[Heroes from afar] Turkish soldiers came to the aid of war’s orphans
Survivor recalls 1950 rescue from a devastated North Korean village
“No one else had called me Ayla,” she said during an interview at her home in Incheon on Thursday. “So you can imagine my shock when a government official from Suwon called me up over the phone one day to ask if I was once called by that name.”
Ayla, which in Turkish means the halo of light surrounding the moon, was what Suleyman Dilbirligi, a 25-year-old Turkish soldier, called Kim, then 5 years old, for the year and a half they were together at the Turkish garrison during the Korean War (1950-1953).
Kim, now 75, still keeps a photograph of herself and Dilbirligi on her bedside table, and says she remembers her time with the Turkish soldiers as the happiest days of her life.
“The soldiers would make clothes for me out of their own battledress, and we would have snowball fights. Sometimes on their off days, Suleyman and the soldiers would take me on a ride on one of the tanks,” she recalled.
“I remember holding onto his legs, crying,” Kim said. “He kept saying he’ll come back for me in a few days.”
Days turned into weeks and weeks into years. Kim, deciding that there must be other reasons that are holding her father from returning to the country, decided to make use of her time while she waited. She stayed with her friends at a school set up by the Turkish forces called the Ankara School in Suwon, Gyeonggi.
Like many of her friends there, Kim left the school in her teens to search for work. She took jobs as they came, waiting tables, working at a clothing factory and as an assistant at the gynecology department of a hospital. At age 24 she married someone she was introduced to through a matchmaker. The couple had a son a few years later.
Kim had settled down with a family of her own, but still something felt amiss.
“I was still waiting for my Turkish father,” she said. “I realized, too late, that I knew nothing about him. I didn’t recall his name, I didn’t have any photos of him. All I knew was that he was somewhere in Turkey.”
Because she didn’t have any information about Dilbirligi, Kim said she could not seek help from either the Korean government nor the Turkish government. But the desire to do something about her past grew stronger.
“I think part of the reason why I wanted to find out so badly about my Turkish father was because I did not know where I came from and he was the only root of mine that I could remember,” she said.
Then one day in 2010, a few days after she received the strange call from the Suwon city government, the producer of a documentary for Chuncheon MBC showed up in front of her home in Incheon. They showed her photos of Dilbirligi with her.
“I couldn’t believe it, they said that my father had been looking for me and had contacted Korean tourism offices in Turkey,” she said. “Word got around and reached the producer, who was able to piece together his photos, Ankara School, my close contacts there and me.”
It had been six decades since she last saw him. But there was no mistake in her gut feeling.
“I saw him walk toward me, and his gait, his face — I knew it was my father,” she said.
“Is that you, Ayla?” Dilbirligi asks in the documentary, quickening his pace toward her in a park in Yeouido, western Seoul, in 2010.
The pair soon afterward embraced, with Kim repeating through her tears, “Baba, why did you come so late?”
“Turkish troops did not only fight against the enemies but also provided humanitarian assistance to the civilians and sheltered orphaned Korean children at the battlefield and took care of them,” said Ersin Ercin, ambassador of Turkey to Korea.
“When the number of these children grew, it posed a challenge to the fighting units that had to ensure their safety. Therefore, they began to send these children to a location near Suwon to take care of their needs in a more organized manner by gathering them under a common roof. They did not want to call it an orphanage and instead named it the Ankara School.”
Oh Su-eup, 78, also grew up at the school.
“As far as I can remember, my life began at the school,” Oh said. “I was there until I became an adult. There were some 60 to 70 other kids, also sheltered by the Turkish soldiers. They taught us Turkish and spent time with us. Folks from the school became like family for us. We still get together for celebrations.”
The first battles engaged by the Turkish forces were clashes with Chinese troops in a North Korean region called Kunwu-ri, close to the Yalu River on the Chinese border, in November 1950. They also fought at the Battle of Kimryangjang near Suwon, Gyeonggi, in January 1951; the Battle of Jangseungcheon near Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi, in April 1951; and the Battle of Nevada Outpost near Gorangpo, Gyeonggi, near the end of the war in May 1953.
The Turkish brigades received awards from both Korea and the United States recognizing extraordinary gallantry and valor.
Ambassador Ercin said the Battle of Jangseungcheon, which started on Aptil 22, 1951, was especially fierce.
“By approximately 19:00 o’clock, the Chinese Communist Army had been bombarding, for 40 minutes, the southern Daegwang-ri region in Jangseungcheon where the Turkish brigade was stationed,” Ercin said. “When the enemy ground attack began, the Turkish gunner observation officer Lieutenant Mehmet Gonenc sent a puzzling message.”
Gonenc sent the coordinates of where his troops were and an order for the artillery to open fire there. The artillery liaison officer, confused, asked Gonenc to repeat his order.
“Gonenc told the officer, ‘We don’t want to be taken captive by the enemy! Do not abandon us to the enemy! To be fallen by our own artillery fire is our last wish and hope,’” Ercin said. “He then said, ‘We are sending you the exact coordinates again. All artillery corps please fire at this location!’ That’s according to the military records of Turkey.”
Turkey lost 724 lives in action during the war. Another 175 soldiers went missing in North Korea, 234 were taken as prisoners of war and 2,493 were wounded.
Battles were often fast-paced and hard to predict, recalled M. Arif Boran, who was deployed in June 1952 and remained in Korea through the end of the war.
“On the 27th or 28th of May in 1953 I was on guard duty with two friends,” Boran said. “All of a sudden, a piece of shrapnel whipped across and impacted the tree just next to us, while two other pieces of shrapnel hit me […] They immediately took me to the hospital by jeep. Everything happened so fast, one moment it was peaceful and tranquil the next it was chaos. If the tree hadn’t been there we would have all died for sure.”
“We came to Korea on a voluntary basis as part of the 66th division combat squadron,” Boran said. “We were young and ready to explore new horizons and help out our fellow human beings in their struggle for freedom and democracy.”
Some of the veterans have returned through the Korean government’s annual revisit programs.
“I was amazed by where Korea was when I visited 2019, the change was unbelievable,” said Muhit Karaman, who served in the war from 1951 to 1952 as a liaison and logistics officer.
He lost his two cousins, also veterans, during the war.
Mehmet Ziya Ozturk, who came to serve in the war in October 1952, revisited Korea in 2009.
“Korea was once tired and worn out with a war in which it paid a very heavy price,” he said. “Now it has become a country with the world’s most advanced industrial and technology giants [...] and is regarded as a fast-paced society. It is very pleasing to see these changes.”
Despite the grueling realities of the war, Ozturk said over the years his experiences have become adventures and tales to tell his grandchildren.
“I am sure that these experiences of ours will be told as fairy tales by our children, like legends,” he said. “Our common history, memories and pain will always keep us together. After all, we may be the first and only nation in the world that calls each other ‘Blood Brothers.’”
Turkey sent 14,936 men to serve in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Turkish brigades engaged in battles including Battle of Kunwu-ri, north of Pyongyang in November 1950 and the Battle of Jangseungcheon near Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi, in April 1951. A total of 724 soldiers were killed in action, 175 went missing in North Korean areas, 234 were taken captive and 2,493 were wounded.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]
This series is a weekly publication in cooperation with the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.