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CANADIANS IN THE KOREAN WAR
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War and Peacekeeping

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On Sunday, the 25th of June, 1950, 135,000 troops of the North Korean People’s Army slogged south through pre-dawn darkness and the wetness of oncoming monsoon rains. The main invasion thrust was through the Ch’orwon Valley, across the 38th parallel to the Ouijongbu corridor, the direct route to Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

Korea, the Land of the Morning Calm, was now the crucible which turned the Cold War hot.

By the time the civil war of the Koreas had halted, six million of their countrymen--civilian and military personnel--had perished. Nearly half a million Communist Chinese comrades-in-arms of the North Koreans, soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, were killed in action. To add to the bloodbath: The Americans who supplied the largest contingent by far for the United Nations Command suffered 103,284 wounded, 54,236 deaths including 33,629 killed in combat and 8,177 missing in action.  Canada's casualties totalled 1,558 including 516 who died.  The total number of UN Forces (including South Korea) killed, wounded or missing was 996,937.

ORIGINS OF THE WAR

Following the end of hostilities in Europe during the Second World War, focus shifted to the Pacific. United States military planners expected a difficult campaign to drive the Japanese out of the Asian mainland and to invade Japan. The American State Department successfully appealed to the Soviet Union for help--that is, declare war against Japan. The deal was closed at the Allied conferences at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945.

After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent unconditional surrender of Japan, American concern shifted to the Soviets, who were rapidly advancing through Manchuria and into Korea.

The U.S. suggested a division of the Korean peninsula. The Soviet Union decided that seizing all of Korea was not worth the inherent risks; what was more strategically important to them was the future of Germany, Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.

So the tragedy of Korea had its roots in world politics. The Korean peninsula was divided into North and South at the 38th parallel, not by the Korean people, but by the United States and the Soviet Union. It was meant to be a temporary demarcation pending unification of two opposing ideologies. But it was not to be.

In 1994, many secret documents of the former Soviet Foreign Ministry were declassified. In June of that year, Russian President Boris Yeltsin presented high-level documents on the Korean War to President Kim Young-sam of South Korea. The documents revealed that in September 1949, the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party rejected an appeal from North Korean President Kim Il-Sung to assist in an invasion of the South. In April 1950 Soviet Premier Josef Stalin reversed that decision, believing that the invasion was a low-risk operation that could be successfully completed before the U.S. could intervene.

The documents also revealed that to avoid sending their own troops into the war in direct conflict with the Americans, the Soviets encouraged the People’s Republic of China to do so in the event the tide of battle turned against the North Koreans. With the Soviet promise of arms and air support, the Communist Chinese movement of troops to the North Korean border began long before the UN advance into North Korea in October 1950.

After being informed of the North Korean invasion, United States President Harry Truman ordered U.S. troops into action under the banner of the United Nations. 15 other countries including Canada rallied to the call for fighting forces to aid the beleaguered Republic of Korea Army. Five other nations offered assistance, but for political expediency opted to supply medical services rather than send their citizens into combat roles.

Initially the North Korean invaders enjoyed success. Three days after crossing the 38th, they captured Seoul and by early August were approaching the southern port city of Pusan.

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The Americans were the first on the ground to support the under-strength, poorly-equipped ROK Army. Fierce battles took place in August and September 1950 to hold a perimeter around Pusan.

Then on 15 September, General MacArthur, Commander, UN forces, launched a brilliant military maneuver by landing seaborne invasion troops at the west coast port city of Inchon. By the end of the month the UN captured Seoul, cut off many North Koreans in the south then pushed north as far as the Yalu river bordering Manchuria. In October, Chinese Communist Forces crossed the Yalu, entered the war in force and pushed back the UN troops. By early January 1951 the CCF had captured Seoul. Fluidic battles ebbed and flowed north and south for the next six months.

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CANADIANS IN ACTION

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On 30 July 1950, three Canadian destroyers: Cayuga, Athabaskan and Sioux arrived in Sasebo, Japan, under orders to sail for Korean waters, the first Canadians to see action in Korea.   Five other destroyers, Crusader, Huron, Iroquois, Nootka, Haida, served under UN Command during the war. Also in July, No. 426 Transport Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, flew the first of 600 round trips to the Far East during the war, carrying more than 13,000 passengers and 3,000,000 kilograms of freight. In addition, twenty-two RCAF fighter pilots and a number of technical officers were attached to the U.S. Fifth Air Force in Korea.

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Tragedy struck Canadian troops early--even before arriving in Korea--when 17 gunners of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery were killed when a passenger and a troop train crashed head-on at Canoe River, B.C. on 21 November 1950. (Like many events of the Korean War, the memory of this tragic event was buried until a cairn was erected and dedicated on 12 May 1990.)

A few weeks later, the first contingent of Canadians, the Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry arrived in Korea. The following April, this unit was awarded a U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for preventing an enemy breakthrough of the UN lines at Kap'yong. In May 1951 the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade, comprised of the Second Battalions of the Royal Canadian Regiment, and of the Royal 22e Régiment along with supporting arms, entered the Korean theatre. In June, 2PPCLI which had been attached to the 28th Commonwealth Brigade, rejoined the 25th, which in turn became part of the First Commonwealth Division. The Brigade’s first important battle took place at Chail-li at the end of May.

During the summer and fall of 1951 the UN forces continued their advance to the 38th Parallel, during which time peace talks were held in Kaesong and later Panmunjom. Opposing armies dug in. The enemies faced each other across a no-man’s-land ranging from a few hundred metres in width to several kilometres. During this phase of the war, and until the cease-fire of 27 July 1953, bloody battles raged for strategic high ground. Battlegrounds such as the Sami-chon Valley, Hills 187, 227, 166, 113, 159, 355, and The Hook rank prominently in Korean War Canadian military history.

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THE PEACEKEEPING YEARS

On 27 July 1953 the Armistice Agreement was implemented. A Military Demarcation Line was fixed and the opposing armies withdrew two kilometres from the line to establish a buffer ?the Demilitarized Zone.

The peacekeeping years began ?observation and patrolling the 244 kilometre DMZ that stretched from the Yellow Sea on the west coast of the Korean peninsula to the Sea of Japan on the east. The Canadian sector included some of their former battlegrounds such as Hill 355, a permanent monument to courage, battle and bloodshed. The troops contended with the same natural elements as that of their predecessors ?summer heat, dust, torrential rains and the freezing cold of winter. And in concert, the knowledge that theirs was a dangerous mission, for if the North launched another full-scale invasion, the likelihood of their survival would be slim.

The RCAF made its final transport flight to the Far East in June 1954 and the last RCN ship left Korean waters in September 1955.

The Canadian brigade’s operational role in Korea ended on 8 November 1954. The Second Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada left for home on 6 April 1955 ?the last Canadian infantry battalion to serve in Korea. By February 1956 there were only about 40 Canadians still in Korea, all members of the Medical and Dental Corps. The last to leave was the Canadian Medical Detachment, which sailed from Inchon on 28 June 1957.

The cease-fire still holds, although at times badly battered by innumerable violations of the Armistice Agreement by the North, ranging from fire fights in the DMZ (and tunnels dug under it) to confrontations at sea. After 49 years the DMZ is still patrolled; a duty shared by U.S. and ROK troops.

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IN RETROSPECT

The democratic nations of the world owe a debt of gratitude to those who served in the United Nations Forces in Korea. As President Truman stated following the outbreak of the war, "If South Korea was allowed to fall, communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores." There is no doubt that Soviet Premier Josef Stalin envisaged a world dominated by communism. And although militarily the war ended in a stalemate, it was a victory for the UN inasmuch as it preserved the democratic rights of South Korea and sent a strong message to the Soviet Union: Free nations of the world are prepared to stand and fight for those freedoms.

Korea was aptly called The Forgotten War.

For decades the media ignored it. For the most part, reference to the war was buried in archives, to occasionally arise as a footnote to history and most frequently referred to as the Korean "conflict." This lack of recognition is exemplified in this example: In 1975 the Calgary Herald published a four-part history of Calgary to celebrate the city’s centennial. Calgary’s military connections in the First and Second World Wars were covered extensively. The Korean War was not even mentioned, despite the fact that the first Canadian infantry unit in action in Korea was from Calgary ?the Second Battalion PPCLI.

The formation of Korean War veterans?organizations in a number of countries, including the founding of the Korea Veterans Association of Canada in 1974, have provided the impetus for recognition. The dedication of national monuments such as Washington, D.C.’s Korean War Memorial in 1995 and the Wall of Remembrance in Brampton, Ontario in 1997, have raised public awareness of the war to new heights.

South Korea, which arose from the ashes of war to become one of the leaders of the industrialized world, provides its citizens with the amenities of a modern society. In contrast, their brethren to the north in the dull grey world of founder, Kim Il-Sung and his son successor, Kim Jong-Il, live in poverty, repression and conditions of frequent starvation. The salvation of the Republic of Korea from the latter is coupled with the knowledge that the free world as we know it today could be a great deal smaller if the UN had not intervened.

These facts provide great satisfaction to a Korea veteran.

                                                                                                                             Roland Soper
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