TODAY the troubles in North Korea make the headlines daily, but in the 1950s, the conflict between North and South Korea was also the focus of international attention.

Hexham historian and writer James Goulty has devoted years of his life to uncovering the details of the Korean War, often now referred to as ‘The Forgotten War’.

In his new book Eyewitness Korea, James uses first-hand accounts to explore the experiences of British and American troops who between 1950 and 1953 were sent to liberate South Korea from the North Koreans, who had invaded the South with a view to unifying the entire peninsula under Communism.

An estimated 1,078 British servicemen died in the war, alongside 37,000 Americans.

“The Korean War has been overshadowed by the Second World War which preceded it, and later conflicts, notably the Vietnam War,” said James. “The reason The Forgotten War is such an appealing topic to me, is because it has been less publicised than other conflicts of its time, and therefore there was a lot left to uncover and many stories to be told.”

It was important to James that Eyewitness Korea was more than simply a history book which retold events of the conflict, but rather a book which offered a detailed look of what life with really like for the servicemen stationed amongst the war zones.

The book includes personal letters, official documents, diaries and memoirs from several interviews which James conducted himself with ex-servicemen.

Eyewitness Korea takes readers through a service personnel’s journey, from the moment that they first receive their orders of deployment, to basic training, life in camp, warfare, the experiences of prisoners of war, and finally the the ceasefire on July 27, 1953, after which the men could then return home to continue normal life the best they could.

Recruits in both the British and American Army would first undergo basic training in whatever section they had joined. Here the men were taught to handle live ammunition and explosives alongside completing gruelling obstacle courses.

One American trooper recalls in the book how he had to “crawl on the ground on my belly like a snake with live bullets overhead” as part of his training. It was there that he saw his comrade shot by one of the flying bullets, after he panicked and stood up into the firing zone.

The men were forced to live amongst strangers during their basic training, meaning for many it was the first time they had interacted with people of different nationalities, cultures and classes. Learning to get along and live in harmony could prove difficult for some.

A British solider said that his new room mates came “from all walks of life, from Scottish city slums to English public schools. Our manners differed enormously. For example, only a few of us put on pyjamas at night and were the butt of much ribaldry as a result.”

Not only does Eyewitness Korea detail soldiers’ first impressions of each other, but also of the new surroundings they were deployed to.

One marine poetically describes the Korean countryside as having, “mountains covered with the fragile colours of wild azaleas, amid the vividly green leaves of stately magnolia trees.”

Londoner Jarleth Donella, who was deployed to North Korea on National Service, was less impressed by his surroundings however, writing that he “couldn’t understand why anybody would want to fight over it.”

“If it was mine,” he said, “I would give it away. It was infested with snakes, crickets, frogs and the hills were blasted by gunfire so that little greenery was left.”

Corporal Lacy Barnett, a medic with 34th Infantry Regiment, remembered that many of his unit simply “wondered where Korea was.”

Life in the warzone for the British and American servicemen was harsh and brutal. Not only were troops made to fight bloody battles, but they had to do it in a frozen, unforgiving climate that many of them were unaccustomed to.

“As well as being afraid of losing a limb in combat – you also had to fear losing your fingers and toes from frost bite,” said James. “Soldiers were disorientated, exhausted from the fighting and the tiny food rations, and absolutely frozen through living in temperatures which sometimes reached below -20 degrees.”

In a particularly shocking moment of the book, American solider Sherwin Nagelkirk gives an account of his time fighting at Heartbreak Ridge, in a month-long battle in the hills of North Korea. It was here that Sherwin stumbled upon a mass grave.

“There was a foot sticking out the ground here, a hand sticking out the ground there,” he said. “They must have had a terrific battle there. And we took a lime bucket every morning and sprinkled lime on these body parts. The Chinese corpses had sneakers on, and they just bulldozed them.”

For James, the hardest topic to research for Eyewitness Korea was the material on prisoner of war camps.

“I had to take a long break whilst writing that chapter because it was so intense and often depressive. It was important that those experiences went into the book, so I knew I had to plug through and get those stories down on paper, despite how tough the content was.”

Throughout the war, 1,060 British servicemen and 7,000 American personnel were captured, and thousands died in captivity.

James documents the appalling conditions prisoners had to live amongst, with diseases and tapeworms being a very real threat, as well as execution, and contracting what was known amongst the troops as ‘giving-up-is is’, a term given to the soldiers whose mental health deteriorated to the point where they lost any desire to survive.

“Interviewing the ex-servicemen, and hearing their stories was an incredibly moving experience.” said James. “Many of the men felt that their service and their sacrifices had gone unnoticed in history, so they were eager to contribute to the book in some way, and appreciative that someone was taking the time out to highlight their work.

“What struck me most during those interviews was the comradery the men still shared with one another, even after all these years. They smiled when they spoke of their fellow comrades, and still remembered all the good times they’d shared in the camps together. That was very touching.”

Eyewitness Korea can be purchased from