British hero returns to Korea 59 years after battle
Though hundreds of thousands died in the Korean War, Victoria Cross holder William Speakman believes "We did the right thing."Seoul – William Speakman left South Korea on a stretcher in 1951 after a battle in which he was wounded twice and won Britain's highest military gallantry medal.
He came back last week for the first time, awed by the country's transformation from the ruins of the 1950-1953 war and convinced it was right to fight for its future.
"We did the right thing," Speakman, the last surviving winner of the Victoria Cross during the Korean War, told reporters late Tuesday.
"I look around and see what's going on here now. It was very worthwhile."
Speakman, 82, is one of some 200 British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand veterans returning this week to visit old battlegrounds and pay tribute at military cemeteries.
The war began 60 years ago following a North Korean invasion on 25 June, with a US-led United Nations Command from 17 nations fighting for the South and China supporting the North.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians died and the peninsula remains divided by barbed wire and minefields. But the South, in contrast to its neighbour, is now a vibrant democracy with Asia's fourth largest economy.
Its government, as a gesture of gratitude, is this year inviting at least 2,400 veterans and family members from nations which took part.
"For many of the returning veterans, it is South Korea's achievements since the war that give their sacrifice such meaning," British ambassador Martin Uden said in a statement marking the return of more than 60 Britons.
Britain was the second largest foreign troop contributor to UN forces, with some 58,000 serving in Korea and 1,109 killed. Seventy percent were conscripts and many could not have found Korea in an atlas before they were shipped out.
Private Speakman, a regular soldier, volunteered for Korea service.
He was serving on 4 November, 1951 with the King's Own Scottish Borderers when his battalion numbering 600-700 came under attack from a Chinese division of some 6,000.
Over the course of six hours and despite severe wounds, he led 15 grenade charges against the enemy and saved the lives of many comrades when they were finally forced to withdraw, according to official accounts.
His heroism was "beyond praise", the official citation said.
Speakman gave a more downbeat account.
"There was a hell of a lot of hand-to-hand fighting," he told reporters.
"Those buggers (the Chinese) were good fighters. We had our hands full. It went on for six hours, wave after wave after wave. We didn't do a bad job."
Eventually he lost consciousness from his wounds and was shipped to Japan to recover.
"That was my part in the war," said Speakman. "We did what we had to do, we held them."
He recovered and went on to serve with the elite Special Air Service Regiment, leaving the army in 1969 after 24 years.
British veteran William Speakman talks during a meeting with reporters in Seoul on 13 April 2010
On Wednesday Speakman and other veterans visited the cemetery for United Nations forces in the southern city of Busan.
Also among this week's visitors are former Fusilier Derek Kinne, awarded Britain's George Cross for his resistance while in Chinese captivity despite brutal torture.
Speakman was Saturday to revisit the scene of his battle, now part of the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas.
Man killed on the way to Maeson Dong. 2 September 1950
"I'm glad to be back in Korea," he told reporters and South Korean military cadets Tuesday. "You are a part of me. This is a wonderful country."
AFP / Expatica
Photo credit: US Army Korea - IMCOM