[Heroes from afar] Australians, and their loved ones, sacrificed for Korea
Widow's research spanned decades after husband died in battle
“Olwyn Green said on her death[bed] that she would like her remains to be interred next to Lt. Col. Charles Green in Busan,” said James Choi, ambassador of Australia to Korea, in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Oct. 26. “We’re hoping to facilitate the internment of her next year when the Covid-19 situation improves. The family will come to Korea to finally lay Olwyn next to Charlie.”
The two met briefly when Charles, then a lieutenant and assigned to the 22nd Australian Infantry Battalion, dropped by Olwyn’s father’s news agency in Ulmarra, just a few miles north of his hometown, in December 1939.
“When Charlie came into the shop I knew who he was, by his tallness and his officer’s uniform,” wrote Olwyn in the biography she wrote about Charlie in 1993. “I’ve never forgotten that incident. Immediately, I sensed some strange connection had been made.”
Charlie also remembered the moment, for he wrote to her in the middle of a campaign in the Middle East in 1941. He had been through two years of battles — fighting in the deserts of Egypt and Libya against the Italians and pulling off a narrow escape from the Germans in Greece — but during a moment of respite in Egypt’s El Arish, his thoughts turned to the girl he'd met in the shop two years earlier.
“Please do not faint or do anything drastic when you see who the author is,” Charlie begins his letter to Olwyn dated Sept. 18, 1941.
Brought together by fate during WWII, they continued their correspondence before getting married during the war. They had one daughter, Anthea, born in 1947.
“After the United Nations passed its initial resolutions [since the outbreak of the Korean War], we were one of the first countries to come to Korea with troops to support UN Command at the time,” said Ambassador Choi. “Australia was one of the principal designers of UN principles of international engagement and we wanted to support the United Nations at this point in time. In that context, there was a unified support for Australia to participate in coming to the defense of the Republic of Korea [ROK].”
Australia was the first country after the United States to commit all three branches of its armed forces to the Korean War. On June 28, 1950, then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies committed Australia’s Royal Australian Navy assets to the Korean War, followed several days later by the Royal Australian Air Force's No. 77 Squadron. The 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) of the Australian Army was committed to ground operations in Korea on July 26.
Charlie, at the time 30 years old, was selected as the commanding officer of the 3RAR. He had by that point earned credentials, including being the youngest battalion commander of the Australian Imperial Force in WWII, and also achieved distinguished records during the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order from Britain in 1947.
They were ordered to continue moving north, deeper into the North Korean territory. The 3RAR joined the American and British forces and led the UN forces to their victory at the end of the Battle of Chongju, from Oct. 29 to 30.
It was following the victory that Charlie, resting in his tent after not sleeping a wink for three days, was struck by a stray shell.
John Callander, adjutant of 3RAR, told Olwyn later, “He was still conscious [when I got to him]. He said, ‘Tell her I love her.’ He then muttered something about his daughter as he became unconscious.”
Charlie died on Nov. 1, 1950, the day the Chinese offensives began.
Gen. David Butler, who was then serving with Charlie, later recalled to Olwyn, “He left a battalion that absolutely refused to be deterred by any setback. Its real trials were to come. Through the long retreat in the cruel winter, they fought with stoicism seldom matched. They had the courage to stop a rampaging Chinese division in its tracks at Kapyong in April 1951. In some measure, that has to be Charles Green’s testament.”
The Battle of Gapyeong in Gyeonggi, from April 22 to 25 in 1951, was the bloodiest battle for the Australians in the war.
“It was a very critical point during the Korean War,” said Ambassador Choi. “On April 22, 1951, the Chinese troops launched an offensive heading toward Seoul. It was a narrow corridor through Gapyeong Valley, where there were Australian troops along with Canadians, New Zealanders, the Commonwealth Regiment, with the support of the Korean units to defend against the Chinese offensive. It was critical in the sense that if it wasn’t blocked, and the Chinese troops would have had a clear access to the capital at the time.”
By the end of the battle, which resulted in the UN forces’ victorious defense, 3RAR had lost 32 soldiers, while 53 had been wounded and three had been taken as prisoners, according to the Australian Embassy in Seoul.
When the war came to an end in July 1953, more than 17,000 Australians had served, 340 had died and over 1,216 were wounded. Another 30 became prisoners of war.
Olwyn said in her biography that in her grief she tried to "shut out the past and make a new life" for the next 30 years until she realized at a memorial ceremony for Charlie in 1980 that she didn't know much about her husband's military experiences. Inspired to discover more about him, she began a research project that quickly grew to encompass many other aspects of Australian troops' involvement in Korea and elsewhere.
“Always they were on the alert for something going wrong or for a mate in trouble,” she wrote in the biography, after having spoken to several soldiers who fought with Charlie at the WWII Battle of Bardia from Jan. 3 to 5, 1941. “Then the Australian soldier acts. He seems instinctively to know what to do. Through the din, through his straining mind, the soldier hears the cries that will haunt him all his life — of the wounded and the dying. Worse, he sees the bodies, inert, grotesque, contorted, erupting, gaping, smashed. He must go on and he does, for the sake of the others, for the honor of the unit. That is how the Australian soldier fights.”
In recalling the time of Australia’s declaration of participation in WWII, she wrote, “I was nearly 16, old enough to be aware that the sacrifices for this war were to be made by my generation [...] We women would be like my grandmother and all those others who had been robbed of their men: they dusted the pictures of the young soldiers in khaki; they kept mementoes in boxes on their dressing table and cried, often, for the rest of their lives.”
Australia’s overseas engagements date back to the Boer War in South Africa, and then onto WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Once her research began, it didn’t stop. She published the biography in 1993, then in 1994 donated several boxes of her research papers to the Australian War Memorial. In 2002, she donated more research materials, including recordings of oral interviews of Australian veterans of the Korean War.
In recognition of her work, Olwyn was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia Medal in 2006.
The quilt was displayed in the Australian War Memorial and the Australian Army Infantry Museum. It is now exhibited at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, where Lt. Col. Green has been buried since the end of the war.
“The Green family is and remains very touched and honoured by the Republic of Korea’s gratitude and continued remembrance of the sacrifice our family, and many others, made,” Anthea Green wrote to the Korea JoongAng Daily on Friday. “In particular, many Koreans we have met have formally and informally expressed appreciation and gratitude for their freedoms, and that, for them, remembering the sacrifice of Korean War veterans and families is important to them, as well as to us.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Australian veterans and their families have regularly revisited Korea. An estimated 2,500 Korean War veterans are still alive in Australia, according to the Australian Embassy in Korea.
“I’ve met quite a few veterans who shed a tear as they say that it was all worth it in the end,” said Ambassador Choi. “Even as they go through the Busan cemetery seeing their friends who were killed, they are still very proud that Korea has come so far in such a short period of time.”
As an Australian coming from a Korean family, Ambassador Choi said he grew up hearing about the horrors of the war from his parents and grandparents, who also witnessed the speed with which Korea transformed itself.
“As the Australian ambassador, I am so proud to see Korea now becoming the 10th largest economy in the world,” he said. “Our two-way trade has become quite significant, Korea is our third largest export market and fourth largest trading partner. Korea is now very much a significant player in the region and also the globe. For Australia to have contributed at that time during the war and now to see the Korea-Australia relations expand to the level it has now — it’s an amazing story.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]
Australia was the first country after the United States to commit all three branches of its armed forces to the Korean War. On June 28, 1950, then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies committed Australia’s Royal Australian Navy assets to the Korean War, followed several days later by the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 77 Squadron. The 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment of the Australian Army was committed to ground operations in Korea on July 26.
From June 29, 1950, to July 27, 1953, there were 10,657 Army, 4,507 Navy and 2,000 Air Force participants for a total of 17,164. A small force remained through to Aug. 26, 1957.
Of them 340 were killed and over 1,216 wounded. A further 30 became prisoners of war. Of the 340, 42 were classified as missing in action and presumed dead.
This series is a weekly publication in cooperation with the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.