KOREA – MEMORIES OF A FORGOTTEN WAR

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“Macneil. D - 22644866”. Donald Macneil, former soldier, rattles of his name and serial number as if he was on the parade ground and not sitting in his warm kitchen in Daliburgh, South Uist.

Donald, 72, fought in a war that many people are either unaware of, or have forgotten about - the Korean War of 1950 -1953.

Here, he gives us an insight to his life but particularly his time as a soldier.

Donald was born in Peninerine in 1933 and recalls how, as a schoolboy during World War II, it was women and children who had to do all the work.

“Practically all the men between the ages of 17 and 50 were called away to the war, unless they were medically unfit. This left the children and their mothers to tend to all the chores normally done by their older brothers or their fathers,” states Donald.

“It was during the war that the seven week school holidays were brought in as it was harvest time and us children had to help out. It wasn’t a holiday I can tell you, we were working all the time.

“The kids today have the same holidays but they don’t have a harvest to tend to,” he adds with a wry smile.

Donald left school at the age of 13, and started lobster fishing.

“A man from Loch Skipport, Donald Maceachen, was supposed to start fishing with his son but for some reason the son ended up not going.

“I was asked if I’d help out and I jumped at the chance,” admits Donald.

“The lobsters were plentiful back then and no matter how many creels you put out, they would be full every time you hauled them in.”

Donald continued lobster fishing around South Uist until he received his call up for National Service in 1951. He got an exemption due to the fact he was a fisherman, but this only lasted three months when it was discovered it only applied to deep-sea and not inshore fishermen.

So army life beckoned for Donald and things did not start well for him. His warrant instructed him to be in Aldershot by 5 o’clock on Monday evening but a long ferry journey coupled with waiting for trains meant he did not reach the base until the Tuesday night.

The guard turned him away and told him to return the next day.

“I reported to the base the following morning and was told I was going to get thrown in jail for going AWOL - I didn’t even know what it meant! (Absent without leave)

“It wasn’t until I showed them a map of where I came from and how long the journey was that I managed to avoid the jail,” says Donald with a shake of his head.

After two weeks training, he had to choose which regiment he was going to join. Initially the Navy was Donald’s first choice but he changed his mind after learning he would have to sign up for five years.

He chose the RASC - Royal Army Service Core, the Transport Division.

“We were told that a lot of lorry drivers were getting killed or injured in Korea and that we had to go to Somerset for driver training.

“I had been driving since the age of 10, as had most lads from my area,” explains Donald: “but I had never sat, let alone passed a driving test.

“My instructors couldn’t believe that I didn’t have a license but I soon passed my test and they considered me good enough to become a driving instructor - a job I didn’t like at all!”

Thanks to a kind old officer, he got a transfer to Nottingham where he drove a lorry for a spell before becoming a dispatch rider.

“That was the best job I had, delivering important messages all over the country” he declares.

Although getting satisfaction out of this job, it wasn’t to last for long.

“I arrived at base one night and saw seven names on a blackboard, one of which was mine,” recalls Donald: “I was being posted to Korea.”

After a week’s leave in Uist Donald started the long journey to Korea and boarded a London bound train in Glasgow. He entered a compartment with two young women in it and stretched out to try and get some sleep.

“Much to my surprise,” he divulges: “the girls started speaking rather graphically in Gaelic, and do you know who they were talking about? The soldier sat next to them - ME in other words! I didn’t realize women could speak so crudely about men.

“It turns out they were from Uist and when they found out I was too, they almost hit the floor with embarrassment.”

Donald boarded a ship and the voyage, after stops in Singapore and Hong Kong, finally ended in Japan after four weeks sailing.

After a plane journey from Japan to Korea and a train ride which stopped at various camps, Donald arrived at his base, where he was put along with an experienced English soldier.

“We had arrived at night and this boy says to me that we were heading out at first light.

“Morning came and we were crawling through thick undergrowth for what seemed like ages when out of the blue an American fighter jet flew right over us and dropped a napalm bomb no more than 300 yards in front of where we were lying.

“I turned to the boy and said: ‘I’m surprised that they’re practicing this close to the front line.’

“He just looked at me and said: ‘That is the front line and they’re not practicing!’

It was around a month after his arrival that Donald started driving lorry loads of ammo to the front and as well as having horrendous roads to drive on, snipers and mortar fire were a constant danger.

“I was making my way to the front line when a mortar exploded between the trailer and cab of my lorry,” he explains.

“The cab was only thin and I felt the blast hitting my back and arm.

“I lost control of the lorry and it went off the road and skidded 100 yards down a steep slope where it hit some rocks.

“So there I was with my legs trapped and a deep cut on my forehead to go along with the injuries I’d got in the initial mortar attack.

“My legs were stuck solid and I knew I was going to be there all day.

“It was 11am and there was no way my colleagues would attempt a rescue during the day, the snipers or mortar fire would pick them off easily.”

Donald spent the rest of the day drifting in and out of consciousness and as darkness started to fall, terrible thoughts began running through his head.

“In the situation I was in,” he confesses: “I wasn’t actually afraid of being killed in action, but the thought of being captured terrified me.

“The Chinese had an awful reputation for torturing their prisoners and some of the stories we heard were truly horrendous.

“We were taught that if you found yourself in a situation where you might be captured that you should never fire your last bullet at the enemy but keep it to use on yourself.

“If you had a grenade, this was better still, at least you could take some of the enemy with you.

“This was like a suicide bomb,” admits straight talking Donald: “ but it would be better to go quickly than to endure torture and slow death at the hands of the enemy.

“It’s an awful thing to think about but that’s just the way it was.”

Luckily, Donald was rescued after being trapped for nine hours and was flown to hospital in Tokyo and on his return to Korea he was promoted to Corporal. He was happy to be amongst his friends again but tragedy was looming.

“I was accompanying an inexperienced young English boy on a dangerous ammo run,” he begins.

“He was driving along when all of a sudden a shot rang out and caught him in the shoulder.

“We managed to stop the lorry and I quickly pulled the boy out of the way and took over the driving.

“As we drove, the youngster, who was clutching his injured shoulder, turned to me and said: ‘Thanks Jock, you’re a real mate...’ Just as he said these words there was a loud crack.

“The boy had taken a bullet in the forehead and was killed instantly. He was sitting where I had been moments before.

“I had to carry on, I couldn’t do anything else,” reveals a clearly emotional Donald.

Unusually, for a National Service soldier, Donald was promoted to the rank of Sergeant, but found the responsibility hard because he was ordering friends on missions that he knew could, potentially, lead to their deaths.

His involvement in the war came to an end in rather bizarre circumstances, as he explains.

“I was on another ammo run and the enemy gunfire was relentless, with bullets whizzing passed us at every turn.

“The driver got hit in the arm, so again, I took over the wheel. I told him to grab his sten gun and keep firing into the trees, in the direction of the sniper.

“He was blazing away with the sten gun when all of a sudden I felt a hot blast in my face,” recounts Donald.

“I couldn’t see out my right eye and my nose was bleeding but the thing was, it was the fellow in the lorry that had caused the damage, not the enemy!”

“Whether he was in a state of shock with his injury, I don’t know, but he had fired his gun with the muzzle only inches from my face, and the gunpowder blast got my eye and a bullet had grazed my nose.

“That was a friendly fire incident if ever there was one,” he laughs.

Yet again Donald was sent to hospital and thankfully, whilst recovering, the war ended.

“I was in Korea for 18 months. The longest 18 months of my life,” he admits.

“I went in as a naive 18 year old boy and came out as an experienced 20 year old man who had to make decisions very quickly.”

Donald came home after being treated in Inverness for his eye injury but unfortunately it did not heal properly. To save his eye Donald spent nine long months getting treatment in hospital in Stornoway.

On finally returning to Uist, Donald worked for MacBraynes and then drove buses before getting a job with the Post Office as a mechanic.

“I was 32 years with the Post Office and serviced vehicles from Berneray to Barra, the whole length of the Southern Isles.

“We not only serviced Post Office vehicles but were contracted to BT, the police, BP and the Hydro, 89 vehicles in all,” he remembers.

Many years after his return from Korea Donald found out that a fellow Uisteach, Donnie Johnstone, from Sollas had fought in the same war.

“There’s a fair chance I carried him in the back of one of my lorries and it’s decades later I find out about it.

“We were the lucky ones, at least we got home.

“I left many good friends in Korea, brave boys who never again saw their homeland,” ends Donald with tears in his eyes.

This article first appeared in Back in the Day in January 2006