[Heroes from afar] Thailand’s ‘Little Tigers’ fought bravely in Korea

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[Heroes from afar] Thailand’s ‘Little Tigers’ fought bravely in Korea

Rommanee Kananurak, ambassador of Thailand to Korea, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Sept. 7. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Rommanee Kananurak, ambassador of Thailand to Korea, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Sept. 7. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Country was the first in Asia to send troops and stayed until ‘72

They were fierce, relentless, unforgiving. The Americans called them the “Little Tigers.”
 
“From Nov. 1 to 11 in 1952, the 1st Battalion of the 21st Thai Regiment attached to the U.S. forces fought off waves of enemy attacks in the sub-freezing temperatures in the mountains near Cheorwon, located above the 38th parallel line,” Rommanee Kananurak, ambassador of Thailand to Korea, told the Korea JoongAng Daily on Sept. 7.
 
But the weather wasn't the most imposing hurdle during the battle, which took place at Pork Chop Hill from Oct. 31 to Nov. 11, 1952.
 
“Thai forces fought off three waves of enemy attacks despite being outnumbered by seven to one,” Kananurak said. “Though the Thai forces were supported by the UN’s artillery and mechanized forces, the fight was so intense that the Thai forces had to engage in close-quarters combat.”
 
The Thais emerged victorious. The Chinese and North Korean forces suffered 322 deaths and more than 1,000 wounded, while the Thais recorded 23 deaths and 76 wounded, according to Thailand's military records.
 
Recognizing the Thai battalion’s valor, General James A. Van Fleet, commander of the 8th U.S. Army at the time, awarded one Legion of Merit, 12 Silver Stars and 26 Bronze Star Medals to the soldiers in the battalion, and christened them the “Little Tigers.”
 
Thailand was the first Asian nation to deploy troops to the Korean War (1950-1953), with the first of their forces arriving in November 1950. Over the course of the war, Thailand would send 6,326 soldiers, air force fighters and navy officers to Korea, according to the Korean Defense Ministry.
 
Lt. Col. Banjop Tonuan, 94, was one of the first ones to arrive.
 
“I was a corporal with the 2nd Squad Leader, 2nd Platoon, 3rd Company [of the Thai forces],” Lt. Col. Tonuan said on Aug. 31, in response to emailed questions from the Korea JoongAng Daily. “I was one of the troops in the first rotation to fight in this war, serving a year and a half in Korea from 1950 to 1951.”
 
Just 25 years old at the time, Lt. Col. Tonuan saw a broad swath of the Korean Peninsula during his deployment. One of his missions in late 1950 involved operations in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. 
 
Lt. Col. Banjop Tonuan during his service as a corporal of the Thai forces during the Korean War (1950-1953). He was 25 years old when he came to Korea in 1950. [BANJOP TONUAN]

Lt. Col. Banjop Tonuan during his service as a corporal of the Thai forces during the Korean War (1950-1953). He was 25 years old when he came to Korea in 1950. [BANJOP TONUAN]

“My unit and I were on the train from Daegu to Pyongyang for 10 days [in November 1950],” he said. “When we arrived at Pyongyang, we had the advantage, until North Korea was supported by China and we were forced to retreat.”
 
The United Nations forces had taken Pyongyang on Oct. 19, 1950. But they were forced to beat a retreat by early December, after as many as 300,000 Chinese forces were estimated to have flooded into North Korea, pushing the UN forces out of the city.  
 
“I was one of 10 soldiers who was assigned to station at the Ordnance Ammunition Depot and destroy all ammunition and supplies stockpiles, when Chinese forces were coming close to Pyongyang,” Lt. Col. Tonuan recalled. “I was the one who ignited the explosion. There was a huge explosion, which was extremely loud and devastated the areas. After that, we headed back to South Korea.”
 
In one battle after another, the soldiers got further acquainted with Korea's terrain and weather, but the atrocities of the war never became easier to bear, Lt. Col. Tonuan recalled.
 
“My worst memory during the war was the result of napalm bombs that were dropped by U.S. Air Forces,” he said. “After a napalm strike, I was assigned to patrol the area of impact and found nothing but ash, ruins and burnt lifeless bodies of Koreans all over the place.” 
 
For some Thai veterans, the Korean War was their first combat experience. 
 
Col. Samran Wongkhunti remembers the day he was sent to Korea as an 18-year-old private first class, on Oct. 22, 1950.
 
“At that time, I had just graduated from the Army’s non-commissioned officer school and had not been aware of the serious situation occurring in the Korean Peninsula," he said. "But with the intention to gain experience in the military service and an opportunity to travel abroad, I immediately volunteered to join the war.”
 
Col. Samran Wongkhunti during his service in the Korean War (1950-1953). Col. Wongkhunti served in Korea at the age of 18, from October 1950 to October 1951. [SAMRAN WONGKHUNTI]

Col. Samran Wongkhunti during his service in the Korean War (1950-1953). Col. Wongkhunti served in Korea at the age of 18, from October 1950 to October 1951. [SAMRAN WONGKHUNTI]

Finding himself in an unfamiliar environment, many things were a first for Col. Wongkhunti. After all these years, the shock from the first attack remains clearly etched in his memory.
 
“My unit was attacked and hit with shrapnel from a mortar round while on patrol,” he said. “The company communications chief was killed, the commander and some soldiers were severely injured by the bomb blast. It was a real war experience that I would never forget.”
 
Throughout the conflict, the Thai forces lost 128 soldiers. Another 318 were wounded and five went missing, according to Thai National Memorial. 
 
Like all the other nations who volunteered troops to defend Korea, Thailand had no legal obligation to risk its soldiers' lives and come to Korea's aid at the outbreak of the war. Yet that was how they viewed the call for aid from the UN, Kananurak said.
 
“Even though the UN [Security Council] Resolution 84 was not a legal obligation and merely a recommendation to the UN member states, Thailand referred to the UN [Security Council] resolution as a legal [obligation] under Thai constitutional law to participate in the Korean War as part of an international cooperation to preserving international justice and peace in the world,” the ambassador said. “This decision demonstrated Thailand’s political commitment as a member of the UN to safeguard peace, security and the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea, according to the principles of the United Nations. “
 
The Thai forces would be among the last to depart Korea after the war, maintaining at least one company-sized combat unit in Korea from July 1955 to July 1972, with 17 rotations. Counting all those who had served in the war and into 1972, a total of 11,776 Thai served in Korea, according to Thai National Memorial.
 
That period of deployment was long enough to even span multiple generations, in at least one case.
 
“Gen. Boriboon Chulacharitta [who was then a colonel] was the commander of the 1st Battalion of the 21st Thai Regiment during the Korean War,” said Kananurak. “Later, Gen. Euaamsak Chulacharitta, Gen. Boriboon Chulacharitta’s son, [who was then a major,] was stationed in the Republic of Korea in the 1970s and oversaw the departure of [the last] Thai combat unit from the Republic of Korea in 1972.”
 
Since 1972, Thailand has contributed six soldiers to the UN Command honor guards with a military attaché as their commanding officer.
 
The friendship forged between Thailand and Korea during the war laid the foundation for their official diplomatic ties, established in 1958. The two nations upgraded their bilateral ties to a strategic partnership in 2012.
 
“This achievement was the cornerstone of the cordial ties of the diplomatic relationship between Thailand and the Republic of Korea,” the ambassador said. “Thai veterans continue to be the inspiration for the new generations to promote long-lasting peace, stability and prosperity in the Korean Peninsula and the world.”
 
Some of those veterans have had the opportunity to return and see the country for which they once fought in a different light.
 
Col. Wongkhunti, 88, in a photo taken recently. [SAMRAN WONGKHUNTI]

Col. Wongkhunti, 88, in a photo taken recently. [SAMRAN WONGKHUNTI]

“I returned to Korea in 1987,” said Col. Wongkhunti. “It was unbelievable that the Republic of Korea has become a developed country after the war.”
 
In Lt. Col. Tonuan’s memories, Koreans had kept a very simple lifestyle.
 
“During the war, I barely communicated with Koreans. I just waved my hands to greet them,” he said. “They were living in poor conditions, with nothing to consume but rice and Kimchi. In my experience, Koreans were utterly patient.”
 
Lt. Col. Tonuan had not been able to return to the country since its war-ravaged days, but he stayed abreast of the changes in Korea after the Thai troops left.
 
“I was really impressed with the rapid development of the Republic of Korea, despite the country suffering a significant loss after the war,” he said. “Koreans [showed] a great potential to rebuild their lives and their beloved nation.”
 
Lt. Col. Tonuan, 94, in a photo taken recently. [BANJOP TONUAN]

Lt. Col. Tonuan, 94, in a photo taken recently. [BANJOP TONUAN]

As the years pass by, so do memories of the war. But the 88-year-old Col. Wongkhunti says some things will remain unchanged.
 
“I [can no longer] remember the exact battles that I took part in, but it was my honor to be a part of the most important war in human history,” he said.  
 
 
Flag of Thailand

Flag of Thailand

Thailand
 
Thailand deployed 6,326 soldiers, air force fighters and navy officers to serve in the Korean War (1950-1953), according to the records at the Korean Ministry of National Defense. It was the first Asian nation to deploy troops to the war.  
 
Throughout the conflict, the Thai forces lost 128 soldiers. Another 318 were wounded and five went missing, according to Thai National Memorial.  
 
With the first of the troops arriving in November 1950, the Thai forces would be among the last to depart Korea after the war, maintaining at least one company-sized combat unit in Korea from July 1955 to July 1972, with 17 rotations. Counting all those who had served in the war and into 1972, a total of 11,776 Thai served in Korea, according to Thai National Memorial.
 
BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
 
This series is a weekly publication in cooperation with the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.

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