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Story of the valiant Ethiopian fighters in Korea

By Lee Hyo-won

A Greek war correspondent travels across the globe to cover the first armed clash of the Cold War. But instead of trailing the battlefield feats of his countrymen in the Korean War (1950-53), he ends up writing a book on Ethiopian warriors ― yes, warriors, like the stuff of ancient Greek myths.

It’s not hard to see why the soldiers of Ethiopia, one of the 21 U.N. member nations to send troops into the inter-Korean conflict, struck the fancy of the journalist: The Kagnew Battalion, bound by the motto “one for all and all for one” to “fight until we win or die,” won all 235 of its battles against North Korean forces.

And true to their motto, there were 124 deaths and 536 injuries but not a single one of the 6,037 warriors went missing or became a prisoner of war. They literally either died or survived to a victorious end, Kimon Skordiles observes in his book.

“Kagnew: The Story of Ethiopian Fighters in Korea,” published in 1954 shortly after the armistice was signed, is now finally available in Korean (Today’s Books: 319 pp., 15,000 won) on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War.

It sheds light upon an overlooked past but moreover, like most invaluable history lessons, serves as a window to the future. Most South Koreans today however are oblivious of such a sacrifice and the fact that the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), the governmental aid relief organization, is making waves in Ethiopia ― lending help to the country that once was giving aid.

Though the book chronicles extraordinary battles, a most touching instance of heroism and friendship shines through in a rather minor incident. One fateful morning, the enemy opened fire at South Korean civilians who were employed to lay wires. Melese Berihun of the 1st company heard the cries of a man who did not have time to escape and 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.”

[David In-yeup Song, who translated into Korean a Greek war correspondent’s 1954 account of Ethiopian soldiers’ contributions during the Korean War (1950-53), speaks to The Korea Times during a recent interview in Seoul. Song wishes the younger generation to be inspired by the great courage and integrity of the Kagnew Battalion. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul]

A shell fell nearby and the two men died in each other’s arms. They were buried in a common grave in Busan ― which serves as “a symbol of their common sacrifice, in a common struggle, for a common goal,” writes Skordiles. “The mixed blood is the foundation of friendship and a symbol of unity between Ethiopian and Korean. It is the fire of comradeship that came alive in the dark days of the Korean War, the friendship that will remain in perpetuation in the history through the joining of the hands of the two countries.”

David In-yeup Song, who served as chief representative of KOICA in Ethiopia for two years, took the initiative to translate the account. “I came across the book a couple months after I arrived in Ethiopia. I knew Ethiopia had sent troops but I was surprised to learn about their amazing achievements,” he said in a recent Korea Times interview in Seoul. He was in town for a few days before assuming a new post in earthquake-struck Haiti.

“I spent sleepless nights reading the book. I decided to translate it because it passes on an important lesson to the younger generation. They enjoy a materially rich life thanks to the sacrifice of such warriors like the Ethiopians, but many don’t even know when the Korean War broke out. Moreover, they can learn about integrity, teamwork and courage from the Kagnew Batallion,” he said.

The book introduces how Ethiopia became involved in the Korean War, and invites readers to explore the colorful history and character of the country.

For then-Emperor Haile Selassie the Korean War was a “holy” mission for world peace and collective security, to stop the further spread of ideological conflict. He thus dispatched members of the elite royal guard, the most physically adept and intelligent soldiers. Their perfect battle score did not go unnoticed, as then-U.S. Secretary of State J. F. Dulles paid the battalion a visit during a trip to Korea in 1953.

The Korean version of “Kagnew” however is more than a simple translation. Song places Skordiles’ work in a more contemporary context by tracing the legacy of the Ethiopian warriors, through interviews with some of the 400 veterans who are alive today. Various facts, figures and anecdotes are provided in both Korean and English.

Among them, Haile Giorgis, who served as 2nd lieutenant during the war, became promoted as military protocol chief to the emperor in 1972. Quite ironically, however, the emperor was overthrown in a communist coup, and during a spell of red terror through the 1980s, the Korean War veterans, once honored heroes, were forced to conceal the fact that they had fought against communist forces. Giorgis lived a reclusive life until the early 1990s.

Last month, some 40 members of the Korean War Veterans Association of Ethiopia recently visited Seoul to witness what had become of the impoverished country they fought in as young men.

“Ethiopians take note of Korea’s rapid economic development as a model for their country’s own growth, and the local press widely covers KOICA’s efforts. Korea on the other hand must not forget Ethiopia’s help in the past. There is much room for friendship to bloom anew,” he said.

Today KOICA is helping build schools, drinking water facilities and welfare centers for women and children. Song urged Koreans to take more interest in Ethiopia’s gourmet coffee and take note of the country’s rich history and the fact that it is home to the capital of the African Union.

This is Song’s second translation project after introducing Koreans to Jean Sasson’s “Love in a Torn Land,” which chronicles a true story set in war-torn Iraq.

The Korea Times

15 thoughts on “Story of the valiant Ethiopian fighters in Korea

  1. During the Clinton presidency, a memorial of sorts was held in Washington, D.C, similar to the Vietnam’s, sans the famous statue, and veterans from the twenty-two countries including Ethiopia who served in the war came. A black American veteran of the Korean War once said the best warriors, the front, second to none, and with no rivals were the Ethiopians. In an age of opportunists, ex-rebel heroes, who will run away when the real war breaks out, snakes and terrorists, a miracleous marvel – an absolutely must read.

  2. The Kagnew (ቃኘው) Battalions were three successive battalions drawn from the 1st Division Imperial Bodyguard sent by Emperor Haile SelassieI between June 1951 and April 1954 as part of the United Nations forces in the Korean War. The name Kagnew referred to the reconnaissance element in the military parlance of the Ethiopian Armed Forces…

    Kagnew: The story of the Ethiopian fighters in Korea [Unknown Binding]
    Kimon SkordileÌ
    238 pages
    Publisher: Radiopress; 2nd edition (1954)
    ASIN: B0007J4J74

  3. Yes,indeed;our brave fathers and brothers are eternally braave and patriots for their priceless sacrifice that they made for South Korea and the people;indeed,they are kept in the hearts and minds of Ethiopians and South Koreans.These patriots are the gift of Ethiopia.

    Misgana for all Ethiopian solders and their loved once.Bless the motherland.Amen.

  4. Hmmm… “Lieutenant Haile Giorgis?” What a name and what a revealing historical expression of the Haile Sellassie’s entire chauvinst feudal era whereby all non Abyssinian heroes were mainly identity less and degnity less persons essentially forced to be known only by their first christened names such as Haile Giorgis, Gebremaraim, Wolde Yesus, etc. just to dishonestly rob their real names and real identies such as for example, Buusaa Badhaasaa, Tullu Waqara, Araarsaa bakakkoo, Dhugaassa Furdisaa, Ahmad Abba Waare, Jagama Kello, etc. They should have known the very fact of life that people can just be themselves, using their genuine names and celebrating their real cultural values and still be Ethiopians.

    What I mean here is that those who put a hero’s picture and a heroes history mast have the duty and responsibility to find out and also write the true and genuine full family and first names rather than replicating perverted long standing chauvinist feudal practices a hero’s identity theft. No disrespect meant but truth must be told and wrongs must put right. :)

  5. Shaaqa Bakare.. What a loser you are!!!! If you tell this fairy tale you cooked up in Minneapolis to Jakama Kello, he would spit right in your face in contempt for you. Because he knew you and your grand cousins who were busy in carrying eggs and chickens to the Fascist killers when he was busy in the bushes fighting them. He might slap you and spit in your face also. You are worthless scam artist who make peace and genuine equality loving Oromos like me who are in tens of millions disgusted. Just keep yourself munching down those well prepared cakes given to you by your missionary masters. Hey..may be you are sugar-drunk. Believe me, believe us. You will never and ever be able to forcefully split away my Oromo people from millions of brothers and sisters in Afar, Somali, Tigre, Amhara and many other peace loving nationalities in Ethiopia. There are millions upon millions of the descendants of Jakama Kello, Abdisa Aga, Kifle Dadi, Gurusu Dukhi, Wodaju Gurmu, Gezmu Degafa, W.M. Gurgi, G.M. Gurgi, H.G. Negero, Geleta Koricho, Bekele Weya, Haji Yousuf Abubaker, Abebe Bikila, Gete Wami, The Dibaba Sisters…I am tired of counting..who will make sure we stay together with all other peace-loving people in Ethiopia. Sooner or later this specter from Adwa will be replaced by a truly democratic government. Do you know all these past and present Oromos. I doubt it. They are all Ethiopians!!!! But don’t worry nobody will disturb your cake munching sessions you are addicted with. You are a very disturbed chauvinist yourself.

  6. To # 6 above: Shaaqa, you must have been a Woldemariam or a Gebrmariam before you renamed yourself. The so called fuedal chauvisnts are your own parents. If you have no respect for the name they gave you,you are nothing. People of your nature are anti-ethiopiaminet (Kesinde wust yale enkirdad).

  7. Two Chapters from the Book: PORK CHOP HILL: The American Fighting Man in Action in Korea, Spring, 1953 by S.L. A. Marshall, The Battery Press, Nashville.
    describe on the extraordinary bravery of the Ethiopian Battalion in Korea.

    The book is now available on Amazon:

    The two Chapters are
    – Into the Alligator’s Jaws
    – The Incredible Patrol (Page 233-249)
    Here follows an excerpf from the Incredible Patrol.

    Bastogne, it was a classic fight, ending in clean triumph over seemingly impossible odds. But unlike other great tales of scar which become legend, it went unsung, though it happened almost under the noses of 163 war correspondents then in Seoul, forty minutes’ air flight from the fight. Held spellbound by the headline values of Operation Little Switch, they had neither time nor space for the reporting of epic courage. Such aberrations are common in modern warfare. Homeric happenings go unreported. Sometimes the bravest meet death with their deeds known only to heaven.

    If another reason is needed for now unfolding the tale, there is this, that of all troops which fought in Korea, the Ethiopians stood highest in the quality of their officer-man relationships, 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.

    Out of dark Africa came these men, thin, keen eyed, agile of mind and 95 per cent illiterate. They could take over U. S. Signal Corps equipment and in combat make it work twice as well as the best-trained American troops. When they engaged, higher headquarters invariably knew exactly what they were doing. The information which they fed back by wire and
    radio was far greater in volume and much more accurate than
    anything coming from American actions.

    Their capacities excelled also in one diversionary aspect of the soldierly arts. There arc no better whisky drinkers under the sun. They take it neat, a full tumbler at a time, without pause or chaser, and seem abashed that Americans can’t follow suit. This unexampled skill might properly become a proper object for research by a top-level military mission.

    Their one lack was a good press. The Turks, the ROKs the ‘Commonwealth Division and others in the 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

    If to our side, at the end as in the beginning, they were the Unknown Battalion, to the Communists they were a still greater mystery. 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.

    That uniquely clean sheet was not an accident of numbers only. Knowing how to gamble with death, they treated it lightly as a flower. On night patrol, as lie crossed the valley and prowled toward the enemy works, the Ethiopian soldier knew that his chance of death was compounded.

  8. At last my great uncle can rest peacefully knowing that their task and effort is being recognized. He came home from Korea with a small wound near his knee. Then miraculously he recovered and again went to Congo (Zaire). He came home with another wound and finally retired to be a farmer. He was never paid for his task under the UN, and were never given proper retirement.

  9. A year or two ago, I read an online news on the same suject. In the news was descibed that those Ethiopian heroes (the dead) did not get a proper burial until the date this news was published.

    Is there anyone out there who can update us on this issue? All this admiration we give and read about our soldiers does not make sense until our heroes get their proper burial for their soul to rest in peace.

    Looking forward to hear from you all soon.

  10. Our forefathers earned the respect of others through sacrifice, weighing the consequences of present actions on the future. Our generation destroyed our birthright. We will have to do a lot more to reclaim it. God show us the way to begin because even on that we are completely clueless.

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