Missing in North Korea: Ian McGibbon Explains the Circumstances That Led to a New Zealand Serviceman Becoming One of the Korean War Missing near the Northern Port of Chinnampo

Article excerpt

In October 2011 it was announced that North Korea and the United States had begun talks in Bangkok on resuming efforts to search for the remains of Americans lost in northern Korea during the Korean War--some of the 8000 Americans unaccounted for from that conflict. Between 1996 and 2005 US search teams recovered the partial remains of 220 Americans--at a huge price in 'logistical' payments to the Pyongyang regime--but the searches ceased when nuclear issues and safety concerns led to the withdrawal of the US teams.

The news of the talks reminded that New Zealand, too, has a serviceman missing in North Korea--Able Seaman Robert Marchioni, who was aged nineteen at the time of his death just over 60 years ago. The circumstances in which he lost his life and the reasons for his body not being retrieved offer a cautionary lesson in the conduct of military operations, highlighting the dangers of committing men to actions for which they are inadequately trained. Marchioni was the victim of poor decision-making by his commander.

Marchioni was lost in the small hours of 26 August 1951. On a rocky beach in North Korea, a small party of British marines and New Zealand seamen found themselves in an unenviable predicament. With enemy troops threatening to intercept them, they faced annihilation unless they could reach the boats waiting to take them off. A rocky headland stood between them and safety, but scaling or going round it would be difficult because they had with them Marchioni's body. Faced with a stark choice, the British officer present, in the interests of extricating the party, ordered the body to be put down. The party then made their way past the obstacle and along the beach to the waiting boats, which withdrew in the face of approaching North Koreans.

Marchioni was one of two Royal New Zealand Navy personnel lost during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, the other being a seaman who went overboard from a frigate en route to Korea. These two men, who are commemorated on a memorial to the missing in the UN cemetery in Pusan, are among some 9000 service men and women of New Zealand's overseas wars who have no known graves.

Born in Taihape on the first day of April 1932, Bob Marchioni became a labourer after leaving school. Soon tiring of the life, he signed on for the navy in October 1949. A year later he was serving as a seaman boy in the frigate HMNZS Rotoiti when she left New Zealand for Korean War service under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Brian Turner. Rotoiti headed for the Japanese port of Sasebo, the main operating base for the Commonwealth element of the UN naval forces. She would relieve HMNZS Pukaki, one of the two frigates that New Zealand had immediately sent to join the UN Command when war erupted in the peninsula in June 1950.

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Main task

In early 1951, Commonwealth warships' main task was to protect numerous islands off the peninsula's west coast, among them Yong Pyong, which in November 2010 was bombarded by the North Koreans. Like Yong Pyong, many of these islands lay very close to enemy territory on the mainland. The constant patrolling was not exciting work. The ships intercepted sampans, sometimes boarding them; and they bombarded shore positions occasionally. But landings were prohibited.

The ambitious Turner chafed at the limitations on his ability to get to grips with the enemy. He wanted to provide traditions for the fledgling New Zealand navy. Conscious of the many wartime awards made to New Zealand soldiers for bravery, he believed that New Zealand seamen were irked by their inability 'to have a crack at an enemy'. Recognition of ratings' bravery would, he believed, reonate throughout New Zealand, 'affecting recruiting because glory is still a more powerful magnet than high pay'. But Rotoiti seamen could only make their mark if they took the fight to the enemy on land. When his ship was in the Japanese port of Kure for repairs, Turner had about six of his crew trained in landing techniques by a British special forces unit 'over several days'. …