Visiting the Commonwealth Cemetery in Korea

Submitted by Dennis Willmott – A Korean War veteran on his experience of visiting the Commonwealth cemetery in Korea - 46 years after the end of the war

Dennis Willmott is a member of the Potterne RBL Branch and has served in Korea after joining the Armed Forces in 1950 when he was 18 years old. Although after the end of the war Dennis vowed never to return in Korea again, in 1999 he visited Korea and in particular the Commonwealth cemetery in Pusan. In his own words, Dennis explains how this was a memorable experience as he visited the graves of his fellow soldiers and friends. Dennis also paid tribute to all the young men, with whom he fought alongside, who were deprived of the opportunity to live the life that he is so grateful to have lived so far.

Left image: DJW (Dennis J Willmott) “Happy Valley” 1951

Right image: DJW on right with friend (then & now)

Photo Credit: Dennis Willmott

“I was too young for the Second World War but I was just in time for its sequel, The Korean War. In 1950 when it started, I was 18 and a regular soldier serving in The East Surreys, the Regiment that my Father had fought with in “The Great War”.

Being young, adventurous and stupid I volunteered for active service but in those post WWII days one had to be 19 years old before becoming eligible to kill and to be killed. I became 19 on July 10th 1951 and set sail with The Royal Norfolk Regiment on the trooper Empire Orwell in August of that year. Six weeks later we arrived in Pusan and one week after that we relieved the “Royal Ulster Rifles” and were up “The Sharp End”.

One year and one appalling winter later I set sail from Korea “The Land of the Morning Calm” vowing never to return. However, in 1999, through the kindness and gratitude of the people of Korea I, together with a number of Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand comrades did return and I am grateful for that privilege.

Visiting the Commonwealth cemetery in Pusan

Left image: 4 "Royal Norfolks" 1999 Pusan Cemetery DJW on Right)

Right image: DJW UK Ambassador’s residence Korea 1999

Photo Credit: Dennis Willmott

I have been to many First and Second World War cemeteries and experienced great sadness but The Commonwealth cemetery at Pusan, was for me another dimension of sorrow and emotion entirely. I saw the graves of friends that I had known and there for the first time I fully realised that “There but for the Grace of God lie I”.

We paraded ceremonially and we took part in the comforting and familiar service of Remembrance saying, as I have said so many times before “We will remember them”. This time however this was no ceremony around a symbolic cenotaph, these graves were full and this time in this place, I did remember them and it is true, “They Had Grown Not Old”.

Then we looked for “Our Graves” Royal Norfolk Graves. We four “Norfolks” soon found ours, they lay together, most were 19 years of age but one or two were “old men” of 23 or 24 and each of us stood with his own thoughts.

I stood by the grave of a comrade, who was a member of my Section, and he was 19 years old when he died. I was also 19 and a Corporal Section Leader when he joined 10 Platoon of “D” Coy as a casualty replacement on the hill 355 which was also the hill on which he died.

As I stood looking at all that was left of him, a bronze marker and a patch of beautifully trimmed grass, I thought of all that had happened to me since he had died. I had enjoyed a career and moderate success in the Army and Fire Services. I had married and remain so today 60 years on, I have sons (who in their turn became soldiers jumping out of aeroplanes, serving in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, alternately filling me with fear and pride). I have that ultimate of blessings, grand daughters and grand sons and I had parents who did not suffer the great loss that my comrade’s parents had suffered. I am truly grateful for what I have had and very much aware of what my friend and so many others of so many nationalities on both sides of this “forgotten war” had not.

What happened to those on the other side who lost their lives?

Left image: An overall view of Pusan cemetery in 1999

Right image: “Great Britain” plot Pusan cemetery 1999 eventual commemoration of Korean war 

Photo Credit: Dennis Willmott

Then I started wondering what might have happened to those on the other side who also lost their lives. Where might be the body of the soldier, Chinese or North Korean that I saw squashed like a hedgehog into the mud of a Main Supply Route as we drove to our first Front Line Positions? Are the truncated enemy bodies that we used, night after night, as markers through the minefields still sticking up like stinking signposts in a nightmare? Where are those we, collectively and individually, killed buried?

Are there beautiful cemeteries in North Korea in which the hundreds of thousands of North Korean and Chinese dead are interred? I suspect not and yet they must have been as young and hopeful as we were and must, as we did, have left families mourning them.

Reflecting on the war, the lives lost and the Korean people

Left image: DJW on left, (Centurion) in .355 area

Right image: DJW on right hatless (Samichon Valley)        

Photo Credit: Dennis Willmott

As I stood there I realised that soldiers do not “give their lives” in causes just or otherwise. Their lives are snatched unwillingly from them, without romance, ceremony or dignity. During the Korean War young men mostly National Service conscripts lost their lives in the obscurity of what has become not the forgotten war but the “Deliberately Ignored War”.

Of one thing we can be sure, the Korean people have not forgotten us and if ever they do, there will be a permanent memorial enshrined in the well being of the Korean people and the future that South Korean children can now look forward to. Although the thought of the civilian population of North Korea, divided from the South by an arbitrary line on a map and the megalomania of a discredited regime, is almost too horrible to contemplate, it helps to understand why those young lives were taken from our friends.

After my visit, I stand at my village cenotaph on every year’s Remembrance Sunday and “We will remember them” has even greater significance and focus for me than ever before. In the past I have always resisted the “sentimental” description of such trips as this as “Pilgrimages”, I no longer have that inhibition.  I have made a pilgrimage, “to a sacred place” and I am stronger for it.”