Signing up ‘felt like the right thing to do’

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A piece of history. . . Korean War veteran Wattie Gee holds a map he brought home from his service in the conflict. PHOTO: SANDY EGGLESTON

Wattie Gee says he does not regret his three years fighting in the Korean War.

The war began in 1950 when North Korea, with the backing of China, invaded South Korea.

The United Nations condemned the invasion and called for countries to send troops to help South Korea.

Mr Gee volunteered to fight in the war in 1950 and returned home in 1953.

While peace was not achieved, the war was “worthwhile”, Mr Gee (94) said.

“We achieved a ceasefire and it is still a ceasefire between North and South Korea.

“It stopped the war.”

He was teaching in a small school at Orinoco, near Motueka, when he signed up.

“It felt like the right thing to do at the time.”

He was keen to support the United Nations in its bid to resolve the conflict, he said.

After three months’ training at Burnham Military Camp, the group was shipped to Korea.

The ship docked at Pusan (Busan) in South Korea, where the troops stayed temporarily in a former Japanese military camp.

They left by convoy to travel to where the first Commonwealth division was stationed on the front line.

On the way the convoy was attacked by guerrillas and two of the New Zealanders died.

Mr Gee was a member of the party that went to retrieve the bodies.

“It was a mess.”

His role was technical assistant in a battery command.

He would receive information about what the enemy was doing and then plot the co-ordinates for the men operating the 25-pounder guns.

“Bit of geometry, bit of trigonometry.”

The men would then set the guns accordingly.

It was hilly territory, so the guns had to be aimed at a certain angle and set at the right distance to reach the target.

“You rarely saw what you were shooting at. You didn’t see what happened at the sharp end very much.”

The guns could not be placed too close to the hills and had a range of about 27km.

It could be predicted within 22m where the shell would land.

Closer to the front line was an observation post where a soldier would observe where the shells landed and report back to the officers and technical assistants at the command post.

Adjustments would be made to the instructions if the shells landed off the target.

There was a different relationship in the command post between the officers and soldiers.

“When you are working underground in a command post you’re just one family.

“The officers are still officers… [but] you’re a team.”

The men firing the guns were given cotton wool to protect their ears.

Each time the enemy moved, the battery command would follow it and set up the guns in the new position.

Occasionally, Mr Gee visited the front line.

The front line of both armies comprised a barbed wire fence with about half a kilometre of no-man’s land in between.

One Sunday he was at the front line when a voice from the North Korean side came over a loud speaker saying: “Go home Kiwi, this isn’t your fight”.

Another time he was looking across a valley through his binoculars to find out where the North Korean trench was.

“I moved the glasses and, hello, there’s a bloke looking through his binoculars and I think he is looking at me.

“I put my hand up and gave him a wave but he didn’t wave back.”

He heard a story about some New Zealand engineers who, under the cover of night, laid mines on the other side of the barbed wire of the front line.

When daylight came the soldiers saw ” all the mines were dug up and stacked in neat little piles in front of the barbed wire”.

“The Chinese had been there and dug them up.”

After six months he and five others were sent home for officer training.

He returned to the war as second lieutenant but before rejoining his unit did a short stint in Iwakuni, Japan.

His job was to organise troops coming to or leaving the war.

One day he met the English crew of a Sunderland flying boat stationed at the city.

When he met the last man he ” looked him in the eye and said:  ‘Your father was the Baptist minister in Gore, wasn’t he?’.”

It turned out the man, Louis Day, was the captain of the aeroplane.

He invited Mr Gee to join them on a night flight.

“They were collecting weather information for the aircraft carrier to give to the planes that were doing the bombing the next morning.”

His teaching career was not hampered by his service.

“That time in the army counted as teaching time.

“It wasn’t a huge sacrifice”