Listen to Actor Michael Caine Talk About Fighting in Korea

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Caine plays a German special operation commando in the 1976 film "The Eagle Has Landed." (Columbia Pictures)

In August 1952, Maurice Joseph Micklewhite of the 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers arrived in Korea at a time when the war had ground into a bloody stalemate -- but this didn't mean the fighting had stopped.

Mickelwhite was sent to the front along the Samichon River Valley, where he fought the Chinese and North Koreans in raids and patrols, often at night. In 1953, he would contract malaria and get sent home. Three years later, he earned his first acting credit playing a British Army private in Korea under the stage name Michael Caine.

Military service wasn't a foreign concept to the young actor. His father served during World War II and, like many Britishers, Caine and his family felt the war every day. Even though the family fled London to escape the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz, Caine would return to work odd jobs for the film industry at age 16.

In 1951, he was called up to serve in the British Army. After a quick stint in the forces occupying Germany, he was sent to combat training in Japan and eventually landed in Korea. Caine and the 1st Fusiliers operated near what is today the border between North and South Korea. He was just 19 years old.

His experience gives him a lot of sympathy for today's soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, he wrote in his 2010 memoir, "The Elephant to Hollywood."

Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, also known as actor Michael Caine, with his squaddies in Korea. Caine is in the top row, second from the right.

"I know what it feels like to be sent off to fight an unpopular war that no one at home really understands or cares about," he wrote. "And then to come back and meet a complete lack of understanding. Or worse, indifference."

Caine didn't know anything about Korea or the war or why the two sides were fighting. His entire experience in the military before training to go to Korea had been at the firing range with an obsolete Lee-Enfield .303 rifle.

Nothing, he says, could have prepared him for what happened during his first watch on guard duty during the absolute darkness of the Korean night.

From his trench, the night was split open by enemy flares lighting up the battlefield and by the hordes of the enemy charging towards him. The first time he heard a Chinese trumpet break the stillness, he barely had time to ask his buddy what that was before hundreds of trumpets joined in.

"There in front of us, a terrifying tableau was illuminated," he recalls. "Thousands of Chinese advancing toward our positions, led by troops of demonic trumpet players. The artillery opened up but they still came on, marching toward our machine guns and certain death."

Caine describes the minefield they'd constructed to defend themselves from such a human wave as "suddenly irrelevant." Wave after wave of Chinese infantry committed suicide, throwing themselves onto barbed wire so their bodies could be used as a bridge.

"They were eventually beaten off," the actor says of the Chinese soldiers. "But they were insanely brave."

Michael Caine in his first credited screen appearance, the 1956 film "A Hill in Korea." (Wessex Films)

After getting sent to war so early in his life, Caine came to believe that war ages kids well beyond their years. He and his mates were approaching 20 years old when they went to the front lines of Korea. On the way back, they encountered the units who would be replacing them.

"They were 19-year-olds, as we had been when we went in," Caine says. "I looked at them and I looked at us, and we looked 10 years older than they did."

The actor recalls the closest he came to death during the war, on a night time patrol in no man's land. It was a moment that he says still haunts him to this day.

Three British troops covered themselves in mud and mosquito repellant in order to make their way deeper into the valley, an area they had been fighting to take for weeks. They were headed for the Chinese lines to try and gather information. On their way back to their own lines, they suddenly smelled garlic in the air.

"The Chinese ate garlic like chewing gum," Caine says. "We realized we were being followed."

The fusiliers threw themselves on the ground as a unit of Chinese pursuers began searching the brush for them. Rather than die in the weeds, the trio decided to charge the enemy, guns blazing.

This incident comes back to the actor when others try to attack him or bring him down. He thinks about what happened on that hill in Korea, and realizes that no one could ever make him feel hopeless again.

"I just think, as I did on that Korean hillside, 'You cannot frighten me or do anything to me and if you try, I'll take as much or as many of you with me as I can.'"

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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