The Kagnew battalions were sent to stand with South Koreans against the combined forces of North Korea and China, from June 1951 to the end of the war. They fought in a number of engagements including the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, writes Alem Asres.
Warfare and military artistry have been dominant elements in Ethiopia’s cultural history for thousands of years. To put to rest the notion that an ‘unarmed, undisciplined, and ill-organized people are not in condition to withstand a well-organized European army’, Alexander Bulatovich wrote the Ethiopian fighters are “profoundly disciplined, though in their own unique way, showed endurance and are capable of action in conditions which are difficult even to imagine.” Regardless of their demonstrated fighting skills, Ethiopians did not seek to rule any part of Europe nor did they create national army to that end. It was the Europeans who sought to rule Ethiopia by any means necessary. Because of her people’s unyielding resistance against colonialism, Ethiopia remained “the proud symbol of Africa’s independence” to this day.
On June 25, 1950 North Korean forces, supported by the Chinese army, invaded South Korea. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), recognizing North Korea as aggressor and demanded for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. On 27th of June, to back-up its demand and restore peace in Korea, the UNSC decided to dispatch its forces and asked member countries to do like-wise. Mindful of her own struggle against aggression, Ethiopia agreed to dispatch the Imperial Bodyguard in response to UNSC’s call. On April 14, 1951, the Imperial Bodyguards were summoned by Emperor Haile-Selassie I, and were told: “North Korean troops invaded South Korea…You are leaving your homeland to fight on distant shores—fighting not only for freedom of South Korean people but also representing and defending in far corners of the earth, the most sacred principle—the principle of collective security with which the name of Ethiopia is imperishably associated.”
On April 16, 1951, the first Kagnew Battalion numbering 1,158 officers and men left Ethiopia to add a new and invaluable chapter to the Ethiopian military history. Thus, Ethiopia became the first African nation to respond to the United Nations call to stop North Korean aggression against South Korea. The Kagnews, having fought side-by-side with South Koreans against the combined forces of North Korea and China, returned home with their heads held high and with well-earned pride. The Emperor welcomed them back with eloquent speech and promised them land and financial support. Most of his promises were never realized during his rule and the warriors who fought with honor returned to a routine life of poverty. To make things worse, Mengistu Hailemariam’s regime considered the Kagnew warriors as the enemy of his new but short-lived, ally—North Korea and vilified Kagnew warriors, confiscated their properties, and dismantled the Imperial Bodyguard once and for all. According to Ermias Haile, “many of these veterans had to suffer a lot” and were forced “to conceal the fact that they had fought against communist forces in Korea.” Today, very few Ethiopians, if any, remember the heroic deeds of the Kagnews in Korea. What is not seen, heard, or taught, will eventually be forgotten. Unless Ethiopians actively engage in writing and teaching about the Kagnew warriors, the expression, “out of sight and out of mind” will surly apply to them.
Given the scarcity of written material on the contributions of Kagnew Battalions in defense of the Korean people, it is difficult, if not impossible, to resurrect and present accurately the sacrifices of the Kagnews in Korea more than sixty years ago. My gratitude to the Ethiopian Korean-War Veterans Association, who invited me to visit the veteran’s museum and the only monument erected by Korean government in memory of Ethiopians who fought in defense of Korean freedom. During my visit to Ethiopia, I met with and listened to many Ethiopian Veterans of Korean War expressing their appreciation for the Government of South Korea and the Korean people for the humanity shown and the support provided to Veterans and their families. I hope this article will convey not only my gratitude but also communicate the gratitude of members of Ethiopian Veterans of Korean War to the people of South Korea. I am grateful to the Government of South Korea for doing what the two previous Ethiopian governments failed to do—recognize, honor and support the Kagnew warriors. As veteran of Korean War, visiting the museum was very uplifting and left me with indescribable pride. I was pleased to learn that the Korean government has been providing financial, free medical and other services to the remaining veterans and their families.
Discovering that most of Ethiopian youth did not know that Ethiopia had an army called the Imperial Bodyguard, nor did they know that Ethiopians were sent to defend the Korean people, compelled me to write this article. As to the Korean youth, David In-Yeup Song and Lee Hyo-won, were quoted: “most South Koreans today, however, are oblivious of the sacrifices made by the Kagnews.” It is very disappointing to learn that neither Korean nor Ethiopian youth remembers the role of Kagnews in defense of Korean independence
A brief glance at Korean history shows that the Mongolian occupation of 13th century left the country socially, economically and politically weakened. For years, the Chinese ruled Korea with iron fist. By the late 19th century, Korea became the object of the colonial designs by Imperial Japan who was bent on colonizing and finally annexing Korea. Thus from 1910 to 1945, Korea remained a colony of the Imperial Japan and for more than 35 years, the Korean people suffered immensely under Japanese rule.
While the surrender of Japan following WWII ended Japanese rule in Korea, the latter was however left divided. Korea was partitioned along the 38th parallel, with the north under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) occupation and the south under the United States. The occupation by the two rival superpowers resulted in the establishment of a Soviet-styled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and a Western-styled Republic of Korea in the South. Hence, the world witnessed the division of one nation into two separate and sovereign entities whose sovereignty and national borders accepted neither by the North nor by the South. With both governments claiming to be the legitimate government of Korea, and the two occupying superpowers advancing their own economic interests throughout Asia, conflict between the two Korea continued to escalate resulting in the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950.
The Kagnew battalions were sent to stand with South Koreans against the combined forces of North Korea and China, from June 1951 to the end of the war. They fought in a number of engagements including the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. Kagnews were described as “one of the most colorful units of the 32nd Infantry of the United Nations” and their performance considered by many observers “second to none.” “Every private, commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the battalion served with great distinction, and by all accounts (including the enemy’s) acquitted themselves well in battle.” Of the 6,037 Ethiopians sent during the course of the war, Ethiopia suffered 122 dead and 536 wounded. At the conclusion of the war, in the opinion of many observers of the Korean War including S.L.A. Marshall, a chief US Army combat historian during WWII and the Korean War, “Ethiopians were the only contingent that had no prisoners to collect from the North Koreans since no Kagnew soldier ever surrendered.” They had the additional distinctions of having won each of “the 238 times they engaged the enemy.” The other distinction, and one that made them seemingly “superhuman or phantom” to their enemies, was “there never seemed to be dead bodies of Kagnew soldiers, for the simple reason they never left their dead or wounded behind…This earned them the respect of their colleagues, while fostering the belief among their enemies, that they were indeed superhuman”.
Kimon Skordiles was quoted, by Ermias Haile, in saying this about the heroic deeds of the Kagnews: “The Kagnew battalion was bound by the motto, “one for all and all for one” to “fight until we win or die.” To paraphrase Bhagavad Gita, ‘for one who has been honored, dishonor is worse than death’. Ethiopians are neither superhuman nor phantoms. They are just honorable men who value dignity and honor above everything else. To surrender or leave dead comrades behind is viewed as dishonorable act—an act worse than death. The non-surrender tradition is what Ethiopia’s most beloved and honored Emperor—Emperor Tewodros left them with.
The Kagnew, from the day they landed in Korea to the end of the war, demonstrated their fighting ability and courage to everybody, including the Chinese. An early example of Ethiopian valor was shown by men like Gebreyesus Gebremickel, Wongele Costa, Zeleke Asfaw, Mamo Haptewold, Bezabih Ayele, Teferra Woldetensaie, and Tadesse Wondemagegnehu, just to name a few. These men and those not named here demonstrated an unusual bravery when surrounded by Chinese/North Korean troops. “When the Kagnew was given the task of taking hills, defended by approximately a battalion of Chinese, they fought with bayonets and grenades” to secure their objectives. They are known to secure their objectives without losing an inch of ground to the enemy or letting one of their men be taken prisoner. Ethiopians can be described as brave soldiers in fighting their enemies but extremely humanitarian in saving friends in need. This very touching instance of heroism and humanity shown by an Ethiopian soldier was told by Lee-Hyo-won. “One fateful morning the enemy opened fire at South Korean civilians. Melese Berihun of the 1st company heard the cries of a man who did not have time to escape. Berihun jumped to the rescue…The Ethiopian soldier did not understand what the wounded Korean was saying; but the painful cries were directed not only to the ears, but to the heart…a shell fell nearby and the two men died in each other’s arms…They were buried in a common grave in Busan serving as a symbol of their common sacrifice, in a common struggle, for a common goal…it is the fire of comradeship that came alive in the dark days of the Korean War.” Having described in detail the weather, the valleys, ditches, slopes and the hills including the unfamiliar American weapons the Kagnews had to deal with in total darkness, Marshall wrote:
“That of all troops which fought in Korea, the Ethiopians stood highest in quality of their officer-man relationship, the evenness of their performance under fire and the mastery of techniques by which they achieved near perfect unity of action in adapting themselves to new weapons during training and in using them to kill efficiently in battle…They couldn’t read maps but they never missed a trail…these men, thin, keen eyed, agile of mind and 95 per cent illiterate could take over US Signal Corps equipment and in combat make it work twice as well as the best-trained American troops…When the final shot was fired, one significant mark stood to their eternal credit…Of all national groups fighting in Korea, the Ethiopians alone could boast that they had never lost a prisoner or left a dead comrade on the battlefield. Every wounded man, every shattered body, had been returned to the friendly fold.”
Impressed by the bravery, cooperation, and voluntarism shown by Ethiopians to carry their dead or to assisting their wounded comrades as well as their lack of fear and superstitions that other ethnic groups may experience fighting in the dark, Marshall wrote this about Ethiopians:
“The Ethiopian patrols always succeeded in breaking the fire ring and returning to home base. If there were dead or wounded to be carried, the officer or NCO leader was the first to volunteer. In most of the races of man, superstition unfolds with the night, tricking the imagination and stifling courage. It is not so with the Ethiopians. The dark holds no extra terror…Of this in part came the marked superiority in night operations which transfixed the Chinese. It hexed them as if they were fighting the superhuman. The Ethiopians left no tracks, seemingly shed no blood and spoke always in an unknown tongue. Lack of bodily proof that he was mortal made him seem phantom like and forbiddingly unreal.”
General Douglass MacArthur said this in his farewell speech to the US Congress: “I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” And “like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away. Marshall, the author of Pork Chop Hill, remarked that “sometimes the bravest meet death with their deeds known only to heaven.” The Grandsons and granddaughters of the Kagnew Battalions, demand that the heroic deeds of their grandparents should not be left to heaven. It would be a national shame to let the contributions of Kagnew warriors fade away or let it be forgotten. If documented, as it should be, to use Ermias Haile’s expression, “the heroism of Ethiopian soldiers during the Korean War will and continue to be an inspiration for many generations to come.” It is a fact of life that the Kagnew warriors have been and are dying slowly a natural death and there is no denying that their heroic deeds are fading away fast. The outstanding performance of Kagnews under fire should make Ethiopians very proud.
Through the eyes of historians and the pens of writers, each generation is reminded the deeds of the previous generation. Ethiopia has few historically memorable deeds not only to be proud of but also worthy of passing from generation to generation—deeds such as, the death Emperors Tewodros II at Maqdela, of Yohannes IV fighting the Mahdist Sudan, the Battle of Adwa and Maichew against Italians, as well as, the outstanding, and world-wide recognized, performance of Kagnew Battalions during the Korean War. It was said that Ethiopians did not lack bravery or fighting spirit, but what they lacked was, good and supportive national and international press and scholars committed to writing their accomplishment during the Korean War. That lack of individual and institutional commitment to document the sacrifices of Kagnews in Korea still persists. Commenting on the lack of good press, S.L.A. Marshall wrote: “the Turks, the ROKs, the Commonwealth Division and others in medley got due notice. But the Ethiopians stood guard along their assigned ridges in a silence unbroken by the questions of the itinerant correspondents. They were eager to welcome strangers and tell how they did it. But no one ever asked.”
The aggressors were stopped by the combined forces of South Korean patriots and the UN Forces which included the Kagnew Battalions. However, the three years’ war which ended in a frustrating stalemate, left South Korea with more than one million civilians and over 300,000 soldiers dead, as well as, many cities destroyed. I am hopeful that this article will motivate some Ethiopians and South Koreans to engage in research designed to enhance our knowledge about the horrific conflict which resulted in death and distraction of Koreans and Ethiopians alike.
Ed.’s Note: Alem Asres (PhD), (former Alemayehu Wondemagegnehu) earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Social Foundations of Education with emphasis on Comparative and Multicultural Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his MA degree in Urban Sociology and Urban Planning from Howard University, Washington DC, and his BA in Political Science with emphasis in International Relations, from the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].