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Mike Arkus

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From Bloody Nose Ridge to the Valley of Death

Posted: 12/06/2013 6:21 pm

Continuing on our battlefields tour beyond the confines of the Pacific and World War II, there are many more stations to visit on the trail of humankind's preferred pastime.

In Korea you can drop in on Panmunjom and the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South, the world's most heavily fortified border. If and when North Korea's Kumgangsan (Diamond Mountain) resort opens again for foreign visitors, you can actually move through the most heavily fortified border to a scene of spectacular beauty.

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Gazing across Korean demilitarised zone at Panmunjom
Your road to it, though, will be bordered on both sides by lofty green fencing with heavily armed North Korean soldiers every hundred feet or so to keep you from contaminating the deliriously happy citizens of the threadbare workers' paradise, and once there you'll be quarantined within the resort.
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Diamond Mountain in North Korea
But on the plus side you'll have huge smiling portraits of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, paradise's founding alchemist, and his successor progeny smiling down on you, along with kitchy statues of rabbits and other nursery rhyme animals -- all very Mickey Mouse.
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North Korea's 'Great Leader' still bringing joy decades after his death

Making your way back to sanity down the eastern coast of South Korea, you can drop by the potential site of a new conflict, sailing out to sea from beautiful Ulleungdo Island to a couple of sharply jagged, green-dusted rocks 117 miles from mainland Korea and 114 miles from mainland Japan.

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Ulleungdo Island

The Koreans call them Dokdo and have established a lighthouse and a helicopter pad there for their police garrison. But Japan claims the little specks and their maritime real estate as Takeshima. Perhaps the best part of the boat trip are the Korean matrons on board -- the youngest at least 65. They may not be your idea of go-go dancers, but they spend the whole journey line-dancing in the cabin to Korean disco, arms waving, artificial hips swaying.

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Disputed Tokdo islands midway between Japan and Korea

Some 1,700 miles to the south, Vietnam abounds in sites linked to its eponymous war, from hiking down the Ho Chi Minh Trail that zigzags the border with Laos and Cambodia to relaxing on China Beach, where U.S. and Australian soldiers -- and a later TV series -- took R&R near Danang.

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China Beach today

In between, fortified Vietcong tunnels like those by the old demilitarised zone between North and South, combat bases like Khe Sanh, and battlefields like Hamburger Hill in the rugged jungle a mile from the Laotian border can keep you busy.

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Near site of the Battle of Hamburger Hill

Most accessible of all, of course, is the former Presidential Palace in the former Saigon, site of that most iconic of photos -- a North Vietnamese Army tank crashing through the gates at the definitive end of the Vietnam War. In its latest reincarnation as Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, it's a favourite site for young Vietnamese couples to pose for their wedding photos.

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No North Vietnamese tanks today -- newlyweds pose outside former Saigon's former Presidential Palace

At the other end of the Earth in the Falkland Islands, you can visit the sites of a more recent war. Near Darwin on East Falkland Island it's pissing a crap load of freezing sleet, a gale is blowing, and Ken, owner of the Darwin House Lodge and a former British Army officer with a mortar brigade, is taking me in his land rover on a tour of Goose Green Battle, one of the fiercest clashes of the 1982 war between Argentina and Britain.

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Goose Green battlefield

With true military precision he goes over the battle, blow by blow, 'with platoon A of 2 Para (second parachute battalion) over there, like so; and platoon B climbing up that ridge, like so.' Then there's platoon D 'coming under horrendous fire here from the ridge over here, like so, and they can't advance; and they can't retreat, either, because they would be in direct line of other fire from the ridge over there, like so.

'So what do they do? They do what every British soldier does best, they brew some tea and stay put.'

The battlefield looks like gently undulating moorland below a ridge of low mountains, until we get out of the land rover and get gobsmacked by a real idea of what a slog it must have been for the troops scrambling up the ridges and gulleys with their 60-pound packs.

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Another Goose Green battlefield view

'And then just over there,' says Ken pointing, 'the gorse catches fire, and Lieutenant Colonel Herbert 'H' Jones, the commander, goes berzerk and storms up the hill in the open towards the Argie firing position to no apparent purpose and gets killed.'

Jones got the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military award, but evidently many soldiers don't think he deserved it since his sally seemed mad and futile, accomplishing nothing, either in saving fellow troops or capturing a position. Ken says Jones seems to have been a Patton-tempered micromanaging control freak.

We get out into more freezing sleet and battle the wind through the gorse and down the gulley to the marker on the spot where Jones died. And I'm freezing my whats-its off.

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Memorial to Lieutenant Colonel Herbert 'H' Jones, VC

We pass an Argentine cemetery with rows of cross. Many plaques say merely 'An Argentine soldier known to God' since many of the very young conscripts did not carry tags. To cap it all, according to Ken, Goose Green battle made no military sense, anyway, since the troops should have gone straight for a place closer to Stanley, the capital.

But it was a political decision to show Argentina that Britain meant business 'after Argie planes' sank the British battleship Coventry and the freighter Atlantic Conveyor, loaded with vital helicopters, in nearby San Carlos bay - one more example, perhaps, of an idiotic life-wasting decision, like Peleliu. So much, then, for muggins at the Battle of Goose Green.

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Argentine cemetery at Goose Bay

Several wrecks of Argentine planes spill out their intestines over West Falkland Island amid broken wings and engines across moorlands and beneath craggy ridges. One is a Dagger, an Israeli-built Mirage fighter derivative sold to Argentina, with the Star of David still visible under the Argentine paint-over.

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Argentine plan wrecks on West Falkland Island

Yours Truly decides to get an overview of the West Falkland battlefield, and I've managed to turn a 1 1/2-hour continuous but gently rising climb to the 2,100-feet summit of Mt. Maria into a three hour vertical scramble over precipitously perpendicular rocks. It seems I turned left instead of going straight.

By the time I get to the top a gale is blowing. By the time I descend it's almost dark and the lodge owner is out in his land rover, headlights aflame, on a search and rescue mission. He finds me wandering perilously close to a barbed wire enclosure sporting white skull and crossbones on a red background with the words DANGER MINES! Unexploded minefields abound all over the islands.

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Beware of Mines signs abound
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Road signs with a black skull and crossbones warn of unexploded mines still littered about


In Africa many are the sites bearing witness to the civil wars that have torn that continent apart over the past half century. In the central Angolan city of Huambo many buildings still sport the pockmarks of shell and small arms fire from the three decades of conflict that saw it change hands various times.

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Huambo's gutted Ruacana Cinema and Nova York (New York) social Club

Across the continent in Somaliland, which has proclaimed its independence from Somalia, a downed Somalian MiG fighter jet atop a plinth marks the carpet bombing that flattened Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital, in the civil war between the two.

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Downed MiG memorial in Hargeisa

If you want to bypass later wars, World War I, and regional conflicts like those in the Middle East, you can travel back more than 150 years to the Crimean War and the Battle of Balaclava in Ukraine. Here muggins has a most unfortunate GPS-challenged misdirection.

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Memorial plaque to some of the Light Brigade

I'm trying to re-enact Alfred Lord Tennyson's immortal Charge of the Light Brigade -- you know, the one that goes:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred...

When I get stuck in mid-verse, ankle-deep in thick mud in a vineyard. My already adversarial relationship with the taxi driver I arranged through the hotel in Sevastopol to get me here in the first place is deteriorating seriously to the 'No, hump YOUR mother' variety.

A call I finally prevail on him to make on his cell phone to the English-speaking hotel receptionist produces the epiphany that I am in fact re-producing, albeit in a slightly different way, the folly of Their Lordships Raglan, Lucan and Cardigan, architects of this most idiotic of charges:

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd...

Blundered indeed has muggins. We're in the wrong valley.

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Wrong valley, dummkopf!

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Even wronger, dummerkopf!!!

Off we go again to trample in somebody else's mud. This time a white monument pokes up in the middle distance amid the vines. I'm in the right valley now, but...

Mud to left of me,
Mud to right of me,
Mud in front of me,
Now my feet blunder'd...

Half a League Onwards it most certainly is not! Not for muggins at least. I pick myself up, smudge myself off, and snarl at my body's image now imprinted on the thick gooey mud. No bloody need to charge on further to caress and kiss the ruddy monument - a view from a few hundred feet will do very nicely, thank you very much.

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Ah, there it is
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Another of the many memorials to the Battle of Balaclava
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A Russian memorial


All photos courtesy of Mike Arkus. For additional travel experiences see LooneyFront
Also by the same author, Shakespearean spoofs on current day politics at ShakespeareRedux
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