Ron Perkins was born in Lewisham, South East London in 1927. He served in the British Royal Marines before migrating to Australia as a ₤10 migrant in 1949. He immediately joined the Australian Army (service number 5/1255) and served in the Korean War where he was engaged in the significant Battle of Kapyong. He later went on to serve in the Vietnam War rising to officer ranks. This is his story:
“At the end of the Second World War, after I was discharged from the Royal Marines, jobs were very hard to find and there was still rationing on and frankly the prospects were not very good. So my brother and I, – my brother John had also served in the Royal Marines – we decided to migrate to Australia. And so we came out as ₤10 migrants. We were supposed to go, I believe, to the Yallourn brown coal fields in Victoria. However, we wanted to join the Army so we hopped ship at Fremantle on 19th September 1949 and on 21st September I joined the Australian Regular Army.”
When the Korean War broke out, 23-year-old Ron was at Puckapunyal in Victoria.
“I was a member of the Second Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment but at that time I was a student on a 3 inch mortar course at the School of Infantry which was then located in Seymour not very far from Puckapunyal. When the war broke out, they were calling for volunteers and I volunteered, as did my brother John, and we were two of the many that went across to join 3 RAR in Japan.”
Ron went over to Korea on the American liberty ship, “Aiken Victory” and landed in autumn on 28 September 1950.
“On arriving at the port of Pusan, the first thing you noticed was the terrible smell. The population of Pusan had exploded with an influx of refugees trying to escape the fighting. There was probably four times more people living there than before the war. There was no organized system of sewage disposal. Every street and alley became an open sewer. Luckily, we soon moved out of Pusan.
“In Korea, I started out as a Section 2IC in the mortar platoon. Now that’s a corporal in command of two mortars on the mortar line. It wasn’t long before the section commander, a sergeant was moved to a rifle company as a platoon sergeant, to replace a battle casualty. I found I became the section commander. I was now an acting Sergeant section commander and that made me, what they used to call a mobile fire controller, now called a mortar fire controller. The job as a mobile fire controller was to be attached to a rifle company to provide either defensive fire or offensive mortar fire. I think they called it mobile fire controller because you had a radio on your back and two feet, therefore you were ‘mobile’. The terminology has changed but the job is the same – controlling the fire of mortars.
“From about our second or third week in Korea we were fighting and the first seven months that we were there, we were involved in heavy fighting most of the time.
“The soldiers of the battalion really didn’t know each other very much because 3 RAR was in the process of returning to Australia and it did not have a full complement of soldiers. So they had to form two new rifle companies. That’s close to 300 odd men – plus a new support company which is another 150. So almost half of the battalion had never even seen each other before, let alone trained together. From the time most of us landed in Japan which was round about mid-September, it was only two weeks before we were in Korea. So for a unit that didn’t really know each other, I think we performed extremely well. It was a great credit to the Commanding Officer, Charlie Green who unfortunately was killed four weeks later.”
It was getting on towards winter and the troops suffered terribly with the cold.
“We were inadequately dressed to say the least for a Korean winter and by October/November we were right in the middle of winter. Temperatures – 28, 30 below zero. The winds blowing down from Manchuria were frigid. The ground was so frozen that if you had to dig a trench or anything, you could only use a pick or an axe or a shovel and the point of the pick would usually bend and then you’d find there was solid ice down for about three feet. It was a really cold winter. We were required to shave every day and at this time you would melt some snow (the water in our water bottles was frozen solid), over a solid fuel tablet, when this water boiled, you would soap up your shaving brush and apply it to your face. When you tried to re-soap the brush you would find the water had turned to solid ice, all in a matter of about fifteen seconds.
“Each soldier had one thin army blanket and a ground sheet. This groundsheet could be joined by string to another groundsheet, it then became an open-ended tent shared between two soldiers. Not ideal accommodation in 30 degrees below zero weather. We had our Australian winter dress on, what they called service dress which was only designed for the mild Australian winters not a winter in Korea. We were lucky that after about five or six weeks of winter we got hold of some American clothing and that helped. Most Australians had only seen snow on picture postcards. We had quite a few who ended up with frostbite. Those soldiers who were approaching, say, the forty-year-old mark were most likely to end up with aches and pains and frost bite. Many of them had to be medically evacuated to Japan as the winter progressed.”
Unlike the other two Australian battalions, 3 Battalion remained essentially intact throughout the war.
“3 Battalion stayed there from the time it arrived on 28 September 1950 till it left, I think it was in ’54 or ’55 and they had an individual rotation system. A reinforcement would come in and one would go out, in theory anyway. And as a result often the key personnel were moved out right when they were needed most, with no replacement available. But the other battalions that did serve there, 1 RAR and 2 RAR – they moved as a battalion and moved out as a battalion. They didn’t do individual rotations like 3 RAR.”
As part of a United Nations contingent, the Australians often worked closely with soldiers from other countries, as well as the South Koreans.
“We got on extremely well with those from the British Commonwealth Brigade. 27 Brigade consisted of the First Battalion of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders and the first battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, and of course 3 RAR. We got on especially well with the Scottish boys. Both of the British battalions were under strength and only had three rifle companies rather than the normal four. Both were only over there temporarily until the British sent another brigade which was being formed in England. Both battalions were due to return to garrison duties in Hong Kong around April 1951. Unfortunately as far as the Middlesex Regiment were concerned, towards the end, they were a little bit reluctant to do much in the way of attacking because they knew they were all due to return to Hong Kong within a few days and so they didn’t want to get themselves injured, killed or wounded. But on the whole most of them performed very well.
“The Americans – initially they didn’t perform very well at all because they’d been flown in very quickly from Japan. They were in the main occupation troops who had been doing no training. They were soft, physically unfit and a lot of them, just frankly didn’t want to be there. And they didn’t have the equipment. The radio equipment that they had issued to them, probably 50-60% of it didn’t work. And consequently some units performed poorly. Like when the Chinese first came in, in early November 1950. One US Division tried to fight its way through a roadblock. A lot of the US soldiers refused to get out of their vehicles and just stayed there and hundreds of them surrendered. Pretty weak. Under those circumstances you’d have thought that the officers or senior NCO’s would have rallied the men and attacked uphill and tried to clear the hills, but they didn’t. So that particular division suffered close to 60% casualties including those captured. Pretty poor. But a lot of the units were extremely good. The US Marines were very gung-ho, very macho, but I think they suffered more casualties than they needed to do because some of them just refused to dig in, because “Marines don’t do that!” Whereas we had the attitude – “You dig or you die” and that’s the difference I think. Although our battalion suffered – well I know it suffered more casualties than any other Australian unit, it did fight well but of course you’ve got to realise 3 RAR were there for over three years of fighting and our casualties were, I think 234 killed in that time – out of a total Australian fatal casualty list of 340, but that’s over a three-year period.
“At the start of the Korean War, the South Korean army was organised only for defence. The Americans did not permit them to have armoured units; they did not permit them to have artillery units. The reason for that was that the then President of South Korea was very aggressive and he was always talking about invading North Korea and re-uniting it. The Americans were frightened that if they gave them the means, they’d do it. So when the North Koreans attacked, they attacked with several hundred tanks, plenty of artillery and they had an air force, so they virtually annihilated the South Korean army. The only way the South Koreans could form another army was to go into every village and, town and do what the British Navy used to do with their press-gangs – anyone between the ages of 15 and 50 were press-ganged into the Army. They were issued a uniform and a rifle, and it was amazing. They never received any training because on several occasions while I was over there, the South Koreans soldiers would come to me. They couldn’t speak English of course but they’d have their weapons, usually a Garrand Semi Automatic rifle, or whatever type weapon the Americans had issued, and by sign language would ask “How do you load this thing?” They didn’t even know how to load them, let alone how to aim and fire them. So I’m not over-critical. I was over-critical in the first stage. I thought “they’re a gutless mob” but when you’re untrained and you don’t know how to use your weapons, I think they acquitted themselves very well. Some of their formations later in the war performed extremely well. It was just unfortunate in the first seven or eight months in the fluid stages of the fighting, that they had to make use of untrained soldiers. But I’m afraid the South Korean military justice system was very swift. I do recall hearing where a division broke, the division commander was pulled out and shot together with a couple of his battalion commanders, an example to others: “You’re there to stand and fight.”
In April 1951 Ron’s regiment was involved in the significant Battle of Kapyong that prevented the communist army from pushing through to Seoul.
“I was an MFC. A Mortar Fire Controller again with A Company which was occupying the lower slopes of a ridgeline that came down from the peak of Hill 504. We had been fighting for seven months almost continuously by then and we had just gone into reserve for a rest. We were in the rest area for about four days and then we got sent up to an area a few miles ahead. We were originally told it was only going to be an overnight stay as a precautionary measure, and that we would be returning to Corps Reserve in the morning. The rifle companies who’d occupied the new positions were all well sited. It was the 23rd April when we were at the new position. Later that afternoon about 4.30pm we had a meal that was brought up to us – what we call a “hot box meal”. The South Korean Division that had been in front of us had been attacked heavily. They broke and were soon in retreat. They started streaming through us just on dark about seven or eight o’clock. By nine o’clock we had the first of the Chinese right on our doorsteps, knocking on the door. B Company was the first group to be attacked but they were on a lower ridge and had a good view and consequently the attacks were knocked back fairly easily. Later on the attacks switched to A Company where I was the Mortar Fire Controller. We were on a higher ridge than B Company with very steep approaches and you couldn’t see the Chinese until they were about five to 10 metres from you. Consequently when they came, you just saw their head and shoulders appear over the ridge. You just, fired as quickly as you could and after a bit of fighting they would retreat. Their movements were controlled mainly by whistles and bugles, because the Chinese –did not have radios down to company and platoons as we did and this made it impossible for them to change the direction of their attack in the dark. As they couldn’t really control their soldiers in the dark they attacked time and again up exactly the same line of approach. So they just kept coming and we kept knocking them back. Eventually the platoon on the lowest level got overrun and – well, there were only about 12 men left out of a platoon of 30. The survivors were withdrawn into the area where I was with the company headquarters. Consequently the Chinese occupied our previous platoon position for the night, while we occupied the higher ground.
“During that night, I think, ‘A’ company, had 17 killed, and that included some attached troops like medium-machine gunners and two New Zealanders who were there to control the fire from the Kiwi 25 pounder artillery. When daylight came, we counter-attacked and pushed the Chinese off the place they’d occupied. There were heaps of bodies there on the slopes leading up to the ‘A’ company position. There was no artillery and mortar support all during the first night because the artillery, the 16th Field Regiment of the Royal New Zealand Artillery had been forward supporting the South Koreans. They came back after dark and they had to survey the guns in before they were able to support you with fire. So they could not support us with artillery fire that night. At my mortar platoon base plate position, which was in the rear near Battalion Headquarters, when I called for supporting fire they were unable to give any fire support. They were under attack by the Chinese themselves at that time. So the battalion was virtually surrounded. We had eaten the “hot box meal” the night before but we had no other rations with us. There was no way to obtain any food, as vehicles couldn’t get through as the Chinese controlled the only road in the area. We didn’t get anything to eat until round about mid-day on ANZAC Day 25th. Neither was there any ammunition re-supply worth mentioning. No food, water or ammunition was able to get forward. The company commander of A Company was appointed as the Commander of the forward troops. He was told that being the senior rifle company commander, he was in command of all rifle companies. If he could get the troops out, he was to command the withdrawal. So he organised and commanded the withdrawal of the rifle companies and I accompanied him as his radio operator because I was one of the few who still had a working radio. So we made a fighting withdrawal. It wasn’t, as some people seem to suggest, a retreat. It was a fighting withdrawal, which meant you fought all the way but you leap-frogged companies back so that one company would hold the Chinese at bay, whilst the next company behind would move back to another position. Then each would come back to a new defensive position gradually fighting our way down. And we were lucky. We got back to the ford across the river at about 10 o’clock that night and fortunately for us, the Chinese took the wrong turn off the track in the dark at the ford and didn’t follow us. They then found themselves across the river engaged in battle with the Canadians. The Canadians held them for another 18 to 20 hours. But it was a long hard battle. Altogether we had 33 killed in action, as well, I think it was 59 wounded were wounded in action and three Australians were captured by the Chinese. This was for the whole battalion. So, it was a big battle. It was our biggest defensive battle and our largest number of casualties for any one action throughout the whole of the Korean War – for the Australians anyway.
“The Chinese had thought that when they broke through the South Korean division that they were going to have a quick run through to Seoul. That was the idea. They were trying to recapture Seoul. It would have been a big propaganda coup and they didn’t anticipate anyone standing and fighting. And I’m afraid the Australian’s policy was if you had a hill, you stood, you fought for it. And that slowed them down and created so many casualties that their advance just ran out of steam. That was virtually it. I don’t know what the Chinese total casualties were because a lot more were killed by the artillery fire, quite a few were killed by the Canadians too. So at a guess there’d be well over a thousand Chinese killed. But the Chinese were prepared to accept large numbers of casualties. That was the thing – they did have plenty of manpower even if they didn’t have the technical equipment. Three or four months later they had plenty of artillery. Luckily for us they did not have it at that stage or it could have been a different story.”
The day-to-day conditions were very difficult, mainly because of the extremely cold weather.
“When we initially got over there, the ration system was bully beef and hard biscuits, and that was it for about the first six weeks. Then we got on to the American rationing system, what they called their C rations, which was a boxed combat ration, starting off with C2. This was the earliest ration we got and it consisted of three meals, a couple of small cans of food and cigarettes, toilet paper that sort of thing – far superior to the bully beef and biscuits. And then occasionally you’d get British rations issued – a five-man or a 10-man ration pack. Now they’re fine in a rifle company because a rifle section is normally about nine or 10 and so two five-man packs would do that, or one 10- man pack, but if you’re a fire controller for the mortars, or a machine gunner you’d find yourself trying to split up the contents of the 10-man pack. Of course a majority of the people wanted all the goodies and several times as a fire controller I ended up for a 24 hour ration pack with a tin of potatoes or something similar. We hated those. We were happy to get back on the individual combat rations.
“Weatherwise – before the winter really set in, there was torrential rain and mud. Vehicles would bog – if you tried to dig in – although in the early stages before we really got up into the mountains when you tried to dig in, you’d find by the morning your trench was half full of water. In the winter, of course, it was a lot different. Not too many people, I think have got fond memories of a Korean winter. Terrible. In those early winter days, we weren’t really prepared for it. I don’t think a majority of Australians had ever even seen snow except in a postcard. And it was very hard. We went over there with our ration, our mess tins and our metal knife, fork and spoon. You’d try to eat with those and as soon as a knife, fork or spoon touched your lips it would stick to it, and you’d tear the skin off. So we learned to use the American’s plastic cutlery. And you couldn’t touch any metal with your bare hands because your hands would stick to that.
“The Mortar Platoon and the Medium Machine Gun Platoon were initially equipped with vehicles they called a Bren gun carrier. This is a lightly armoured, small tracked vehicle. Each one would carry a mortar crew, ammunition and a mortar. And they had a steering column roughly about an inch round of solid steel. In the winter the steel crystallised and when the driver went to lock the tracks to turn the vehicle, the steering column would snap. I think those Bren gun carriers, lasted about two weeks in the Korean winter and we very soon got jeeps and trailers which were much more suitable. But that winter, every hour they had to start the vehicles up and run them for 10 minutes and move them back and forth because if they didn’t, the engine block would be frozen, the radiator would be frozen and the tyres or the tracks would be frozen solid to the ground. You wouldn’t move it. Same with our mortars. We used to fire a few rounds to bed the mortar base plates into the ground to form a firm firing position. You then pulled the base plate out again, put straw under it and put the base plate back in the hole in the ground, because if you didn’t and you had to move, you’d have to leave the base plate behind, because it would be frozen solid. No way you could move it. You’ve got those winds coming down from Manchuria. It was bitterly cold. Some of the older soldiers, I’m talking here mainly K-Force people, some of them had understated their age to get back into the Army, they really felt it. And in the early stages of the winter there were quite a few cases of SIWs, self-inflicted wounds, because they just couldn’t take the winter. Rheumatism, arthritis, frozen feet, frozen hands – it wasn’t pleasant.
“If you occupied a position long enough, then you would dig latrines, providing of course that you could dig something in on the ground and you’d use latrines which you would cover up afterwards. But if the ground was frozen then there was no way in the world you could use the ordinary trench latrine as we would normally do. And when we were on the move it was impossible to dig latrines. At one stage, we were in action for seven weeks, seven weeks before we were able to change clothing and have a shower. So you had to carry seven weeks’ dirt and seven weeks without a change of underwear. Actually it was quite funny I suppose in retrospect. In the first move into North Korea, when we first experienced the bitter wind, the cold and the rain, some of us went into a North Korean hut. Now, when the Koreans build these huts, they’re mud huts, mud and thatch huts. They build a system under the floor of small tunnels and outside they have a little fireplace, and the heat runs through the tunnels and heats the house. Well, we didn’t know much about that so we got in, heaped up the fire like a good old barbecue, let her go, went to sleep. Half way through the night we woke to the smell of burning and our blankets were smouldering. The floor was red hot. The other bad thing about that particular home stay was that we contracted body lice because the Koreans were not overly hygienic. I mean for example, the North Koreans and the South Koreans were mainly a farming population. They wore mainly white clothing. They’d wear it while working out in the fields; they’d come back, have a meal, there were no facilities to bathe or wash, so they would turn their clothing inside out, and that’s their night attire then. And then they get up in the morning, turn it back outside again and off to work. So, there weren’t really any sanitary conditions. Lice, body lice were everywhere. We carried our body lice on us for another two or three weeks before we could burn our clothing. We located a mobile bath unit, and had our showers, which was a great relief. We were issued replacement clothing by the mobile bath unit.
“In those days we only had one water bottle, which held I suppose about ¾ litre of water and that had to do you for everything. For shaving, because they insisted you shave daily, and the rest for cooking. And the ration of water wouldn’t last long. In the winter, when the water trucks came around, the water would be frozen solid. The driver would stand outside at the end where the taps were with a blowlamp, thawing the water out. Of course by the time it was in your water bottle, it was frozen again.
“Our morale was good, because, if you were dug in, in a defensive position, the nearest pit might be five or 10 metres away – doesn’t matter if it’s daylight or dark, you knew that the fellow would hold that pit until he was either killed or wounded; and because you could rely on the people to stay, you stayed. And that was it. Everybody trusted each other, you trusted them with your life – because your life depended on it. And that’s it. I mean, at Kapyong, it was dark, extremely close range fighting. In fact it was hand-to-hand some of the time. Some of the Chinese just ran straight past you, just straight over the hill and back in the rear somewhere. It was amazing. That was when I enjoyed my 24th birthday, 24th April. Most of our heavy fighting was the night of the 23rd, and morning of the 24th. “I went in to South Korea on 28th September 1950 and I came away on the 2nd October ’51 just before the Battle of Maryang San. I’d been advised that I was going to be the fire controller again for A Company at Maryang San or Operation Commando as it was called then. Just on the morning of 2nd, I had been promoted to Sergeant by then, and they said “Sergeant, see that truck.” I said “Yes.” “If you’re not on that in five minutes, you’re going to be here for another three months.” And that was it, I was gone. I’d had enough, I’d served my 12 months. That was enough.”
Following his return to Australia, Ron married June Slaughter in Brisbane on 29 November 1952. He later went on to serve in Vietnam.
“I had eventually ended up as a Warrant Officer Class 2 weapons training instructor at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. I was posted there in 1958 and in 1962 the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam was formed and I was invited to become a member of the Team. I was amongst the first of the volunteers to attend the training courses in Sydney and at Canungra. I went over to South Vietnam with the first group of Advisors. Initially I went up to a place called Hiep Khahn and it was a job instructing what they called the Civil Guard. Those were the people who would guard bridges and important buildings. Then there was another group lower down the scale than them – the Village Defence Force and they also came through our training centre as well. After a while I had the good fortune to be posted to an American Special Forces group that were operating outside a place called Khe Sahn near the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Vietnam. Later Khe Sanh became famous as a big US Marine Base, but while I was there in ’62/’63 it was just an old French triangular mud fort. Manning the fort, there were three companies of Montagnards, mountain tribesmen, who were enlisted by the Americans as mercenaries, a company of Vietnamese Special Forces, and the American Special Forces detachment of 10, which included myself. We conducted operations along the border, right up close to the demilitarised zone.
“We not only did quite a few operations alongside the demilitarised zone, but also within it, illegally. And we had a few clashes there and a few casualties – but the Montagnards unfortunately were the ones who bore the brunt of that. It was really sad because at the end of the war, all those Montagnards, thousands, tens of thousands had been recruited, the Americans just left them and when the North Vietnamese took over South Vietnam, they just slaughtered them. Terrible – men, women and children – anyone they thought had supported the South – that was it, they were gone. But it was, an interesting period of time. I did 12 months in South Vietnam less by about one week because the last week, I caught amoebic dysentery while serving with the Montagnards. I ended up hospitalised at Dha Nhang in an American Military Hospital. Once my problem was diagnosed by the Americans, and it took about 10 days before it was finally diagnosed as Amoebic Dysentery, they gave me their miracle cure of what was – I think, a course of eight tablets.
“Like South Korea in the early days, there was no such thing as hygiene. In fact, I always claim that the largest open-air toilet you ever wish to see was looking at the citadel in Hue the old fortress which had a village located inside it. And it’s the biggest open-air toilet you’ve ever seen. Apart from places like Saigon or, as it’s now called Ho Chi Minh City, which does have plumbing and sewerage. The towns and villages had none in those days and people just wandered along the street and did their business in front of everybody, just commonplace, no one took any notice. It was a bit of an eye-opener for us going over there. The Montagnards cooked the meals for everyone within the fort and of course they’d go to the toilet, no running water, they wouldn’t wash their hands, they’d go and continue to prepare the meals. So quite a few people went down with disease of one sort of another. I think I got two lots over there. Apart from the amoebic dysentery, I ended up with Dengue Fever as well. I returned home, thinking I was cured. The Australian authorities had a different idea; they put me into Concord Repatriation Hospital for about three weeks. When I returned to Australia, I think I weighed about six or seven stone, skin and bone – my wife didn’t recognise me when she came to see me in the hospital – she just saw “this old man coming down the centre of the ward, a skinny old man.” That was me.
“I went back in 1968. By that time I had been promoted to WO1 during early 1963, while still in Vietnam. After I returned to Australia, and after being hospitalised in Concord Repat Hospital, I was posted as RSM to 16th Battalion, Royal West Australian Regiment. I was only there as RSM for about six weeks and I was sent on an officers’ qualifying course. I qualified and in February of ’64 I was commissioned as a Lieutenant. By the time I went back to Vietnam again in ’68, I was a Major. I was what they called the Officer Commanding the 2 RAR Australian component – 2RAR was just about to return to Australia from South Vietnam. I had to organize their reception, accommodation, meals, security etc. back in Australia and I went across to brief the senior NCO’s and officers on what would be happening on 2 RAR’s return. I was over there for about three weeks and I came back and then, when the troops were on the way back, I went across and joined the “Sydney” when it neared Darwin to give them another briefing. Interesting times, and I ended up as a Company Commander with 2RAR for about three years. My last hurrah was a posting over to Singapore when I was the administrative officer for a field survey that was taking place in Sumatra where the 5 Field Survey squadron from Western Australia went across and flew aircraft to do aerial mapping and clearing and marking of mountains for mapping purposes. So I spent some time in Singapore and some time in Sumatra working for that as the administrative officer and that was shortly before I was retired. I retired in April ’74.
“I had 25 years in the Australian Army. The only reason I got out was I reached the retiring age for Major and – Gough Whitlam came in. That was one of the prime reasons. I had been offered an extension of service and possible promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel but then Gough Whitlam got elected and the first thing he did was stop all extensions of service and started stripping the army once again. So I had to retire at the age of 47. But I look on it as a wonderful career. I really enjoyed every minute of it. Well, I didn’t enjoy the snow and the ice and things but I got great satisfaction from it.”
(Ron Perkins was interviewed in July 2003).