The «Kamina»

"We thought that we were going to get there too late. MacArthur had launched a counter offensive...the North Koreans were in disorder...Were we only going to arrive when it was all over?"
Albert Crahay, Les Belges en Corée


The first problem that the Belgian planners faced was how 750 men, with all their equipment, could be moved half way across the world. Air travel was thought to be too expensive in the first instance, although later rotations of troops flew to and from Korea in Sabena DC-6 airliners. The transport chosen for the first contingent was far less glamorous.

The T.N.A. Kamina was built in 1939 by a Polish firm as a cargo ship for transporting bananas, but with the German invasion of Belgium in 1940 is was captured and requisitioned for the German navy. Renamed Herman von Wismann, it was used for supplying the infamous U-Boat fleet. With the allied victory in 1945, it was seized as part of war reparation by the British, and in 1950 given to the Belgian navy, this time named Kamina after the town in the then-Belgian Congo. The Kamina was far from ideal. At no point in its history had it been designed to carry passengers and facilities on board were extremely primitive, but it was the only liner at the disposal of the Belgian government at the time.

On December 18, 1950 the battalion assembled at the quay at the port of Anvers. The government feared that the leaving ceremony might be disrupted by communist demonstrations, so security was tight. At 11h the ceremony began. Joseph Pholien (Prime Minister), Frans van Cauwelaert (president of the chamber of deputies), Paul Struye (president of the senate) and Maj. Gen. Van der Donck (representative of the Luxembourg government) as well as the representative from the palace and the local mayor were all present. Pholien gave a speech (in two languages) and, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne and the Brabançonne, the Kamina left the habour.

Life on board the Kamina was not comfortable, but it did provide a chance to learn skills that would be needed in Korea: “There were classes on French, English, Japanese, and radio drills and there were plenty of opportunities to write, read, play card or talk...” Radio Leopoldville (broadcast from the Belgian Congo) was also popular. The Kamina passed through the Suez Canal and Indian Ocean, docking in Japan to pick up Major Moreau de Melen and Commandant Poswick who formed the Belgian advanced party. Finally, on January 31, 1951, after 43 days in transit, the Kamina docked at the South Korean port of Pusan (now Busan).

During the period of the voyage, the situation in Korea had changed rapidly. When the contingent embarked in December, UN forces had been penetrated right into North Korean territory, right up to the Yalu River border with the People’s Republic of China. By February 1951, UN forces had retreated right back into South Korea, only just stabilising their positions at the 38th Parallel. The belief that Belgian forces might only arrive in Korea too late to participate in the war proved misplaced.

The newly arrived Belgians were greeted by an American Army band, playing a selection of popular Jazz music. Chang Myon, the vice president of Korea came to the dock to meet the Belgian commanders. The Belgians disembarked and were driven to the camp at Tongnae-Dong, just north of Pusan, where they remained until February 1951.