In the year 1949, Gordon Payne signed up to the Royal Marines. He was just 17. Just over a year later, he had already completed his commando training in Plymouth.

While Gordon's friends were preparing to fly to Malaysia to fight in the Malayan Emergency, Gordon's troop, 41 Independent Commando, was being swiftly formed to raid the East Coast of North Korea during the Korean War.

You had to be at least 19 to sign up for the Korean commando. That week was Gordon's 19th birthday.

The decade after the Second World War saw communism spread to the Far East which divided Korea. The Korean War lasted a total of three years and peace was finally achieved when the use of the atomic bomb was threatened.

Before then, the 41 Commando was formed following a request from the United Nations Command for more military raiding forces to take place in the country.

The journey to North Korea was kept well under wraps. Gordon and his commando were supposed to volunteer, but none of them did. They each wore unsuspecting civilian clothes and flew to Japan via the British Overseas Airways Corporation on September 15, 1950.

It took them five whole days to fly to Japan while staying at elite hotels along the way. The commando even posed as footballers so as to not raise suspicion, although many hotel workers didn't buy the illusion.

Gordon is now the vice chairman of the Royal British Legion Barton branch
Gordon is vice-chairman of the Royal British Legion's Barton branch

Gordon, now 86, of Barton, said: "Eventually we joined up with the American marines who issued us with all their gear – from their uniform to their weapons. The only thing that distinguished them from us was our green berets."

The commando then embarked on an intensive training course which forced them to use foreign American weapons they weren't accustomed to.

The first raid took place on October 2 using an American submarine. The raids, with a purpose of destroying specific goods or installations of military or economic value, continued for days where more railways and tunnels were destroyed. Another marine died in the process.

In early November, it was decided that Gordon and his commando would join the First Division of the American Marines.

After enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner at the Hungam unit, they boarded transport and headed for a small town called Koto-ri, 4,000ft up in the mountains near the Chinese border.

Gordon with his medals
Gordon with his medals

On arrival, they were greeted with the news that the Chinese had entered the war and had surrounded a large group of American marines at the Chosin Reservoir. The temperature started to drop to unimaginable figures.

"The temperature – you just can't describe it," Gordon said. "Everything you touched... if you took your gloves off and touched anything, your hands froze. It would take a layer of skin off your hand if you touched anything metal."

Gordon's unit decided, along with other US troops, that they would form a convoy to break through to where the US marines were trapped. Gordon and more than 200 others spent hours loading their truck with food, supplies and ammunition to prepare for their long journey.

There were hoards of Chinese soldiers isolating the US marines - at least 10 to one. With the help of the American Air Force's machine guns and rockets, 41 Commando successfully managed to clear the first hill of the Chinese soldiers.

The voyage to rescue the US marines began - but it saw very slow progress. There were up to 150 lorries in the convoy and several were knocked out and had to be pushed off the road and subsequently destroyed.

Since all the beds in the lorries were taken, Gordon was forced to sleep on the top of the truck with all his personal belongings. At this point, it was late afternoon.

Darkness began to fall and the Chinese were closing in on the right hand side of the road – now within grenade throwing range.

Gordon outside the Royal British Legion Alrewas branch
Gordon outside the Royal British Legion Alrewas branch

Gordon's truck was about half way down the road before it was hit by a mortar bomb. He climbed off the truck and began firing at the Chinese. Then something happened which Gordon will never forget.

"The first casualty I saw was an American marine. He was shot in the face.

"It cemented into my mind what I was actually going in to. I suppose everyone is the same; they think, 'oh that’s not going to happen to me, I'm going to be all right', But it made you think what you were going in to."

Gordon was hit in the eyebrow by a rebounding bullet which knocked him unconscious. When he woke up, he and five men took shelter behind the truck. By this time it was 8pm and it was very dark.

The only thing Gordon could quite make out was the Chinese soldiers – they were wearing quilted uniforms that glared an off-white yellow colour in the dark. At this point, Gordon took the decision to follow the convoy on foot although it was 15 miles to the reservoir. The convoy carried on, leaving the comrades behind, so they set off on foot.

Gordon said he didn't understand how dangerous his circumstances were until he saw an American marine because severely injured

The group were about a mile or so down the road when they heard a rattle. At first, they thought it was part of the convoy taking a defensive position. Once they reached the top of the hill, they were met by a Chinese lookout.

Standing immediately in front of Gordon was his great friend, Joe. He blurted out gibberish to the Chinese sentry, quoting: “Along-tie!”

The Chinese lookout hesitated. "Huh?" he replied, then Joe shot him dead.

The sentry fell and the group got down in a defensive position along the top of the bank, expecting another Chinese lookout to attack. Thankfully it was all clear and the group lay for a minute before deciding to escape by sliding down the bank.

They were greeted by a partly frozen river which they decided to cross. Once they reached the ice, Gordon looked back and the saw the Chinese standing at the top of the bank – but they didn't fire. Gordon still doesn't know why to this day.

Gordon was forced to leave Korea due to frostbite
Gordon was forced to leave Korea due to frostbite

The agonisingly cold water came up to their calves. By this point the temperature was minus 30 degrees. Once they got to the other side of the river, they walked all night. Their feet were so cold they had to get their boots cut off. Two of the marines lost parts of their feet due to frostbite and were forced to have them amputated.

Gordon and the corporal were ordered to stay put for another four days while going for treatment at the hospital. The pain was so excruciating, their coffee was laced with medical spirit to thin their blood down.

By this point the Americans had dug out an air strip and were evacuating all the seriously wounded. By the time they had been cleared, they started to evacuate the frostbitten.

Gordon said: "I was unable to walk. I managed to get a pair of boots on that were two sizes too big and two pairs of socks. By this time, my toes were black and swollen."

Gordon was evacuated to an American hospital ship before staying in a Japanese hospital for the best part of a month. In March 1951, he returned to the UK to receive treatment at a naval hospital in Plymouth before marrying his wife, Betty Payne.

During the Chosin Reservoir Campaign, 41 Independent Commando lost 21 marines, 19 were taken hostage and many injured.

Gordon later served with 45 Commando in Suez, Malta, before leaving the Royal Marines in August 1956. He is now the vice-chairman of the Royal British Legion's Barton branch.

To learn more about the Poppy Appeal, visit