IT STARTED out as a documentary about Scots who fought in the Korean war but became a quest to solve a 60-year-old mystery.
TV presenter Jackie Bird was commissioned to make a programme about the 1950s conflict and the Scots who died in what is an almost forgotten conflict.
But it became personal when she discovered by chance that the son of her childhood neighbour in Hamilton had been killed in the war at the age of 19. Bird has now become the first person to discover what happened to teenager Danny McCafferty and the first to have visited his lonely grave.
In a documentary to be broadcast tomorrow – Scotland’s Forgotten War – Bird sets out to discover the fate of McCafferty, her neighbour’s child and a 19-year-old Scottish soldier who was killed in Korea in June 1952. Bird grew up next door to McCafferty’s mother in Hamilton but never knew that her neighbour had suffered the loss until she told her father she was making a documentary about the conflict last year.
“It was only when I mentioned it that he said, ‘you know old Mrs McCafferty from next door lost her son out there?’” Bird said.
Although more than 1,000 British troops – and more than 200 Scots – lost their lives in the Korean war, which spanned 1950 to 1953, it has been almost forgotten today. The names of those who fell in Korea are not mentioned on British war memorials and many Scots today are unaware that three Scottish regiments – the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers – all served in the region. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders lost 70 men in one day after they were the target of “friendly fire” in a napalm attack by American bombers. However, because of its proximity to the Second World War, it was mostly ignored.
One veteran, Alexander Easton, said that when he came home, he learned quickly never to speak about his experiences. “It was so soon after the Second World War that if you said anything [you’d be told], ‘Oh that was nothing son. What we suffered in the Second World War was worse’. So you never spoke about it.”
After Bird made the connection with her old neighbour and the conflict, she made it her mission to find out what had happened to McCafferty, whose mother had since died. Although the family had received a letter informing them he had been killed in action, they were never told any more.
Jackie Powell, one of McCafferty’s few surviving relatives, said that she knew little about her uncle, or the military life that he led up until his death. “All I know is that he was in the Royal Artillery and that he was killed when he was 19,” she said. “He was just easy going, a very happy young man, very light hearted. [His mother] didn’t speak much about him because it was very raw for years and it would have upset her too much. She always kept a photograph of him in her bedroom and that never moved at all since 1952. It stayed in her bedroom until she died.”
Bird discovered McCafferty had been a signaller, working in a highly skilled and dangerous role in an observation post sending information from the field back to base.
After Bird posted an advert looking for information on the Royal Artillery website, she was answered by Stan Strudwick, an English soldier who had served in Korea and had been with McCafferty the day he died. “He was a very bright guy,” said Strudwick, now in his late seventies. “He was full of beans and always having a joke.”
He related the story of what had happened on that day. “I heard the boom and I knew – you’ve got about three or four seconds. I heard this and I said ‘Run for it’. Danny was running, same as me, but the shell went off and came down three or four yards from him and hit him in the backside and the legs and just blew them away.”
Strudwick carried McCafferty to a first aid post where a helicopter was called in, but it was too late. “I could see him going paler and paler. They just couldn’t stop the bleeding. He just looked at me and he knew. I could see the life literally draining out of him.”
Bird visited McCafferty’s grave in South Korea, where she paid her respects and left a family picture at the request of his relatives. It was an experience she found very moving.
“I thought, woah. I’m the first person here. Ever. And that’s what got to me. His family never managed to make it. Back then, you might as well have travelled to the Moon as travel to Korea if you were from a working-class family in Hamilton, and although his sister Sadie had talked about it, she died without having managed to make the trip,” Bird said.
“I berated myself for blubbing afterwards, but I’d spent so much time on his story, finding out about him, and it was just the thought that no-one had ever singled out this 19-year-old boy’s grave before. No-one.”
She said she hopes Scotland’s surviving Korean veterans, many now octogenarians, will receive more recognition.
“At the end of every month the Korean veterans meet in their blazers and medals outside the only Korean war memorial in Britain, which is in Bathgate. But if you stopped anyone on Bathgate high street and said ‘Korean war’, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Just a little more general public knowledge about what these men went through would be wonderful.”
Scotland’s Forgotten War will be broadcast tomorrow at 10.35pm on BBC One Scotland.
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