Chapter 2 - Australia's involvement in Korea

2.1 Korean Geography and Climate
2.1.1 Geography and Geology
2.1.2 Overview by Region
2.1.3 Climate
2.2 Korean War
2.2.1 Overview
2.2.2 Chronology of Events
2.2.3 Forces involved in the Korea War
2.3 Australian Involvement
2.3.1 General Issues
2.3.2 The Royal Australian Navy
2.3.3 The Australian Army
2.3.4 The Royal Australian Air Force
2.3.5 Civilian groups
2.4 Definitions: 'Allotted for Duty' and 'Operational Service'
2.5 Operational Area
2.6 Health and Environmental Threats
2.6.1 Environmental Risks
2.6.2 Infectious Disease Risks

2.1 Korean Geography and Climate

2.1.1 Geography and Geology

The Korean Peninsula is roughly 300 kilometers wide and extends about 1,000 kilometers southward from the north-east Asian continental landmass. Its northern borders are formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which separate it from Manchuria. The west coast is bordered by the Korea Bay in the north and the Yellow Sea to the south, while the east coast is bordered by the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

Physiographically, the Korean Peninsula is mountainous, extending south-southeast from the north-eastern part of China. The north-northwest, south-southeast trend forms the T'aebaeksan range, which is close to the east coast. The east coast is of an uplifted topography, showing a relatively straight shoreline, while the west coast shows the features of a submerging shoreline. The mountains are not high, rarely exceeding 1,200 meters, but they are found almost everywhere. As a consequence, the terrain is rugged and steep. Only near the west and southwest coasts are there extensive flat alluvial or diluvial plains and more subdued rolling hilly lands (The Korean Overseas Culture and Information Service 1, page 29).

Most of the country's major rivers drain the western and southern slopes of the peninsula and flow into the Yellow Sea. A few flow into the South Sea. For its size, Korea has a relatively high number of large-sized rivers, with six exceeding 400 kilometers in length. Because much of the rainfall is received during the summer monsoon, the discharge of rivers varies significantly. During the summer, rivers swell, often flooding the valley plains. The other seasons are relatively dry and lead to very low water levels, often leaving much of the river beds exposed.

Korea's geological make-up is diverse. It is composed largely of Precambrian rocks, such as granite gneisses and other metamorphic rocks, while separate blocks of Paleozoic Strata are located in North and South Korea. The first block is located near P'yongyang in the north, while the second covers the T'aebaeksan range in the south. The south-eastern section of the peninsula contains Mesozoic Strata and Cenozoic Strata are limited to small areas scattered around the peninsula. Jurassic and Cretaceous granites intrude through the older rocks in a north-east/south-west direction in some areas, but show no specific trend in others.

Mountain ranges have traditionally served as natural boundaries between regions. Because these natural boundaries inhibited frequent interactions between peoples living on either side of the range, subtle, and sometimes substantial, regional differences developed in both the spoken language and customs of the people (The Korean Overseas Culture and Information Service 1, pp 11-12). These regional differences also correspond to traditional administrative units.

At the end of World War II, the peninsula was divided into a northern zone occupied by Soviet Union forces and a southern zone occupied by United States forces, with the boundary set along the 38 th parallel. By the end of the Korean War in 1953, a semi-permanent boundary was fixed at the De-militarized Zone (DMZ), a four kilometre wide strip of land that runs along the cease-fire lines for 241 kilometers from the east coast to the west coast. This division left North Korea with a land area of 120,540 square kilometers and South Korea with 98,480 square kilometers.

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2.1.2 Overview by Region

In this section, modern spelling conventions are used for place names, based on those quoted in 'A Handbook of Korea', published by The Korean Overseas Culture and Information Service i, except when referring to locations of significance during the Korean War. In these instances, the earlier spelling has been retained in the interests of clarity to Korean War veterans. There may also be variations in spelling between this section of the Chapter and later sections that have been drawn from sources using different nomenclature systems.

Broadly, the Korean Peninsula is divided into three distinct regions: North, Central and South. These regions, in turn, are further divided into three separate geographical areas. Each area retains its own individual economic, cultural and physical identity, which is briefly described below.

Northern Area

The northern area is primarily divided into two regions: the P'yong-an province in the northwest and the Hamgyong province in the northeast. The third region, the Hwanghae province, lies to the south of P'yong-an province. It was a part of the Central region prior to the division of the peninsula and shares many cultural similarities with other west-central regions of the peninsula.

Hamgyong province is characterised by mountainous topography and has mining and forestry as its major economic activities. Most of the mountains are forested and hills are separated by deep, narrow valleys and small-cultivated plains. The most rugged areas are the north and east coasts.

P'yong-an province, by contrast, contains more flatlands and serves as the major agricultural area of North Korea. The North Korean capital, P'yongyang is located in this province as are also Sariwon, Yongju, Chongju and Pakchon, the sites of significant actions fought by 3RAR on its advance towards the Chinese border.

Central Area

This region consists of the Capital region, Ch'ungch'ong province to the south of the Capital region and Kangwon province to the east. The Capital region includes the Seoul metropolitan area, Inch'on and Kyonggi province. It also includes the lower reaches of the Han River, in the estuary of which the frigate HMAS Murchison distinguished herself. The region includes a number of smaller cities clustered around Seoul, forming a continuous and sprawling urban area. It is the transport hub for South Korea as well as its political, economic and cultural centre of activity.

Kwangwon province lies to the east of the Capital region. The T'aebaeksan range, which runs north-south through its middle, divides it into eastern coastal and western inland areas. The terrain is rugged and Kapyong, scene of the major 3RAR defensive action against Chinese forces, lies in the border region between this province and the Capital region.

Ch'ungch'ong province lies just below the Capital region and in recent times has been characterised as a southern extension of Seoul and new industries have recently mushroomed along the Asanman bay on the Yellow Sea coast. The leading urban centres in the province are Ch'ongju and Taejon. The province, together with Kyonggi province in the Capital region, specialises in horticultural and dairy farming to meet the huge demands of the nearby urban centres of the Capital region.

Southern Area

The South region includes the Kyongsang province located in the south-east, Cholla province, located to the south-west and Cheju Island, located about 140 kilometers south of Mokp'o, in the South Sea.

Kyongsang province contains both Pusan and Taegu, respectively the second and third largest metropolitan cities in South Korea. It also encompasses the area of the Pusan Perimeter, within which the allied forces were confined following the retreat from Seoul in the early months of the Korean War. The province currently contains one of the largest industrial agglomerations in the country, second only to the Capital region.

Geographically, the province is characterised by a vast basin of the Naktong River and is surrounded by the Sobaeksan mountains. Due to the rugged topography of the surrounding mountains, sub-areas within the region share common cultural traits such as dialect and custom which are quite distinct from other peoples of outlying regions (The Korean Overseas Culture and Information Service 1, page 13).

Cholla province, also known as Honam, is located on the south-west of the peninsula and contains the fertile lands of the Kumgang and Yongsan-gang river basins. These, together with the coastal lowlands, have made the region the major granary of the nation. The region is also endowed with vast tidal flats, a very irregular coastline and countless large and small islands.

Located south of the peninsula, Cheju Island is the largest in Korea and its isolation from the mainland has contributed to its people's distinct dialect and lifestyle. The island is of volcanic origin with rugged topography and enjoys a subtropical climate.

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2.1.3 Climate

The climate on the Korean peninsula is characterised by four distinct seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter, with a striking contrast in temperature between winter and summer. Winter is bitterly cold due to the influence of the Siberian air mass. Summer, by contrast, is influenced by the maritime pacific high, resulting in hot and humid weather. The transitional seasons of spring and autumn are sunny and generally dry.

Climate variations in the peninsula are more pronounced along the north-south axis and due to these variations, marked differences in vegetation can be seen along this axis. Generally speaking, the southern half of the Peninsula is warmer than the northern half.


Spring begins during the middle of April in the central part of the country and towards the end of April in the northern region, where the season is short. As the Siberian high pressure weakens, temperatures gradually rise. Yellow sand dust originating from the Mongolian desert occasionally invades Korea during the early spring causing low visibility and eye irritation.


Summer can be divided into two distinct periods: a rainy period during the early summer months and a hot and humid period during late summer. The weather during the early period is characterised by heavy rainfalls, with more than 60% of the country's annual rainfall concentrated between June and July in South Korea and a month later in the North. Much of this rainfall is the result of summer monsoons originating in the Pacific Ocean and daily precipitation often exceeds 200mm. Occasional torrential storms are experienced as typhoons pass through the peninsula.

During the second period, the temperature rises abruptly and the weather becomes extremely hot and humid, particularly in the western plains and the Naktong river basin. The daily high temperature can often rise to over 38° during this period and nights remain hot and humid.


Autumn is crisp and sunny, beginning in October when the continental air mass brings dry, clear weather. It is a transitional season between the hot, humid summer and the cold, dry winter.


Winter is characterised by bitter cold and dry weather, with occasional snow falls bringing (relative) warmth when they occur. The predominant influence is monsoonal arctic air from the interior of the Asian continent.

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2.2 Korean War

2.2.1 Overview

The Korean War was the first occasion where members of the United Nations (UN) acted collectively to repel aggression. Australian Defence Force (ADF) units served in combat from 1950 to 1953 and continued in Korea from the armistice to 1956 as part of the United Nations Command to preserve the independence of the Republic of Korea 2.

The initial North Korean surprise assault on 25 June 1950 was completely successful and quickly led to the retreat of South Korean troops and the loss of the South Korean capital, Seoul. Despite attempts to block the North Korean army at several positions further south, its advance was not halted until the establishment of the Pusan Perimeter on the south-eastern corner of the Korean peninsula in the last week of July.

From September 1950, following the amphibious landing at Inchon and the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, the multinational force cleared South Korea and advanced into North Korea towards the border with China. In November 1950 after the Chinese entry to the war, the UN ground forces faced Chinese offensives which forced them to retreat in appalling winter conditions to positions south of the 38 th parallel.

The dramatic advances and withdrawals of the first six months came to an end after the early 1951 offensives and counter-offensives ground to a halt. Following this, the war entered a phase of contesting heavily defended emplacements along a front which stretched from coast to coast. This front eventually became the cease-fire line.

The first initiatives to end the war commenced in 1951. Despite this, it dragged on until 27 July 1953 when an armistice was signed. Offensives during this 'stalemate' period were launched to gain local tactical advantage or for political reasons during the negotiations.

From 27 June 1950 to 19 April 1956, nearly 18,000 Australian sailors, soldiers and airmen served in Korea. Australian casualties during the period of the war up to the armistice were 339 killed, 1,216 wounded and 29 taken prisoners of war. Twenty other countries contributed combat and medical units to the United Nations Command in Korea.

Australian sailors, soldiers and airmen won world respect for their courage, endurance and combat skills. The service of a small group of Australians in the years 1950-1953 and the sacrifice of those who did not return are not forgotten.

2.2.2 Chronology of Events 2

On 25 June 1950, the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) crossed the 38 th parallel to launch an all-out offensive on the Republic of Korea (ROK). The UN Security Council resolved that the attack by North Korean forces constituted a breach of peace and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of North Korean forces to the 38 th parallel.

The Security Council passed a further resolution requesting members of the UN to furnish such assistance to the ROK as may be necessary to repel the attack and restore peace and security to the area. The US Representative, Warren Austin, informed the Council that his Government had decided, in accordance with the resolution of 26 June, to order air and sea forces to provide cover and support to the South Korean Government troops.

On 28 June 1950, the NKPA captured Seoul. The British Government placed the ships of the Royal Navy, then in Japanese waters, at the disposal of the US authorities for use in support of the ROK. The Australian Government placed naval vessels then present in Far Eastern waters, namely HMA Ships Shoalhaven and Bataan, at the disposal of the Security Council in support of the ROK.

On 30 June 1950, the Australian Government informed Lieutenant General Robertson, Commander-in-Chief, British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) that No 77 Squadron, RAAF, was to be committed to combat duties in Korea. President Truman authorised General MacArthur to use the four infantry divisions of the US Eighth Army, based in Japan, for action in Korea and on 7 July 1950, General MacArthur was appointed Commander-in-Chief, UN Command.

On 1 July 1950, HMAS Shoalhaven commenced two months of convoy escort duties and west coast blockade patrols and on 2 July 1950, No 77 Squadron, RAAF, flew its first combat mission over Korea. On 5 July 1950, Task Force Smith, the first American ground combat unit to arrive in Korea, encountered North Korean troops at Osan. On 26 July 1950, the Acting Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Sir Arthur Fadden, announced the commitment of Australian ground forces for service in Korea and advised that only volunteers would be sent to Korea. A recruiting campaign was accelerated.

On 20 July 1950, Taejon was abandoned by UN Command forces. By 4 August 1950, the Naktong River perimeter (Pusan Perimeter) had been established. The Prime Minister, the Rt Hon RG Menzies, visited Japan from 14 to 18 August 1950 and inspected Australian forces preparing for Korea.

The British 27 th Brigade was transported by sea to Pusan, arriving on 28 August 1950. Escort vessels included HMA Ships Warramunga and Bataan. The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter reached its climax from 31 August to 6 September 1950. The US I and IX Corps became operational in Korea on 12 September 1950. On 15 September 1950, in a daring and dramatic move, the US X Corps made an amphibious landing at Inchon, outflanking the North Korean forces. HMA Ships Warramunga and Bataan were part of the cover force.

The Australian Army advance party arrived in Korea on 17 September 1950. Kimpo airfield, near Seoul, was captured by UN Command forces on the next day. Prime Minister Menzies commenced a series of broadcasts called 'Defence Call to the Nation' over the following week.

The US Joint Chiefs of Staff authorised General MacArthur to conduct operations north of the 38 th parallel on 27 September 1950. On 28 September 1950, the UN Command forces recaptured Seoul. On the same day, the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), brought to full strength by special enlistments from Australia, arrived at Pusan and joined the 27 th Brigade.

Despite Chinese threats to enter the war if Americans crossed the 38 th parallel, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolved on 7 October to authorise the UN Command forces to pursue the North Koreans across the 38 th parallel. It also resolved to establish the United Nations Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea (UNCURK). American forward patrols crossed the 38 th parallel on the same day. A week later, the main advance began, with the Eighth Army driving northwards through Kaesong towards Sariwon and Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. On 19 October 1950, Pyongyang was taken by the Eighth Army.

The Australian battalion reached Chongju, the most northerly point of its advance, on 29 October 1950. Just prior to this, on 27-31 October 1950, nine Chinese armies, totalling over 300,000 men, had crossed the Yalu River and launched their first phase offensive. Strong Chinese attacks on the Eighth Army at Unsan from 31 October to 2 November 1950 forced its withdrawal south of the Chongchon River. On 5 November 1950, General MacArthur ordered a heavy air offensive over North Korea, including the Yalu River bridges at Sinuiju.

On 24 November 1950, the Eighth Army launched its planned drive to the Yalu River. There was little opposition on the first day. However, on 25-26 November 1950, the Chinese launched their second phase offensive. The ROK II Corps was smashed in the central sector near Tokchon on 25 November, while on 26 November, over 200,000 Chinese attacked the Eighth Army north of the Chongchon River, inflicting heavy casualties. On 27 November 1950, the US 2 nd, 24 th and 25 th Divisions withdrew south of the Chongchon River. By 5 December 1950, Pyongyang had been abandoned by the Eighth Army.

On 7 December 1950, UNCURK reported that between 231,000 and 400,000 Chinese troops were engaged against UN Command forces. The US 1 st Marine Division and 7 th Division withdrew into a defensive perimeter at Hungnam on 11 December 1950. On 15 December 1950, The UN Command forces withdrew south of the 38 th parallel.

On 12 December 1950, thirteen Arab and Asian nations submitted a draft resolution proposing that a committee should investigate the basis for a cease-fire in Korea. On 18 December 1950, the US requested Australia to support a UN resolution condemning China as an aggressor. On 24 December 1950, the US X Corps completed its evacuation of the Hungnam beachhead and North Korea returned to Communist control. The Chinese third phase offensive was launched between 31 December 1950 and 5 January 1951, leading to the evacuation of Seoul and Inchon. UN Command forces withdrew to the general line Pyongtaek-Wonju-Samchok to regroup.

On 13 January 1951, the UNGA First Committee approved the Cease-fire Group's proposed five principles for an armistice in Korea. The Chinese Government rejected the Cease-fire Group's proposals on 17 January 1951 and called for a seven-nation conference on Far Eastern problems.

On 25 January 1951, General Ridgway launched Operation Thunderbolt, a counter-offensive by the US I and IX Corps northwards to the Han River. Operation Round-up, an advance by the US X Corps, followed on 5 February 1951. The Chinese fourth phase offensive was launched between 11-17 February 1951.

On 21 February 1951, Operation Killer, a general advance by the IX and the X Corps, began and by 28 February 1951 the last Communist resistance south of the Han River collapsed. On 2 March 1951, Prime Minister Menzies announced a Three Year Defence Program by which Australia was to prepare for world war by the end of 1953.

On 7 March 1951, Operation Ripper began in the central and eastern sectors with an advance across the Han River by the IX and the X Corps. By 14-15 March 1951, the Eighth Army had retaken Seoul.

On 19 February 1951, President Truman asked Australia to provide reinforcements to Korea. This was followed on 16 March 1951 by renewed pressure from the US State Department for increased Australian force commitments to Korea. On 14 May 1951, Prime Minister Menzies informed President Truman of Australia's limited defence resources and inability to provide more forces for Korea.

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Operation Rugged, a general advance to the Kansas Line north of the 38 th parallel, began on 5 April 1951. On 11 April 1951, President Truman relieved General MacArthur of his command and appointed General Ridgway in his place. By 14 April 1951, UN Command forces had reached the Kansas Line. By 19 April 1951, the I and the IX Corps reached the Utah Line, south of the 'Iron Triangle'.

The first stage of the Chinese fifth phase offensive was launched during 22-28 April 1951. During this offensive, on 23-24 April 1951, 3RAR won a US Presidential Citation for its performance at the Battle of Kapyong, where it delayed the advance of far greater numbers of Chinese. After withdrawing to a new defence line, by 30 April 1951 the UN Command forces halted the Chinese offensive north of Seoul and the Han River.

On 16 May 1951, the second stage of the Chinese fifth phase offensive was launched. This was halted by a counter-offensive on 19 May, which led to UN Command forces resuming their advance. The Eighth Army regained the Kansas Line on 30 May 1951, when Operation Piledriver began. By 15 June 1951, elements of the I and IX Corps reached the Wyoming Line, some 30 kilometers north.

General Ridgway proposed negotiations to Communist commanders on 30 June 1951 and negotiations between UN Command and Communists began at Kaesong on 10 July 1951. On 3 July 1951, the US Delegation introduced a resolution into the Security Council denying North Korean allegations of germ warfare by the UN Command.

On 25 July 1951, HMAS Murchison commenced the first of her many patrols within the Han River estuary engaging enemy targets. On 28 July 1951, the 1st Commonwealth Division was formed.

On 17 August 1951, a demand by the Communists for an apology for alleged violation of the neutral zone at Kaesong was refused and on 23 August 1951, the Communists suspended armistice negotiations. The US 1st Marine Division opened an assault in the Punchbowl area of the eastern sector on 31 August 1951 and the 2 nd Division opened its attack against Heartbreak and Bloody Ridges on 2 September 1951. By 18 September 1951, the Marines had advanced to Soyang River, north of Punchbowl.

On 5 October 1951, Lieutenant General W Bridgeford replaced Lieutenant General Sir Horace Robertson as Commander-in-Chief, BCOF, Japan. On the same day, the Australian Government announced the commitment of a second battalion to Korea.

During 2-8 October 1951, the 1st Commonwealth Division commenced Operation Commando. As part of this action, 3RAR took Hills 355 and 317 and destroyed at least two Chinese battalions during the battle of Maryang San. On 12 October, the US I Corps advanced to the Jamestown Line, north of the Imjin River. On 25 October 1951, following two weeks of discussion between liaison officers, truce talks resumed at a new site, Panmunjom.

On 12 November 1951, General Ridgway ordered the Eighth Army to cease offensive operations and begin active defence in Operation Ratkiller. On 18 December 1951, prisoner-of-war lists were exchanged by UN Command and Communist representatives at Panmunjom.

On 1 January 1952, a one-month artillery and air bombardment of Communist positions began. On 8 January 1952, the Communists rejected a UN Command proposal for non-forcible repatriation for prisoners of war. Between January and April 1952, there were riots in UN Command prison camps on Koje Island as screening of prisoners began.

On 3 April 1952, a second Australian battalion, 1RAR, arrived in Korea. On 28 April 1952, following extensive diplomatic negotiations, the BCOF became the British Commonwealth Forces, Korea (BCFK). The Japanese Peace Treaty became effective on the same day, while the ANZUS Treaty came into effect on 29 April.

In May 1952, negotiations at Panmunjom became deadlocked over the prisoner repatriation issue. Prisoners at Koje Island camp held Brigadier General Dodd hostage until 11 May 1952. General Ridgway, who departed to succeed General Eisenhower in Europe, was replaced by General Clark. On 22 May 1952, General Clark requested Lieutenant General Bridgeford to provide Commonwealth troops for prison camp duties on Koje Island. This task lasted until 14 July 1952.

From 23 to 27 June 1952, the UN Command bombed major hydro-electric plants at Suiho, Fusen, Chosin and Kyosen. On 29 August 1952, the UN Command bombed Pyongyang. On 6 October 1952, the Communists launched a ten-day heavy offensive which included a heavy Chinese bombardment of the Eighth Army on 7 October 1952. Armistice negotiations were suspended on 8 October 1952.

On 20 October 1952, the Rt Hon RG Casey addressed the UNGA and used evidence provided by Sir Macfarlane Burnet to refute Polish and Soviet germ warfare allegations.

On 3 December 1952, the UNGA adopted the Menon proposals for release and repatriation of prisoners of war in Korea.

Between January and February 1953, there was a winter lull in fighting in Korea. During this period, on 20 January 1953, General of the Army DD Eisenhower was inaugurated as President of the United States. On 2 February 1953, he announced that the US Seventh Fleet would no longer prevent Chiang Kai-shek's forces from attacking the Chinese mainland.

On 22 February 1953, the UN Command proposed the exchange of sick and wounded prisoners of war, as a preliminary to full exchange of prisoners. The Communists announced acceptance of the proposals on 28 March 1953 and such prisoners were exchanged during Operation Little Switch, at Panmunjom, from 20 April until 3 May 1953.

Armistice negotiations resumed at Panmunjom on 26 April 1953. On 7 May 1953, Communist negotiators presented an eight-point proposal regarding repatriation of prisoners of war, including establishment of a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission. On 4 June 1953, the Communists accepted most of the UN Command's final armistice proposal.

From 10 to 16 June 1953, the Chinese launched an offensive against the ROK II Corps near Kumsong. On 18 June 1953, the President of the ROK, Syngman Rhee, released 25,000 anti-Communist Korean prisoners of war. On 13 July 1953, the final Communist offensive commenced, followed by a UN Command counter-offensive on 16 July. On 19 July 1953, final agreement was reached on all aspects of an armistice, which was signed and came into effect on 27 July 1953.

Prisoners of war were exchanged between 5 August and 6 September 1953. On 23 September 1953, the UN Command transferred control of more than 22,000 prisoners refusing repatriation to the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission and the Indian Custodian Force in the demilitarised zone.

On 28 August 1953, the UNGA resolved that all belligerent powers should participate in the peace conference. On 13 September 1953, the Chinese replied to the UNGA resolution and suggested important amendments, including the addition of five neutral nations to the peace conference participants. On 16 September 1953, sixteen nations contributing forces to UN Command met to concert strategy for the peace conference. During this same period, a Mutual Defence Treaty between the US and the ROK was initialled in Seoul on 8 August 1953 and signed in Washington on 1 October 1953.

On 3 November 1953, the UNGA recommended impartial investigation of germ warfare charges against UN Command forces and condemned atrocities committed by North Koreans and Chinese against UN Command prisoners of war in their charge. By January 1954, the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission's authority to hold prisoners refusing repatriation expired and remaining prisoners were released by the UN Command.

Between 25 January and 18 February 1954, the Foreign Ministers of Britain, France, the USSR and the US met in Berlin. On 18 February 1954, they agreed that a peace conference would be held at Geneva commencing on 26 April 1954, to settle the Korean and Indo-China conflicts. However, on 15 June 1954, the allies announced the failure of the Geneva conference to settle the Korean issue.

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2.2.3 Forces involved in the Korea War

A list of Australian units allotted for duty in Korea is detailed at Appendix C. This appendix also lists Commonwealth and allied countries and their military commitment to the UN Command 3. Those allied countries that committed medical units to the UN Command are listed at the end of Appendix C.

2.3 Australian Involvement

2.3.1 General Issues

All of the individuals who served in the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army or the Royal Australian Air Force in Korea were volunteers. Although conscription operated in Australia from 1951 to 1959, no Australian personnel served in Korea during their conscript service. Conscripts during this period received full-time basic training in one of the three Services, followed by part-time service in the reserves. A number of individual conscripts, however, enlisted as regular members of the ADF and went on to serve in Korea.

Also of note is that not all those who served in the ADF were Australian citizens. At that time, the concept of Australian citizenship was still evolving within the traditional idea of being British subjects. Indeed, Australian passports of the period specified 'Australian Citizen by birth and British subject'. However, enlistment in the ADF simply required the individual to be a British subject. Thus, any British citizen, regardless of country of birth, presenting at a recruitment office would have been considered along with all other applicants. Consequently, a number of veterans who served in Korea with Australian units would today be considered citizens of New Zealand or the UK. Indeed, the Australian government had a recruitment office in London to facilitate recruitment directly from the UK population.

The level of recruitment from the UK and other Commonwealth countries varied between the three Services. The RAAF, for instance, did not seek overseas recruits other than to meet needs in specialist areas, for example medical staff. When faced with a shortage of trained fighter pilots for service in Korea, its solution was to seek the assistance of the Royal Air Force (RAF). The outcome was the secondment of RAF fighter pilots to the RAAF for duty in Korea. These pilots remained members of the RAF and returned to the UK at the end of their operational tour of duty.

In the case of the RAN, its close relationship with the Royal Navy (RN) meant that officers from both navies were posted to ships of either navy to gain experience as part of their development program. Apart from such exchange service, it appears to have been relatively easy for former RN personnel to seek enlistment in the RAN, particularly where shortages existed in specific Branches or trades. Short-term engagements were made available on occasion to assist such direct recruitment. Moreover, during the period of the Korean War, the newly formed RAN Fleet Air Arm included many who had transferred or were on loan from the RN.

Alone among the three Services, the Army actively recruited 'off the street' in the UK. Such recruits would have included individuals with prior service during World War II and others with no previous military experience.

At the conclusion of their period of enlistment, personnel recruited from the UK could elect to be discharged in Australia, or returned to the UK. The exact number of these people is not known. In some instances, where an individual had elected to return to the UK, DVA records indicate that the individual subsequently re-emigrated to Australia.

Many of those who fought in the Australian forces in Korea were veterans of World War II or of BCOF in Japan. Some of those who fought in Korea went on to serve in other conflicts in Asia, including the Malayan Emergency, Indonesian confrontation in Borneo and the Vietnam War.

Hence, many Korean War veterans were subject to exposures in a range of conflicts in addition to exposures they received during the Korean War.

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2.3.2 The Royal Australian Navy

HMA Ships Bataan and Shoalhaven were committed to the Korean War on 29 June 1950, four days after the war began. These ships and their replacements were employed in patrolling, engaging shore batteries, gun-fire support, carrier screening, support for island operations and evacuation cover in a threat environment from mining, air attack and counter-bombardment.

When considering naval operations during the Korean War, the quite different marine environments encountered off the east and west coasts of the Korean peninsula need to be noted. In particular, the mountains lie much closer to the sea on the east coast and the ocean bottom slopes sharply, allowing large ships to come close inshore to attack communications, fortifications, ports and towns.

By contrast, the coastal plain on the west is wider and the sea in some places is very shallow for considerable distances from the shore line. Most of the major rivers of Korea drain to the west, carrying large amounts of silt, which they have deposited to form extensive mudflats and islands. These features, combined with tides rising and falling over nine metres causing fast local currents and rapidly changing sea-beds, made navigation very difficult and rendered charts rapidly out of date and unreliable.

One result of these environmental constraints was that the large aircraft carriers of the US Navy (USN) were deployed in the deeper waters off the east coast and responsibility for west coast waters was delegated to a mix of USN units and light fleet carriers, cruisers, destroyers and frigates of the British Commonwealth and other naval forces. However, forces were frequently switched from the east coast to the west and vice versa to meet operational needs.

United Nations Command naval forces were not in great danger of attack from North Koreans or Chinese naval surface units. However, the threat of submarine attack was taken seriously and all aircraft carriers had to be screened by destroyers and frigates, which were required to maintain a constant surveillance against both submarines and fast surface craft.

Mines presented a more significant threat to allied shipping. The first were encountered on 7 September 1950, floating west of Chinnampo, the port for Pyongyang. Mines were launched from local fishing craft and British and Australian officers were impressed with the ease with which the mine campaign was initiated. Between 26 September and 1 October 1950, several US and South Korean naval ships were severely damaged or sunk by mines.

The mine laying campaign appears to have started gradually in August 1950, with the laying of defensive minefields in ports, followed by more extensive minefields to counter UN Command landings on the east and west coasts in September. Mine clearance started in earnest following the early ship losses. The final major mine clearance operation was at Chinnampo from October to November 1950.

A further threat to naval operations was presented by occasional attacks by Chinese MiG-15s on allied naval aircraft. In the event, allied aircraft had little difficulty in defeating attacks at low altitude and the Chinese did not persist with them. In addition, although enemy air attacks against allied naval forces were infrequent, the threat remained and ships had to be constantly vigilant to avoid any surprise attack.

In addition to threats from the enemy, as Robert O'Neill 4(p415) pointed out, problems created by storms, typhoons, fast tidal currents, shifting mudflats, ice-bound waters and temperatures at and below freezing-point for long periods provided an exacting test of seamanship and imposed strong demands on men and equipment. Space constraints do not allow for a comprehensive description of RAN activities, but the following incidents provide an overview of the tasks and duties accepted during the course of the naval war in Korea.

The first major engagement in which RAN ships participated was the amphibious assault on Inchon, launched on 15 September 1950, where HMA Ships Warramunga and Bataan served in the blockade and covering force. The success of this strategic assault marked a turning point in the war and led to a complete rout of North Korean forces.

From 14 October to 7 November 1950, HMAS Warramunga was attached to the Gun-fire Support Group of Task Group 95.2 in preparation for an amphibious assault on Wonsan, on the north-east coast. Five days had been set aside for clearance of a channel through mines laid in the approaches to Wonsan harbour prior to the landing. In the event, fifteen days were required, during which time three minesweepers were sunk with heavy loss of life, while the invasion force spent five days holding off the coast.

The strategic position facing UN forces changed again in November 1950 following the Chinese entry into the war. The rapid deterioration on land led to plans to evacuate large numbers of allied personnel from North Korean ports. Two major evacuation points were Hungnam in the east and Chinnampo in the west.

On 4 December 1950, HMA Ships Warramunga and Bataan in company with four other destroyers and with the cruiser HMS Ceylon in support off the estuary, participated in the evacuation of Chinnampo. During that night, both ships transited the Taedong estuary, a waterway characterised by shifting shoals and mudflats. Although the Warramunga ran aground during the approach, she was floated off with the tide without damage. The evacuation was completed successfully on 5 December and the last ships departed the estuary on the following morning. This operation was considered to be one of the most dangerous naval operations of the Korean War (O'Neill 4, p435).

During February 1951, a decision was taken to occupy two islands off the North Korean east coast port of Wonsan and to bombard military targets around the town. On 19 February, USN ships were joined by the cruiser HMS Belfast in company with HMAS Warramunga. Despite a shortage of spotter aircraft, Warramunga's guns struck several road and rail junctions and buildings and partially destroyed a shore battery. After the departure of HMAS Warramunga from Wonsan, it became regular practice for one Commonwealth ship to serve on the east coast, replaced on the west coast by one American ship whenever possible.

One of the most celebrated operations involving the RAN took place during the period from July to November 1951, when HMAS Murchison established a strong reputation for aggression while conducting bombardment duties in the Han River estuary. This task presented major challenges. Charts of the estuary contained serious inaccuracies, while other hazards included nine metre tides creating streams which ran at 8 knots and continually shifted the mud banks. There were no navigation marks and approaches to possible fire positions lay parallel to enemy-held shores (O'Neill 4p452). HMAS Murchison accumulated more time in the estuary than any other allied ship and engaged enemy forces at close range on many occasions.

In October 1951, the deployment of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney with its Carrier Air Group and three Naval Air squadrons brought to a peak the RAN's offensive capacity and commitment to the Korean War. During its tour, HMAS Sydney patrolled in the Yellow Sea, alternating with a US light aircraft carrier. Patrols normally lasted nine days with a further nine spent on replenishment at Sasebo and passage to and from the patrol area.

HMAS Sydney's deployment lasted until January 1952 and missions flown included strikes, armed reconnaissance, close support for ground troops, spotting for naval gun fire, combat air patrols and aerial photography. Thirty-five piston-engine aircraft were embarked, comprising two squadrons of Sea Furies, a single seat fighter, and one squadron of Fireflies, a two seat fighter with anti-submarine capabilities. The number of aircraft on board pressed the ship's facilities to the limit and twenty of them had to be parked at any one time on the busy flight deck.

Hazards faced by HMAS Sydney included extreme weather during the night 14-15 October 1951 when it rode out Cyclone Ruth. During this storm, winds peaked at 100 knots and sea-water entering the ship's ventilation system resulted in a number of electrical fires during the night. Fortunately prompt action brought each outbreak under control before much damage had occurred. A number of aircraft were lost over the side during this episode and others required significant repairs. Three days of intensive effort were required to get the ship back into operational readiness (O'Neill 4, pp472-3).

Other incidents included a daring rescue of the crew of a Firefly which crashed close to North Korean lines late on 26 October 1951. This involved a US rescue helicopter operating from HMAS Sydney, supported by Sea Furies from the ship and Meteor jets from 77 Squadron RAAF.

On operations, an average of 38% of aircraft returned to the ship unserviceable, presenting a heavy continuing workload for maintenance crews, particularly given the cold and cramped conditions on board during the tour of duty. Aircraft from HMAS Sydney were hit by flak on 99 occasions and nine were shot down. The tour of duty meant that Australia became the third nation to gain significant experience in operating an aircraft carrier in combat after World War II.

Despite the many actions and trying conditions, the RAN was fortunate to suffer only light casualties, with five dead and six wounded.

RAN ships serving in Korean waters as part of the US Seventh Fleet up to the date of the cease fire received the Korean Presidential Unit Citation.

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2.3.3 The Australian Army

The Third Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, (3RAR) commenced operations in early October 1950 and remained in Korea throughout the war. Two other Australian battalions (1RAR and 2RAR) served on rotation in 1952-1953. All battalions had to operate in very rugged country while contending with extremes of heat in summer and cold in winter.

At the outbreak of the Korean War, 3RAR was seriously under strength, under trained and poorly equipped. Reinforcements included many soldiers who had previous active service and had re-enlisted in the new Australian Regular Army together with others who had enlisted in 'K Force', a special enlistment program for the war. The battalion was brought up to full complement and operational readiness in Japan prior to its departure on 27 September 1950 for Pusan.

By 29 September 1950, 3RAR had joined the 27 th Commonwealth Infantry Brigade near Taegu. By 9 October 1950, the brigade had moved northwards through Seoul to Kaesong, 60 kilometers to the north and just south of the 38 th parallel and on 11 October, crossed into North Korea. By 17 October, 3RAR had launched its first attack, at Sariwon. Subsequent actions during the advance included Yongju, Pakchon and Chongju, which was reached by late October. These actions are collectively known by 3RAR veterans as the ' Stepping Stones' 5.

On the day after the battle of Chongju, 3RAR suffered a serious loss when a single enemy shell exploded close to its Commanding Officer's tent, badly wounding him. Lieutenant Colonel Green died of his wounds on 1 November 1950.

By early November, following the entry of China into the war, the 27 th Brigade had retreated from Chongju to Pakchon, where it held its ground during the middle of November, but by 27 November, heavy Chinese attacks on the US 2 nd Division had led to the withdrawal of the Brigade to the south. By 1 December, the US Eighth Army was in full retreat. However, by mid-March 1951, the Eighth Army had retaken Seoul and was approaching the 38 th parallel again and by 31 March, the 27 th Brigade had begun an advance up the valley of the Kapyong River.

On 22 April, the Chinese launched yet another major offensive. On 23 April, the 27 th Brigade was ordered to defend the northern approaches to the town of Kapyong, disrupting 3RAR plans to celebrate ANZAC Day with the nearby Turkish Brigade. 3RAR occupied its positions later during the day and the Chinese assault commenced during the night. The main battle lasted all day on 24 April. The battalion lost 32 men killed, 59 wounded and three captured, but held off a continuous attack by far greater numbers of Chinese. 3RAR was one of several allied units jointly awarded a Presidential Citation for this action.

By the middle of July 1951, truce talks had begun and the war entered a new phase. Major military initiatives likely to threaten the negotiations were not allowed and both sides engaged in a strategy of attrition, coupled with tactical offensives to relocate sectors of the battle-line (O'Neill 4, pp164-5). During this period, 3RAR was transferred to the 28 th Brigade and British Commonwealth units were consolidated into the 1 st Commonwealth Division, which became operational on 28 July 1951.

On 2 October 1951, Operation Commando commenced with the objective of straightening the front line in the sector across the Imjin River and driving the Chinese from the first line of hills to the north-west of the salient. 3RAR was given the task of capturing Hill 317. This action became known as the Battle of Maryang San.

When considering the most suitable approach to this objective, the battalion Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel FG Hassett drew on Australian experience in fighting the Japanese in New Guinea using a technique of 'running the ridges'. This utilised the tactical superiority of high ground, the cover afforded by the jungle and the relative ease of movement along a crest-line. The best way to attack Hill 317, he reasoned, was to approach along a wooded ridge which ran from the east to the summit. This required the battalion to cross a valley under cover of darkness, establish a firm base then cross the next valley, climb the ridge and turn westward to assault the Chinese positions defending Hill 317 (O'Neill 4, pp184-5).

The resulting battalion action took place over the period 2-8 October 1951 and achieved the destruction of at least two Chinese battalions. 3RAR lost 20 men killed and 89 wounded. During the five days of the battle, the battalion used some 900,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, 5,000 grenades and 7,000 mortar bombs. All this ammunition had to be carried by Korean Service Corps porters and Australian soldiers over long distances to reach the forward companies. The action has been described by Field Marshal Cassels, commander of the Commonwealth Division during the action, as one of the finest battalion attacks in British Army history.

After achieving a stronger defensive line in late 1951, the UN Command forces did not attempt any further significant advances during the remainder of the war. The chief function of the Eighth Army in 1952 and 1953 became that of maintaining constant pressure on the Chinese and North Koreans to try to force compromise during the armistice negotiations. This resulted in steady casualty losses through patrol actions and raids.

On 1 July 1952, 1RAR joined the 28 th Brigade, making it more than half Australian in terms of its battalions. To reflect this, the British Government agreed it should be commanded by an Australian.

1RAR was relieved by 2RAR on 21 March 1953, while 3RAR continued for the remainder of the war with its existing individual replacement system.

During the last years of the war, Australian battalions were involved in raids against deeply entrenched Chinese positions and nightly fighting patrols to dominate in no man's land. Battles included 1RAR's attack against Hill 227 and Operation Fauna in 1952, 3RAR's Operation Buffalo in August 1952 and the defensive battle by 2RAR on the Hook in July 1953.

While attention has been concentrated on infantry actions, these could not have been sustained without the backup support from other fighting and service Corps. South Korean personnel employed under the Korean Augmentation Troops Commonwealth scheme (KATCOM) also frequently augmented and served with the Australians.

One further group that should receive mention is the medical support group, including nurses from the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps. Initial medical support was provided at battalion level by medical orderlies and stretcher bearers under the command of the Regimental Medical Officer. Cases that could not be treated at that level were evacuated to the 60 th Indian Field Ambulance. Where necessary, the individual could be further transferred to a US Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). The most serious cases were evacuated to the BCOF General Hospital at Kure, Japan.

The standard arrangement during the period of the war was that twenty-six Australian nurses were posted to Japan. From late 1952 to early 1953, several were detached to Korea. This was done initially to build morale, but was continued when the arrangement was found to be quite successful. Placements included two theatre nurses in Kure and six in Seoul (four British and two Australian). The principal medical task in Seoul was to assess and classify injuries and treat them according to medical priority, with the aim of providing advanced first-aid to enable the patient to arrive in Kure in a fit state to undergo orthodox surgical treatment.

Army casualties during the war were heavy, with 293 killed, 1,210 wounded (including 36 wounded twice) and 23 prisoners of war. Of the numerous battle honours won by the Royal Australian Regiment in Korea, three major honours are now emblazoned on regimental colours:

'Korea' 1950-1953 (1RAR, 2RAR, 3RAR)
'Kapyong' April 1951 (3RAR)
'Maryang San' October 1951 (3RAR )

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2.3.4 The Royal Australian Air Force

No 77 Squadron, then located in Japan as part of the Australian commitment to BCOF, had been preparing to return to Australia on the day war broke out. Despite this, aircraft were rapidly brought back ready for action and the Squadron flew its first combat mission on 2 July 1950. The Squadron initially operated from its peacetime base at Iwakuni, Japan, but arrived in Korea on 12 October 1950. The Squadron operated as part of the US Fifth Air Force and, other than for a short period in Japan while converting to Meteor jet aircraft, remained in Korea for the remainder of the war.

Air power was critical in defeating the initial North Korean offensive and the Australian squadron earned the highest reputation in giving close air support to ground forces. This support was provided despite climatic extremes, in particular the winter conditions in North Korea, which challenged both air and ground crews.

At the outbreak of war, No 77 Squadron was equipped with piston engine P51D Mustang fighters. Although this aircraft was slower than jet aircraft available at that time, it had a far superior range and payload and could operate from rough airstrips unsuitable to jet operations. In the absence of a significant enemy air threat, Mustangs were most suitable for the ground attack and air support role required during the early phase of the war.

The work-load on pilots during this phase was particularly intense as the Squadron was still located in Japan. Aircraft had to take off early in the morning, carry out a strike mission, then land at Taegu within the Pusan perimeter to re-fuel and re-arm. Pilots would carry out up to three further missions before returning to Japan in the evening. It was during this phase, on 9 September 1950, that the Squadron commander, Wing Commander L T Spence, was killed while conducting a close support mission.

The situation facing allied aircraft operating in Korea changed rapidly following the entry of China into the war. On 1 November 1950, a flight of six MiG-15s crossed the Yalu frontier and attacked a US Mustang Flight. The appearance of MiG-15s presented a serious challenge to UN Command air superiority. For the Australian Government, it meant that if 77 Squadron was to continue to play a leading role in the war, it needed higher performance aircraft.

In the meantime, however, the squadron continued to fly ground support missions, reconnaissance and interdiction strikes. By mid-November, the squadron had shifted north to Yonpo, near Hamhung in North Korea. Flying operations commenced on 19 November and were able to range over the whole of North Korea. This period was characterised by very cold conditions, with snow and ice on taxiways and parking areas and often severely restricted visibility during operations. Ground crews in particular suffered from extremely freezing working conditions while servicing aircraft. By early December, however, the squadron had been re-located to Pusan East in South Korea.

Also in December, the Australian Government took the decision to purchase Gloster Meteor aircraft despite their known inferiority to the MiG-15, on the basis that no other jet fighter aircraft appeared to be available within a reasonable time. The squadron departed from Korea in April 1951 for its base at Iwakuni, Japan to commence conversion to jet operations on Meteors. It returned to Korea in July and flew its first jet operational mission on 29 July 1951.

Combat experience against MiG-15s confirmed the inferiority of Meteors in the air combat role, particularly at high altitudes. Subsequently the Australian squadron reverted to the ground attack role where the Meteor's rugged construction and good low-altitude performance proved its worth. However, by May 1952, No 77 Squadron was also employed escorting fighter-bombers at intermediate altitudes. At these altitudes, the inferiority of Meteors to MiG-15s proved to be much less marked and five MiGs were destroyed in air-to-air combat.

RAF pilots also made a vital contribution to the Squadron during a period when the RAAF had an acute shortage of trained fighter pilots. In all, 37 RAF pilots served with the squadron in Korea. Four of these were during the Mustang/Meteor period and the remaining 33 during the later Meteor period.

On 1 November 1951, No 77 Squadron was awarded the Korean Presidential Unit Citation for 'exceptionally meritorious service and heroism'. By the end of the war, the Squadron had suffered 41 Australian fatal casualties from all causes and six prisoners of war. In addition, five RAF pilots were killed and one taken prisoner of war.

In regard to tours of duty by combat pilots, initially there was no set period and it was left to the Squadron Commanding Officer to decide on an individual basis. Later, it was decided for planning purposes that a tour of duty should consist of 100 missions over about six months, although some individual pilots served well in excess of this limit and others returned early to Australia.

In addition to No 77 Squadron, the RAAF also provided transport support using C47 Dakota aircraft, based at Iwakuni, Japan. During the course of the war, as transport demands increased and additional aircraft were provided to meet them, the unit operating these aircraft was progressively re-named. Initially 30 Communications Flight, it became 30 Transport Unit on 5 November 1951, then No 36 Transport Squadron on 10 March 1953. During the full period of the war, the unit played a major role in supporting No 77 Squadron in Korea, providing transport for ground forces, evacuating wounded and carrying official visitors.

Technical support for RAAF aircraft in the Korean War was provided by No 391 (Base) Squadron and No 491 (Maintenance) Squadron, while all RAAF units in the theatre were grouped within 91 (Composite) Wing. No 391 and No 491 Squadrons were located at Iwakuni and gave essential support to the ground crews of the two aircraft squadrons by performing more complex maintenance operations to increase the operational availability of fighter and transport squadrons.

Finally, RAAF nurses were employed on medevac flights from Korea to Japan using RAAF C47 aircraft. During the course of the war, they flew some 12,000 sick and wounded from the war zone in medical evacuation flights.

2.3.5 Civilian groups

War correspondents, photographers and philanthropic organisations

War correspondents were accredited by the Army but represented their own media interests. Tours varied in length from months to years. The major philanthropic organisations represented in Korea were the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, who fulfilled their traditional roles with their accustomed efficiency and disregard for personal safety.

Where individuals have been identified as having served in Korea with such organisations, their names have been recorded on the Nominal Roll and they have been included in this Mortality Study.

2.4 Definitions: 'Allotted for Duty' and 'Operational Service'

Under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 (VEA), the terms 'Allotted for Duty' and 'Operational Service' have the following meanings:

  • Allotted for Duty means a person or unit of the Defence Force that was allotted for duty in an operational area. Allotment may be retrospective or prospective, and occurs via a written instrument issued by the Defence Force; and
  • Operational Service is rendered where a person is allotted for duty and serves in an operational area. Current use of this term is not the same as normal posting procedures used in the Defence Force to move members from one unit to another.

Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force units allotted for duty in Korea during the active period of the Korean Operational Area are listed at Appendix C. Also listed in the Appendix are summaries of Commonwealth and allied military forces and allied medical units committed to the United Nations Command in Korea.

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2.5 Operational Area

The Operational Area during the Korean War is defined in Schedule 2 of the VEA as the area of Korea, including the waters contiguous to the coast of Korea for a distance of 185 kilometres (100 nautical miles) seaward from the coast. The period during which it was active is specified to commence from and including 27 June 1950 to and including 19 April 1956.

Some of the units allotted for duty in Korea were based in Japan. Members of these units must have served in the Korean Operational Area before they are considered to have operational service under the terms of the VEA.

Korean Operational Area Map

2.6 Health and Environmental Threats

2.6.1 Environmental Risks

In the absence of documentation on environmental health risks during the period of the Korean War, the following assessment has been based on that currently applicable to North Korea, as documented in 'Department of Defence (unpublished) Health Threats in Korea'6. The decision to adopt this approach is based on the lack of significant economic or social development in North Korea over the years since the end of the war.

Also of relevance is that Australian military operations from September to December 1950 largely took place in North Korea. This included the first experience by ADF personnel of a Korean winter. The period covered the advance by ground forces towards the Chinese border followed by retreat in the face of the first Chinese offensive, which pushed the allies to a line south of Seoul by January 1951. Subsequent offensives pushed the war zone back to the north towards and around the 38 th parallel. By early 1952, positions held by both sides of the conflict were consolidated along a line around the 38 th parallel. Following the cease fire, this line stabilised into the post war DMZ that marks the current border between the two countries.

Areas covered by the current risk assessment that would be less relevant to the 1950s relate to air, soil and water contamination caused by heavy industry and mining. Environmental contamination is a major problem in North Korea due to the use of obsolete industrial plant, the lack of adequate sewage treatment of effluent and mine wastes, and the poor quality of coal used as the primary source of energy. These segments have not been included in this assessment.


All temperatures quoted in this section are in degrees Celsius.

In the region encompassing the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, summers (June through to September) have mean daily maximum temperatures of approximately 26° and mean daily minimums of about 19°. Daily extreme highs occasionally reach 37°, while extreme lows occasionally drop to 0°.

Winters in the same region of Korea last from November through to March. Mean daily minimum temperatures are approximately -4° and mean daily maximum temperatures are about 2°. Daily wind-chill temperatures commonly reach -31°.

Temperature Table for Pyongyang

Source: 'Department of Defence' 6

The temperature extremes between summer and winter presented a range of threats to ADF members. Some of these threats were unique to an individual Service.

Ships operated by the RAN during the period of the Korean War were steam powered and built for temperate conditions. They were not air conditioned. This meant that crews endured high temperatures during the summer months or in tropical regions. Within each crew, those serving in areas such as engine and boiler rooms and galleys would have been exposed to extreme temperatures.

Conversely, during the winter months in Korean waters, a thin steel hull in direct contact with freezing sea water combined with the lack of insulation and minimal heating meant that crews had to endure freezing conditions below as well as on deck. Conditions were particularly severe for those in exposed positions, such as open bridges and gun positions. This group included watchkeepers and those manning weapon systems at dawn action stations. These conditions were exacerbated in the first winter as, in common with the other two Services, crews had not been issued with adequate cold weather clothing.

In order to maintain what heat could be generated, ships were closed up which meant that the air below decks became stale. Further, the presence of relatively large numbers of crew confined within a small, poorly ventilated space presented a significant risk of the spread of diseases spread by contact or aerosols. This danger would have been exacerbated by a practice recalled by several RAN veterans from the conflict. They have advised that, in addition to closing up ship, other methods tried in an attempt to maintain a habitable temperature included venting steam directly into the ship from its boilers. This method provided only short-term relief and temperatures fell rapidly. The resultant high humidity and moisture in crew accommodation areas would have provided an environment very suitable for moulds and other potential disease sources.

The Army experience can be divided into two parts. During the first, active phase, troops were continually on the move both in advance and retreat. Tactical positions were held for short periods and trench digging was limited to the minimum required. One concern during this phase arose as the first winter set in when it became quite apparent that clothing worn by Australian troops was entirely unsuited to winter conditions in northern Korea. Uniforms were essentially unchanged from those worn by troops in both World War I and II and provided no protection against severe cold. Following this experience, Australian soldiers began to acquire items of US military winter clothing that was better suited for the purpose. Apart from trying to maintain body temperature, significant problems arose due to frost-bite and injuries arising from flesh sticking to frozen weapons, vehicles and other metallic objects.

During the subsequent static phase, substantial defensive positions were dug along hill-tops and ridges. These comprised fighting bunkers, command posts and living quarters, all connected by communications trenches and incorporating substantial overhead cover for protection against artillery shell fire. Living quarters were underground sleeping bunkers, known as 'utchies' (not to be confused with the more recent 'hutchies', which are small tents). These bunkers slept either four or six men and were cramped and poorly ventilated.

Troops slept during the day and were active during the night. Activities included both heavy manual labour in maintaining and developing defensive positions and patrolling aimed at establishing the initiative over the enemy and denying it use of 'no man's land'. Patrols were despatched at night under all weather conditions. During winter, standing and ambush patrols in particular required participants to remain motionless for long periods in conditions of extreme cold.

Freezing temperatures during winter also meant that fresh water for drinking, cooking or washing was in short supply. Drinking water was often obtained by heating snow.

Temperature extremes similarly presented difficulties to the RAAF, both for aircrew kitted out and waiting to fly and to the ground crew that had to maintain the aircraft. During summer, aircrew had to contend with the heat on the ground, while kitted out to cope with the cold experienced at high altitudes. During winter, the additional clothing required both on the ground and in the air significantly restricted freedom of movement of limbs.

For ground crew, maintenance was required to be done at night at the end of each day's flight program to ensure aircraft were airworthy and armed ready for the next day's missions. As with the Army, extreme cold during winter months caused significant problems with frostbite and flesh sticking to cold metal tools and aircraft components.


Summer is the monsoon season and in the Pyongyang area, approximately two-thirds of the total annual rainfall of 1,000 mm occurs during July and August. Severe flooding occurs frequently and typhoons make occasional appearances.

Percipitation Table for Pyongyang

Source: 'Department of Defence' 6

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For the RAN, the chief concern arising from weather, including precipitation, was from an operational point of view. This aspect was brought home emphatically for the crew of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney on the night of 14-15 October 1951 when it rode out a typhoon at sea, experiencing high seas and wind gusts peaking at 100 knots.

In the case of Army troops living in trenches and underground dugouts without adequate drainage, periods of high precipitation during the summer monsoonal season meant living with water underfoot, the threat of collapsing trench walls and constantly damp clothing. During such periods, soldiers on 'stand-to' were up to their knees or waist in mud and water. The end result was that soldiers could not get dry for weeks at a time, increasing the threat of conditions such as 'trench feet'. Damp conditions, including stagnant pools of water, also provided a breeding ground for diseases and disease vectors. This is discussed further below.

The RAAF, like the RAN, was chiefly concerned with the impact of weather on operational activities. Concerns included flights with inadequate radio navigation aids in instrument meteorological conditions over mountainous terrain. As with the Army, however, health threats on the ground would also include the threat from disease vectors breeding in standing water.

Other Environmental Threats to Australian Service Personnel in Korea

Korean War veterans have expressed concern about the high levels of exposure to a range of chemicals, including DDT, during the Korean War. Anecdotal evidence suggests the level of exposure to pesticides was extreme, particularly among medical orderlies and others, often inadequately trained for the task, who were responsible for mixing and spraying them.

DDT and other pesticides were used extensively in unit areas where 'fogging' machines were used to treat tent-lines and other general areas. Individual application was in the form of pesticide powders applied directly to the body or clothing. Army personnel most exposed included those located in front-line or support echelon units and in units stood down to rest areas behind the lines, where tent-based accommodation was used. In all areas, vigilant control of vectors of insect-borne diseases was required. RAAF personnel living and working in No 77 Squadron unit areas would have faced similar exposures.

Exposure to DDT and other chemicals is included among the specific diseases or exposures that affect Korean War veterans listed in the Study Protocol. Further discussion on DDT is included at Appendix B to this Report.

Of the other environmental threats faced by all three Services, exposure to cigarette smoke was widespread. Cigarettes were freely available in large numbers and smoking was extensive among ADF members. Even non-smokers were exposed to high levels of cigarette smoke from others, particularly in Army front-line areas where soldiers lived in confined and poorly ventilated underground areas.

Further threats included alcohol and morphine abuse. Access to alcohol was strictly controlled in combat areas, but it was readily available to personnel on leave in Japan. Morphine, on the other hand, was required to be available to treat combat casualties as they occurred. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while abuse may not have been widespread, morphine was accessible to those seeking to abuse it.

On the individual Service level, threats faced by RAN crews included both those common to all ships of the period and others that were more specific to ships operating in Korean waters. Chief among the general threats was exposure to asbestos, which was present aboard all Navy ships.

RAN ships of the period were steam powered and asbestos was used extensively to lag boilers, engine rooms and steam pipes. Steam pipes ran throughout the ship, including through crew living and eating areas. Asbestos was also used as a fire retardant on all ships, but in particular aboard the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney, where additional protection was required to reduce the risk of fire fuelled by aircraft fuel tanks, munitions and aviation fuel stores.

The risk of exposure to asbestos was elevated during maintenance periods when it would have been necessary to disturb or repair lagging or bulkheads treated with asbestos as a fire retardant. It would also have been elevated during times when ships were closed down during action stations or while trying to conserve heat in winter. During these periods, the flow of fresh air within the ship was reduced to a minimum, which would have led to a rise in the concentration of airborne asbestos dust particles.

A further potential threat to health was identified during the 1996 Vietnam Veterans Mortality Study (VVMS) 7. This concerned the method used to produce fresh water for use in ships' boilers and by their crews. Under a process used extensively up until the introduction of reverse osmosis in the late 1980s, fresh water was obtained by low pressure vapour distillation of seawater. There was a suspicion that the process could have concentrated volatile contaminants, including herbicides or pesticides that may have been present in the seawater used as feed-stock.

The degree of risk has been assessed in a study established as a consequence of the VVMS. The results of that study demonstrated that where the feedwater was contaminated with dioxins or organochlorines, the distillation process concentrated such contaminants in the fresh water product.

Other environmental threats faced by ships operating within Korean coastal waters were likely to include exposure to organic wastes, pesticides and other contaminants washed out by rivers and other run-off. Most of Korea's major rivers drain into the relatively shallow waters off the western and southern coasts where RAN ships spent much of their time on patrol. Smaller ships and those on shore bombardment duties operated closer to shore where contamination levels could be expected to be higher.

Within the Army, members of front-line units during winter were exposed to high levels of hydrocarbon combustion products produced by home-made heating devices known as 'choofers' and solid fuel 'hexamine' heating blocks used for cooking. Both were utilised within the confined and poorly ventilated underground space of individual 'utchies'.

Choofers utilised a drip-feed system to add fuel to a fire contained within a metal drum. A common source of such fuel was petrol syphoned from jeeps. The degree of combustion would have been uncertain at best and resulted in the distribution of a mixture of soot and partially burnt combustion products throughout the living area. One by-product of this was a condition known as 'choofer neck', where the grime built up around necks and collars.

'Hexamine' tablets were hydrocarbon based solid fuel tablets used as a heating source for cooking individual meals. Food or water was heated directly and combustion products from the tablets would mix freely within the living area. Veterans report that, at times of peak activity, the combined effect of choofer and hexamine fumes together with cigarette smoke from several smokers made the atmosphere within an 'utchie' barely breathable.

Other exposures of interest included exposure to petroleum fuel and lubricants, particularly by transport personnel and aircraft ground crews (both Fleet Air Arm and RAAF), and exposure to asbestos dust from brake pads among maintenance personnel.

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2.6.2 Infectious Disease Risks

Information drawn from unpublished Department of Defence documentation 8was used in developing the following risk assessments.

Typhoid and Paratyphoid Fevers

Typhoid and paratyphoid fevers are highly endemic in North Korea, with a year-round risk period. Distribution is currently (November 2000) countrywide, with highest numbers of reports from North Hamyong Province.

Transmission is through ingestion of food or water contaminated by faeces or urine from infected humans.

Scrub Typhus

Scrub typhus is focally enzootic and a risk exists year-round whenever temperatures permit vector mite activity. In practice, this would mean most cases were likely between October and December. Distribution is countrywide. Focal areas are cultivated farmland or brush and scrub, which are the most favourable habitats for the vector and its small rodent hosts.

Transmission is through the bite of infected trombiculid mite larvae, usually Leptotrombidium pallidum or L. scutellare.

Hantaviral Diseases

Hantaviral diseases are focally enzootic and can occur year-round and countrywide. An elevated risk is associated with dry, dusty conditions and peak rodent populations. Most cases among the Korean human population occur from October to December during the harvest, which is the peak period for human activity in rodent infested areas.

At least three hantaviruses occur on the Korean Peninsula that collectively cause a spectrum of clinical diseases referred to as haemorrhagic fever with renal failure. Of these, Hantaan virus causes the more severe form, known as Korean haemorrhagic fever, while Seoul virus leads to a milder form. The third identified virus, Puumala virus, was first reported in 1991.

Transmission is primarily through aerosol transmission from infective rodent excreta or saliva, i.e. inhalation of the infective agent on airborne dust particles. The main reservoirs are the striped field mouse ( Apodemus agrarius) for the Hantaan virus and house rats ( Rattus rattus and R. norvegicus) for the Seoul virus.

Japanese Encephalitis

Japanese encephalitis is focally enzootic and associated with mosquito vector activity. Distribution is countrywide in areas where extensive mosquito-breeding sites and pig-rearing areas coexist. Cases usually occur from May to September.

Transmission is from the bite of an infective mosquito ( Culex tritaeniorhynchus and other Culex spp.) and is frequently associated with rice-growing areas.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

STDs, including gonorrhoea and chlamydial cervicitis/urethritis, are endemic year-round and countrywide in North Korea.


Leptospirosis is enzootic and distributed countrywide, although an elevated risk is associated with stagnant water and muddy soil. The risk period is year-round, but most human cases in Korea occur during spring and summer (April to September).

Transmission is primarily through skin (especially if abraded) or mucous membrane contact with water, moist soil or vegetation contaminated with urine from infected animals. Incidence is usually associated occupationally with frequent exposure to the urine of the striped field mouse ( Apodemus agrarius) in flooded rice and vegetable fields.

Meningococcal Meningitis

Meningococcal meningitis is currently considered likely to be endemic at low levels in Korea. The risk would be year-round and countrywide, but may be elevated during the cooler months of October to April.

Transmission is by direct contact, including respiratory droplets from noses and throats of infected persons.


Vivax malaria is the only type known to be present on the Korean Peninsula and is endemic. There is currently a moderate risk from June to October in provinces bordering the DMZ. Transmission is through bite of an infective mosquito, with Anopheles sinensis (primarily an outdoor feeder) believed to be the primary vector.

Enterically Transmitted Viral Hepatitis A and E

Viral hepatitis A is highly endemic and risk is year-round and countrywide. Transmission is primarily person to person by the faecal-oral route. No specific data is available on viral hepatitis E in Korea.

Bloodborne Viral Hepatitis B, D and C

Viral hepatitis B is endemic and viral hepatitis C is likely to be endemic. There is no specific data available on hepatitis D. The risk period is year-round and countrywide. Transmission is by percutaneous and permucosal exposure to infective body fluids.

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The Korean Overseas Culture and Information Service, 'A Handbook of Korea' Samsung Moonwha Printing Co, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 1998
Adapted from Military History Chapter 3 Korean War: Consolidated Library of Information and Knowledge. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra, 2001
Military History Chapter 3 Korean War: Consolidated Library of Information and Knowledge. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra, 2001
O'Neill R 'Australia in the Korean War 1950-53, Volume II, Combat Operations' The Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1985
Evans B, Stanley P, Reid R 'Out in the Cold: Australia's Involvement in the Korean War 1950-1953' Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra, 2000
Department of Defence (unpublished). 'Health threats in Korea'
Crane PJ, Barnard DL, Horsley KD, Adena MA. Mortality of Vietnam veterans: the veteran cohort study. A report of the 1996 retrospective study of Australian Vietnam veterans. Canberra: Department of Veterans' Affairs, 1997
Department of Defence (unpublished). 'Vector Risk Assessment - Korea'