While it is true that the United States supplied the bulk of fighting men and resources to save South Korea from a Communist takeover in the 1950-53 war, there were 21 other United Nations partners that made contributions. Among the first allies to join us from the very beginning were the British. If the Korean War was long felt among its U.S. veterans to be the “Forgotten War”, the same image befell the British in spades. Still recovering at home from the terrible carnage of WWII, England had other things to worry about. As a matter of fact though, British Commonwealth forces sent nearly 100,000 men to serve alongside us in that faraway land, including the Royal Gloucestershire Regiment in 1951 which suffered heavy casualties as the newly-committed Chinese armies swept southward.
Before making the final stage of my own journey to the Land of The Morning Calm, I processed through the U.S. Air Force base at Iwakuni in Japan’s south, where I was treated to the sight of P-51D Mustang fighters “celebrating” their return from a victorious mission over North Korea in some of the most spectacular low-altitude precision flying I have ever seen. This was 77 squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force, one of whose pilots became the first non-American fatality of the conflict.
In the year to follow, I had the privilege of serving with and getting to know a good many Brits, including a top secret undercover assignment with two “spooks” from SAS (Special Air Service.) My first associations were with NCO’s of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, several of whom became regular visitors to my outfit’s well stocked bar. Three of these “Tommies” usually stopped by my tent to visit and trade stories-of-home until one night when there were only two. Missing was one very young corporal who always wanted me to open up my hand-made locker-box so he could enjoy a peek at my sweetheart’s (now my wife) photo taped to the inside of the hinged cover. I was saddened to learn he would not be coming back. He became the first friend I would lose over there.
Frequently I would have a chance to visit with these and other friends at their own command post as I delivered close-air bombing plans, and often I would ride with them on a jeep patrol. At around 1400 hours though, wherever we might be or however close the gun fire, it was Tea Time! It seemed that in every small group of fighting Brits, at least one of them had the fixin’s, and everything else stopped while we took time for a “brew-up” with careful attention to detail, red-hot tin cups and all. Either that, or we might find a NAAFI (Navy, Army & Air Force Institutes) roadside canteen – usually a big tent with collapsible tables and chairs – where there would be two tea lines: those who took their tea with milk, and the odd-balls who didn’t.
Soldiers of the famed Gloucestershire Regiment of the British Army take time out for tea in Korea, where they won a Presidential unit citation from the U.S. after the Imjin River campaign. Defense Dept. Photo
The days I spent in the constant company of the two “Special Air Service” guys (I’m sure that the first names by which I knew them were not real,) were quite different. Depending on where our inquiries had taken us, we would end up at their “headquarters”, a large squad tent, but with wood floors covered by plush Turkish rugs, stuffed easy chairs, and an Indian waiter in immaculate whites with a clean tea cloth draped over one arm. The tea would be served in fine china with freshly made cakes and crumpets on a matching dish; and we were within ten miles of the front! Even though these elite and very professional men had served a long stretch in India without even a visit to “Old Blighty”, they were the most British Brits. I ever met.
America became a “coffee-drinking” country in the 18th century as a symbol of our independence and a backlash against British taxation, and so Americans might find the English obsession a bit strange. What I noticed in Korea though was the strong sense of tradition and ability to slow down, relax, and take “time out” in the midst of chaos when it came to tea time in the trenches. (I LOVE our Commonwealth friends!)