Fearsome reputation: Ethiopian soldiers and the Korean War

5 mins read

By Robert Neff

The Korea Times


One of the least-known participants in the Korean War was Ethiopia.

The first battalion of Ethiopian soldiers arrived in Busan in May 1951. Known as the Kagnew (“to bring order out of chaos”) Battalion, it was viewed with a degree of skepticism by American officers.

Many felt the Ethiopians should be placed in rear areas instead of the front line, but the Ethiopians insisted on being in the heat of battle with their American counterparts. So they were assigned to the American Seventh Division.

Things were not easy. The Ethiopian soldiers could not speak English, were unfamiliar with American army tactics and many were leery of Western doctors.

After several weeks of training (three to six weeks, depending on the source) near Busan, the Kagnew Battalion was sent north ― to the front ― and within days the unit distinguished itself in combat.

The Ethiopian soldiers soon gained a reputation. The Chinese feared them. The Kagnew Battalion never left a man behind ― wounded or dead ― and none of their soldiers were ever captured by the North Koreans or Chinese. It was like they were ghosts. Perhaps even more alarming were the rumors of cannibalism by the Ethiopians. Of course, these were false, but they only made the Kagnew Battalion even more terrifying to the enemy.

Fred Dustin, a young American soldier with the 7th Infantry Division’s band, recalled seeing the Ethiopian soldiers at Gapyeong on May 5, 1952. For the most part, he knew little about the unit, save that his band would take part in one an Ethiopian celebration.

Dustin was not ― in his own words ― “a fighter,” so he was probably unaware of the Ethiopian unit’s reputation in battle. He was also not very religious but there was something about the unit’s chaplain and his “very beautiful costume” that left a lasting impression.

Several years ago, I found a copy of the chaplain’s speech in an old box of Dustin’s photographs. I asked him about it but he only shook his head and smiled. Now that I have reread it, perhaps I do understand why a young soldier would carefully tuck it away into his rucksack and keep it for the rest of his life.

Kagnew Battalion's chaplain in Gapyeong, May 5, 1952. Robert Neff Collection
Gapyeong village, May 1952. Robert Neff Collection

Transcription:

“Today 5 May, 1952, is the twelfth anniversary of our independence. A day in which our Emperor, Haile Selassie, first freed his people, and all of Ethiopia from the foreign aggressor. This day opened a new era. This is the day that the enemy was conquered by force and the Emperor entered his capital city of Addis Abbaba.

“Even though we are thousands of miles away from our home nation where this celebration is taking place, members of the Kagnew Battalion will not fail to honor this day.

“This is the most memorable day in the history of our nation.

“Each time we observe this day we realize more fully what a wonderful blessing liberty is to a nation. Each time we observe this day our love of our country is further increased by the realization that it is a free nation.

“You all realize how dark were those days when our liberty was denied us.

“We asked the League of Nations for aid in driving out the foreign aggressor from our country. Even though many nations could not assist ― with the help of those few allies who fought by our side ― the help of God and the inspired leadership of our Emperor we were able to oust the aggressor and regain the liberty of our nation.

“Ethiopia being once again a free nation, heard the call of another small nation for assistance in repelling an aggressor. We, with other freedom loving nations, and at the direction or our Emperor, came to the aid of this nation. We members of the Kagnew Battalion are happy and proud of the opportunity to assist another small country in its fight against an invader.

“We wish to thank General Roper, Colonel Dodds and all the officers of the Seventh Division who have joined with us today in the observance of the twelfth anniversary of our liberty.

“Long live the Emperor ― Long live the Imperial Family, let God bless Ethiopia and may there be freedom forever.”

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