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Canadians In Korea

by Ted Barris

From top: Members of 3 PPCLI read a letter from “unit sweetheart” Rose Marie Stumpf in June 1953; Canadian soldiers move in single file across a valley in May 1951; Canadian medical personnel tend to a wounded soldier in the spring of 1951; shells are loaded into a gun on a Canadian destroyer involved in the bombardment of batteries at Inchon, Korea; .Canadian personnel enjoy a bit of gambling on board a ship in April 1951.

On a late spring day in 1999, when they posed for news cameras at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Canadian veterans Jim Gunn and Ina McGregor looked totally at ease. They had come out to help launch a book recounting Canadian involvement in the Korean War. While scores of veterans shared wine and memories, McGregor and Gunn stood next to an enlarged photo of themselves taken 46 years earlier. Back then, the two had been photographed by a Toronto Star cameraman where Korean War hostilities had just ended, but where tension remained palpable.

On that summer day in 1953, a Red Cross truck delivered its human cargo–Gunn and seven other repatriated PoWs–to Panmunjom, right at the 38th Parallel, where the war had begun and ended. (Neither side in the war–neither the communist in the north nor the republic in the south–had gained a metre of territory.) United Nations officials had renamed the Panmunjom campsite Freedom Village, signifying the place where thousands of prisoners from both sides were being repatriated. From the back of the truck, eight apparently elated Canadian servicemen and Red Cross volunteer McGregor waved as the photographers snapped shots. “Some of the men weren’t in good shape,” McGregor remembered. “Pretty frail. But as they stepped out, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada played the pipes. It sounded wonderful.”

Inside the Freedom Village tents, the ex-PoW Canadians were processed. First they were deloused, their cloths taken away and burned. Next they scrubbed away the filth of months of captivity in prison camps near the North Korean border with China. Some went right into surgery to reset broken bones or to have sutures re-stitched. Most were interrogated and told they had to hold a Bible and swear allegiance because the King had died during their imprisonment and army officials wanted to ensure their continued loyalty. Finally, they were treated to a meal of steak and eggs, beer and ice cream or chocolate for dessert. “My stomach couldn’t keep down very much,” Gunn said. “But I’ll never forget the taste of my first glass of real milk.”

Gunn, in effect, toasted the end of the Korean War or at least the armistice that had brought about his release at Freedom Village. For just over three years, from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953, Canadian volunteers and the armed forces of 15 other nations had fulfilled a UN resolution that “members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of (South) Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.”

Nearly 30,000 Canadians on the ground, at sea and in the air over the Korean peninsula volunteered and served that cause. Canada sustained 1,557 casualties, among them 516 war dead.

Canada’s largest commitment of forces was on land within the 25th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade. Among those units serving in Korea were tanks of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, artillery from the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, as well as members of the Royal Cdn. Engineers, Royal Cdn. Corps of Signals, Royal Cdn. Army Service Corps, Royal Cdn. Army Medical Corps, Royal Cdn. Ordnance Corps and Royal Cdn. Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

Front line infantry included the 2nd, 1st and 3rd battalions of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, PPCLI, the Royal Canadian Regiment, RCR, and the Royal 22nd Regt. Following the 1953 signing of the armistice agreement other Canadian units, including the Royal Canadian Dragoons, the Queen’s Own Rifles, the Canadian Guards and The Black Watch served there.

Korea’s hilly landscape very much dictated that the war would not be fought by armies, divisions or even battalions, but by small groups of men. Platoons of perhaps 30 soldiers, but more often sections of about 10 men, mostly non-commissioned soldiers, did the bulk of the fighting. Each of these small combat units consisted of a Bren-gunner and his No. 2, a half-dozen individual riflemen and a second leader–a sergeant or a lance corporal–who had leadership qualities, probably World War II experience, some understanding of group psychology and a lot of street savvy. The survival of each unit depended on how much each soldier trusted his section leader, how well each man’s skills and temperament were used, and how quickly the men could adapt to an inhospitable countryside.

Canadian combat troops employed this model and did so with great distinction. For three days and two nights in April 1951, troops of the PPCLI defended Hill 677 above the Kapyong River against a massive Chinese offensive; they held their ground and earned the United States Distinguished Unit Citation, also known as the United States Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation. In May 1951 it was the RCR’s turn, beginning the UN offensive against Chinese-held positions in the hills above Chail-li. Then, in November 1951, as Chinese troops pushed American forces off Kowang-san, Hill 355, troops of the Royal 22nd Regt. successfully held their forward slope positions until UN forces could regain the top of what became known as Little Gibraltar.

Until the night of May 2-3, 1953, Gunn had served as a sniper assigned to the forward trenches of Charlie Company with the RCR. That night, Chinese Communist forces–numbering about 400 in Gunn’s sector–bombarded and then overran his position on Hill 187 near the 38th Parallel. He and seven other RCR troops were captured and force marched through minefields to the Chinese side of no man’s land and there became PoWs for the duration.

During his four months of captivity, Gunn often felt more afraid of UN weaponry than the armament of his captors. UN jet fighters and bombers often unloaded excess bombs or strafed North Korean “targets of opportunity” as they returned to their bases. When he reached his PoW camp, Gunn discovered that so-called “friendly fire” was sometimes a greater threat than the punishment of solitary confinement. “The Chinese claimed that the camp was properly identified as per the Geneva Convention,” Gunn explained. “On a couple of occasions, however, the gates were closed as the planes swept down, so that prisoners couldn’t get into the tunnel shelters. A few prisoners were hit. This brought out petitions for us to sign, calling on the UN, the Red Cross and NATO for a cessation of bombing of a neutral site. They suggested if we signed, it would put an end to the bombing.”

Not one of the 33 Canadian PoWs imprisoned in North Korea signed the petitions.

Bill Tigges didn’t sign anything either to become part of the Korean War. As a 20-year-old Royal Canadian Air Force instrument technician, he and the rest of 426 Transport Squadron ground crew simply assembled on the airfield at Dorval in Montreal to receive his wartime posting. It was July 25, 1950, a month into the war. “We were standing on the tarmac in front of the six North Star transport aircraft,” Tigges said. “We were already assigned to our aircraft. Our equipment was all packed. The press was there. And Wing Commander (C.H.) Mussells said any of us who didn’t want to go to Korea, didn’t have to. We knew we were flying out of the country. We knew we’d be gone for at least a year. But that’s it.”

In that instant, Tigges and 184 other RCAF riggers, fitters and other ground crew became members of the greatest airborne supply mission the RCAF had ever undertaken. The mission, code-named Operation Hawk, meant the virtual cessation of all domestic transport operations in favour of providing a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week lifeline between North America and the UN troops fighting in Korea. The RCAF Korean Airlift was based at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash.

Tigges remembers having all RCAF kit, tools, repair equipment and parts dumped “in a no man’s land” at McChord. He saw all his gear heaped in an open field, with no runways, no hangars, no workshops, no lights and having to live in a barrack with broken windows. “And this was not the driest place on Earth either, so we worked 14-hour days under tarpaulins in the rain until the Americans repaired the barracks and built nose hangars for the North Stars.”

Despite the waterlogged conditions, Tigges and the rest of 426 Sqdn., for three years, kept a dozen North Stars airborne, completing 15 circuits between North America and Japan each month. During the Korean Airlift, Canadian crews flew approximately 600 round trips, carried more than three million kilograms of freight and mail and ferried about 13,000 passengers, mostly soldiers en route to or coming home from Korea. All without one casualty or the loss of a single aircraft.

One day, early in his year-long tour of duty at McChord, Bill Tigges diverted his attention from his work long enough to spot North Star crews disembarking returning troops, soldiers that “were just 18- and 19-year-old American kids,” Tigges said. “Some had bandages. Others were amputees. That’s when I realized there was a war going on over there.”

The freight from Operation Hawk varied “from bullets to broomsticks,” remembered RCAF pilot Dean Broadfoot. Trained between the wars, he’d had intentions of becoming a fighter pilot on Vampires, but instead was posted to 426 Transport Sqdn. in the fall of 1948. He helped break in the new North Star transports and then found himself virtually living on them during the Korean Airlift.

Early in the war–in the summer of 1950–when the Republic of (South) Korean Army and UN troops were in danger of being pushed into the sea at Pusan, Broadfoot remembers that the RCAF North Stars carried troop reinforcements, mostly American draftees. During those early flights to Korea, he said that each RCAF pilot was issued a .45-calibre pistol.

“What the hell is this for?” Broadfoot had asked.

“Many of these guys don’t want to go,” explained the American army sergeant. “They’ve got their rifles, but no ammo.”

Beginning in January 1951, on many of the return trips through Honolulu and San Francisco, the North Stars were rigged with bunks to carry out as many as 35 wounded soldiers each. While the North Star was durable and reliable, it was neither soundproof nor pressurized, which would expose the evacuees to 20 hours of pain-threshold engine noise and the stink of fuel fumes. However, on many of those return flights, an inhospitable cabin area didn’t really matter. The RCAF crews were bringing home coffins containing American war dead. “I can remember them stacked up back there,” Broadfoot said. “We didn’t like that much. I don’t know why, but we used to lock the cockpit door on those trips. It just made us very uneasy.”

As responsive as Canadian airmen were to the service call in 1950, for the third war in a row Royal Canadian Navy ships and crew were first into action in Korea. When the war broke out in June 1950, three RCN Tribal-class destroyers lay at anchor in Esquimalt on the Canadian west coast. HMCS Cayuga, commanded by Captain Jeffry Brock, and sister ships in the Pacific Destroyer Command, HMCS Athabaskan and Sioux, were preparing to rendezvous with three ships in Halifax late that summer and cross the Atlantic for North Atlantic Treaty Organization manoeuvres in Europe. Instead, the three quickly responded to the war alert and set sail for Korea.

Initially, the threesome was dispatched to prowl waters and islands off the west coast of Korea to search junks and sampans that might be carrying munitions or North Korean marines. Early in December 1950, however, the situation on the mainland redirected the Canadian flotilla’s attention.

Facing more than 300,000 Chinese Communist soldiers (who entered the war in November 1950), UN troops in advanced positions near the Yalu River in North Korea began retreating south. The withdrawal was known as the Big Bug-Out. Overnight, Brock received new orders to lead a task force and to assist by all means in his power the evacuation of the Eighth U.S. Army from Chinnampo, the port for the North Korean capital of P’yongyang.

The RCN destroyers Cayuga, Athabaskan and Sioux steamed toward the enemy port preparing to provide cover for a fleet of U.S. transport ships exiting the harbour, to give gunfire support to the retreating army and to make sure that the large stores of fuel and munitions in Chinnampo did not fall into Chinese hands.

The mission faced seemingly insurmountable problems.

Chinnampo was situated 30 kilometres up the Daido-Ko River, well beyond the range of RCN naval guns. In addition, Daido-Ko estuary was cluttered with a maze of low islands and shifting mud flats. The tides would be difficult to navigate, as would the floating mines planted by the North Koreans. Complicating matters was the winter weather, which had closed in with freezing drizzle and north winds that effectively reduced the temperature with sub-zero wind chills. On Dec. 4, 1950, as Brock assembled his relief armada, he received word that Chinnampo was bulging with soldiers, civilians and equipment and that the situation had reached emergency proportions. The Canadian captain would now have to launch his Dunkirk-like rescue mission in the dead of night.

“It was as black as the inside of a cow,” Brock later wrote in his log.

Nevertheless, the RCN ships led the way. First minesweepers attempted to clear a channel 500 yards wide with unlit dan buoys, but the strong winds ripped most of them loose. That forced Cayuga’s asdic (sonar) operators to guide the flotilla away from semi-submerged mines all the way up the estuary.

Meanwhile, the tide ebbed to its shallowest depth. At times the ships’ keels had less than 20 inches of water beneath them, so the naval squadron was forced to advance “dead slow ahead.” Then, the drizzle became a blizzard and visibility was diminished so badly that double the number of lookouts were positioned on bows. As another precaution, shells were stockpiled on deck to reduce the number of steps should the shooting start suddenly.

Below decks, the watch became a nightmare for the ships’ navigators as they dashed from radar screens to chart tables and back. In Cayuga’s plot room, Andrew Collier made 132 navigational fixes that night, described by one officer as “a masterful piece of work.”

By daybreak, Cayuga had led the armada safely into Chinnampo harbour. Throughout the morning, Brock supervised the evacuation of troops and materiel onto the U.S. transports. Meanwhile, as a steady stream of sampans carried refugees out of the city, Athabaskan scrutinized each vessel for mines and weapons. Simultaneously, UN navy demolition and fire parties were dispatched to destroy what equipment couldn’t be saved. And as reports of a Chinese breakthrough north of the city reached the port, Brock ordered the transport vessels to weigh anchor, leaving the last three destroyers alone in the harbour to complete the job.

At 5:35 p.m., Brock ordered all guns to open fire. Within minutes, explosions rocked the railway marshalling yards, the city’s cement factory, its shipyards and gasoline storage tanks. North Korea’s key port city, which had once been home to 75,000 people, was now, from its industrial district to its waterfront, an inferno. A day later, when the entire UN flotilla was clear of the Daido-Ko River channel and en route to safety in the south, Chinnampo was still ablaze.

Following what was heralded as “the most important and most dangerous naval mission of the Korean War,” Cayuga’s skipper was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, its navigator, Andrew Collier, the Distinguished Service Cross, and its coxswain, D.J. Pearson, the British Empire Medal.

Military gongs weren’t handed out often during the Korean War, least of all to civilians who ventured into the war zone.

None of the Canadians who joined numerous visiting entertainment troupes, ever expected that kind of reward. Yet, many of them travelled to Korea at the invitation of Defence Minister Brooke Claxton. Early in the war, he had promised that his department would provide Canadian soldiers such services as current motion pictures, tape recordings of CBC radio programs, a daily ration of 20 free cigarettes, spot news delivered in cables, magazines and newspapers, recreational facilities with sports equipment and as many celebrity shows as his department could muster. Plenty of personalities of the day made the trek across the Pacific to bring the boys in the front line a little bit of home.

Canadian “B” Echelon positions were visited by such shows as Jerry Gosley’s Smile Show, CBC radio performer Carol Carr, the Fun Revvers and the Sweet Cap Variety Show, which featured veteran actor-singer John Pratt. Among the soldiers’ sentimental favourites was Vancouver-based singer Lorraine McAllister; in December 1952, she and her accompanist, accordion player Karl Karleen arrived for a two-week performing tour behind the lines in South Korea.

Later in the war, the defence department organized a unique sports junket to Korea that featured NHL player Red Kelly showing films of his Red Wings’ Stanley Cup win and CFL half-back Ken Charlton showing films of his Saskatchewan Roughriders’s Grey Cup victory. And crowd-pleaser Hank Snow brought a country music show to Canadians in Korea; the Nova Scotia-born crooner performed on hospital ships, truck tailgates and along many reverse slopes of the front lines.

In early 1953, another home-grown troupe made its way to Seoul and up to the reserve echelons at the front lines. Since 1947, loyal listeners of CBC radio had tuned in weekly to hear the booming voice of Herb May announce: “It’s the Wayne and Shuster Show.” When the show’s producer, Jackie Rae, received a letter from the government inviting Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster and their radio show ensemble to entertain Canadian troops in Korea, it seemed the right thing to do. “We took a page from Bob Hope, who was also in Korea at the time,” Shuster said. “Soldier audiences are the best in the world. They’re so happy to see anybody from home. No matter what you do, it’s great, as long as you bring a touch of home.”

And a pretty girl singer.

“I was thrilled to be able to go,” explained Terry Dale, who at 26 had joined the Wayne and Shuster Show a few years before to sing, dance and help out in the comedians’ on-stage sketches. Going to a war zone didn’t phase her in the least, because as she said, “when you’re young like that, you aren’t afraid of anything.”

The Wayne and Shuster entourage included the entire CBC cast and crew of the show–its producer, an on-location technician, the show’s ad agency rep, its announcer, a five-piece band, dancer Zena Cheevers and Terry Dale. For the protection and comfort of all the entertainers, the army issued them khaki uniforms and boots, but both Cheevers and Dale never wore them on stage. Both believed that no soldier at the front would want to see women in khaki. And so most of the time they shed the uniforms in favour of street clothes off-stage and evening gowns and heels on-stage.

Johnny and Frank and their company of players performed nearly 40 separate shows, often two and three a day. Still, the Canadian Army organizers built in enough time with each appearance to allow the performers to mingle with the ordinary soldiers, whether medics, riflemen, engineers, service corps troops or mobile laundry and bath unit workers. No matter how repetitive, the performers sat with soldiers to talk about home, took down phone numbers to call back home and received letters to be posted in Canada. “Most of the soldiers never spoke about the war,” Dale recalled. “They were always upbeat…never talking about the futility of it all. The worst they admitted was being homesick. I remember visiting this one fellow in a field hospital. They told me quietly he was going to lose his leg that day.

“I quickly realized the seriousness of it all. I felt sorry for both sides…because of the killing that was going on. I grew up in a hurry over there.”

Back at the Korean War book launch in 1999, the Korean embassy dignitaries, war museum representatives and executives of the Korea Veterans Association of Canada all applauded the day. At the sales table, the publisher sold plenty of books for the author to autograph. The wine and hors d’oeuvres were nearly gone, but the veterans, scores of them, lingered. For most of them, now in their 70s and 80s, it was the most recognition they’ve enjoyed in 50 years.

Next to the blow-up of them from Panmunjom in 1953, former Korean War PoW Jim Gunn and one-time Red Cross volunteer Ina McGregor smiled for the cameras one last time. They were the picture of pride behind the speech-making and wine. They were the story of the day. The war in which they served, so long overlooked and neglected, has won some attention. Behind the novelty, there is a forgotten war remembered.

As with so much in the Korean War, appearances are not what they seem.

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