Joseph (Joe) Vezgoff joined the Army in January 1950, just six months before the Korean War broke out. He completed his basic training at Ingleburn and then moved “up the road” to 1 Battalion.
In September 1950, he was posted to Korea with the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR). As he boarded the plane in Sydney, he and the other troops were farewelled by a brass band, camera crews, reporters and dignitaries.
“We were young, a strange land beckoned, adventure was ahead, and we knew that nothing great would be achieved without enthusiasm.”
He had a one-night stopover in the Philippines, and after an evening at an American canteen, he was on his way to Japan.
On arrival, Joe was allocated to a company and platoon. The following weeks were spent completing training exercises, including marching to Haramura and back several times. He became the first person in the reinforcement group to be promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal.
“Our feet, legs and condition were fine-tuned. This stood us in good stead over the following year. An odd spot of leave was also thrown in for morale.”
When the training was completed, it was time to go to Korea. Joe was transported to Pusan on the US troop transport ship USNS Aiken Victory. On arrival, he and the other troops were met by an American band.
“I think they should have played Home on the Range, as we were quickly herded onto huge cattle trucks.”
He was first sent to Daegu, tasked with patrolling the area. Shortly after he arrived, there were the first casualties of the war. Joe lost his second in command, Lieutenant Hummerston.
“This was our first realisation that the great adventure had its danger.”
His first mission beyond patrols was to assist the United States Airborne Combat Team who were surrounded by North Korean troops in the Yongu area.
“Our company was the lead company. I took my crew to set up a position on a large knoll overlooking a road.”
Joe saw an opportunity to stop a group of North Korean troops who were moving away from the battle. He and Shufti Frazer, his number one mortar man, decided to ‘lob’ a few mortars into their path.
“Shufti fired the first and only mortar. We felt apprehensive when we heard a feeble ‘pop’ as the mortar went off. It barely came out of the barrel. It wobbled its way towards the American tank and landed alongside it. We moved off and the secret remained with our little group for the remainder of the tour.”
Shortly after the battle, Joe was promoted to Corporal. He continued to patrol, advance and battle through the harsh winter.
“Late in November the frozen winds arrived, and the temperature dropped below zero. Our hands would freeze to the bare metal of our weapons, so we slept with them tucked against our bodies to stop them freezing up.”
By New Year’s Day, they had covered at least 400 miles. They were continuing their advance when they noticed silhouettes, who they assumed were South Korean troops, on the hills surrounding them going in the opposite direction.
"Suddenly, all hell broke loose, with bullets whistling around us. It seemed that the South Koreans were in fact Chinese. It required some fancy footwork to dodge the bullets."
In October 1951, Joe fought in the Battle of Maryang San. His section was tasked with remaining as a reserve to the impending attack. A marker panel was in the section’s area, indicating their position to air support and artillery.
“Unfortunately, it gave the Chinese the same information. They began a barrage of mortar shells. A shell burst fifteen feet away from me. I felt my head jolt and my slouch hat disappeared.”
Joe had suffered a head wound. Another burst of mortar shells hit him in the thigh and ankle. After 370 days, his time in Korea was over.
“The young soldier goes to war with a feeling of immortality, but there comes a time when this illusion is shattered.”
He was evacuated to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) and treated before being flown to Kure, Japan to be operated on.
“I awakened after the operation to find a patch of sticking plaster on my chest containing the fragments that had been removed from my body. My final moment of truth had caught up with me, and the great adventure was coming to an end.”
Joe spent several weeks recuperating on the Japanese island of Miya Jima before being flown back to Australia.
“Drizzle was falling at Mascot as we landed. Several of us found an Army truck on the tarmac and clambered over the tailgate for our drive to Marrickville. I thought back to our departure fourteen months previously. How different it all was, devoid of razzmatazz.”
After the Korean War, Joe continued his career in the Army. He served in Malaya and Vietnam as well as having postings at Holsworthy, Puckapunyal and Ingleburn. His career spanned over 20 years and he retired with the rank of Warrant Officer First Class.
After he retired in 1989, he became active in military research and has had articles published in many publications including the Australian Army Journal. He still remembers the highs and lows of his time in Korea.
“Life is both sweet and sour… I had my share of luck.”
Discover more stories of Korean War veterans at the Armistice in Korea: 1953-2023 photography exhibition open at the Anzac Memorial until 7 August