Mr. Lucien Senterre, August 2012.The Memory Project
"After the three months, we were given a beret in a different colour: a brown beret. This colour is well known in Belgium as the red beret is only worn by paratroopers, the green by commandos and the brown by Korean veterans. So we all attended a ceremony, during which the King Baudouin himself was in attendance, to receive our berets."
I enlisted with the army in 1947. I started in a brigade school, as they called it. I spent two years there at an engineering school, but specifically focused on communications. I learned how to use Morse code, the radio, how to build telephone lines, etc. As I had become a deputy officer, with the rank of sergeant, I had the choice to go to Germany with the occupation forces (Belgians). I chose to do this immediately because it was a lot more interesting than staying on the Belgian army barracks. In 1950, while occupying Cologne, we learned that the Korean War had broken out. As young deputy officers with no combat experience, we were very interested and fascinated by the news. We would read about it in the French newspapers, such as Paris Match, etc., until the day when the government called for volunteers. It was August. Along with three other friends, we went directly and enrolled as volunteers. First they sent us to Belgium to undergo physical testing to demonstrate that we were physically able to face a campaign’s hazards. After having successfully passing these tests, which were quite easy by the way, they sent us to the Belgian commandos camp in Marche-les-Dames, on the banks of the Meuse River.
Once there, the commandos subject us to a thousand ordeals, as they are wont to do, for 15 days. We really suffered. Afterwards, we went to the camp where all of the battalion candidates were grouped together: officers, deputy officers and the soldiers, the troops. There we underwent very, very in-depth training for three months. The Belgian paratroopers gave us the training. We did a bunch of things, often using real war bullets. After the three months, we were given a beret in a different colour: a brown beret. This colour is well known in Belgium as the red beret is only worn by paratroopers, the green by commandos and the brown by Korean veterans. So we all attended a ceremony, during which the King Baudouin himself was in attendance, to receive our berets. Then we loaded onto a ship which took us towards the Suez Canal. After a month, and even a bit more than a month, we arrived in South Korea.
I commanded a section of 10 men in an infantry platoon which was part of Company B (of the Belgian Battalion of the Belgian United Nations Command, deployed in 1951-1952). We started at 6:00, and it depended on if we were taking turns. At that time, there was a continuous rotation and we took turns. So a section would advance for a few hundred meters, or if there was nothing special, a bit more. As soon as something happened, we could try to identify the intensity of what was stopping us: was it troops that had dug out holes or what? Was it simply a machine gun or what? Or maybe someone was calling on the air force, or a mortar or the artillery? And if nothing was going on, then the section in front would stop and another section would take the lead, and then the third section in the platoon would take its turn, and then the platoon would stop, and another platoon would take over, and so on and so forth in turns, until the end of the day.
What is absolutely extraordinary is that it was a war solely based on movement at the time and we climbed what we called peaks; they were small hills in fact. The hill, when you saw from the sky… Because I had the chance to go on R&R (Rest & Recreation, by permission) in the U.S. for five days, and when you saw the hill from the sky, it was shocking to see how mountainous the terrain was! It was absolutely extraordinary; there are practically only mountains in Korea. However, the problem was that the Chinese were in those mountains and we had to take them.
We were lucky in the beginning since the interventions were small and the Chinese army was retreating before us. We lost some men. Sometimes there would be a few injured men, sometimes one or two would be killed. They weren’t large interventions, but often, we climbed up a hill and we would receive the order to dig holes, and take up a defensive position, etc. And maybe a half-hour or hour later, we would say, ok, we’re done and move on. We would hurtle down the hill, walk for a bit in the river in front of another hill, and then we’d have to climb up again to see if anyone was there, dig more holes, etc. After an hour or two, ok, we’d continue on and we’d do that; one, two, three, four hills a day until the time… until nighttime.
At night, we’d set up in a defensive position. Since I was a deputy officer, the night was divided into three watches. From 6:00 o’clock on, we took the first three or four hours and then after, another deputy officer took the watch. Then the third deputy officer took the third watch. So during months and months in Korea, I never slept a full night’s sleep because I was either part of the first, second or third watch.
It was a French-speaking battalion, meaning that there was a company that was Dutch-speaking, so that spoke Flemish. There was a bilingual company, the heavy weaponry company. And then there were two companies, the A Company and the B Company, that were French-speaking. But, that being said, you have people from Brussels that speak Flemish, that speak French, but me, in my company, we were mostly French-speaking. There was never just one battalion, but obviously after the first year, since a lot of men were killed, in April, we participated in the same… Basically, we were victims of the same offensive as the Canadians who were attacked in Kapyong on April 22, 1951. They were to the east of the front, and we were to the west; the 29th British Brigade, which the Belgians were part of.
We were attacked on April 22 as well; the only difference was that we fought while retreating for four days, and in doing so, we lost a full battalion, the Glosters Battalion (1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment), which had been cornered on a hill. They fought up until the very last cartridge was spent. That’s the book I was talking to you about, by Andrew Simon. Having no more ammunition, they were forced to surrender, but many of their men were killed, and the rest were taken as prisoners. As for us, we were able to escape. We continued fighting and four days later, we met up with the lines, on April 25, 1951. However, our officers, those who were commanding a clearly Dutch-speaking company, spoke Flemish, but in the bilingual companies, spoke either French or Flemish, there was practically no difference.