Book review: Korea, Canada’s Forgotten War

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Review by Eleanor Cowan

Korea, Canada’s Forgotten War (Second Edition), by John Melady

After the deprivations of WW2, Canadians began life anew. Uniforms were exchanged for civvies, vets clocked into steady jobs and had children later known as Baby Boomers.

Canadian society nestled into a much welcomed new normal.

Yet, in 1950, when the United Nations called for volunteers to rescue democratic South Korea from the maws of communist aggression by North Korea, 26,000 Canadians swelled the ranks of the 26 countries who signed up.  Youth too young to fight in WW2 took their turn to serve an honest war.

Despite the enemy’s appallingly cruel style of warfare, Canadian soldiers held their ground. When Canada’s Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) first surveyed the hill country of South Korea, they had no inkling how masterfully the enemy had exploited that geography. Below those rocky knolls, thousands upon thousands of armed enemy combatants buzzed in excavated tunnels and burrowed storerooms, ready for a massive assault.

Melady based this beautifully written history upon hundreds of personal interviews with Korean War vets from all over Canada. Hear the voices of those who belonged to the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army’s Light Infantry, as well as Canadian news and radio journalists.  Melady writes with an even hand. By squarely quoting their conversations, his interviewees speak for themselves. In this way, a recognizable cross-section of the beauty and ugliness of war emerges in the 219 pages of unforgettable, riveting dialogue.

No voice is unimportant to this author.

A stretcher-bearer with “C” Company, 2nd RCR, Ed Haslip from Sarnia, Ont., spoke eloquently of those he sought to assist.  “I was most impressed by the Korean people. They gave me a greater respect for humanity, …that a little nation such as Korea could go through as much over the years, and still refuse to be beaten down or give up, taught me a lot. We learned patience, honesty, and respect from the Koreans. Their villages were burned around them, but they still hung on and never gave up. I loved the Korean kids.”

Major General John M. Rockingham, a beloved Canadian war leader, wrote the Foreword to Melady’s first edition (1983) and expressed disappointment at the lack of mention of Canada’s significant contribution in ending the Korean conflict. He hoped this book would set the record straight.  Indeed, it has. This author assures Army, Navy, and Air force combatants long-overdue recognition.

Among the dozens of moving personal stories, here’s but a small heart-rending sampling:

Because other UN forces had been forced to retreat, the PPCLI found themselves all alone for three days and nights during the brave battle on Hill 677 in Kapyong.  “Then, in the way that men who fought in Korea all remember, the enemy signaled their first attack on the Canadians.” Unseen, they rang bells, blew shrill whistles, and clacked sticks. The hair rises on the back of young necks. Some shocked soldiers were paralyzed into inaction by the weird sounds, as was intended by this ancient psychological ploy. “Then there was screaming and shouting, and they were coming through the brush towards us…From then on, the next few terrible hours were a complete blur. I remember being more terrified than I ever was or have been since,” said Gary Gurny. “It wasn’t till I was in Winnipeg in 1976 at the 25th reunion of the battle of Kapyong, that I really knew about the whole thing.”  Despite wave after wave of enemy storm outnumbering them 9 to 1, the PPCLI held firm.

Today, a stone cairn memorial in Kapyong honors the epic battle fought by the PPCLI in April 1951. A larger memorial, unveiled in 1985, is dedicated by the people of Korea to the memory of the 26,000 Canadians who served in Korea. Of these, 516 died, and 1,255 were wounded.

This reader was shocked to learn that Canadian soldiers spoke of unsung homecomings, a silence that contrasted the wild ticker-tape parades for WW2 vets.  Canadian Korean War vets saw no cheering crowds on main streets and no victory flags upon their return to Canada in late 1954.  One vet shared that his wife picked him up at the train station and on the drive home, told him the toilet needed fixing.

Exhausted field doctors and surgical nurses deprived of vital medicines and electricity in their MASH (Mobile American Surgery Hospital) units felt desperate, when, mid-amputation, the power supply shorted. Frantic ammunition runners lost their arms and legs trying to deliver their urgent supplies and Canadian POWs, covered in lice and bitten by rats, focused on supporting each other.

I felt proud to learn that most infantry commanders insisted their soldiers be appropriately trained to efficiently face warriors with thousands of years of expertise under their belts. Canadians needing more training got it. It was equally stunning to learn of a leader who couldn’t care less one way or the other whether the soldiers under his watch lived or died.  General MacArthur felt no need to include in his memoirs the grisly details of the outright slaughter of 313 ill-prepared U.S. soldiers (out of a group of group 752) near the Korean town of Chinju.

This reader reflected that it’s bad enough to lose one’s life under caring command in a just war, but quite another to die respecting a vow of unquestioning obedience to a narcissist.

Alive with histories of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Canadian Navy, and Canadian Army Infantry who defended South Korea’s right to freedom, this page-turner includes five detailed appendices. Names, ranks, awards earned, and dates of death are a real help to present-day researchers seeking data previously undisclosed about their family members. So many returned unable or unwilling to discuss their trauma.

The rate of civilian casualties in the Korean War was higher than in World War II and the Vietnam War. Perhaps we can best honor our Korean War vets by educating ourselves, and valuing Canadians heroes who participated in securing the freedom of South Korea.

Lest We Forget.

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