Bunkers and Bother
The first phase of the Korean War was very active, with Australian troops continually moving in both advance and retreat, so trench digging was minimal. As Winter approached, the troops required better protection against the severe cold. Soldiers issued with standard equipment used in the Second World War started acquiring items from the US and British military to protect against frostbite and other injuries related to cold weather.
Conditions worsened during the static phase of the war when the Australians remained in the area around the 38th parallel. Defensive positions, command posts and living quarters were established in dugouts or underground bunkers, known as hootches, often connected by communication trenches as close as 200 metres and up to two kilometres apart.
The best deep, warm bunkers were used as command posts, constructed of Oregon rafters and corrugated iron, built up with sandbags and mesh. The worst were barely habitable, cold, cramped, wet and dirty, with vermin and lice for company causing disease and discomfort.
Most manual labour activities were conducted at night and four to six men might be lucky to sleep in the cramped, poorly ventilated bunkers during the day. Patrols were despatched at any time and in all types of weather. The bunkers often housed homemade heaters, called choofers used for cooking, warmth and to melt the snow for drinking water and washing. Made from metal drums, choofers were fuelled by petrol or solid hydrocarbon-based ‘hexamine’ tablets.
The summer monsoonal rains brought a new range of problems. Continually damp clothing posed a major problem and illnesses spread easily. Many soldiers developed “trench feet”, a condition similar to frost-bite, caused by the feet being immersed in mud and water for prolonged periods of time.
Other health threats in the bunkers were associated with smoke from fuel burning in the choofers and cigarettes. Soot and grime would build-up, covering everything from equipment to clothing, necks and collars. The air quality was further worsened by the use of pesticides to control the breeding of mosquitoes during the wet season. Artillery fire was common across the front and while the bunkers appeared to provide protection from the weather, enemy shells and mortar fire, torrential rain sometimes caused bunkers to collapse.
The 3 RAR Battalion Diaries for the 7th July 1953 mention the problems associated with rain:
“Seepage through the walls of dugouts and bunkers was considerable, causing, in many cases, the floor to become a lake. The use of
corrugated iron for revetting proved unsuitable as the weight of the water and the loosened earth pushing on the sheets caused them to collapse. However, this was overcome, to a certain extent, by punching holes in the sheets to allow rainwater to drain into the trench. Arc mesh has proved to be by far the best revetting material.”
Australian soldiers in Korea lived and fought in a difficult environment with an extreme climate. Eventually, they were issued with improved protective clothing, but the freezing winters and hot drenching summers will always be well remembered…