BUSAN, South Korea – Aime Michaud lived a full, content life in Quebec for six decades after leaving the killing fields of Korea.
Yet, he felt compelled to return to this divided land to apologize.
The former warrant officer with the 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment made a battlefield pact with a friend in the spring of 1952.
If either one of them was killed, the other would explain what happened to the dead’s man family.
White carnation in hand, there was a quiet urgency to the way Michaud searched the graves in the manicured lawns of the United Nations war cemetery in this bustling port.
“I’m sorry,” Michaud said Friday, when he finally found the grave of Lance-Cpl. J.A. Prieur. “I failed in my promise.”
Prieur was killed in a mortar explosion at Hill 226 on Aug. 27, 1952. He is one of 378 Canadians buried in the Commonwealth section of the graveyard.
When the war ended, Michaud went home to Quebec, but remained in the army as a paratrooper and physical fitness instructor.
A tough man, who doesn’t look his 83 years and still bounds up stairs unassisted, he owned a small business later in life.
He says he never suffered from post-traumatic stress, but concedes he cannot to this day watch a war movie.
And the pledge made so long ago amid the mud and filth of war ate away at him.
“I tried to contact his family, but at that time we had nothing electronic. I can’t find (them). I tried to have some help, but I failed,” he said Friday as ex-soldiers from Commonwealth nations, many of them bowed with age, paid a final tribute to their dead comrades.
As a 22-year-old, Michaud said the carnage of Korea taught him to appreciate life and to respect the people around him.
He devoted himself to working hard for his wife and daughters and says he always tried to do right by them.
“Work hard, work hard, is what I tell the kids,” he said. “You got pain, but in the end you are proud.”
It could be an adage that applies to Korea, a conflict which veterans and historians alike regard as a forgotten war.
But like any war, there are untidy, often painful loose ends.
“It has been in my mind for 60 years,” Michaud said of Prieur’s death. “He is still in my heart and my promise isn’t finished.”
His quiet, graveside act of penance was one of several by the group of aging veterans, who have toured their old battlefields over the last week.
A former member of the Princess Patricia’s Light Canadian Infantry, Michael Ricketts, came to Korea to see what had become of the men in his infantry section.
In the decades since the 1953 armistice, the Kentville, N.S. resident, says he’s thought about the men he served with in B Company, but never kept in touch or tracked them down.
As a lance corporal, he carried their names in his service book. Ricketts had been, until Thursday, unable to locate any of the seven men under his watch.
The fate of one of them became clear as Ricketts scanned the wall of remembrance in the Korean war museum.
The visit to Busan — formerly known as Pusan — and a commemoration service on Friday capped a week-long trip for the veterans, many of whom are in the early 80s and are likely never to return to the country where they fought.
John Stuber, who served with the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, recalled being covered in blood and carrying a wounded friend down a mountain at Kapyong in June 1951.
That friend, Oliver Ouellet, died shortly after they reached the bottom.
An emotional Stuber laid a bouquet of flowers at Ouellet’s grave on Friday.