by Don Dalke
The story of how I got to serve in the Korean War begins in 1944 when I joined the army cadets at Lethbridge, Alta. I was 14 at the time, but worked my way through to become an officer. When I turned 18 I joined the 20th Field Battery Militia, and was a sergeant when I enrolled in the command contingent course at Camp Shilo, Man., in May 1950.
In August 1950–less than seven weeks after North Korea invaded South Korea–the Canadian government authorized the recruitment of the Canadian Army Special Force. The CASF was to be trained and equipped to fulfil Canada’s obligations in Korea under the United Nations Charter. The special force, which was raised and trained as part of the regular army, was comprised of citizen volunteers who were enrolled for a period of 18 months or longer if required. Many of them were World War II veterans.
I signed up right away and was immediately made a lieutenant. Becoming a regimental survey officer, I served with an outstanding survey party consisting of Sergeant (Tommy) Campbell, Bombardier Ed (Father) O’Donnel, gunners Mac Gillis, Joe Keeper, Curtis Lewis, Bill Maher, Aki Oshiro, Bill Whopper and Bill Wynchenko, in 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.
Only 32 per cent of us in 2 RCHA were raw recruits. The rest were World War II veterans, and it was their battle experience that allowed us to meld together quickly and become an effective fighting unit.
Our training was at Fort Lewis, a large American military camp in Washington State where restrictions on the use of live ammunition in the heavier weapons were overcome by using the ranges at Yakima, 80 miles to the east. It was at Fort Lewis where the units of the CASF formed one of the finest battle groups Canada has ever put in the field–the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade.
We matured quite a bit during our four months of training. By March 1951, we felt ready for action.
The area in and around Yakima was fairly mountainous, and would prove to be very similar to the geography in Korea.
We began our journey to the Far East on April 21, 1951, aboard the General Edwin Patrick. On May 4, we arrived at the port city of Pusan, located on the southeast corner of the Korean Peninsula. While the rest of the brigade was shaking out to prepare to move to the front, which was then located north of Seoul, 2 RCHA loaded personnel and equipment on a train for the north. We moved north of the Han River, approximately 10 miles northeast of Seoul in support of the 28th British Commonwealth Infantry Bde. in its drive towards Chorwon.
On May 17, 1951, 2 RCHA fired its first shots in action as part of the Commonwealth Divisional Artillery.
The terrain in Korea presented various deployment problems, especially for the artillery. For one thing, the landscape was a continuous succession of hills and mountains, ranging in height from 50 to 800 metres. There were also rice paddies that had no firm footing for our heavy vehicles and guns.
When we arrived at our battle positions we had very little protective gear. Our groundsheets were the only personal cover we had from the elements that went from one extreme to another. Fortunately, we had an excellent supply of liquor, and an even greater quantity of good old Canadian ingenuity. With a case of Canadian Club, it was amazing what we could acquire from our American comrades.
It did not take long to obtain tents, vehicles and weapons that were far superior to our vintage World War II equipment. For example, our Sten gun–a type of lightweight submachine gun–could best be described as a “pipefitter’s spare parts all screwed together.” It was often referred to as a plumber’s nightmare. Sometimes the gun worked, sometimes it did not. It certainly was not the best thing to have as your survival tool. Consequently, we were well equipped for the rest of our time in Korea.
Another example of our weapons woes was the 25-pounder artillery ammunition we received shortly after arriving in theatre. Most of it had been recovered out of Hong Kong Bay after World War II. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941, Allied ships–loaded with ammunition and military equipment–were sunk in the bay. Between 1947 and 1949, the British recovered most of the equipment, including the 25-pounders.
This ammunition helped fill a major need in the first year of the Korean War, but we literally had to hammer the sand and silt off of it before we could load and fire it. Another major problem had to do with the timing fuses on the air-burst shells. These shells were designed to inflict maximum casualties by exploding above the ground and creating a large pattern of shrapnel. However, the shells did not always function because they had been underwater for so long. As a result, we had a good number of premature bursts just outside the muzzle of our guns. Fortunately, we suffered very few casualties because we had well-prepared gun pits.
The ammunition was also not as effective at the target end because with the faulty timing fuses the air bursts were not at the right height above the enemy for the best effect.
As the regimental survey party, it was our job to make sure all the regimental guns were on theatre grid, even if it was a troop or battery going out to support a long-range infantry/armoured patrol into enemy territory.
Theatre grid is like placing a visible grid over the land. When the guns are tied into the grid, they can fire on unseen targets miles away with very good accuracy. In fact, they can achieve the same accuracy that a sniper can while looking at a target through his rifle sights. Theatre grid remains the most accurate way of locating and pointing the artillery. It is achieved by taking a reading off a star or the sun or by finding existing survey benchmarks or monuments.
When we first arrived in Korea we found that the Japanese had done an excellent job of survey during World War II. We were able to find a fair number of their survey monuments which we could use to confirm the accuracy of our theatre grid.
When the guns arrived at their forward position, the survey party was able to triangulate from high ground so that we could supply the guns with theatre grid immediately. That was always a very dangerous procedure because it meant working on the high ground which put us in a very visible and vulnerable position to enemy observation and fire. Today’s technology makes this job a lot easier and safer. With a hand-held piece of Global Positioning System equipment you can accurately fix your location by satellite communication within seconds without being exposed on high ground.
The Americans had names for every hill they fought for. There was Bunker Hill, Big Nori, Old Baldy, Arrowhead Hill, Sniper Ridge, Finger Ridge, Capitol Hill, Heartbreak Ridge and Little Gibraltar. To the Canadians they were just hills on the map that had a particular height, measured in metres. For example, a very commanding and important feature in the line of defence was Little Gibraltar. To us it was Hill 355.
With the deep incursions into enemy territory by the long-range fighting patrols of the 25th Bde., it was necessary to deploy well forward, within 3,000 yards of the front lines for our main position. This meant we had to be well dug in with barbed wire and 24-hour guard personnel to ensure the security of the guns. We then established a series of battery positions out into no man’s land. These positions were identified by code names so that batteries could be leapfrogged forward to ensure ongoing and effective artillery support.
On the day of a patrol, the first battery would be deployed in the first forward position by first light. We would then move batteries forward as the infantry patrol advanced.
On one of these deep patrols in support of the Royal 22nd Regt., the infantry decided to return by a different route, and did not inform the guns who were supporting them. As the survey officer, I observed this from high ground. When I realized that the Vandoos had pulled back, I contacted the guns by radio and suggested they pack up and head for home because there was nothing out there but enemy and they appeared to be a bit annoyed.
Not long after that my job was changed to that of gun position officer. I also worked with the infantry as a Forward Observation Officer, FOO. My main responsibility was to make sure the infantry had the intimate support of the artillery.
The first thing we did when the infantry moved into a new defensive position was to register defensive-fire targets.
This was necessary in order to cover every possible line of attack. While working as FOO, I discovered that the Chinese and North Koreans consistently made three major assaults on a position. The first wave was made up of raw recruits, many of them civilians who had been gathered from villages and forced by bayonet point to charge our positions. Many of these people were not armed.
The enemy would use the first wave to identify our major fire positions. They would then send in the second wave made up of more raw recruits and some seasoned troops. The enemy’s thinking was that we would expend much of our ammunition on the first and second waves, and that the bodies would fall onto the barbed wire in front of our position. The more seasoned soldiers in the third wave would then run over the bodies on the wire to get into our position.
We always held the high ground with well-prepared dug-in positions of good cover so that when the enemy finally started to overrun our position we could bring our guns to bear on our own position, killing off the majority of the enemy. This left our infantry in a position to clean up what was left.
The defensive-fire targets were the real key to cutting down the overwhelming numbers of the Chinese. While they were identifying our positions for their third-wave attack, we were identifying their lines of attack so that by the time they were pushing for the final assault, our divisional artillery had established a wall of hot steel for them to come through.
We were able to listen in to their communications and could hear commanders saying they were receiving very heavy casualties and could not get through the artillery shield to support the attack.
On one occasion, while supporting the infantry on Hill 227, the Chinese put a heavy concentration of fire on my observation post. The fire was making it very tough to effectively control our artillery fire. They finally were successful in putting a round into my post. All I remember from that is that when the dust cleared, I was lying on the back of the hill with the telephone in my hand and about a foot of wire attached to it. I was looking at the phone trying to remember what order I wanted to give to the guns. In order to carry out the rest of the battle, I had to find a portable radio and move to a flank position. I ended up in a trench with an infantry section.
The Canadians gained the reputation of being swift and relentless in attack and immovable in defence. To prove the defence statement you only had to look at the PPCLI defence at Kapyong where they literally stopped the Chinese offensive.
Later, when we were in the final static part of the war, it was found that the Chinese were attacking the American positions primarily because they had a battle tactic that the Americans referred to as “rolling with the punch” or pulling back when under major attack then counterattacking.
Well, there are two times when you receive major casualties and that is withdrawing under fire and attacking a defended position. Command finally decided to check this out and we were ordered to have our signallers use American procedures in transmissions. Our infantry, meanwhile, was told to put on American helmets. The Chinese took the bait and ran into an immovable object and a wall of hot steel.
One of the problems for the front line soldier was convincing the brain trust sitting 25 to 30 miles behind the lines that we knew what we were looking at. I recall one situation where the enemy had moved a tank into position and started to hammer my observation post. I retaliated with our 25-pounders, but even with rounds hitting the tank it was nothing more than an annoyance to the tank crew. So, I requested the 155-mm medium artillery to be more effective, but was informed that intelligence had indicated there was no armour in our area.
The argument continued while the enemy tank hammered away at my post.
Finally, one round passed over the top of my position. The people on the other end of the phone asked me what the noise was and my reply was: “What the hell do you think it was, a freight train?” They finally decided that we knew what we were looking at and authorized the use of the 155s.
In May 1952, after being in action for just over a year and firing 300,000 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition, it was time to turn over the battle to 1 RCHA and head for dear old Canada.
Brigadier J.M. Rockingham always referred to the infantry as the “point of his spear” and the rest of the brigade’s purpose was to protect that point. Thank God for our seasoned command veterans; it was their knowledge of battle tactics that allowed us to take 15 to 30 casualties in major battles while our Commonwealth comrades, British and Australians were taking 300 to 500 casualties and the Americans and South Koreans were taking 900 to 1,000 in the same or similar battles.