On this day in 1953, an armistice was signed to end the bloodshed of the Korean War. Three years of gruesome conflict, countless dead and incredibly arduous conditions would finally be consigned to the past. In memory of those who served, we reflect on Australia's involvement in this era-defining conflict.
If you turned on the wireless in June, 1950, you'd probably hear Donald Peers, Freddy Martin and Theresa Brewer's version of smash-hit "Music! Music! Music!". And if you went to the pictures, you might have queued to see Disney's Treasure Island – the studio's first live-action feature film.
World War Two had ended five years ago, and Australians were going about their daily lives. They were adapting to the economic upheaval, the loss of life, and the complex mix of emotions that peacetime brings.
But it was all to change.
On June 25th, 1950, war broke out again. This time, it was in Korea – a country many Australians had little knowledge of. Prime Minister Robert Menzies answered the call, and Australia was flung into conflict.
It all began at the end of WWII
At the end of the Second World War, Japan had been forced to relinquish control of Korea. The country had been split along the 38th Parallel, a circle of latitude in the Northern Hemisphere. The Soviet Union would take responsibility for the North, while the US would take the South.
Over the coming years, communism gathered momentum in the Soviet-held North, while the US supported the South's provisional government. Tensions between sides began to grow. At 4AM (KST) on the 25th of June, 1950, troops from the North marched past the 38th Parallel to invade the South. It was war.
The United Nations Responds
When the United Nations heard the news, it reacted immediately. It drafted the UN Security Council Resolution 82 – a ruling demanding North Korea to stop its invasion. With the Soviet Union abstaining from the vote, there was nobody in the UNSC to veto the Resolution, so it went forward. 21 participating nations sent personnel to South Korea, including Thailand, Luxembourg, Ethiopia and Greece.
Australia rushes to help
Following the United States – who would lead the UN Army – Australia was the second country to commit to the war. Prime Minister Robert Menzies offered 17,000 Australian troops. Some of these soldiers had fought in World War Two, but for others, this would be a completely new experience. Regardless of personal history, nobody could have known what to expect.
Hot, cold and arduous
The conditions in Korea were unrelenting. The summers were hot and humid. And the winters were bitterly cold, so cold that soldiers would have to sleep with their rifles on their chests to stop them from freezing. Much of the terrain was mountainous, which made progress exhausting. 340 Australian soldiers would lose their lives during the three years of conflict.
Australian troops of the 3rd Batallion, The Royal Australian Regiment train in Japan in preparation for deployment to Korea, September, 1950. Source: Australian War Memorial.
The UN Supreme Commander
US General Douglas MacArthur led the United Nations Command. Remembered as aloof yet charismatic, and decisive yet stubborn, General MacArthur hatched a daring amphibious attack on North Korea near Seoul in September, 1950. Despite being carried out against all recommendations, it was a resounding success.
However, US President Harry Truman was pushing for a diplomatic resolution, placing him increasingly at odds with MacArthur's tactical ambition. On 24th March, 1951, MacArthur authorised an advance on Chinese forces north of the 38th Parallel. This was the final straw for the President, who had been working towards a ceasefire. MacArthur was fired.
The US was discussing terms to end the war as early as December, 1950, but it was not a view shared by the leaders of North or South Korea. Each felt that the country should be unified as one under his command.
North Korea was particularly hesitant to discuss an armistice. It was partly due to pressure from its allies, China and the Soviet Union, that it eventually did so. In June, 1951, it began to change its mind.
Despite this, war continued for two more years. A stalemate was reached, with neither side able to progress, but both continuing to fight. War waged on while armistice talks continued.
One issue preventing an agreement from being reached was the issue of Prisoners of War. The conflict had created many POWs: 10,000 were held by North Korea, and 150,000 by the United Nations Command. The issue of repatriation was a point of contention, as many soldiers refused to settle in the North. This was, understandably, not a favourable outcome for North Korea. Eventually, an independent committee was brought in to oversee repatriation as its own separate issue.
Finally, on 27th July, 1953, an agreement was signed to enforce “a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea”. A Demilitarized Zone was set up as a buffer between the North and South. It was a military agreement, not a government one, and was not considered a peace treaty. But finally, the fighting was over.
It's hard to imagine what these soldiers must have experienced. Many hundreds of thousands of troops were killed, from many different countries. Tragically, the civilian cost was equally significant, with genocide conducted by both sides. While the armistice was a crucial milestone – and no doubt saved many more lives – the anniversary is also a sobering reminder of the cost of war.
Royal Australian Air Force personnel attend to children orphaned by the conflict, circa 1952. Source: Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria