[Heroes from afar] Just after its own civil war, Greece came to South Korea's aid
The ally's troops proved their mettle in pitched battles, crucial airlifts
Over 13,000 Chinese soldiers flooded the hill every night from June 10 to 18 in 1953, according to records at the Korean War Project.
The war-weary Greek soldiers renamed the hill Outpost Haros, the modern Greek equivalent of Charon, the ferryman of Hades in Greek mythology. They held out, but that victory, as with the others, came with a cost.
“There was a total of 174 burials [in my memory], most of the burials were taking place after the end of major battles such as Hill 381, Norri, Harry,” wrote Second Lt. Constantinos Farros, who served in the Korean War (1950-1953), to the Korea JoongAng Daily on Dec. 7.
“Burial for the Greek people is a very sensitive issue associated with rituals and traditions that go back thousands of years,” he said. “Religion, social rules, family participation [...] in a plain military [or] combat burial, you miss all that. You only see a canvas bag on a stretcher. Everything is silent. You do not hear the lament of the mother or the priest praying for eternal life. For the few of us present at such burials, it was a bitter experience.”
A total of 196 Greeks made the ultimate sacrifice during the war in Korea. Another 610 were wounded, according to the Greek Embassy in Korea.
“Ninety-five percent of the Greek Force were volunteers,” Farros said. “I had full understanding of the conflict since my country had been through a similar experience of a civil war for three years, from 1946 to 1949. We were looking at the Korean conflict with full understanding, great sympathy and compassion [as well as] a strong anti-Communist feeling.”
The first of the Greeks arrived in Busan on Dec. 9, 1950. They consisted of 849 soldiers from the Greek Expeditionary Force, which came to be called the “Sparta Battalion” among the United Nations forces. The Greek forces also included the 13th Hellenic Air Force Flight, which came with nine transport aircraft including a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, or Dakota.
“The Greeks were placed into an evacuation action [at the Chosin Reservoir], almost as immediately as they arrived in Korea,” said Ifigeneia Kontoleontos, ambassador of Greece to Korea, in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily recently.
The Americans took a hard hit during the battle, with about 90 percent of the Regimental Combat Team 31, also called Task Force Faith, succumbing to death, injury or capture.
For the men on the frontlines of the battle of Chosin Reservoir, the Greek airlifts were a godsend.
“The 13th Hellenic Royal Air Force evacuated 1,000 wounded [U.S.] Marines from the Chosin Reservoir,” said Kontoleontos.
The Greek forces were awarded their first U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for their evacuation feat. They would go on to receive two more, one for capturing “Scotch Hill” in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi, in February 1952, and one for defending Outpost Harry in June 1953.
The 13th Hellenic Air Force Flight flew close to 14,000 hours on almost 3,000 missions throughout the war. They evacuated over 9,000 wounded from the frontlines, provided supply drops and collected intelligence, according to the Greek Embassy in Korea.
One of the pilots who served during the war, Col. Akrivos Tsolakis, said he can still recall the combat missions in the air like they happened yesterday.
“I flew 160 combat missions and a large number of them were of very great risk,” he wrote to the Korea JoongAng Daily on Dec. 4. “During my 35 flights to the Island of [Baengnyeong], I was at times shot [at] by heavy guns from the shore but I was lucky. I could only see from the splashes on the water.”
Col. Tsolakis kept a journal throughout the war, which he published in 1969.
“I kept a journal on a daily basis, which finally became a book,” he wrote. “I donated [the journal] to the Hellenic Air Force, which printed 10,000 copies. It is today a collector’s item.”
The colonel was not alone among Greek soldiers keeping a journal of daily accounts.
“Τhe writer, Mr. Schinas, grew up in a family of 10 children, he graduated from [a] high school despite extremely difficult circumstances [Greece was under Nazi occupation] and developed an affinity for the arts, especially music,” said Ambassador Kontoleontos. “While in Korea and amidst the horrors of the war, he found the courage to record every day the things that impressed him and at the same time [performed] in musical bands, even writing and staging small theater plays.”
“At dawn, a long file of people cut across the city, where crumbled buildings stand out like ghost towers,” wrote Schinas. “As the sun rose, it brought details to life, shining on women carrying their belongings on their heads, followed by young children. There is no end to the line of people, dotted across the white of the snow.”
Surrounded by foreign people in a foreign land, the Greeks naturally came to find lasting friendships within their own ranks. Some of them were quite life-changing.
“In addition to my tour of service in Korea, I served for a few months at the Greek liaison office, United Nations Command, Tokyo, Japan,” wrote Farros. “Living in Tokyo at that time, for a 23-year-old young man it was a unique experience.”
During his service in Tokyo, Farros met a Greek nurse serving at an American general hospital for the seriously wounded in Tokyo.
“It was natural that we met. Two young people, lonely, living in a big city, all by themselves,” he said. “They were looking for company, friendship and maybe something more. In our first date, we went to a movie and had a cheeseburger.”
After their time in Tokyo, Farros went back to the Greek regiment in Korea and the nurse was assigned to the U.S. 14th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH).
It seemed like fate that the hospital was close to the Greek camps.
“I was going quite often to see her, sometime with some friends who wanted just to see the nurses since there were no women above the 38th parallel,” Farros wrote. “Of course that was something that the American chief nurse at the MASH did not like, and she was trying everything to get rid of us in order for the nurses to go back to their work.”
Farros returned to Greece in 1954, and the couple was married three years later. They remained so for 61 years, until her death two years ago.
Since 1974, their sacrifices and valor have been remembered with annual ceremonies at the Greek Monument set up in Yeoju, Gyeonggi.
“When the Korean War broke out, the one and only priest of Korea’s orthodox church at the time was taken captive to North Korea,” Park Yo-han, deacon of Orthodox Metropolis of Korea, told the Korea JoongAng Daily on Dec. 16. “When the Greek forces came, the orthodox priests accompanied them. Learning of the difficulties faced by the orthodox church in Korea, they helped it to continue to hold services, the soldiers donated their rations and all in all, the Korean orthodox church survived through the war thanks to them.”
The Orthodox Metropolis of Korea offers services throughout the country in its seven branch churches. There are some 4,000 adherents to the religion in Korea today.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
From December 1950 to the end of the Korean War in 1953, Greece committed 4,992 soldiers on the ground, along with 67 pilots. Together, the Sparta Battalion and the 13th Hellenic Air Force Flight won three U.S. Presidential Unit Citations and Korea’s Presidential Unit Citation for their extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty.
After the armistice was signed in July 1953, Greece committed an additional 5,589 soldiers for peacekeeping operations, who stayed until 1955.
The Greek Monument dedicated to the veterans stands in Yeoju, Gyeonggi. It will be moved to a new location within the city in 2021, in time for the 60th anniversary of Korea-Greece relations.
This series is a weekly publication in cooperation with the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.