He went on to fight the Korean War while I kept crying back home,” recalls Nadire Sümer, 80, of days leading to the fierce battle on the Korean Peninsula between the Chinese-backed North Communists and the United Nations-led Southern Korea.
“My son was just 16 months old when Rıfat signed up for duty in Korea. I was praying day and night for his life and longed for him to return in one piece,” she said as she retold her tale to Sunday’s Zaman.
Her saga is just one of many here in Seoul resonating through time and refreshed once more during the country-wide ceremonies held in remembrance of the 60th anniversary of the recapture of the South Korean capital from invading forces. The Ministry for Patriots and Veterans Affairs of South Korea has invited veterans from 21 participating nations to mark the liberation of the country from occupiers. Three Turkish veterans with their wives attended this year’s commemoration ceremony.
Rıfat was just a young lieutenant at the age of 24 in 1950 when he volunteered to join the regiment dispatched from Turkey. “After spending 22 days on a ship, we first landed in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, and then moved to the front after being outfitted by the Americans,” explains Rıfat, who still has a sharp memory and recounts specifics like dates and times. “I remember our arrival like yesterday. It was at 1 in the morning in Busan. From there we were transported to Taegu, today the capital of Gyeongsangbuk-do province, via train. Our first task was to clear infiltrators from the front lines. We were successful in eliminating 3,500 North Korean infiltrators and spies,” he explains.
Turkey was the second country to answer the United Nations’ call to dispatch troops to stop North Korean aggression and push back the invaders. It sent a brigade of 5,000 troops initially, comprising three infantry battalions, an artillery battalion and auxiliary units. In the ensuing war that lasted until 1953, the Turkish Brigade lost 721 men and over 2,000 were wounded. A total of 168 Turkish soldiers went missing. A total of 14,936 men served in the brigade during these years.
Necati Kodal, 81, was among the latecomers to the Korean war theatre in 1953 but lost close friends in the battle nonetheless. He was in frenzy as he tried to find the grave of his comrade in the UN Memorial Cemetery on Thursday in Busan, where 462 Turkish soldiers lay in the ground under the Turkish flag. “Where is Sgt. Abdurrahim Eşit?” he was yelling out in Turkish, even though nobody around understood what he was saying. The somber scene must have been familiar to the custodians of the cemetery as someone quickly approached him with a roster of names and map of graves.
Eşit was eventually found. He lay in the grave marked with a number 2,113. He was killed in action on May 25, 1953. Kodal, from Akçay of Balıkesir province in Turkey, traveled 5,000 miles to see his friend even though he was buried six feet under covered with grass and soil. While he was saluting his friend’s grave, Kodal and his wife were silently praying as tears rolled down through their cheeks and onto the green grass surrounding the marble stone with Eşit’s name on it. “I do not know why I made it out alive and do not understand why he fell behind. But only God knows why, and I have no choice but to submit to his will on the matter,” he said.
The UN cemetery in Busan has been frequented by Turkish civilian and military officials alike. Turkish President Abdullah Gül in June visited the site to honor fallen soldiers. The three Turkish veterans were joined by Commonwealth soldiers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK to lay wreaths on the Korean monument here last week. Rıfat delivered his speech on behalf of Turkish veterans and thanked Koreans for their hospitality and for embracing the Turkish soldiers who had lost their lives during the battle.
There are also unknown Turkish soldiers lying in the ground on the Korean Peninsula. Ahmet Yermez was one of them, according to Kodal, who looked for his name on the marble War Memorial Wall in the Korean War Museum in Seoul, but to no avail. He also searched for his name in the cemetery in Busan but could not find him there, either. He said he might be in one of those unmarked graves inscribed with the words “Unknown Soldier.”
Veterans praise Turkish soldiers
It is certainly no exaggeration that almost all Korean veterans here talk about the heroic efforts of Turkish soldiers in fierce battles with the communist North and especially praise their performance during the Battle of Kunu-ri on the eastern bank of the Chongchon River. Kunu-ri, also known as battle of Wawon, was one of the key battlegrounds during the Chinese onslaught. The Turkish brigade lost more than half of their total casualities in the Korean War during this battle, resulting in the deaths of more than 400 Turkish soldiers. Turkish troops, cut off when they were encircled by Chinese regiments, were able to breach the Chinese trap and rejoin the US 2nd Infantry Division. The delay the Chinese troops encountered after meeting with staunch Turkish resistance helped UN forces to reassemble and withdraw without suffering many casualties.
Col. John Douglas Slim remembers how tough Turkish soldiers were during the Korean War. He was just a lieutenant when he joined the war and fought alongside the Turkish regiment. “They used to carry our wounded,” he says as he recounts memories of war. Slim -- who is one of the 92 hereditary peers in the UK House of Lords and assumed the lordship after his father, 1st Viscount Slim, passed away in 1970 -- was quite happy to fight beside Turkish soldiers. “My father and my father-in-law both fought against Turks in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia during World War I. I had to fight with Turks against the Chinese and communist North Koreans, and I am very happy with that,” he explained to Sunday’s Zaman.
“Turks were magnificent fighters,” says another veteran, Edward McHale from a Scottish regiment who joined the war under the Commonwealth flag. “I was just 19 years old at the time,” he explains as he tells his tale on the high-speed train on the way to Busan. He performed quite nicely during the commemoration ceremony at the cemetery with his bagpipes, dressed in a kilt with a commando beret and knife. “My daughter got married to a Turk back home, and I have a great respect for my son-in law as well. I just hope my grandkids turn out to be like their father,” he notes.
Not everybody is willing to open up, especially to a reporter with inquisitive questions and a desire to know details. Albert Grocott, 82 years old and an Australian veteran, is certainly one of those who closed themselves up in the hope that bad memories would stop haunting them, even after 60 years. “It is simply too painful to talk about the war, and I try to push those years aside,” he says. When asked if it is working for him, he admits, however, it does not. Grocott, who grew up with seven sisters and six brothers, did something else for Korea in addition to fighting during the battle. He went ahead and adopted Korean orphans. His four adopted children were just among some 200,000 Korean children who were adopted after the war. “They all went along fine with my blood kids. Once in a while they come in and visit me at home in Australia,” he explains. Like others, he also has much respect for Turkish soldiers. “They were bloody fearless and very courageous soldiers,” he notes.
The suffering and hardship of the war was even harder on children and women. Sgt. Yalçın Taşçıoğlu, 82 years old and a Turkish veteran, shares an interesting memory with Sunday’s Zaman, revealing the true nature of war no matter who has started it. “One day we were conducting a search mission acting on intelligence that Chinese infiltrators were in the area. We came across a shanty house made up of old rugs, cardboard and torn-up pieces from tents. In the house, we found four kids sitting around a fire and a very fragile old woman tending to them. The kids were all skinny, crying in hunger and they had nothing to eat. They were afraid of us. We dropped our food rations there and continued to do so in the following weeks. Later we had learned that North Korean communists had burned their village and that their father had been killed. The mother was out all day in the forest scavenging for food,” he stated, lamenting the fact that the war takes a real toll on women and children. However, he was happy to see that the South Koreans had so impressively improved their country’s prospects, turning it into one with one of the greatest economies in the world.
Wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder and right eye, Taşçıoğlu was moved to the hospital. He recounts memories of a Turkish school opened in Suwon, where many Korean children were orphaned. Initially the school was set up in a tent in Turkish headquarters but moved to another building when the number reached over 100. “The children were gathered around us when we visited what was called the Ankara School and Orphanage,” he recalls. The school was shut down after Turkish troops withdrew from Korea following the cease-fire in 1953. However, the memory still remains.
When you bring over 100 veterans from 21 countries to commemorate the 60th anniversary of recapturing Seoul, it is not that hard to find long-lost friends even after so many years and with so few still living. While in Busan, Turkish veteran Necati Kodal reunited with a British veteran who turned out to have served under him operating an artillery machine gun during the famous Wegas battles. Jack Collins served in Korea in 1953 and was assigned to the Turkish regiment along with five other comrades to operate two artillery machine guns handed over to the Turks. Kodal was the commanding officer of all six British soldiers at the time. The two did not recognize each other at first. But as the discussion took them deeper into memories of the war, they quickly realized that they had both fought together in the same unit, shelling the enemy lines on the Wegas hills.
“I remember now,” Collins said, “Ammunition among the British regiment was running low and the Turkish regiment compensated with their heavy power.” He was part of the 1st Battalion the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment who was shipped out to Korea. “On the night of May 28, following a huge artillery barrage, we were challenged with wave after wave of Chinese troops that attacked the British positions on what we called the Hook. The Turks really made a difference on that long night,” Collins explained.
Kodal’s version of events confirmed what Collins had been explaining for almost half an hour. The two men embraced and exchanged addresses with a promise to keep in touch -- certainly a precious interaction after 60 years. Their wives also shook hands and kissed each other, taking part in their husbands’ newfound joy in the encounter.
During the week-long events in Seoul, Koreans showed the visiting veterans how much they appreciated the contributions and sacrifices they made 60 years ago. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak hosted a lunch for the veterans at the Gyeongbokgung Palace and publicly acknowledged their contributions in a ceremony held in front of the palace’s Heungnyemun Gate. The mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, awarded veterans with a certificate of Honorary Citizenship of Seoul during a dinner he hosted in their honor. Deputy Mayor of Ankara Ayhan Yilmaz, who represented the Turkish capital, thanked the mayor on behalf of Turkish veterans.