Black Watch veteran who served during Korean War shares his experiences of life on the front line

Posted: 16/12/2019 | Scottish War Blinded

Jimmy Rodger, of Dundee, was called up for national service at the age of 18 and wanted to follow in the footsteps of his uncle who was a Pipe Major in the Black Watch during the Second World War.

However, things initially did not go to plan for the keen piper. “After six-weeks of training, I was selected for another regiment but I was desperate to get into the Black Watch,” said Jimmy.

A belt maker to trade, Jimmy, now aged 86, said: “I went to see the Pipe Major and I was told it was bad news. He told me I wasn’t getting into the pipe band as they weren’t recruiting any more national servicemen. ‘Is that all?’ I asked him. So I decided to sign on and become a regular.”

The step-father-of-two served as a Piper in the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment from 1951-54, the majority of which was spent in South Korea during the Korean War and Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.

Jimmy Rodger, now aged 86

Having spent nearly one year in Germany, the young Piper returned to Crail in Fife to be re-kitted before travelling by boat to Busan in South Korea in May 1952, a journey which took over six weeks. “We all knew what was happening in Korea but we were care free at the time,” Jimmy said. “What else could you do?

“We were told that there had been a break in the 38th parallel and that North Korea, with support from China, had overrun an awful lot of South Korea. Places like Britain, France, Canada and Australia all had to send forces and do their share to help the south,” said the grandfather-of-four and great-grandfather-of-three.  


Serving in South Korea

Jimmy and the rest of the Black Watch battalion joined the 29th British Infantry Brigade on the front line near Panmunjom on the border at the 38th parallel.   

Jimmy in uniform as a young piper in the Black Watch

The pipe band was also a fighting platoon meaning Jimmy spent most of his time on the front line during his time in Korea, but the bagpipes were never far from the passionate piper.

Jimmy said: “When I was at the camp, I heard a song on the radio called Arirang which is a Korean folk song. I couldn’t understand anything apart from the rhythm, so I created my own version on the bagpipes. 

“We would spend six weeks on the front line then we would get two weeks off at the camp to get a shower and a bed and the South Koreans would provide entertainment. They got very excited when I played Arirang on the bagpipes.”


On the front line

But life on the front line was far from Jimmy’s experience of camp and didn’t come without its challenges.

“On the front line, we dug holes in the ground called hootchies to sleep in which we covered with sandbags to make a roof,” Jimmy explained. “Four of us shared a hootchie, but there would only ever be two in it at a time, unless we were being fired at and needed to get out of the way.

Jimmy piping in the haggis for Burns in South Korea

“There were times on the frontline when shells were flying towards us and we would say: ‘roll on death. Demob is too slow’.  

“We couldn’t do anything when they were battering us. Some nights it would go quiet and we could walk about on guard. One night in particular, I remember hearing ‘go home Scottie, let the Americans fight their own battle!’

“It was coming from a big wire hanging from a plane circling above me. All I could hear was a loud buzzing noise and I saw a massive speaker hanging in front of me.

“They wanted to show us that is wasn’t our war. 

“They would hang microphones on the barbed wire fences around our compound to play music for us. We just reckoned that we would rather that than them shooting at us. It made us feel more comfortable.

“There was a mutual respect. The Chinese were just young laddies. I mean we were young but they were even younger.”

The front line ran along the border between North Korea and South Korea which was dominated by hillside. Jimmy said: “The units were all defending different parts of the line, but we took it in turns to defend the highest point, called the hook, as this was the most heavily attacked part of the line.

“The Chinese wanted the hook so they could see what was happening behind the lines. The Americans had already lost it three times. They were good at attacking but not defending so lots of American lives were lost on the hook as they were too exposed. They would shake hands before going up the line as if not to come back.

“We refused to defend the hook unless we could dig deeper.”

On 17 November 1952, the Black Watch were defending the hook when they came under attack. “It was freezing cold, around -30 degrees and we hadn’t finished digging the deeper trenches,” said Jimmy.   

“We were attacked by a bomb. The pipe major next to me lost his leg and I was knocked out.

“The next thing I knew, a sergeant was shaking me and asking if I was alright. I eventually came to but I didn’t know where I was or what had happened. The sergeant passed me my steal hat and told me to keep it as a souvenir. The shrapnel from the bomb went right through.

“We were surrounded by the Chinese. Anyone who was capable of getting out had to get ourselves up to the top of the hill. We went up through the trenches – it was pitch black apart from the shells that were exploding around us.

“We went into the trench at the top of the hill, although it still had no roof, and there were around 30 of us standing shoulder to shoulder with one another.

“There was smoke all over the place because of the shells. We were on the highest point facing away from the frontline and the commander told us to throw of our hand grenades, rifles and ammunition belts over the side of the hill.

“We called on a defense attack which meant our own defense had to fire above us, as close as they could.

“Two big tanks came up the hill in front of us. The next thing we know a tank was right above our heads.

“Everything went even darker. The other tank was over the other side of the trench.

“Then we heard ‘fire’.

“But before the tanks were able to fire, we were hit.

“The tank went on fire right above our heads. One of the boys jumped out with an extinguisher and that is when I heard on the radio: man severely injured. The voice on the other end asked if he was breathing. Eventually the radio boy replied to say he was dead – he was our signalman.

“We couldn’t go anywhere, so we said the Lord’s Prayer for the man who had lost his life.

“Then the message came to open fire. The whole place lit up and that’s what saved us. That’s how we saved the hook.

“When daylight came, we didn’t recognise the place. The ground was still smoking.

“We kept the hook but we lost around 100 men that night.”


The forgotten war

In July 1953, the conflict eventually came to a cease fire. “It was decided that a border would remain along the 38th parallel, there was no negotiating,” Jimmy said.

“A peace agreement has still never been signed so to this day there are no open borders.”

The Korean War is often referred to as the forgotten war. “People just don’t realise how important it was,” said Jimmy.

“If South Korea was taken by China and North Korea, there would have been third World War.”

Looking back on his army career, Jimmy said there were “good times and bad times.”

He said: “I got to play the bagpipes at balls and galas so it wasn’t all gloom. There was a Ball held for the Queen’s coronation in Tokyo and I got to play at it. I spent three weeks in Tokyo playing at lots of different events which made a change from army life.”

Jimmy’s unit travelled from South Korea to Kenya where he fought against the Mau Mau uprising until August 1954, at which time he returned home.

Jimmy settled in Dundee and worked in the textiles industry until he retired in 1991. His deteriorating sight, caused by glaucoma, means he now receives support from Scottish War Blinded’s outreach team. Jimmy can no longer play his beloved bagpipes, although he still enjoys playing the chanter and can still fondly remember the songs he used to play during the army.