Veteran reflects on 70 year anniversary

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Ahead of Korean Veterans’ Day on Thursday 27 July, Ipswich local and one of the few remaining Korean veterans in his cohort, Matthew Rennie OAM, embarked on a journey to Korea for the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Matthew joined the Australian Army at the early age of 18-years-old and went on to serve for 11 years in Japan, Malaya and Korea.

The newly trained soldier arrived by boat in Pusan, South Korea in 1952, joining 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) on the front line for 13 weeks.

“The first night I was there, there was a rocket attack. I was so naïve that I thought it was a spectacular fireworks display – not fully grasping the situation at hand,” Matthew said.

“It wasn’t until the bloke I was relieving called out in distress and ushered me into a foxhole that I realised the seriousness of the incident.”

Matthew’s naivety didn’t last long. As his battalion moved on to different positions, the reality of war soon set in.

“When the Chinese put in an attack, it wasn’t two or three; you’d have 200 charging in,” he said.

“And the noise was horrendous – the shell, the mortars, the machine guns, everything blazing over. And my God, the winters – it wasn’t unusual to hit 26 degrees below freezing.”

On 24 May 1953, Matthew experienced a near-fatal encounter after being shot in the back of the head. If not for his best mate Frank, he would not be alive to tell the story today.

Matthew recounts the bullet piercing his helmet but somehow only grazing his skull. “The next thing I remember was Frank trying to stop the bleeding,” he said.

Having taken out the enemy shooter, Frank set about bandaging Matthew’s wound, tearing a field dressing with his mouth – and losing his false teeth in the process.

“They fell onto the ground, and he just put ’em back in his mouth.”

Frank later suffered poisoning from the fertiliser in the soil.

“He told everyone ‘til the day he died that I tried to poison him,” Matthew laughed.

“We were very close. When he died, it left a void in my life because we never lost contact over 70 years. I still miss him today.”

After 12 months in Korea, Matthew – like many veterans of the Korean War – returned to Australia almost as if nothing had happened.

“We were given a leave pass and told to go home – that was it,” he said.

“There was never any ‘job well done’, pat on the back or welcome home parade. Nothing. We just weren’t valued for what we were doing.”

In South Korea, however, Australian veterans are honoured as heroes. South Korea’s government has gone to many lengths to support Australian veterans, providing everything from additional memorials to Christmas luncheons, care packages, and even comfortable shoes for ageing feet.

This year, Matthew returned to South Korea – courtesy of their government – for the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice.

“This is the first time I’ll be in Korea for Korean Veterans’ Day on 27 July,” he said before the trip.

“It’ll be an emotional time, though I’m looking forward to it. To pay respects to my mates there, it’s very important.

“The Korean War was a big part of my life. It made me a man; it gave me a purpose. I don’t regret my service one bit, and I’d do it again if I had to.”

When asked his most important message to share with the community this Korean Veterans’ Day, he said that is vital that Korean veterans are no longer forgotten.

“Just because Korean veterans were forgotten, that doesn’t mean we should keep forgetting them. They were great soldiers – some of the finest men Australia produced, I reckon. They were a credit to their uniform. They were a credit to their country,” he said.

Matthew has never stopped supporting his fellow veterans. After 11 years in the Army, he’s served as State President of the Korea Veterans Association and spent years a welfare officer and Legatee.

As an integral member of the Ipswich RSL Sub Branch, Matthew is fiercely committed to supporting commemorative activities and has dedicated himself to identifying and honouring dozens of unknown soldiers buried at Ipswich Cemetery.

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