At first glance, South Korea looks like a landscape artist’s paradise. There are tree-covered hills rising in every direction and cities teeming with people. There are also war cemeteries decorated with bonsai trees that look like swirls of soft ice cream.
It’s hard to square these images with the black and white photographs of the Korean War. Indeed, many of the photos I’ve seen show Canadian soldiers slogging through mud or along narrow dusty trails. I’ve also seen pictures of convoys on rough mountain roads and of men crammed into slit trenches. It must have been a different Korea back then, back during the war that lasted from June 25, 1950, until the Korea Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953.
“At nighttime you had slit trenches,” explained J.E. Clegg of Nanaimo, B.C., one of 36 Korean War veterans who participated in a Veterans Affairs Canada pilgrimage to South Korea last October. “You had two people to a trench. One was awake–watching, listening. The other slept. There was always 100 per cent stand-to at first light and last light. We got hit on (Hill) 166 and we lost almost a whole section. I went out and wrapped up pieces of men’s bodies and put them in sacks. The men were really rattled. I got them back with fresh rations. I got Cornflakes.”
The pilgrimage to the Korean peninsula was led by Veterans Affairs Minister Fred Mifflin. Its purpose was to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement. The delegation, which included five youth representatives from across Canada, began its journey on Oct. 1 with a ceremony at the Wall of Remembrance at Meadowvale Cemetery in Brampton, Ont. It then left for Vancouver where it hooked up with other Korean War veterans for the trip to Asia.
In South Korea, the delegation held a ceremony at the National Cemetery in the capital city of Seoul. It then went on to Panmunjom where the armistice agreement was signed. While there it also participated in a repatriation ceremony for the remains of five American soldiers killed during the war.
The next day the delegation travelled into the hills for ceremonies at the Commonwealth War Memorial in Kapyong and at the Canadian Korean War Memorial Garden in Naechon. The latter is situated just below the hills that were defended by Canadian forces in the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951. The garden features a stone cairn that commemorates the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and a stone tablet that lists the units of the Canadian forces that participated in the war. The garden also features a large memorial unveiled in 1985 and dedicated by the people of South Korea to the memory of Canadians who served in the war.
Veteran Ralph Darby Keen of Chilliwack, B.C., remembers what it was like to serve, especially when it rained. “It was
sort of a light brown dirt,” recalled the former lieutenant-colonel who served with the Royal Cdn. Engineers. “When the rain washed down it took the top with it and in an instant the rivers got the same muddy colours.”
Veteran Hubert Lalonde of Niagara Falls, Ont., remembers what it was like at night. “In the daytime, fighter planes would keep them (the enemy) in their holes, but at night they were the master,” explained the former corporal who served with the PPCLI. “They tried to use psychology on you…. When you are in a trench your mind starts to play games on you. If you stared at something long enough, it would start to move…. You try to forget the bad times, but now that you are here–and see this–a lot of the stuff you forgot comes back…. The trees were all wiped right off…. If you got bit by mosquitos you had a good chance of getting malaria. There was dysentery–everyone got that now and again…. I was 21 when I came home.”
After a stay in Seoul, the delegation travelled to Pusan where it participated in a large commemorative ceremony at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery. The visit meant a lot to Dominion President Chuck Murphy. “One of the people who joined the Korean War was my chum. He lived three blocks from me,” he told the delegation during the pilgrimage’s farewell dinner in Pusan. “I visited him today.”
A total of 26,791 Canadians served in the Korean War. Canada’s casualties totalled 1,558 and the Korea Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill contains the names of 516 war dead. A further 7,000 Canadians served between the time of the ceasefire in 1953 and the end of 1955.
And so while the Korean landscape remains an artist’s paradise, it is the looks on the faces of Canada’s Korean War veterans that impress me. They are faces that hold strength and determination. “I tell you all it is not our last hurrah,” said William Rankin of Ottawa. “As an old soldier we will return.”