Matthew Ennis OAM Korean War veteran

So many details – the horrendous smell of explosives, the cutting chill of below freezing temperatures, the ugliness of trench warfare, the pain of the wounded – are all still clear in the mind of 91-year-old Matthew Ennis OAM.

But he doesn’t let that nightmare take over his best memories. The great memories are those of his mates and the actions that have connected them for a lifetime and ultimately driven him to work for the betterment of all veterans.

The long-time Ipswich resident was born in Sydney and by his own admission, was a wild child. At 12-years-old he ran away from home and worked in the country for three months. At the time he decided on a military career, he was travelling around King Cross on a cart and two horses and selling ice. “I saw everything there,” he says with a grin.

In 1951, he joined the army and after training at Puckapunyal, he was sent to Korea. He was now part of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He and his Battalion flew over in a Qantas Super Constellation and travelled in an old steam train to their base. On the way they conducted rifle practise.

“We just fired out the windows,” he recalled. Mr Ennis was part of about 30 men in a Platoon.

At 19-years-old, he was the youngest NSW recruit in Korea, and he remembers how the older men took him under their wing. “We were like a family,” he said.

His first night there signalled what was to come.

“There was a rocket attack from the Chinese,” he said.

“I was so naive I thought it was like cracker night – but it was a night of shock and awe.”

For thirteen weeks, without a break, the young man was fighting on the front line. There were regular skirmishes and bombardments with shells, mortar fire and machine gun attacks.

As the soldiers lay in ambush, they suffered under temperatures that dropped well below freezing.

“You had to roll over every 10 minutes else you would just freeze up,” he said.

Many men were victims of frostbite, a trivial sounding but terrible affliction in which the flesh freezes solid, then dies and scars. Men lost toes, fingers, ear and noses. At the other extreme, summer was humid, with heavy rain that often flooded the trenches

He also recalled how the enemy used noise as a warfare tactic.

“The Chinese would come blowing whistles and making bugle calls, he said. He believed the noise was to unbalance and scare the troops.

The Allies in Korea were the last to fight under the conditions of trench warfare and Matthew recalls their dank, dark and indeed odorous atmosphere. History points to the latter stage of the conflict between 1952-1953 as being characterised by this style of warfare and records that fighting was like the Western Front in World W 1, where soldiers engaged in no-mans-land. They also launched set-piece offensives from trenches across enemy minefield sand barb wire, often with massive artillery support.

Matthew was wounded when a shell hit the back of head, fortunately his helmet saved him from death.

“I had severe concussion,” he said.

“And was in and of consciousness.”

He says his mate came to his rescue, bandaged him up and led him back to safety.

However, the ride to the field base hospital, which he describes as a big marquee and like something you would see in the hit television show MASH, was something he would never forget.

Strapped to the side of a helicopter, he recalls that he looked at the propellor and simply thought it was: “a big fan.”

After 12 months in Korea, Matthew returned to Australia as if nothing had happened.

There was certainly no homecoming parades or gratitude.

“We were given a leave pass and told to go home.’ That was it,” he said.

Nevertheless, nothing has detracted from the bond Matthew with forged his fellow servicemen. Matthew revealed the strength of this connection when he explained that during the war, he had asked a doctor how a particular soldier in hospital was faring. The doctor replied that he didn’t know and would get back to him. Fifty years later, Matthew received a phone call from doctor letting him know how the man survived of his current whereabouts.

Referring to mateship, he said: “It doesn’t matter how long it’s been; you just pick up like it was yesterday.”

Matthew has never stopped supporting his fellow veterans. He’s served as State President of the Korea Veterans Association and spent years as a welfare officer and Legatee.

Matthew, we thank you for your service.

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