The Korean Armistice Agreement brought about a complete cessation of hostilities of the Korean War, and Forbes Taylor well knows the 70th anniversary of that very important ceasefire date – July 27, 1953.
Back 70 years ago Forbes, a Ngaio Marsh village resident, was near the front line of a war that had been running for three years. He remembers on the night after the ceasefire had been announced there were flares let off and search lights shone into the sky above the new division between north and south.
"It took effect at 10 o'clock at night. The armistice was read out to us, and then suddenly all the war zone lit up with search lights and rockets and things. It was a very colourful display with all those lights from the flare guns and search lights," he remembered back the day after celebrating his 92nd birthday.
There was a feeling of celebration amongst the allies in the south because they had won further ground to the north of Seoul, that would form part of the new South Korea, Forbes says.
The bitter conflict began in June 1950, with North Korea supported by China and the Soviet Union. Talks concerning an armistice had started as early as July 10 1951, but the frontline remained a dangerous place. Forbes says it was really a matter of luck as to whether he and other fellow servicemen survived.
It was June 1953 and Forbes had not long been flown into Gimpo airport, near Seoul. He had joined the Signals C or ‘Charlie Troop’ to help service the telephone lines that were used by 1st Commonwealth division troops including in the ‘Battle of the Hook’.
He remembers desperate night-time attacks by the Chinese, trying to capture Hook valley territory before the July ceasefire was called. During this time repairs were needed on the telephone lines. The Chinese were repelled by United Nations forces, he says.
On one frontline occasion, a shell exploded about 40 yards away. But it could have easily been much, much closer. “I thought, good heavens, I could have been there (under the shell). I came to the conclusion: surviving war is a matter of luck,” he says.
Later allied soldiers, separated by a 2.5 mile-wide buffer zone from their North Korean counterparts, fired flares into the night sky.
Because he’d arrived towards the end of physical warfare, Forbes spent much of his 18 months of service during the period of ceasefire. There were moments of tension, but also the chance for R&R. While the Americans would fly the Kiwi contingent to Tokyo, Forbes would sometimes push on to other destinations including the post-atomic bomb Hiroshima.
Later it was quite a trip home from his period of service. He’d sailed from Pusan, to Brisbane where he and other troops marched and were cheered by the crowds, on to Kingsford Smith Airport, Sydney and New Zealand. On his arrival back in Christchurch his Mum was there. He was also greeted by Government representatives at the King Edward Barracks in the city.
He is matter of fact when relating how his mother coped with men going to war. Forbes’ maternal grandfather had Thomas Phillips Lloyd, fought in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880. Forbes’ father was one of the 20 survivors within a 100-strong company caught at Passchendaele in World War I.
So, it seems, she was accepting when at the age of 21 he volunteered for service, entering Burnham Military Camp for basic and signals and radio operator training from December 1952 onwards. He was eventually made a 2nd Lieutenant in the New Zealand signals division, having been to Waiouru for officer training.
In one way his volunteering for the Korean War service was a way out of a family situation. His father had passed away and his mother was struggling to keep their farm at Wakanui, near Ashburton, as a going concern. Eventually the farm was sold, and his mother moved to Christchurch. “The amazing thing was that she never complained about me joining the army... she never questioned me.”
Forbes is very proud of his siblings. One older brother Lloyd served in “Sunderland flying boats” safeguarding convoys in World War II, but then died at 23, after his return to New Zealand, in a motorcycle accident near Ashburton. His other brother Ross was involved Nasa’s space programme. He was the first geochemist to get his hands on the samples of moon rock, picked up by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and brought back to Earth by Apollo 11.
Forbes has kept up with the Korean political standoff, and has been part of Christchurch-based recognition of progress between the two sides. He and family members including his wife have revisited South Korea many times.
In April 2018, North Korea and South Korea agreed to talks to end the ongoing 65-year conflict.