Harold Harman was just 22 years old when he shipped out to Korea to take up arms for his country in 1951.
He would spend a little more than a year of his young life completing his tour of duty, on the peninsula and in Japan, but it would be an experience that would shape him forever.
Now 89, Harman says there is still “a lot of sadness there” when reflecting on his service in the Korean War, but in the lead up to Anzac Day, the Kangaroo Flat resident agreed to share some of the memories that have stayed with him to this day.
One of the first tasks Harman was called upon to perform after moving to the front lines in October of 1951 was the burial for a fallen enemy soldier – the grim task made all the more difficult by the strategic imperative to search the dead man before laying him to rest.
Then I got shelled, or a mortar [landed] behind me, it lifted me up in the air and down into the creek, stretcher and medical bag. So I decided to climb up the side of the bank and on the bank a chap said ‘Who goes there? What’s the password’, and I’d forgotten.
“There was a body on the outpost there of a Chinese or North Korean, whoever it was, mutilated,” he says.
“We were told to bury this enemy soldier but first we had to go through his pockets, it was a terrible mess.”
With only a trenching tool in hand, it was tough going to make a hole deep enough to bury a man in the hard earth, a task made harder still by the war continuing to rage around the young private and his comrade.
“You've got to remember during that time we were bombarded by artillery and things, mortars, shells and things, and when they eased off a bit we'd start all over again,” he said.
“At one time we got too close, I jumped in on top of the body and my second on the bazooka, he jumped in on top of me and landed on my hand and I swore. We got out when [the fighting eased], we started covering all the stone gravel and everything back over this body and they started again, so he said ‘I'm going up to the trench’ so then I finished off what I could.”
Another memory that haunts Harman, even more than 65 years later, involves a stray missile and a farm house in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The A Company commander called me up and asked me could I launch a missile into this cave high in the mountains and I said ‘I'm not too sure sir but I'll have a go’, so when I did fire it, it got so far towards it that it swung around and blew up a farm house down in front of us,” he says.
“There was a chieftain dressed in all his white cloak and a black skull cap shaped like a ridge in the top and a couple of enemy were behind him. I was shaking like a leaf actually, to tell you the truth.”
In another twist of fate, an order from a second-in-command was overruled – a decision Harman credits with inadvertently saving his life.
“He came out and said ‘Right Harold, you’ve got to go down and take the prisoner back down behind the lines for interrogation and I said ‘Yes sir’, and then the commanding officer came out and said ‘No. He can't go’, and [the second-in-command] said ‘But why?’ and he said ‘He's the only one that knows all about the bazooka’,” he says.
“Just before they took the prisoner down, the other chap I used to train with, young chap, I called him Snowy, his name was Charlie Donovan, him and the prisoner were down 200 yards from the side of the mountain and were both killed. This memory of that stays in my mind, I have nightmares … the bazooka saved my life.”
But further close calls would follow, including when Harman was assigned to stretcher-bearing duties, retrieving wounded soldiers from the battlefield and treating their injuries as best as his relatively rudimentary medical training would allow.
“I went out with this chap and he disappeared, I finished up on my own and I went down to where the creek bed was,” he says.
“I was looking for where the patrol was [but] I couldn't find them and then I got shelled, or a mortar [landed] behind me, it lifted me up in the air and down into the creek, stretcher and medical bag. So I decided to climb up the side of the bank and on the bank a chap said ‘Who goes there? What’s the password’, and I’d forgotten. The shelling was still on and I said ‘Is that you Whitey?’ and he said ‘Yes, is that you Harry?’ – he recognised me.”
Harman’s life would be spared yet again when he and another soldier almost stepped into a minefield, but this time it would be Harman’s training in navigating the buried bombs, undertaken back in Puckapunyal, that would be the difference between life and death.
“We finished up in this minefield, which happened to be at the front of our two platoon, the wire had blown in and the chap in the front passed the message back, ‘I think we’re in a minefield’ – he felt something under his foot – I said ‘Well be careful’, and we turned around and backed out.”
Anzac Day still means a lot to Harman, but observing a world that continues to resort to violence to resolve its differences also brings him sadness.
“I think there should never be a war because too many people are hurt,” he says.
“I'm a strong believer that it doesn't matter what colour or wherever you came from, we’re all human beings, that’s my feeling, and I don’t see why nasty human beings can go and destroy the good ones.”