UK Journalist Illuminates Forgotten War
Fifty-eight years ago on this very day, April 22, 1951, the Korean War (1950-53) had been blazing for almost a year, and U.N. forces were sure the war was won. The Imjin River front stood still in silence, as Britain's 29th Infantry Brigade stationed along this critical line was about to wrap things up. But catastrophe broke loose with the largest communist offensive of the war.
Outnumbered 7-1, the soldiers stood in desperation for three days. One particular battalion, the Glosters, was stranded in enemy territory and had to fight back-to-back until their ammunition was exhausted. ``That's why it's called `To The Last Round,''' said Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based British journalist, about his new book on Tuesday. ``The Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951'' (Aurum London) is the first comprehensive account of the conflict with China and North Korea and is being translated to film by internationally renowned director Daniel Gordon.
``British forces have fought all over the world since the 1950s, but Imjin River remains the bloodiest battle since World War II. Of the brigade's 4,000 men, 1,091 were dead, wounded or captured… However, today in the United Kingdom this tragedy is almost forgotten,'' said the author. Back home, he said, military history is a popular genre but there are barely any books on the Korean War.
The Korean War itself is dubbed ``the Forgotten War,'' sandwiched between Hitler's World War II and the politically-charged Vietnam War. ``This is an important book because the Korean War is being forgotten, and such a tragic war should never ever recur,'' said special guest Lee Kyung-sik, 77, who interpreted for British soldiers during the battle. He is one of the four Koreans that Salmon quotes extensively in the book. Lee had memorized 100 English words a day for survival, since the smallest misinterpretation could risk lives on the front. A former reporter for The Korea Herald, he is now the publisher-chairman of The Korea Post.
``For many people the war is still alive,'' said Salmon. He met one British veteran who was haunted by the vision of a Chinese soldier he had killed, and was ``exorcised'' only when he revisited Korea recently. One soldier, Sam Mercer, 22 at the time, volunteered for ``travel and adventure,'' and lost an eye and a leg and spent two and a half years in captivity. But the veteran said, ``I don't regret a moment,'' and Salmon knew he had ``a fantastic story.''
Salmon spent two years on research, interviewing some 50 veterans in America, Canada, Ireland, Belgium, England and Korea, and browsing through the national archives in London, Washington and Korea. Gordon began filming in London last month and is now in Gloucester to capture the local cathedral's Gloster regimental chapel. One interesting relic is the stone ``Korean Cross,'' which the Gloster commanding officer carved during his 18 months of solitary confinement in a Chinese prison camp.
``After a trilogy of films in North Korea, this marks my debut in the South,'' Gordon, the first non-Korean filmmaker to shoot in the Stalinist state, was quoted as saying in a press release. ``Ever since Andrew told me about his project, I have been intrigued. When I read the men's personal stories I was blown away by their courage and what they had endured during this battle.''
The movie's main aim is to bring the surviving veterans of Imjin River to Korea. The addition of computer graphics and dramatic reenactment by actors will add to the budget.
The filmmakers are seeking private investment because South Korean governmental bodies refused to fund the movie, reasoning that ``the Korean War is not in line with the `brand image' (they) want to promote," Salmon said. ``I think if you want to understand how prosperous and free Korea is, you need to contrast it with the brutality and poverty of the war,'' he added.
``Korea is now a rich country, one of the richest countries in the world. To fully understand that, you have to contrast it with the way it was 50 years ago. That is a tremendous achievement by the Korean people. On a different angle, war is the greatest human drama. Much of the great poetry, literature and film are on the drama of war. I'm surprised Korea doesn't package its tourism toward the Korean War,'' he said.
The filmmakers hope the film will be ready to be screened by the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War next year. ``I truly hope the Korean government and society will unite to commemorate next year's 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. For next year will be the last significant event that living witnesses will be able to participate in,'' said Salmon.
``(`The Last Stand') is just one story of the Korean War. There are thousands of more stories that will die forever unless Korea also tells them,'' he continued. ``South Korea owes it to herself to remember this human tragedy with the appropriate scale and appropriate honor.''
Salmon covers the Koreas for Forbes, The South China Morning Post, The Times and The Washington Times and is the author of ``American Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866-the Present.'' He lives in Seoul with his wife Ji-young and daughter Hannah. For more information about ``To the Last Round,'' visit tothelastround.wordpres.com.