ALBERT J. MERRICK

Staff Sergeant | Royal Australian Army Medical Corps

By the time the Royal Australian Regiment landed in Korea, the North Korean Army was in full retreat.  The United States forces that were first committed within days of the initial invasion managed to thwart the full occupation of the peninsula, so when 3d Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment joined on September 28, 1950 they were pushing into the enemy’s capital city of Pyongyang.  It was a day after Albert Merrick’s 21st birthday which he celebrated quietly between the docks of Japan and Pusan.  The cheerful looking Tasmanian had joined the battalion earlier that month, assigned as a medical orderly to B Company, and promoted to corporal at the same time.  He spent the month training until the 25th when they were issued new automatic weapons, ammunitions, clothing and equipment, and inoculated, all activities assuring they were about to enter the war.  They crated their stores and property, packed away personal kit not needed in combat, loaded vehicles and prepared embarkation rolls over two days.  Everything was done with the haste in order to get the battalion up to strength, out of Japan, and into Korea.

 

Within two days of landing, they were assigned the task of clearing any areas that the U.S. Army had bypassed in their fast advance out of the Naktong.  There were many spots known to contain lingering enemy forces and stores of ammunition and supplies.  B and C Companies began patrolling, each accompanied by a platoon of Sherman tanks and an artillery forward observer.  Rainfall turned from cold showers to a heavy downpour, quickly soaking through Merrick’s clothing and streaming off the brim of his slouch hat.  For two days, the companies probed the muddy countryside with no sign of the enemy, but discovered plenty of abandoned ammunition stores with an abundance of Russian box mines.

 

Their patrols were recalled and they prepared to move to Seoul with 27 Brigade.  The flight to Kimpo airfield was only 35 minutes – the time to prep and unload was far longer.  The battalion remained at Kimpo living off U.S. Army C Rations for four days and finally moving out late in the morning of October 9th.  They reached Kaesong by that afternoon.  The village was relatively undamaged compared to the rest of the inhabited country they witnessed over the past week.  Airstrikes screaming in when they arrived could easily have changed that.

 

Though the Australians were the leading battalion for the Brigade, the movement was uneventful until B Company reached Sariwon and Lieutenant Larson’s 6 Platoon managed to capture a truckload of 25 North Koreans.  They passed their prisoners off to Headquarters and continued north at a rapid pace through Pyongyang into Sinanju – a simple village of typical Korean houses broken up by two large rectangular flats constructed by the Communist authorities.  Women and children welcomed them to the town with smiles and cheers as they waved the flag of the Republic of Korea.  Their first issue of U.S. Army clothing arrived just in time for the dropping temperatures – a durable windproof field jacket that adequately supplemented the Australian’s lack of winter clothing.  B Company prepared to lead the battalion at the front of the Brigade assault the next morning.  Merrick worked on grooming his moustache.

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Photo courtesy Anne Merrick

BROKEN BRIDGE

Along the main road to the Manchurian border, B Company reached a river at Kujin.  One span of the bridge had been demolished resulting in a twenty-foot drop to the cold water below.  The company quickly cobbled together makeshift ladders with the debris and a recce patrol clambered over the broken structure to the west bank.  Two sections of 4 Platoon were the first to reach the opposite end of the bridge and met about fifty enemy.  The Aussies were startled until they processed that their adversaries’ arms were raised and they were weaponless.

 

As they were about to sling their weapons and gather prisoners, fire erupted from hidden assailants and the two sections withdrew taking only ten prisoners with them.  An American spotter plane notified the battalion that they were facing about two companies across the bridge.  Colonel Green ordered an airstrike to soften the North Koreans before B Company returned against a deep pink horizon to cross the bridge again with A Company.  It took time to navigate over the rickety ladders in the darkening light and those waiting to climb over waited anxiously.  After the moon had risen, they assembled at the far end.  A deep orange flare illuminated the battlefield where platoons dashed to scrub-covered knolls on either side of the road to take up positions and dig in. 

The Koreans occupied the entire area.  Some had slipped into the village disguised as civilians.  Others remained in the bushes waiting to pounce on the Australians.  Those wounded in the airstrike were found to be clutching grenades ready to take a life through martyrdom.  A burst from an Owen gun broke the cold silence and a brief firefight erupted around the leading parts of the company.  Only a barrage of mortar fire allowed their safe withdrawal. 

 

Before midnight, the Korean’s activity picked up again and a firefight ensued.  A chilly drizzle enveloped the battlefield throughout the early morning.  At 4:00 as the sky was becoming gray, two T-34 tanks began to shell and machine gun the two companies astride the road.  One rolled within ten yards of B Company HQ dealing inaccurate fire but managing to take the head off of one poor Digger.  Behind the tanks came two Soviet jeeps, a motorcycle and sixty soldiers on foot.   A Company broke the silence and dispersed them and by dawn the commandeered all serviceable vehicles.

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Merrick responded to the cries for a medic.  B Company suffered two killed and three wounded and throughout the battalion, more casualties were carried across the broken bridge.  ‘It was a desperate business. By the light of gun flashes, under sniper fire, stretchers were secured with rope, lowered some 20 feet over the edge onto the broken span resting in the water below, then transferred to folding boats waiting to be hauled to the Regimental Aid Post on the east bank by ropes.’

 

“After that, they can send them by divisions,” the elated CO told his HQ staff.  “This battalion will hold them!’’  As infantrymen without supporting arms, they had driven off significant counterattacks and enemy armor with ferocity to drive the North Koreans into a rout.  The bridgehead was theirs.  In the rapid movement for the next few days, A and D Companies faced intense opposition at Chongju.  B Company was spared the fight, but heard the clashes on either side throughout the night.  The next day, Colonel Green was tragically killed by a stray round.

PAKCHON

In the beginning of the November, the Australians moved deeper into North Korea nearing the Yalu River and stretching the Commonwealth line closer to the Chinese border.  They were furious to evacuate Chongju after Green’s death – it was unlike them to not stand their ground.  The company commander, Major Thirwell, broke his left leg in a jeep accident and was evacuated.  They remained a mile east of Pakchon during the day where aerial observers notified them that there were no enemy in the area, but there was speculation that there were sixteen Chinese divisions.  It was clear the Middlesex Regiment was taking fire.  A fight was ‘imminent for it was Sunday, and the battalion had been in action on the three previous Sundays, at Apple Orchard, Broken Bridge and Chongju.’

 

On the afternoon of November 5th, B Company attacked up a ridge alongside A Company.  It quickly became evident that the attack would be far more difficult than they anticipated.  They first crossed 800 yards of open paddy fields before approaching the 150-foot ridge strewn with determined Chinese.  Per usual, the Aussies fought solely as infantry – no artillery, air support, or covering fire.  Secluded machinegun nests opened up on the two companies as they advanced, raking the line and dealing casualties that Albert reluctantly passed by and left in the open field until later.  As they moved up the slopes of the ridge, the Diggers mixed with the Argylls.  They stumbled into their own wounded in the trenches as they completely routed the Chinese, tripping over each other careful to pull the trigger not knowing if they would face friend or foe as they navigated around bends in the trench line.

 

In two hours of fighting, the Commonwealth forces held the ridge and it was quiet until whistles and bugles broke the still autumn air four hours later.  A vicious fight for the ridge ensued once again before Colonel Walsh ordered the withdrawal of his beleaguered troops.  The Chinese remained quiet after.  Merrick was sufficiently occupied during the night – the battalion had twelve killed and 64 wounded, Lieutenant Larson of B Company among them.  In the morning, he continued picking shrapnel out of men’s flesh.

 

He hiked back into the open field to retrieve dead from the previous day.  Under the vicious fire the previous afternoon, stopping to tend to the wounded would have futile and surely have resulted in the loss of more life, but Merrick still regretted it.  As he approached the corpse of one of his friends, he found that his body had been torn apart by the wild pigs native to the area.  The sight of his comrade mutilated by wild animals added to the painful collection of memories he could never forget.

 

*

The enemy seemed to disappear after the battle at Pakchon.  Patrols probing thousands of yards into the abandoned land yielded no enemy contact other than the collection of some prisoners in secluded villages three miles east who were left behind during the early November battles. 

 

Deep frosts began to appear at night, marking plunging temperatures as the weather quickly transitioned into winter.  Though the days remained clear permitting maximum use of aircraft, eventually light snow fall came, followed by cold and gusty winds.  The temperature was recorded at a bitter 12 degrees and the wind cut through their clothing.  Their field jackets and shoepacs alone were no long enough to stay warm and with only his iconic slouch hat, Merrick’s ears were continuously nipped by the cold and he wished for a pile cap and jacket liner.  Daily patrols were the best solution for warming up.

 

By the end of an overcast and chilly November, the battalion went into reserve during the Eighth Army offensive.  In a few days, they were desperately needed thirty miles east, just south of Kunu-ri due to the collapse of ROK II Corps and rout of the 2d Division that left gaps in the IX Corps front.  The entire Brigade was placed on one hour notice that began another series of fast movements to critical locations.

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The first shuttle to Chosan took over six hours due to congested traffic.  B Company had to wait throughout the afternoon and evening for the second trip, finally arriving at the Taedong River during snow fall one minute before midnight.  The state of the haggard 2d Division became obvious as they withdrew all around the Brigade, outrunning the sounds of bugles in the distance.

 

Orders came the next morning to withdraw south to Pyongyang.  The Aussies thinned out, blew the bridge behind them, and traveled for twelve hours over 94 miles cramped in the backs of trucks.  By the time they reached the capital city, the men were horribly stiff from the brutal trip in the intense cold.  It was one of their worst days yet in Korea.  After they arrived, they finally received the insulated pile liner jackets they desperately needed.

 

*

 

Leading up to Christmas, B Company lead patrols along the main supply route between Sibyon-ni and Kumchon.  While investigating guerilla activity in the Sop-Unak San area, 6 Platoon ran into a band of guerillas who killed one man and wounded another in a fire fight.  They returned two nights later after very heavy snowfall that left thick drifts and made progress slow.  They found no further trace of guerillas and concluded the short, anticlimactic period of patrols.

 

The hard fighting of the previous months and horrid winter conditions left the Aussies rather grim for Christmas, but Albert celebrated among his mates as cheerfully as possible.  Had he known he would be returning home soon, he might have been more joyous, but his departure in January was unexpected.  After another move toward Seoul, the worn medic was evacuated to the Indian field ambulance with a bout of dysentery.

Though Merrick’s war was over, the Korean combat experience left a deep impression.  He was nearly deaf in one ear after a mortar exploded too close to him; he had to recover from frostbite on his ears as well; but the memories and gore were the worst that he never spoke about.  Like his father, a veteran of the First World War, he turned to alcohol to cope.  The habit consumed his father, but in Albert it brought on periods of melancholy and withdrawal from those closest to him.

When he returned to Hobart in 1951, he found his fiancé, to whom he was sending a considerable amount of his pay for their marriage and future life together, was spending their savings frivolously. After all he had been through, to be disillusioned by the woman he loved was crushing and he called everything off. His paybooks reflect some cancellations of these allotments with the signature of a Private Catherine Mary McGrath, a lovely nursing orderly in the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps, who frequently signed off on his pay when acting as a clerk.

 

He reenlisted in the Army inspired by his sense of service and the vision of a reliable career. He even applied for another tour in Korea, but was rejected due to his valuable position in his current posting in the Northern Command. When the war ended shortly after, he remained in the military until 1961 when he left to take up the position of Health Inspector and later Senior Health Surveyor in Ballarat, Victoria. He later joined Ballarat Legacy and assisted in providing support for local widows and children of deceased servicemen.

Albert only returned to Tasmania sparingly, avoiding the island state in favor of the mainland where a close relationship developed with Catherine. They married in the year following her 1953 tour in Japan.  He was warmly welcomed into Catherine’s family and loved them as his own and was proud of the children he and Catherine raised, yet there were the lonely moments where Albert struggled with his demons. On the rare occasion that he shared any recollection of Korea, it was often only of a brief incident enough for the listener to understand what was always with him, he only seemed to relax fully when in the company of those he had served with.

Photos courtesy Anne Merrick

Original drawings and poem, written in Albert's hand but noted on back "Sgt. E. E. Goldsby."  (Courtesy Anne Merrick).

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Sources:

Australia, Australian Army “War Diaries.” 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment War Diaries, 1950-1951.

“Out in the Cold: Australia's Involvement in the Korean War.” Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/korea/operations/yongju.

Salmon, Andrew. Scorched Earth, Black Snow: The First Year of the Korean War 1950. Aurum Press, Limited, 2012.

With tremendous thanks to Anne Merrick for her time, interest, patience, and generosity.  Without her contributions, I would never have been able to properly write about Albert and tell his story in the best way possible.