Standing up for Canberra

Last Veterans' Mission to Korea

It is a great honour to welcome the 'Magnificent Eight' to Canberra, my electorate, my home and our nation's beautiful Parliament House and wonderful capital. I would like to thank and commend the minister for this ministerial statement and for the opportunity to speak as well. The minister made this commitment when we were in Korea during the delegation in October last year.

I commend you for allowing this opportunity to take place and for getting the Magnificent Eight over here to Canberra. It is just wonderful to see you again. I would also like to acknowledge the fact that our shadow defence team are here. We have our shadow minister for veterans' affairs and defence personnel, as well as the shadow assistant minister for the Anzac Centenary, who is someone you probably know from his former life as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Science and Personnel.

It was a privilege to join the 65th anniversary visit to Korea last October to commemorate the battles of Maryang San and Kapyong and the contribution made by Australia all those years ago. But it was an even greater privilege to meet and be in the company of the Magnificent Eight: Gordon 'Taffy' Hughes who served on HMAS Sydney; Graham Connor who served with1 RAR; Les Hall who served with l RAR; Jack Lang who served with 3 RAR; John Murphy, also 3 RAR; Lieutenant Commander Les Powell (retired), also 3 RAR; and from the ACT, Colonel Peter Scott, DSO (retired) from 3 RAR and Ray Seaver from 77 Squadron. There they all are with their medals, looking glorious up there in the chamber.

Apart from episodes of M * A * S * H, Australians have very little knowledge of the Korean War. They do not know why it began. They do not know what happened there. They do not know who was involved or about the fact that there was an enormous international effort of 21 countries. They do not know why we were there—why Australia was there. They do not know about the unique framework under which we were there—a framework that influences the strategic environment today, and we are seeing that play out more and more each day. And they do not know how many Australians served and how many Australians made the ultimate sacrifice.

It is, as the minister said, the 'forgotten war,' which is incredibly unfortunate, given Australia became the second nation behind the United States to commit personnel from all three armed services to the war. It is unfortunate —it is tragic, actually—because 17,000 Australians served in that war, with many of them coming straight off the reconstruction efforts in Japan after the Second World War. It is unfortunate—tragic—because four million people in the region died through the course of that war. It is unfortunate and tragic because 1,216 Australians were injured and a further 29 taken as prisoners of war. It is incredibly unfortunate and tragic because 340 Australians died, 43 went missing in action and, as we heard from the minister today, 16 also were killed in the post-armistice period.

Our lack of understanding of Australia's contribution to the Korean War is unfortunate and tragic because there were so many firsts in this war. As the minister said, it was the first war in the Cold War period. It saw the first combat action fought by the battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, 3RAR, in an apple orchard in Yeongju. It was the first and only United Nations-initiated war. It was the first time the red kangaroo appeared on the funnel of a Royal Australian Navy ship. It was the first war that raised the question about the need for an Australian ensign, not a British ensign, on Australian Navy ships. And it was the war that earned the 3 RAR the title 'Old Faithful.'

As a nation, we need to better understand and appreciate the contribution that so many Australians made to the Korean War. We need to continue the conversation about the unique nature of the Korean War, particularly coming so quickly on the back of the horror of the Second World War. We need to appreciate that the Korean War still lingers today in the demilitarised zone, where North Korean troops, with bloodied, skinned and scarred hands—remember those hands—from martial arts training, stare it out with troops from all over the world on the other side of the DMZ. And we need to keep alive the memory of those who served, who were captured, who were injured, who were missing in action and who made the ultimate sacrifice.

I have many wonderful and powerful memories of my time in Korea on this 65th anniversary tour, but the most powerful, and the ones that have stayed and will remain, are the personal, told in the words of those who served —told in the words of the Magnificent Eight. I heard the Magnificent Eight remembering their fallen mates. Colonel Peter Scott DSO said:

I felt very emotion about the MIA memorial. Looking at the graves from my two classmates at Duntroon— Eric Larsen and Joe Luscombe. And other graves I wanted to see—Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Green and Slim Madden.

For those who are not familiar with the 'Slim' Madden story, it is a very powerful story. This was an extraordinary Australian. Private Horace William Madden—Slim Madden—was one of the 29 Australians taken prisoner in the Korean War. He was the recipient of a posthumous George Cross, the highest decoration of an Australian in the Korean War. Slim Madden was a signaller with 3 RAR and was captured at Kapyong on 24 April 1951. He was forced to march 300 kilometres in freezing conditions to Yalu River. Despite poor health and being deprived of food, he defied his captors and gave the little he had to those more needy. He died of malnutrition just months later. As Colonel Scott told me very proudly:

When I assumed the command at Woodside, I arranged to have the soldiers' canteen named in his honour, and I believe it is still being referred to as the Slim Madden Soldier's Club, and I'm very proud of that.

And rightly so.

I listened to those stories and heard the Magnificent Eight relive the hardship of war. Jack Lang said:

You had to keep your eyes open for snipers all the time. They were like flies. But we got rid of many of them. We took it in our stride.

I heard the Magnificent Eight relive the famous battles of Maryang San or point 317. Colonel Peter Scott also told me:

We were up top, the battalion was around us, we were mortared, shelled continuously for the whole day. We were very, very fortunate to get off it. I never thought I would ever see it again.

I heard about the suffering of the Korean people. Four million were dead. The country was decimated by the ravages of war. There was poverty. There were people who had lost loved ones. There were people whose villages and houses had been blown apart, whose lives had been shattered.

Then the Magnificent Eight returned to South Korea and saw what it is today. Jack Lang said, 'They are just such a wonderful people considering how they were 65 years ago and the way that they have built the place up because it was a hell of a mess 65 years ago.' He said, 'There were bodies lying around. It was like walking into a rubbish dump. There was nothing. People could hardly stand. Their houses were burned. They were streaming out of the city. They had nothing. What they had, they carried on their back.'

And I heard from the Magnificent Eight of the overwhelming respect from the Korean people today. Graham Connor spoke of the gratitude. He said: 'In Busan we were getting lunch in a restaurant when this well dressed young woman spoke to me, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you have done for us." I was walking near the market and this elderly gentleman was eyeballing me and he came over and said to me, "Are you a Korean War veteran?" I said yes, and he threw his arms around me and burst out crying and said "thank you, thank you".'

As an aside, I asked the young members of 3RAR who accompanied the Magnificent Eight on the tour why they were chosen for the anniversary visit—a natural question—and they told me it was because of their good looks! Those young members of 3RAR spoke about their pride in the contribution made by the battalion and in the provenance of Old Faithful. I was told by one of those young members, 'It was a name given to us because we were there for the entirety of the war and one of the main contributors to the war.' According to him, 'Old Faithful means 3RAR can be trusted, and it has been trusted for many years, and we are always there on the frontline.' And in a display of their pride, each current member of 3RAR at Busan cemetery were formally honoured by those young, good looking men.

Colonel Peter Scott, spoke about how Old Faithful emerged because the battalion was the first into Korea and was there at the end and through the armistice. He said: '3RAR was there at the beginning, middle and end. 3RAR was always reliable to do the job.' They are the stories from the veterans who were with us, the Magnificent Eight, who we spoke to during that visit.

We also heard stories about the women, the children, the wives, the mothers who were all left behind. We heard the story about Thelma Healy's passage to Busan to visit the grave of her son Vince Healy. Vince volunteered and, once he had signed up, his letters to the family trickled to very little contact. His sudden death in uncertain circumstances on a frozen battlefield in 1951 plunged his mother into a deep depression. But Thelma Healy was determined to say farewell to her son. She vowed that, before she died, she would find her son's grave and say goodbye. This began a 10-year odyssey that eventually took Thelma, on her own, on a 15,000-kilometre journey halfway around the world to war-torn Busan in Korea in 1961. Being a woman of no means, and with nine children to feed and clothe, Thelma had to scrimp and save, sew and slave, to raise the money needed for her epic voyage. But she got there in the end to bid farewell to her much loved son.

Another story was told to me by Dr Rebecca Fleming, the historian who travelled with us on the mission. When she told me this story, standing in the Busan cemetery, I immediately burst into tears; it is that powerful— so if anyone is listening to this speech, do not say you were not warned! Sixty-five years ago, Sister Nancy Hummerston married her beloved Captain Ken Hummerston in Tokyo. Six weeks later, Captain Hummerston was in Korea when the jeep he was driving was blown up by a landmine. He and his driver were killed in the explosion and were the first Australians to die in the Korean War. Captain Hummerston had been in Korea just six days and had been married for a very short time. Nancy was heartbroken but threw herself into her work and returned to Japan to continue nursing. She never remarried and devoted her entire life to helping veterans. Her one wish was that when she died her ashes would be buried with her husband. And so it was, her ashes were returned to his grave in Busan cemetery and she was finally returned to the love of her life, Captain Kenneth Hummerston, decades after they last parted ways.

I thank the Leader of the Opposition for asking me to represent him for this 65th anniversary tour—as you can see, it had a very powerful effect on me. I understand the Leader of the Opposition worked with a Korean War veteran in his teens so there was a very special connection for him and he was very sad that he could not go on this visit.

I also thank the outstanding nurses, Jane Gallagher and Julie Howard, who were who were up at 4 am and in bed at midnight. They were amazing women—tireless, calm and patient absolutes angels. And I want to thank Squadron Leader Chris Gilbert, the mission doctor.

I thank our embassy in Korea for the 24/7 support. As an ex-DFATer, as is the minister, we know the work that goes into these visits—they are tireless, around the clock, 24/7. I particularly want to thank the charge, Ravi Kewalran, and the team at the mission, who had a tough year last year and were still in mourning following the sudden and tragic loss of my former DFAT colleague and friend Richard Fogarty.

I thank the straight-out-of-central-casting Navy officer, Defence Attache, Captain Vaughn Rixon CSC and his wife, Felicity. I want to thank the Assistant Defence Attache, Major Simon Hawkins and First Secretary, Ben Fallet, Defence Office Manager, Kyung-Hee Her, Defence Administration and Research Officer, Inji Seo and Administrative Assistant, Hyunbae Jean.

Thank you to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Many of them are here today—Simon Lewis PSM, Major General Mark Kelly AO DSC, Tim Evans, Robert Harmon, Mathew Hardy, Major General David Chalmers, Susie Dunn, Stacey Anderson and my old communication mate Dale Starr. And thank you to the Federation Guard, who, as always, put on sterling performances at the many commemorative events that we had at the Busan cemetery, Kapyong and Maryang San.

I finish with the words of one of the Magnificent Eight, John Murphy, just before the Kapyong ceremony. He said:

I don't think any Australian kids know anything about the Korean War. But certainly the schoolkids in this country do.

The cemetery in Pusan. Seeing how the Australian braves are looked after, respected. It gladdens the heart of an old veteran. To know that his old comrades, or some of his mates, are buried here and they are not forgotten.

The Koreans know what the Australians have done in this country. They know they made a large sacrifice. 340 of them died here. Most of them are buried here. They will always remember the Australian contribution to the Korean people.

We are happy to know that we helped a little the South Koreans to get started, and build their country and make it into one of the most powerful nations in the Asian sector now.

We can always sit back and say we done a bit. We done our bit.

John and the others of the Magnificent Eight, you did more than a bit. We salute you. In the words of the Korean people: thank you, thank you, thank you. We will remember them. Lest we forget.

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