15

Tom said: "I joined the Army at 14, just at the end of World War II."

Blind Veterans UK member Tom Clough has over 1,000 reasons for us to remember Britain's forgotten war. Although he is almost too modest to suggest so himself, the memory of those 1,000 plus Britons who never came home is preserved in the vivid recollections of men like Tom. The memories he shares here are a poignant reminder of the need for experiences of Korea to be told and heard, for the genuine instances of bravery and humility that they reveal. Sitting in his home a few miles from the Imjin Barracks in Innsworth, Tom launches into an engaging account of his extraordinary time in the Royal Artillery, and his part in the battle from which the Barracks takes its name.

Tom said: "I joined the Army at 14, just at the end of World War II. In fact when I went to the Woolwich Royal Artillery Depot on VE Day; I think Hitler saw me coming! I had always wanted to join the Navy but only the Army were recruiting boy soldiers at the end of the Second World War, or so the Recruiting Sergeant told us!

"I did three and a half years in Woolwich where I was fully trained. Although I was only 14, it was a man's world so of course you smoked and drank with everyone else if you could afford it! I eventually went into man service in 1948 to a medium regiment, operating heavy guns. The pay also increased, which I greatly enjoyed. I got my first stripe soon after which was quite special as I was still very young, and I became a TARA (Technical Assistant Royal Artillery). Out of the blue, in mid 1950, I got an order informing me that I had a posting to Worcester as the OP (Observation Post) Officers Assistant.

"The Korean War began in June 1950, and as part of the Royal Artillery C Troop/170 Independent Mortar Battery attached to the Gloucestershire Regiment, I landed in Pusan on 19th November onboard the troopship The Empire Hallidale. Also onboard were the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers who were part of our Brigade. My father had offered to try and keep me on Service in the UK, but I wanted to go. For me, the prospect of the journey across was like a six-week cruise and General McArthur had promised that the war would be over by Christmas! And after all, this is why I joined the Army: it was a big adventure. As it happened, it turned out to be more of an adventure than I thought it would be.

"My father Served with the Royal Artillery during World War II when he was captured in Singapore by the Japanese and made a PoW. Like so many he had a really rough time in Changi Goal and when he was forced to work on the Burma to Thailand railway. He came home safely in 1945, although in very poor health.

"In typical fashion upon arrival in Pusan, our trucks were on the wrong ship so we were forced to travel North to Kaesong by 'passenger train' where we picked up our trucks and continued as a deployed troop of mortars. It was at that time we saw our first Korean refugees, old men, women and children fleeing the conflict. I remember one night we heard an explosion from a field in front of our positions and thought we were under attack, but it was refugees walking onto mines. The Glosters did their best to bring the refugees out of the field and to safety. We gradually advanced 50 miles north of Pyongyang and it was then that the Chinese came into the war over the Yalu River. There were nine Chinese armies, totalling over 300,000 men. We gradually withdrew until we were south of the 38th Parallel. We were sitting in reserve above Seoul in the winter of 1950/51, which was bitterly cold. At that time the Royal Ulster Rifles were involved heavily with the enemy in Happy Valley and suffered many casualties. In February 1951 we took Hill 327, north of Seoul, which was quite an experience for me, especially as I was carrying the batteries for the radio. When we heard incoming fire I couldn't throw myself on the ground like everyone else as the weight of the batteries would have broken my back. I still recall seeing men blown up and to me it looked as though it was in slow motion. It's something I'll never forget.

"After that we went to the Imjin. The weather was reminiscent of an English spring and south of the Imjin river, the enemy was nowhere in sight. We even ventured several miles into enemy territory at one point and were greeted by only a few farmers. However, on the 22nd of April, Chinese forces began to advance across the Korean peninsula in the Chinese Spring Offensive, which was against our Brigade the Glosters, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and a Belgian Battalion. I hadn't thought there were that many Chinese soldiers in the entire country! We were forced to cover a divisional front, which was far too big for the number of men that we had. I realised then that we were in trouble."

'Trouble' seems like an understatement, for Tom and the other men were outnumbered 100 to 1 (or so it seemed) by swathes of Chinese troops in a valiant last stand, facing an uncertain outlook.

"We fought for three days alongside the Glosters on what is now known as 'Gloster Hill'. I have no idea how we managed to get up there with all of our equipment, fear probably! Yet strange as it sounds, once we were up the hill I didn't feel scared. Although there were of course moments of terror. The Chinese were either very brave or were very frightened and were being forced to attack by people behind them. I still felt hopeful as we had a bit of ammunition, and I thought the Americans would get us out. How little I knew!

"We used to say that the British Army never made a retreat; only a tactical withdrawal(!). After three days of fighting, things were getting pretty desperate. I turned to my comrade in our slip trench and said to him: 'This will give us something to talk about down the pub when we get back!'. We had very little water and food and we also had our wounded. When we got the order on the third day to withdraw we had to leave our dead and wounded behind with a Padre, the Medical Officer and medics who gave themselves up to the Chinese to try to save the lives of the wounded. I only had five rounds left in my rifle. I was a 20 year old soldier and I naively thought we would fight our way out. That's why as we got off the hill and into a valley I used one round to shoot a Chinese soldier before he shot me. It was then I heard the shout 'Don't shoot!' and realised we weren't fighting our way out. Further along the valley on our descent, Chinese troops came towards us from both sides and I heard someone say 'Alright lads, it's no good. They've got us'. And that was the start of two and half years in captivity.

"A group of us were sat in a muddy farmyard - bedraggled and bloodied from three days of battle - and a Chinese officer came to tell us 'For you, the war is over'. Having heard this line many times in war films, we all doubled up laughing. He walked away shaking his head, probably wondering why we were laughing so much at what he thought was a quite reasonable statement!

"It took us six weeks to walk the 600 miles to the prison camp and our training running up the hills in Korea stood us in very good stead for that. We all had dysentery and of course some of the men were the walking wounded who had been injured in the battle. The Chinese removed the more seriously wounded and left the walking wounded with us. As we walked we heard the battles behind us and we saw Chinese troops heading south. Medical treatment at the time was wholly inadequate as we were without any medical supplies. One man, a Bren Gunner, had splinters from the magazine, which had been hit, in his head and they had to be removed. He was numb and didn't really feel the pain as a few of the men worked together to remove the splinters from his head. He didn't receive any further treatment, but I'm pleased to say he survived.

"Eventually we got to the prison camp, although it wasn't like the camps in Germany or Poland. It wasn't ringed with barbed wire, but with Chinese guards; it was part of a village that had been taken over by the Chinese forces. When we arrived, the morale of the American prisoners was low and I think our presence gave them a bit of a lift. We did all kinds of things, like pretending to walk an invisible dog around the camp. The Chinese must have thought we were crackers, but I think it was just the good old British sense of humour. We weren't allowed to send letters home; we could only send cards that declared that we were well and that we were being fed. We didn't hear about the death of King George or the Queen's Coronation for months after it had happened. Neither did we receive Red Cross parcels, which would have helped us greatly.

"Our health in the camp wasn't great as our diet was inadequate and there was a lot of sickness, including dysentery, cholera, yellow fever and many men died, especially among the Americans. I had yellow jaundice and other sicknesses, but recovered as most of us did. One of the first among us to die was our Troop cook 'Taffy' Moseley and in one day I saw 15 Americans go up Boot Hill. As we got used to the conditions in typical British fashion we adapted. We were louse ridden but when Lofty Simms somehow got hold of a pair of hair clippers and gave us haircuts that was a blessing. We had Mohicans before they were fashionable and had tonsures just like monks, or we just shaved all our hair off. I even had a shave with a 6" nail that Lofty had fashioned into a razor. That made it more tolerable as far as hygiene was concerned. It was the British sense of humour coming out again.

"I passed my 21st birthday in the camp in the February of 1952. After 18 months in captivity two of us tried to make a break for freedom in the August of 1952. Since it was impossible to blend in with the population the way you could have done in Europe, the only option was to make for the coast as quickly as possible. The escape "committee", which consisted of about half a dozen men, gave me a new watch (which was worse than the one I had reluctantly parted with to help another man escape previously!). I never met the escape committee as they were a covert group and we dealt only with an intermediary. The committee also gave us a route to follow, and one August night we got our stuff together to leave. But just as we had crossed the river, I heard the click of a rifle and knew that we'd had it.

"By trying to escape, I think we had offended them. [It was as if they asked] 'You don't like our hospitality?' The consequences of our escape attempt were severe. I was placed in a cramped disused toilet and was forced to wear handcuffs that bit into my wrists. The only light into the room was from a beam through a crack in the door where I watched a small spider as it lay in wait for any insect that settled into the beam of light. I watched that spider for many hours, which really took my mind off things. Since then I have been unable to harm a spider.

"The Chinese kept dragging me out in the middle of the night for interrogation, but since I wasn't telling them anything, they began threatening to deport me to Manchuria. The idea of capturing us in such large numbers was that they'd be able to brainwash us and convert us to Communism, which we would continue to champion when the war was over. I was worried about being deported and gave them fictitious names such as Tom Mick and John Wayne etc. When they didn't give up and the threat of deportation became very real and after a lot of interrogation from the Chinese and much deliberation on my part, I finally gave them the names of several "progressives" - PoWs who had begun to sympathise with communism - knowing that they wouldn't be reprimanded too harshly. Shortly afterwards, I was moved into an open barn space and into a small cage resembling a dog kennel: we used to call it the Kennel Club. I could only just manage to sit up in the cage. A party of Americans once passed by us and I saw the jaw of one literally drop open. He must have been horrified at the sight of us. We must have looked like The Dog's Trust - 'come and adopt a PoW!'

"I was eventually taken out and told that I'd been given six weeks in a labour camp a few miles from the main camp. There were less than 20 of us in there: all bad boys obviously. Although the work was hard as we gathered wood for the winter, broke it into logs and stockpiled it, we got to eat the same meals as the guards, which was a huge improvement on the old food. After my time of hard labour I resumed normal camp life. As I walked back into the camp with a Chinese guard we mistakenly went into the American compound as he didn't know where he was going. He left me alone for a few minutes while he got directions to the British compound. While I waited I had a whispered conversation with some Americans and told them that I was British and that I'd come from a labour camp. As we walked past them and back to our compound the Americans lined up and applauded and that cheered me up no end.

"We were eventually told by the Chinese commandant that the war was over, but I think we only half believed it: we had been hearing accounts of drawn out peace talks for several years by that point. When we realised we were being released and as we marched out of the camp I'll never forget that we started to sing 'It's a long way to Tipperary'. At that time we wouldn't have minded where we went, as long as it was out of Korea! We got on a cattle train and travelled back to Panmunjon, where we were handed over to the Americans, and it was quite surreal. We were released in September 1953 and after almost three years in captivity, we were being treated like VIPs - showers, hot food and crisp new uniforms. Eventually we were put on the ship home from Singapore to Southampton."

A "glutton for punishment", Tom said that he couldn't imagine life outside of the Army. He went on to Serve for 32 years, taking postings in Germany and eventually Gloucester, where he now resides close to his three daughters Susan, Yvonne and Melanie. It was his return to Korea in 2011 on the 60th Anniversary of the Battle at Imjin which illustrates how important it is this year, on the 60th Anniversary of the Armistice, to remember the sacrifice made by more than 1,000 British soldiers and of course all the Forces fighting under the UN banner, which included the Commonwealth troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India etc. Tom also believes it is important to remember the many Koreans who lost their lives. In all wars civilians suffer greatly and Korea was no exception and they should not be forgotten.

Tom concluded: "On my return to England I didn't speak with my father about my time as a PoW as we both understood one another. We knew what we'd been through and that was enough, although I tried to reassure him that it hadn't been as bad for us in Korea. I do speak with my fellow PoWs at the British Korean Veterans Association when we meet once a month. I really benefit from the annual Blind Veterans UK Ex-PoW Reunion at the Brighton centre, especially speaking with Billy Orr who is also a former Korean PoW. I greatly value being a member of both distinguished organisations and I thank Blind Veterans UK for all the training they have given me.

"After I had returned from the visit to Korea in 2011, my eldest daughter told me that she had learned more about my time in Korea from me talking to the press than she had learnt from me personally in all the years. Up until the BBC began asking me questions, I hadn't really talked about it. It's often called the Forgotten War, and it largely is forgotten. It might sound a cliché to say, but I think you have to talk about it on behalf of the blokes who didn't come home."