Mystery photos reveal British soldiers in Korean War


08 November 2013
John-Clare-on-horse-300x199-65358.jpg The photographer, John Clare, pictured while serving in Africa after the Korean War.
One of the joys of working on Family Tree is hearing about your family history stories and latest discoveries. Just occasionally

One of the joys of working on Family Tree is hearing about your family history stories and latest discoveries. Just occasionally we have one of our own to share, and this weekend seems a particularly apt time to do it. Assistant editor Karen Clare takes the reins...

As we take time out this Remembrance Sunday to pay tribute to our armed forces and the millions that have died in conflict since World War I, my family will be remembering our own special serviceman, my late father-in-law, John Clare. And I’m hoping somebody out there will help us to record and remember his military service. My father-in-law passed away in 2001 at the age of just 69. Sadly he’d been suffering from dementia so, at the very time his son, my husband, was becoming interested in the family history, it was too late to ask him.

John had had an adventurous life. Born in Dublin, he moved to London as a boy and by the time I knew him, in the late 1990s, he’d lost all trace of an Irish accent. John was a veteran of the Korean War (1950-1953), often called ‘the forgotten war’, and handed down a few amusing stories from that time to my husband. Like the time he fell into a trench at night, only to come face-to-face with an armed American soldier who growled into the pitch darkness: ‘You gonna tell me who you are? Or I am gonna tell you who you was?’

Thankfully, and needless to say, John survived that encounter.

On another memorable night the soldiers he shared his tent with all waited up, guns poised, to greet a regular but unwelcome twilight visitor – a big fat, rat. When the poor creature appeared every man in the tent jumped from their beds and fired at the very spot where it stood, leaving a crater in the floor... but no sign of the beast. I don’t know if it ever returned.

All we have now of that time are a few tales... and these remarkable photographs which, until five years ago, nobody knew existed. My mother-in-law found a mystery roll of film among her late husband’s belongings and it was only when she got it developed that she discovered it dated back to John’s time in Korea during the war, when he served in the Royal Artillery.

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Unfortunately John is not featured in the photos, so we can only assume he was behind the camera. But they are quite extraordinary. These are only a handful of them showing some of his comrades, encamped in freezing weather, listening to a marching band, grinning (or grimacing, given the cold) for the camera. We don’t know anything about these photographs or, indeed, the men pictured in them. Do you recognise yourself or perhaps a relative who fought in Korea? Do you remember John Clare perhaps? I’d love to hear from you if you do, to fill in some of the gaps in my husband’s family history and learn more about his dad’s wartime experiences.

After Korea, John became a career soldier. Somehow he ended up joining first the Rhodesian and then the Zambian Army (we still have his uniform) where he was witness to the Lumpa uprising that marred that country’s move to independence. He then spent the 1960s in Africa where colourful adventures included driving across the Rift Valley in a Morris Minor. But that’s another story.

He returned home to London a decade later, having missed Beatlemania and the Summer of Love, and met and married my husband’s mum, which is where this story ends.

In a week when the Imperial War Museums announced its Lives of the First World War project and work began on the first major memorial to the 1,139 servicemen who died in the Korean War, it was reported that a survey by autobiography service LifeBook UK had found that almost 2/3 of Britons regret not writing down parents’ and grandparents’ war stories. It seems 64% of Britons have been told war stories by a grandparent or parent but only 8% have recorded them to preserve for future generations.

Many of us make the mistake of not recording our relatives’ lives until it’s too late, but if we could just find out something more about my father-in-law’s wartime experiences to pass on to our young son, we’ll have another story to tell our own grandchildren.

If you think you or someone you know may feature in these photos, please email me at [email protected]