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Remembering the Forgotten War: The Korean conflict in Canada’s collective consciousness

Loaded with packs and rifles, members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry cross a typical Korean log bridge.
On Sept. 25, 1975, Vic Thompson of Manotick, Ont., joined a small contingent of Canadian veterans bound for South Korea. Boarding a flight from Los Angeles, he crossed the international date line and landed in Seoul.

There, Thompson found a very different country from the one he had first laid eyes on more than two decades earlier. Gone were the wartorn ruins of yesteryear. Now, under the auspices of democracy, the faraway nation flourished.

The 25th anniversary of the Korean War’s outbreak—June 25, 1950—had technically taken place three months earlier. Nevertheless, at various ceremonies and battlefield tours, the veterans were welcomed with open arms.

Thompson was deeply moved by the outpouring of gratitude, not only toward his group, but all 30,000 Canadians who had served in the conflict. That nationwide respect would prove resilient during the subsequent years.

In 1993, marking the 40th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, politicians and veterans made a similar pilgrimage. A warm reception again greeted the delegation in the Kapyong Valley, home to the Canadian Korean War Memorial Garden that stood in recognition of the April 1951 Battle of Kapyong.

Chi Kap-Chong, the chairman of the United Nations Korean War Allies Association, was likewise in attendance. Speaking directly to veterans at the ceremony, he reminded those present that “Korea has not forgotten.”

That much was abundantly true, yet some believed that Canada had.

“By and large, people back home didn’t pay much attention to the Korean War,” said Andrew Burtch, the Canadian War Museum’s post-1945 historian and co-editor of the new book Canada and the Korean War. This volume of essays—jointly compiled by the museum’s chief historian Tim Cook—explores the conflict through the work of a leading cohort of experts.

But why, exactly, did the Korean War fade from wider Canadian memory, at least compared to the likes of the First and Second World Wars?

“Scale is one of the reasons,” explained Burtch. “Look at Vimy Ridge, and you see a corps-sized operation with many thousands of casualties, fatal or otherwise. Look at Juno Beach and the subsequent battles for Normandy, and you have much of the same. Meanwhile, Kapyong was, in essence, a battalion-sized battle…. The ripples, therefore, are accordingly smaller in terms of the impact on regimental communities and military families in Canada.”

In the soldier’s arms, a Korean girl cradles 16 maple leaves, each one symbolizing a Canadian service member whose remains were never recovered.

The contrast with South Korean commemoration could not have been starker, where those ripples—however seemingly modest within the broader UN effort—were, and still are, highly revered.

Additionally, argues Burtch, the name recognition of Korean War battle honours fell short within Canada’s collective consciousness.

Unlike Juno beach and Vimy Ridge, which was “largely recognized by veterans,” said Burtch, “Korea was so far afield with no shared frame of reference…for the vast majority of the Canadian public, a numbered hillside in Korean agricultural land just wasn’t going to have the same resonance.”

But justifiably, Canada’s aging veterans still wanted their Forgotten War remembered. Thus, with the passing of each milestone anniversary, it became evident that if lasting recognition of their service were to happen, the veterans would have to spearhead it themselves.

Already in 1982, the potential for a grassroots movement had been showcased when the Korean War—and the Second World War—were added to Canada’s National War Memorial in Ottawa. Though an unquestionable victory, a still-large commemorative void remained that veterans hoped to address.

“To have that inclusion on the National War Memorial was very important,” said Burtch. “And so Korean War veterans capitalized on that success, going through their own communities across the country to seek greater representation on their own cenotaphs. Over time, they gradually built a presence.”

Korean War Memorial Wall in Brampton, Ont.

Other memorials soon followed—often without federal support.

Perhaps the greatest success came, exactly 44 years after the conflict’s armistice, when it was revealed that the Wall of Remembrance in Brampton, Ont., had a Korean War commemoration added.

Denied government funds, a total of $300,000 had instead been raised by branches of The Royal Canadian Legion, Korea Veterans Association units, community groups, businesses and individuals—not least the veterans themselves.

At the official dedication ceremony held at the memorial within Meadowvale Cemetery, hundreds of dignitaries, journalists, military families and spectators awaited the big reveal. Speeches were delivered, veterans paraded, and, just before noon that day, the green cloth shroud was finally removed.

Beneath lay what the veterans had long striven for: a 60-metre-wide, 0.6-metre-high grey granite curved wall on which appeared the names of some 516 Canadians counted as having died for Korean peace.

Other memorials soon followed—often without federal support.

Arguably most famous was the bronze sculpture of a soldier unveiled in Windsor, Ont., in 2001. Later re-installed on Ottawa’s Mackenzie King Bridge, the immortalized figure stands on a dais bearing the names of The Fallen.

In the soldier’s arms, a Korean girl cradles 16 maple leaves, each one symbolizing a Canadian service member whose remains were never recovered. To the soldier’s right is a boy holding a bouquet of flowers, once more highlighting the consistent gratitude shown by South Koreans.

With the soldier staring off into the distance, even its positioning carries symbolism. Thousands of kilometres away, it faces a twin monument at the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan (formerly identified as Pusan), South Korea.

Yet memorials such as these, despite being welcomed by the veterans, could—and can—only go so far in underscoring individual stories and sacrifices. In 2023, the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice again increased awareness, but what about those years without major milestones?

“Big anniversaries—25, 50, and, of course, 70 years—offer an additional incentive to pay tribute,” said Burtch. “However, remembrance remains important every time we look at it. That doesn’t ever change. It’s always vital we keep their stories alive, just as we do for the World Wars, because it’s Canadian military history and it deserves to be remembered as a chapter in that.”

If lasting recognition of their service were to happen, the veterans would have to spearhead it themselves.


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