Korean War: Canadian veterans remember the conflict

Bill Black still receives letters and cards thanking him and other Canadian veterans for their service in the Korean War.

With the 70th anniversary of the armistice approaching, a good number of such memos from South Koreans have recently reached the Korean Veterans Association. Black is president of the Ottawa chapter.

More than 26,000 Canadian troops were sent to aid South Korea after it was invaded by North Korea in 1950, and another 7,000 were sent for peacekeeping operations after the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.

Black was a member of the peacekeeping force. He served on a naval destroyer on patrol missions in South Korean waters, and he says it was still an honor to serve on that mission.

“We are proud of what we have achieved there, and all Canadian veterans who served in Korea are proud,” said the 89-year-old Canadian veteran.

“We feel like we’re smacking ourselves that we were there to contribute to them, to help them.”

Canada lost 516 soldiers in the Korean War, making it the country’s third deadliest conflict, according to federal statistics.

Black was sent to South Korea in 1954, about six months after the armistice was signed. The war (technically still ongoing) ravaged the country, he recalls.

“It was horrifying,” he says, recalling seeing “starving” residents and so many people whose lives were completely upended by the conflict.

“We saw orphans in the streets…it made me feel very sad.”

Black said he hoped the contribution of the US-led military, including himself, would bring comfort to the war-weary nation. Decades later, after visiting the country twice, he said he was proud of the progress South Korea has made.

The war began on the morning of June 25, 1950, after North Korean forces conducted a major offensive operation to overwhelm South Korea.

Three days after crossing the 38th parallel, which divided the Korean peninsula into two countries after World War II, invading forces captured Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

Afterwards, the South Korean army regrouped and established a defensive line south of the Han River, waiting for aid from the US and others.

In response to this aggression, the United Nations led the United States in establishing a military command that included the armed forces of 15 other countries, including Canada. Five more countries provided military medical assistance. This command was intended to drive the Soviet- and Chinese-backed North Koreans out of the South.

Three years of bloody conflict have reduced South Korean cities to rubble and claimed millions of lives, according to some estimates.

Eun Beom Chae, a retired South Korean colonel now living in Canada, remembers being awakened early Sunday morning by clamoring in the streets asking South Korean military personnel on vacation to return to their units when North Korean troops crossed the border into the south.

“[North Koreans]have been secretly preparing to invade the South for quite some time,” Choi, now 92, said in an interview at his wife’s home in Mississauga, Ontario.

“South Korea was very poorly equipped and unprepared for such an all-out war.”

The war completely changed the course of Choi’s life, he said. Although he was training to be a teacher, he enlisted in the army after the invasion, and he remained in the army after the fighting was over.

Choi said he heard stories of the battle in Gapyeong Valley during the war while in the army. Despite being outnumbered and outnumbered, Canadian forces avoided a major attack by thousands of enemy soldiers.

According to the Canadian government, the battle took place in April 1951 and killed 10 Canadians and wounded 23, but enemy casualties were much higher.

“South Koreans remember how bravely the Canadian military fought against North Korea,” Choi said.

Claude Scharland, a lieutenant when he was dispatched from Canada to South Korea in 1951, says the sacrifices made by the Canadian military were worth it.

South Korea’s post-war reconstruction efforts have transformed it into an economic and military powerhouse in East Asia and the world, he said.

“They are one of the few countries that have received a lot of help to rebuild their country and haven’t misused that money,” said retired colonel Charland.

Charland, who has returned to South Korea three times as part of a South Korean government program to invite foreign veterans to visit, said she volunteered to go to South Korea as a young officer despite her mother’s initial objections.

On his first mission, he says, his platoon was ambushed and five of his fellow soldiers wounded. But the time he spent in the country was invaluable, he says.

“My experience in Korea has made me a wiser person from a young age.”

This report by the Canadian Press Agency was first published on July 24, 2023.

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