Bob Downey

Bob Downey was born in Melbourne, Victoria on 28 October 1930. He served in the Australian Army (Service number 337707) during the Korean War and its immediate aftermath. Bob had a family tradition of army service and took advantage of the opportunity to service his country towards the end of the Korean War. He participated in the final battle with the Chinese before the armistice – the Battle of the Hook. This is his story:

Bob Downey went to Duntroon in 1948 and was there till the end of 1950.

“I’d always had my heart set on an army career. At the end of 1950 they said to me that I wouldn’t make a very good staff officer and I didn’t want to be a very good staff officer, I wanted to be an infantry soldier. So I then entered civil employment with Vacuum Oil Company which is now Mobil Oil and did a traineeship with them for two years till the end of 1951. At the end of 1950, I joined the CMF and went through the ranks as a Corporal and then as a Sergeant then as a Sergeant-Major and then as a Lieutenant in the Victorian Scottish Regiment, the Fifth Battalion and we were in camp when the Director of Infantry visited the battalion and said to me, “When you get back to Melbourne give me a call.” By this stage of course the Korean War was well under way. At that stage of the war there’d been a lot of officer casualties. I went in to talk with him – his name was, later Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Daly. He’d been at Duntroon when I was there as the Commanding Officer. He said “Have you ever thought of joining the regular army?” And I said “No I hadn’t thought about it.” I was carving out a career for myself. I’d been offered a sales representative position where you are the sole representative in a district in Victoria and I was thinking about that very seriously at this time.

“But I caved in and went ahead with it and did what was called a “knife and fork” course at Seymour and then joined the Second Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment at Puckapunyal. That interestingly, had been a sort of training battalion up to that stage with all the K-Force people from World War II coming through and drifting through and creating their training before being posted on to Korea to the Third Battalion or the First Battalion which was just arriving there in 1952. But then we started to fill out our ranks with regular soldiers. We had very few K-Force members with us but there were still a few younger people. So I became a platoon commander in B Company there and that was a most enjoyable time. I was learning as much as the soldiers were learning. I thought I knew a lot about these things but I’d never, for instance, demolished a grenade that had misfired I did that with aplomb without really knowing what I was doing. I made one or two mistakes in my training.

“There’s an old saying – never trust an officer with a map or a compass. We were coming back from a night exercise and we’d stopped at this road. We’d travelled cross-country, climbed a fence and stopped at this road at nighttime. I said to myself “Well the camp’s that way” and I said “Okay saddle up we’re off on our way down the road”. Of course, the first lot got hot showers and if you came back last, you got cold showers. We set off down this road at a thundering pace, and the platoon sergeant who was an old salt who’d been there, done everything in World War II raced up to me and said “Look if we go this way, sir, we’ll go back to where we started”. So we did a quick about turn and rushed off the other way. They got a hot shower anyway.

“Training continued throughout 1952 and then we were warned for active service in Korea about the end of 1952. We took embarkation leave and marched through the streets of Melbourne to the tunes “Waltzing Matilda” and “Hoopsy Doo” and then boarded the ship in Sydney.”

There were a mixture of new recruits and World War II veterans.

“Some of the senior NCOs or Sergeants were World War II veterans. But there was a sprinkling of very new temporary sergeants who’d come up and were actually just 19 and they’d done this intensive training by the RSM at Puckapunyal and he’d get them out in the morning and after work and give them special training. He was a wonderful man, his name was McCombe and I didn’t appreciate him very much at the time, but later on I came to appreciate him very much. Many of them went on to become Lieutenant-Colonels. Some were promoted in the field and some went back to officer cadet school. They were a very grand body of young men. We were fortunate in that we went overseas as a battalion and had a fair degree of stability.

“We arrived in Korea after about 12 days sailing up there in the vessel, New Australia. We continued our training there. We had boxing matches and the troops got stuck into some of the senior NCOs. We had a lot of shooting over the rear of the ship at targets. But it was a sort of a fairly lazy time and when we hit Pusan it was about the 17th March and the cold weather really struck us then and it was really coming into Spring by that stage and we were kitted out with cold wet weather gear which was British in origin and that took a little bit of getting used to but served us very well throughout the period we were there. Within a couple of days of landing we were on a train going up to Tokduchonni. It was a small siding at the end of the railway line where there was a place called Camp Casey. At the time the 3rd Battalion was there and we joined them with probably most of the rest of the Commonwealth Division – it was a Division of three brigades, one Canadian brigade, one British brigade and a mixed Australian/British brigade. We had two British battalions with us, the Durham Light Infantry and the Royal Fusiliers and 3 RAR and 2 RAR. As we arrived then, 1 RAR who we relieved, were going back on the same ship that we came on and they were on their way to Pusan.

“The country was startling in its barrenness at that stage of the war because where we were had been fought over in the late 1950s, early ’51 and our training was up in the hills mostly to get us acclimatised at climbing hills, ‘yamas’ as they used to call them over there. A hill was a yama. They were very steep hills, the whole country was steep rugged hills, ranges of hills stretching forever, very little natural flat land at all. Whatever flat land there is arable. Again we were very cold at that point but we were able to get a fair way forward to have a look at what the front line was like.

“We had cold wet weather equipment; it was good, unlike when the first Australians went there. They only had the winter clothing they would have worn here in winter. You know, it got down to –20oC. Not at that time of year later in the winter months of December, January, -20o below freezing which is very, very cold. In fact when you urinated sometimes the stream would freeze from the bottom up. Everybody laughs about that, but it did happen on occasion. If you were a woman it would be pretty difficult. At least with a man you could see it coming.

“After a period of training we moved further and further up towards the front line, a series of hops and then took over one night from a British battalion, the First Royal Fusiliers. That was an interesting night. I’d been up for a briefing with the platoon commander from whom I was taking over his area of operations and then we’d sent a platoon sergeant and three lance corporals, one from each section so that they would act as guides to take their section into their positions. A disaster happened. It had to be a very quiet handover/takeover in the dead of night so that the Chinese didn’t have any intelligence of our entering the front line. By this stage of course we were in a static warfare stage. We held a line of hills. It varied from about yards apart to about 1,000 yards apart in some areas. Later the 3rd Battalion moved up on to a much higher feature on our right. We were on the lower reach of hills. I think, we moved in very quietly. In fact we had sandbags on our boots so as not to make any noise. One of the lance corporals got himself drunk with the young British National serviceman platoon commander. He’d been given rum and he was shouting and screaming and saying the Chinese were coming and he was throwing grenades and was really in a panic. I didn’t know whether to shoot him or knock him out and I thought “Omigod I’ve got to shoot this fellow in the foot or something to stop him making this awful noise.” I had a corporal who was a New Zealander, he was magnificent and he said “Don’t worry about it sir,” and he went bang! Knocked him flat, king hit him and he dragged him off. He was in charge of this man, you see. He dragged him off into a hutchie and I think he slept for a couple of days getting over the blinder he was in. That was my first big mistake in trusting somebody like that to be alert and take the troops in.

“It’s a very big responsibility when you’ve got about 40 soldiers, very much responsible for their health, education and welfare and fighting capacity and you’re a sort of mother and father to them. They expect you to know everything. I found myself in those first few weeks of having a vertical learning curve. The troops couldn’t generally find mine wire gaps and you’d go out but you had to know exactly where they were. During that period of six weeks I think most of us as platoon commanders, and I’m only talking of myself as a platoon commander, would have done something like 36 patrols into no-man’s land or been a backup patrol. If one of the other patrols got into trouble then you would go to their aid whether it was to bring back casualties or to fight off a larger enemy group. So that’s 42 days we were in the line and 36 night patrols so that’s a fair sort of commitment on an individual’s behalf to keep oneself going for that particular time. Some of them were very small patrols with just escorting an engineer party checking the mine wire: now that was an officer’s patrol. That’s the only time I was wounded, in one of those. They kept making these noises. In the still of the night they would see a star picket and they’d get a sledge hammer and started banging the large picket in to keep the wires taught and I’d say “Shhhhh”. The Chinese were magnificent mortar men. They would hone in on the sound and they’d drop a couple of bombs down just to see what they could do. I got nicked by one of those and it wasn’t anything of importance in fact my batman patched it up with a bit of plaster, some antiseptic and plaster. I never reported it. It was very interesting that some people just went about their work as if nothing had happened and here we were trying to be very quiet and cat-like because in the dead of night it was still and pitch black and noise would carry miles.”

Most work was done at night and the troops would sleep during the day despite the mortar shelling. “There was a lot of shelling going on but we were mostly underground and then you have to prepare for the next night, test weapons, make sure everybody was fully briefed on what their role in the patrol was. Most fighting and ambush patrols for instance were about 13 strong an officer and 12 and we’d all have automatic weapons of some sort. Some wouldn’t. In one company the officer commanding wouldn’t allow them to take automatic weapons, he made them all carry rifles. He thought, as an old World War II man, the rifle was far better than an automatic weapon. I wouldn’t allow any of my people to go out without automatic weapons.”

Bob Downey conceded there were some differences between World War II veterans and the new recruits in coping with the conditions.

“Some of the World War II diggers sometimes tended to be less cautious in their approach, and didn’t appreciate how good the Chinese were. The Chinese soldiers were very good fighting soldiers. Their mortar men were wonderful. During this particular period in the front line we had a very rainy period. All the trenches were up to our waist deep in water. The Commanding Officer had just issued an instruction – nobody was to walk on the road, even at night; they had to go through the trenches because he wanted to keep casualty numbers down, naturally. We were going out on patrol and we were wet through right up to our waists in muddy water and I thought “Oh bugger this, come one we’ll go down this road”. It was really almost dark, and so we were all blackened up and dark and everything, sleeves rolled down and blackened hands and face. “Nobody could see us,” I said. We’d moved about 20 yards down this road which was a jeep track where they evacuated casualties, or brought in ammunition when I heard – zoom, zoom, zoom. Three mortar bombs landed all around us and we all hit the deck and we were covered in mud and all our weapons were filled with mud and I thought “Omigod, how am I going to explain this.” The instruction had just been issued and I’d disobeyed this instruction and I went around and looked at everybody and said “Are you all right, are you all right, are you all right?” Everybody was all right, they were just a little bit shaken. So we hopped into the trench system and got to the point where we had to be and fortunately that night we were only a stand-by patrol so we didn’t really have to go out and do anything, so we spent the night cleaning our weapons, getting all the mud off. There were a couple of things that you make big mistakes and you take a less cautious approach which could have endangered lives and I’ve regretted that ever since and remembered it ever since and so have some of those troops who were with me at the time. Interestingly, I suppose you relied on a certain group of men more than another group of men, sort of those that you trusted.

“Your fear just disappears once you’ve through the mine wire gap and going out into the valley, the Bowling Alley. Because you’ve got that added responsibility. You’re watching everything that’s happening, where everybody is and there’s no thought that one would go to sleep at that stage. I remember one night we took on an ambush position and I kept hearing this snoring. I worked it out that it was my sergeant, Sergeant Grebby. “Sgt Grebby are you asleep, are you snoring?” He said “Not me sir, not me, sir” and within minutes he was back asleep and snoring. Good fellow, but it became boring for some of them if there was nothing happening.

“After six weeks we were relieved by 3 RAR who had come out of the line for about two weeks in late June 1953. There were alarms and excursions during that period, because the Durham Light Infantry got into a fix where they went and we had to race up the hill as a counter attack force and stem the tide if they’d been overrun, but they weren’t overrun fortunately. That’s when quite a lot of people got quite drunk. Our people got quite drunk, on wine that New Zealand gunners had brought across to share with the troops. They were staggering up this hill some of them with sweat, sort of alcohol pouring out of their sweat glands. Anyway, they were quite sober when they got to the top of this big yama. There was a lot of beer drunk in Korea, I must admit. Not in the line but when we were in the reserve.

“After that we were warned to take over the Hook position and we platoon commanders went up there for familiarisation for 24 hours. We were taken out to all the patrol points for which we would be responsible. Those patrol points were really just standing patrols. In other words, there would be a corporal and say three would be the extent of a standing patrol there. They were three that could be sacrificed in warning the Battalion of an attack. The Hook was a feature, a hill, which was in the direct invasion route, and had been since Genghis Khan. The hill stood in the way of and protected that invasion route. It was like little castles and in September 1952 the US marines had been overrun there, and had a lot of casualties, in October the Black Watch had been overrun there. They’d retaken the feature and in May of ’53 the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment had been overrun there and had taken back the feature by a counter attack. That was preceded always by a massive bombardment of everything. However far you dug into the hills to create some form of protection, it would disappear in the bombardment. The Kings Regiment went in there, a British battalion and just held the fort for the period till we came along on May 9th. We went in there and there was virtually no defences so we really had to dig our own defences and we’d done a marvellous job with particular help from our assault pioneer platoon which was there to construct tunnels and bunkers. But we had this constant night patrolling two corporals, and three of up to two points called Greenfinger and Ronson. It was a delicate time. We were expecting the Chinese attack all that time. We just had constant bombardment during the day and night, sometimes for half an hour sometimes 15 minutes but it would be continuous for that time, mortaring and artillery shelling. They were just softening us up to know that the Chinese were there and thinking about us.

“There was some thought that the armistice talks would soon conclude but there was no official knowledge as far as we were concerned, so we just carried on doing what we were doing. The job of platoon commander became one of making sure that people were clean, there was no disease, there were no rats. I mean there were rats, hell, they were as big as cats ‘cause they were feeding off dead bodies which were just over the lip of the parapet as it were, mostly Chinese bodies. In fact going out to either of these two patrol points, you had to slip down, slide down a steep embankment. In the rainy season it was always wet and you slipped down and you had to brace yourself and put your hand through a body here and a hand through a body there. So it was a question of taking out a bag of lime and spreading a bit wide as you went through.

“I can’t say that any stage I was at all anxious about my own health or welfare but certainly about the welfare of the troops I was most concerned. We didn’t shower for a fortnight there at all. We had about a quart of water a day and you had to shave and use that for drinking water, but that wasn’t enough to do even under arms and crotch and things like that so everybody smelt. That’s not unusual amongst soldiers. We had very few senior officers come round at that point. About 23rd July our company was relieved by D Company and they took over our positions. There was a little handover telling them where to go, what to do and then we moved back into the reserve company position which was, I suppose, 500 yards further back. The next night one platoon was on standby and 2 platoons were up working on the feature. They were the navvies, pick and shovel work to further developing the underground shelter. But on the 24th none of us had been up there and that’s when the Chinese attacked. Well, really it was on for young and old. We had a preplanned hillock, that’s all it was really, a hillock to fight from, and there were no defences on it we just had to scratch in the ground and it was a fascinating night, really fascinating, a huge attack not on us so much but the marines on our left and in front of our C Company where the Chinese streamed across in frontal attack. The artillery that was fired against them and the artillery that was fired at us was horrific. Some said it was as bad as the First World War bombardment at Pozieres and I can imagine it. Some came near us but not on us, fortunately, and life was interesting those nights, very interesting. We were a counter-attack force. Our company had become counter attack force to be put in anywhere if the Chinese were to break through. Because if they did break through there was nothing between them and the Imjin River and if they had got to the river it could have been quite a different situation; maybe the peace talks would not have resumed. As it was on 27th they signed the armistice and they got a very bloody nose in the process of signing that. They’ve said in the official history there was between 2,000 and 3,000 dead Chinese, and if you can magnify that to 5 to 1, five wounded to one killed, or even three wounded to one killed you’re talking, (say 3,000) there’s another 9,000 wounded. Those last couple of days was a ferocious fight. Everyone was terribly tired at the end of it but nobody broke down.”

When the armistice took effect on 27 July 1953. Bob Downey and his men were very relieved and extremely tired after two nights of intense action.

“We were pleased when it was all over. But then we had to turn around and do other things like dismantle all the fortification that we put in. I mean the Americans didn’t bother, they just bulldozed everything, their own troops as well, the dead, which I found disgusting and all their fortification was just bulldozed in. But being very short of money, the Commonwealth was required to take all its timber away so it didn’t have to buy any more when we built another defence line somewhere else. All the sand, empty the sandbags that were good enough, then blow it all up – yeh – get what you can out of it, oh dear oh dear. We’ve always done that, penny pinching – that’s the difference between the Americans and us.

“At the same time as we were dismantling – there were groups of us went out into no-man’s land and Chinese did the same thing. I think the North Koreans weren’t really involved at this stage of the war, maybe on the east coast. But we were on the west coast, further to the west at least and we then had to look for weapons and militaria that might have been dumped and mines and bodies. If we found a body, which was obviously Chinese we would hand it to them and if they found a body which was obviously British, Australian or American they would hand it to us. You become inured to the sort of smell and handling of dead bodies and skeletons and skeleton remains but that was an interesting time for about a week or so. One group of each company set about making a camp. We called it Peace Camp so we’d be reasonably housed for the coming autumn and winter.

“Following on that the immediate period after that was one of constant trudging out to new defensive positions which we were building called the Kansas Line. This was boring, digging and putting in all those poles that were pulled out, big baulks of timber, really and setting them in place again for somebody else to pull apart. And there were excursions and alarms. Sygmen Rhee let some prisoners of war go which he thought would bring the war back to life again. He wasn’t too keen on having a peaceful settlement, or a reasonably peaceful settlement – he wanted to go on, and hoped the United Nations could win the north for him. He wasn’t a very nice person President Syhghman Rhee, that’s my view anyway. In fact there’s a feeling the south actually attacked the north, in a small patrol action that started the war. The north got very angry, stampeding down through the south in 1950.”

Bob Downey was pleased to finally returned home from his “great adventure” in April 1954. He continued his army career until 1959 including work with the newly formed Special Air Service. He then worked for Ford Australia at the new Broadmeadows plant and ACI before joining the Victorian Public Service as Director of the Ministry of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in 1976.

In April 2003, Bob Downey was on the committee that organised a very successful reunion of Korean Veterans in Brisbane.

(Bob Downey was interviewed in April 2003).

Bob Downey has died since this interview, unsure of date.