Photograph of Matthew Suh.Matthew Suh
As soon as the war broke out, North Korea had an air force by the way, they had that famous Russian-made YAK —Y-A-K— [Yakovlev] YAK-9 fighter bomber.* So everybody knew Sunday morning North Korean air force was bombing, strafing and bombarding, so everybody knew there was a war because even before the actual invasion, North Koreans, it was their pastime, once or twice a week, they would bombard and this propaganda, just like this April  when North Korea kept saying, “We'll wipe you out,” that kind of thing, so… You know, people in Seoul… in South Korea, in general, were used to North Korean provocations, infiltrators and the police stations in Seoul at night… In the evening all had light machine guns in the front just in case North Korean infiltrators come. In the morning, of course, they would take them inside.
So, you know that's how people knew that there was a big thing coming when North Korean air force was bombing and this is the real thing. There was, you know, big… let’s… have more manpower… The trucks going around, megaphones, you know, “Young boys, join us. We are regrouping”… Regrouping is a euphemism for retreat, right… “We are regrouping and anybody willing, come and join us, and we will come back.” You know that’s how they kept yelling, you know. And also in the areas not yet occupied by North Korean army, they're all asking young boys to volunteer, and they all did, mainly because of the fear of North Koreans because they knew North Korea would severely punish those who had anything to do with South Korean administration. So many, you know, young boys [thought], “I don’t want to be a”… North Korea is known also to conscript and force young people into their army. So that’s why most young people were [thinking], “We might as well get away from North Korean invasion by joining the army because they provide transportation.” Because I spoke English, I was… When we went to Pohang, I was assigned to a division headquarters company… 3rd Infantry Division, all other boys were actually so compressed, there was no front, nor rear… Actually everybody's together, this was the only time I saw field artillery firing and the infantry soldiers firing to get out because everybody was just compressed, and that was more… very personal combat experience, but because I was in the headquarters company, we always hanging around and one night North Korea really pushed hard, this is when General Kim [Colonel Kim Chong-won]** — let's go and fight — I mean, headquarters, cook and everybody, clerks and everybody carried… Take your gun and hold the line, and that was one of these August nights.
But, anyway, he gave us this speech, I didn’t say in my written speech, but his speech was kind of — “Hey boys, you're going to fight. Don’t come back alive,” that was his message… You know, he was a real combat-trained old general. He was old mainly because before the Japanese army surrendered, he was in the Japanese Imperial Army, with the full rank of colonel. He was a brilliant general… colonel in the Japanese army. So Syngman Rhee*** wanted him to head the South Korean army, you know, because he's one general who knew how to fight, fighting the Chinese army most of the time… But [General Douglas] MacArthur**** and [General Walton] Walker,^ they did not like Japanese… former Japanese high ranking officer to head South Korean army. So the only posting he had was division commander… not the commander-in-chief, but when Pohang was really about to be captured by North Korea, Syngman Rhee brought him out from retirement, and he was sent to us and that's the time he said, “Hey you boys… soldier's duty is to know when to die and how to die. Tonight we all die fighting together,” and the message was… I was very scared… The message was “You boys are going to fight and die. Don’t come back alive,” that was his message.
*The Yakovlev-9 was a single-engine fighter-bomber supplied by the Soviets to North Korea.
**Colonel “Tiger” Kim Chong-won was a leader in the ROK Army and a favourite of South Korean President Synman Rhee.
***Syngman Rhee was the president of the South Korean republic during the Korean War.
****General Douglas MacArthur was the American commander of the United Nations forces in Korea. He was relieved of his duty by President Harry Truman in April 1951.
^General Walton “Johnnie” Walker was the commander of the U.S. 8th Army in Korea. He was a veteran of the First and Second World Wars.