by Jack LaChance
Jack LaChance stands next to the Korea Veterans National Wall of Remembrance in Brampton, Ont.
The dedication of the Korea Veterans National Wall of Remembrance on July 27, 1997, was one of the most meaningful and solemn days of my life. Up until that day, I had–for personal reasons–not participated in any Korean War commemorations because I thought it best to bury my thoughts and feelings about the war.
But the dedication ceremony at the Meadowvale Cemetery in the southern Ontario city of Brampton was an event I could not miss, and my preparations for it took me back to my military training days in the fall of 1950 with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. And while I reflected on those early days in Calgary, I was proud of the fact that my black Doc Martens were highly polished and that my blazer displayed the medals I had earned in the war that lasted from 1950-53.
As I walked toward the assembly area where we would board the bus to the cemetery, I noticed how my medals sparkled in the sunlight. I was also quite proud of the fact that my dark green beret–with its distinctive regimental badge–identified me as PPCLI. At that moment I felt very fit and ready for battle once again. I felt like the 18-year-old I was 47 years earlier, falling in for my first parade and inspection.
While on the bus I sensed the rising of old rivalries between the different regiments. It was refreshing because I hadn’t heard those kind of digs since political correctness swept the land. We laughed at ourselves and at each other without fear of offending anyone. This was the kind of freedom we had fought for and for which many gave their lives.
My personal feelings were mixed during the short ride to the cemetery. It was not an extremely warm morning, yet my hands were wet and clammy and I could feel the buildup of perspiration under the ridge of my beret. It was an intense nervousness not unlike the emotion I felt while preparing for battle years ago.
Many of us had still not viewed the Wall, and because of that we were filled with apprehension. We wondered what our reaction would be. A good many of us had visited the United Nations Cemetery in Pusan, South Korea, and the cemetery at the Yokohama British Commonwealth War Cemetery in Japan. The visits had been traumatic, to say the least.
At the Meadowvale Cemetery it felt to me as though all 516 Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen killed in the war and in the peacekeeping after the July 27, 1953, ceasefire were finally back home with their friends and loved ones. Many of them were people I had met, ate with, fought with and drank with.
With these penetrating thoughts, my mood changed dramatically when I got off the bus. I walked around a bit, stood by myself under a tree and then said a few prayers before falling in for the march up to the Wall. Perhaps my mood-swing was one reason why I had shied away from anything to do with commemorating the war.
Some things just hurt too much.
It had been close to 45 years since I was last on parade and I could sense my stomach rolling inside as our Van Doo leader began dividing us into platoons. I was quick to note that nothing much had changed over the years. We still had a senior sergeant-major barking orders like a guy who had just received his first stripes. Some of us had forgotten which feet were left or right. No one tried to hop-skip back into step for fear of getting our legs crossed and possibly ending up with an injury that would be beyond local repair.
It was an absolute honour to be a part of that historic event. The participating veterans were from all parts of Canada and each one had their own story, their own personal losses and their triumphs to think about. Also in attendance and participating in the ceremony were men who had served during the war with the South Korean armed forces. They looked very smart in their camouflage uniforms and scarves.
The colour guard from The Royal Canadian Legion carried the flags of all the nations that fought in the war, and the contingent of American Korean War vets from Buffalo, N.Y., added to the colourful mosaic. Each and every participant proudly marched to honour the fallen Canadians who died in that far-off Asian land.
My impression of Canadian veterans is and always will be awesome. Most of these guys would do it all over again if our country called. Many were fit and still very healthy. Others marched to the Wall with canes, wheelchairs, bad backs or sore legs. Yet we all had one thing in common. When the drummer struck his first rat-a-tat, we all had smiles on our faces and enthusiasm and pride in our hearts. These–to me–were some of the emotions that carried us into battle on the desolate hills of Korea. Our gait and cadence may have been slower, but inside we were once again marching soldiers.
I felt like an adventurous young boy when I stepped lively to the stirring sounds of the pipes and drums. Most of us seemed to have our chest out, shoulders back and gut tucked in as we marched closer to the memorial. It is a good thing some of us wore suspenders that day or there may have been a different kind of show for the spectators.
As we got closer I heard the songs and cadences we had sung while marching years before. There was the unmistakable click of heavy cleated boots on pavement, and the always present mumbling in the ranks. But most of all I envisioned once again hundreds of young Canadians in full marching order, in unity, and each one willing to put their lives on the line to make our country and this world a better place.
I remember looking around at the crowd to see if I could spot the faces of my wife and four of our five children and their spouses. Perhaps some of the other guys felt the same way I did because most of us had tears running down our cheeks. My thoughts at that moment were: How thankful I am to be alive and having experienced the privilege of having a family, watching our children and grandchildren grow, living in a country as great and as free as Canada. What a blessing it was to be able to say to the Canadian soldiers who never came back from Korea: “Thank you guys, for helping make my dreams come true. I pray you now know how much you are appreciated.”
When we arrived at the Wall, the quietness in the ranks was overwhelming. The memorial was, indeed, impressive. Semicircular and measuring roughly 200 feet in length, the two-foot-high granite wall is embedded with bronze plaques replicating the grave markers at the cemetery in Pusan. At that moment every veteran and guest seemed to hold their own individual thoughts and feelings.
Faces of fallen comrades and friends swirled into my view. In my mind their voices echoed quietly across the wall amid the sounds of penetrating artillery shells and the sharp crack of rifles. The branch of the service you had been in or the rank you carried meant very little during those powerful moments. We were all equals with tears in every eye.
When Reverend T.M.C. Marsaw gave his inspiring and moving address, concluding with our recitation of Psalm 23, I was truly lifted in my spirit. A peace came over me that is very difficult to explain. I believe I was reassured by a voice that said, “Yes, Jack, all whose names appear on this wall are safe and in my care.”
“Thank you, Lord,” I whispered as I reread the closing sentence of that psalm from my printed program. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Etched in my mind and heart are the moments I spent standing within a few feet of the Wall immediately after its unveiling. As I stepped slowly closer and the names became readable, I could put faces and voices to the ones I knew and had served with. While each of us placed a poppy next to a name, I eagerly scanned the Wall until my eyes found the name of G.L. “Patty” Paterson.
Patty was killed in action on Oct. 2, 1951, during a devastating artillery barrage and Chinese attack. I can remember like it was yesterday the four of us carrying him out. The terrain was rugged and it was so dark that we had to feel our way across the hill one stumbling step at a time. When I bent over to pin my poppy on Patty’s nameplate, I immediately sensed his spirit had come home. It was a phenomenal experience that left me totally drained.
A soldier’s experiences in war
Never ends in victory or defeat
They continue deep inside them
Until some day their God they meet.
Editor’s note: Jack LaChance served with the 2nd and 1st battalions of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. After his honourable discharge in September 1952 he pursued a career as a businessman in Sarnia, Ont. One of his poems, The Korea Veterans Wall, is engraved in granite at the centre section of the Korea Veterans National Wall of Remembrance.