Korean Christmas

By Martin Ough Dealy

The REME base at Newcastle Camp in Yong Dong Po was bleak at any time of the year. Our tented home was set in the bombed out grounds of an old sewing machine factory. The tents were huddled alongside the factory walls for shelter from the winds and the dust. The tents came in three sizes small, medium and large. The former could accommodate up to 4 people and provided for the officers, warrant officer and sergeants messes. The large tents, perhaps 8 metres by 4, could house up to 20 men and served as "barracks" for the squaddies, cook house and mess. The medium tents were in between and served to house the orderly room and camp offices.

Winter had set in by the beginning of December and the cold came in on the gusting winds from the north. These added to the general tedium and drabness of life in our camp of tents, broken buildings, dirt roads, large vehicle and equipment parks for used and damaged items.

We were The No 1 Infantry Troops Recovery Unit REME(#1 ITRU for short) and so specialized in collecting and transporting vehicles and equipment of all kinds for back loading to Japan. The camp also featured smaller parks for the still useable specialist vehicles and equipment we used to lift the "beyond local repair" (BLR) gear.

The main items of interest were our Scammel recovery tractors, an old Diamond Tank Transporter tractor with a trailer large enough to carry the 50 ton Centurion tanks we recovered from the Commonwealth Divisional back loading point (BLP) near the DMZ well north of Seoul.

Newcastle Camp was surrounded by a double barbed wire fence with watch towers at the corners set up with powerful flood lights for night security . The only gate accessed a road that led to the main routes (mainly unsealed) through Seoul to the North across the (now frozen) Han River and to the port of Inchon in the west.

Ours was just one of many such military camps scattered about in what had once been the industrial suburb of Yong Dong Po.

But the area was now ruined having been fought over at least three times in the war years, the destruction being ever more comprehensive and dire with each passing wave of fighting. Dust was everywhere (Seoul is a surprisingly dry place in the winter). It was spread about and constantly stirred by the prevailing wind and the spasmodic heavy military traffic along the unpaved roads.

Apart from the cook house, our main source of comfort was the pride and joy of our camp. Some ingenious lads had applied their imagination, engineering training, and energy to construct a bath house equipped with showers supplied with hot water. This had, from memory, just four shower cubicles, hardly enough to service a camp of over 100 soldiers, but at least it was something. We could expect to have a shower perhaps every other day. We had high hopes of enjoying this luxury through the winter months ahead. It was far better than depending on the infrequent availability the mobile RAOC "Bath and Laundry Unit". This, when it appeared in our area, did provide a sort of bath, actually they were showers and a clean set of underwear and, if you were lucky or in dire need, a clean set of clothing (uniform winter warfare for the use of). Boots ( winter warfare with lining for the use of) were definitely not available for replacement however. We often waited for several weeks before we could indulge in the delights of the BLU.

So our very own bathing facility was really something to be valued and it worked well; that is until the winter set in. By the time Christmas arrived things had really got cold and the inevitable happened. The water in our shower unit froze completely and burst several pipes. It really was BLR….even BER and fixing it would have to wait until the spring. Meanwhile, for ablutions, we were rationed to a basin of hot water obtained from the cookhouse each morning. You had to be quick, because by the time you got it to your tent, it had already cooled down. If left too long there was even a risk of it beginning to freeze over.

Another source of warmth were the heaters provided for each tent…the bigger tents had two. These used diesel as fuel. They were simple in that the fuel was controlled by a single valve. If adjusted properly, the fuel burned with a clean blue flame and provided quite adequate heat. One could by very judicious adjustments of the drip feed increase the supply so that the body of the heater started to really glow red hot. That was the state that most of the denizens of the camp tried to achieve to ward off the cold. Of course there were one or two lads who had not developed the necessary skill and over cooked the situation by opening the fuel valve too far. The flame then turned a dirty yellow and the first sign of impending disaster was the black smoke from the chimney. Left too long and great strings of black carbon started to accumulate on the chimney walls. Then there would be the inevitable WOOSH and a chimney fire erupted with spectacular flames and sparks everywhere.

We had at least two of our main accommodation tents (housing about 20 squaddies) go up in flames that winter. It was a bizarre sight to see the inmates scrambling about , most in their night ware, trying to put the flames out, somewhat like demented dervishes but clothed in kit ranging from night ware to full winter warfare parkas and the rest. . Trouble was that the Army in its wisdom had supplied us with sand filed buckets, water filled buckets and those utterly stupid stirrup pumps with which to fight such blazes. We also had large soda acid extinguishers. But in winter we had very little hope of success, as the water in the buckets was mainly ice, the sand totally useless as a means of dousing a blazing tent, and the extinguishers equally useless because they could not function adequately, if at all, at the prevailing average temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Fortunately we had Christmas to look forward to. There were several things that worked to raise our spirits. First was the British Forces Postal Service and our own PO number BFPO 14 I think it was. The post was always reliable and I recall with pleasure regularly receiving letters from home and, for Christmas, several cards and a parcel. The latter contained a hand knitted woollen scarf that must have been a meter long and was very welcome indeed.

We also had the NAAFI Canteen and there was no shortage of beer and spirits for supply to the messes. The NAAFI and SSAFFA stores were the only places where we could spend our money…..no one else was geared to accept the BAFV (British Armed Forces Voucher) with which we were paid. These

Then there were the rations. Basically these were pretty good and more than adequate for feeding always hungry soldiery. The Army had not forgotten the lesson that an "army marches on its stomach". If you were lucky enough to have ACC cooks who knew what to do with the rations then you were well fed. Pity those who did not have skilled cooks, because they could ruin anything, except for the weekly ration of cigarettes and chocolate.

Of course we had to work right up to Christmas Day, there really wasn’t much else to do and we had to be kept occupied. But Christmas Day was different. Reveille was later than usual and things started with the traditional reversal of roles. The Officers and WOs and sergeants served breakfast in the cookhouse to the lads. The place, like, the messes had been decorated. Coloured strings of tinsel draped the walls and a small Christmas tree. The mess tables had also been decorated and there was an extra ration of beer. It is amazing how a little bit of coloured paper and tinsel can brighten up the drabbest of places, even a rather grubby tented cook house.

Another traditional practice was for the Orderly Officer to check the quality of the meals served to the lads. It was simply done by the duty man touring the mess tent during the meal with the Orderly Sergeant and occasionally asking a feeding squaddy whether the meal was alright. The answer was generally a grudging affirmative, and certainly on that Christmas Day there were even some complements paid. Sometimes there would be a complaint and, when found to be genuine, it was the cookhouse sergeant who’d be called to account. On one famous occasion at the end of WW2, the unit concerned is said to have captured some caviar and this had been issued to all messes. It was duly savoured with pleasure in the senior messes, but one squaddy in the men’s mess was heard to complain that the raspberry jam tasted of fish!...some people are never satisfied!

Christmas 1954 ended for us in the officers mess on a somewhat wistful note. There were only four in the mess and the picture says it all…..We were in a rather wistful introspective mood and I think we would rather have spent the day with the lads who were having a right old "knees up mother brown" in the cook house /mess tent to finish the day, but protocol forbad our joining in.

© Copyright M.& M.M.O.Dealy

This page last modified on Thursday, July 17, 2014