There’s stunning beauty on the eastern end of one of the world’s most tense and geopolitically volatile borders. Tall Eastern Sea waves break onto a yellow-sand shore, which quickly gives way to the forested hills that span the 250-kilometre long Demilitarized Zone. It’s an idyllic stretch of land that separates the two Koreas, a lingering symbol of division, loss and pain. On one peak, a silky white Buddha stands tall over the water, peering over to the north, praying for unification.
Over on the western end of the country, atop similar mountains south of the demarcation line, is where the more than 26,000 Canadian soldiers did the majority of their service during the 1950-53 Korean War. Fighting under the lead of the United States as part of a 16-member-nation United Nations force sent in to defend the South after the North invaded on June 25, 1950, they played an integral role in rebuffing a communist advance in April 1951 during the Battle of Kapyong.
They also held strong atop the strategic Hill 355, known as Kowang San to Koreans, the Canadian “Van Doos” fighting off a Chinese advance in November 1951 and the Royal Canadian Regiment doing the same in October 1952. The Royal Canadian Air Force played a crucial part in the mission, too, keeping the UN forces supplied throughout the conflict through a milk run that started in Montreal, made multiple stops across the country, and then flew to Tokyo via McChord Air Force Base in Washington state, and a tiny Aleutian Island called Shemya where the Canadair North Stars stopped to refuel.
By the time the war ended with an armistice signed July 27, 1953, in Panmunjom, 516 Canadian soldiers had died in the fighting.
The role the army played in protecting South Korea is a point of pride for Romeo Daley (pictured above), 85, especially now with the Olympics running in Pyeongchang.
“You have to appreciate that the Canadian army in Korea was second to none,” says Daley, who served as a private and later a corporal with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from June 1951 to October 1952. “I’m glued to the Olympics. I went back to Korea in 1980 and back to the areas where we were, and to see how much they’ve improved and grown, Korea was a completely primitive country when we went there. Their industry, their exports now…. I was part of the history being made and it made me feel very proud that I had just a little wee bit to do with it.”
The same goes for Hubert (Hub) Lalonde, a corporal who served 14 months with the Princess Patricia’s from 1951-52.
“I feel good about what we did,” said Lalonde, who turns 87 on Feb. 25. “I’m watching the Olympics, the one they held in Seoul [Summer Games in 1988] was just great. When you mention Canada and the Korean War, you’re welcomed. They treat us like gold over there. They respect us. Living here, the Korean people in Niagara Falls treat us like gold, too.”
Mort Lightstone was a Flying Officer and later a captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force, working the Korean Airlift, as the supply chain was called, as a navigator.
“I’m watching, for many reasons,” says the 85-year-old. “It’s still a tinderbox — it could flare up anytime. [But] South Korea has progressed and is so prosperous and doing such wonderful things.”
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The Winter Olympics have brought a welcomed respite from the bellicose exchanges in recent months between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the tone of which has led to concern another could break out on the peninsula. But the countries marched in the opening ceremonies under one flag and in recent days Kim praised the climate of reconciliation the Games have fostered, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Pyeongchang had helped lower tensions in the region and he hoped that could lead to renewed talks between the North and the Americans.
For Lalonde, all the machinations over the past year remind him of the politics that led him to enlist to serve in the Korean War.
“That was the thing to do back then. Everybody of age was volunteering,” he says, recalling how he and three other Hamilton boys went to sign up. Three of them were accepted, and one of them, Doug Spence, didn’t come back. “We were in some pretty heavy battles, hand-to-hand combat even at times. They’d try to over-run you.”
Korea, which had been under Japanese control during the Second World War, was split afterwards, the communist Soviet Union occupying the North and the United States setting up in the South. Eventually they left, leaving two different regimes on opposite sides of the 38th parallel, but the Soviets, as well as China, didn’t like that the Americans had a foothold so close to their borders.
North Korea, under Kim Il Sung, the grandfather to Jong Un, sought to reunify Korea when he launched the war, and his forces quickly overran the South, capturing Seoul and a vast majority of the country. A U.S.-led counter-offensive recaptured the country and quickly drove North Korean forces back across the border and well toward China, where the Chinese intervened and helped push the UN forces back.
Eventually a war of attrition settled along what is now the DMZ, with the Canadians among the UN forces to settle atop mountains in dug-out trenches and fight off the attacks of North Korean and Chinese soldiers.
“Basically, they were in trenches attacking and we were in trenches defending,” says Daley. “You can’t imagine being in a trench and seeing hundreds and hundreds of Chinese coming from the other side.”
The fighting tended to happen at night because the communist forces sought the cover of darkness to keep American planes from picking them off.
“In the day-time we could practically lay around and do anything we wanted,” recalls Lalonde. “But at night we had to go in the trench on the fun side of the hill, facing the enemy, and wait to see what they were going to do. They used to pull some awful capers. They used to play music to us. They had loud speakers set up all over the north side. They would tell us to dig our trenches deeper — you’re digging your graves.”
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When Daley wasn’t in the trenches or on patrol, he and his fellow soldiers would engage in humanitarian work, applying Red Cross services, providing food, clothing, sometimes even money to people in areas devastated by the fighting.
“Can you picture a five- or six-year-old boy or girl looking after a two- or three-year-old child because they had no parents? No food. No clothing,” says Daley, who was born in Sudbury and raised in South Porcupine, Ont. “The enemy was very cruel and very hard on women and girls. It was something that a 19-year-old farm boy like myself had never seen or heard of before.”
Still vivid in his memories all these years later is a boy he encountered in September 1951. Locals weren’t allowed within the perimeter of where the Canadian forces were set up, but they would distribute food from there and the boy would tentatively collect cans and then scurry off.
“One day, my buddy says ‘I wonder where he’s going with that?’” says Daley. “A lot of them sold food on the black market to get money. So we went and found him sitting on a pile of rocks with a rock trying to break the can open. We gave him one of the can openers we had and he just broke up, happy as hell, opened three cans at one time and with his fingers was eating the food.”
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Such moments were fleeting.
Lalonde, who was born in Cornwall, Ont., and raised in Hamilton, served in a trench big enough for two men that wasn’t strong enough to withstand an artillery shell but able to protect its occupants from shrapnel. Over time, he learned to keep the dark fears of death at bay.
“You’d think about that, and then it got to a stage where you can’t worry about it,” he says. “If you’re there, you’re there, you prayed to the Lord and if it’s your time, it’s your time.”
At the end of his tour, he served in a trench with a lance corporal with the surname Johnson from Newfoundland. He can’t remember the first name. Their standing order was to not shoot unless certain there were enemy soldiers attacking to avoid giving away the position of the trench.
Instead, “we threw a lot of grenades,” he says, with a laugh. “Thousands of them.”
Lalonde remembers Johnson as an avid baseball fan who had been a six-foot-four pitcher back in his day. His arm was still strong so “we used to take the grenades and put two together and I would get him to throw them,” says Lalonde. “Nobody knew how we could put two grenades together as one.”
The night before their duty was to end, they were on break on the quiet side of the mountain when the artillery started. Lalonde asked Johnson if they “should go back in the trench for one more shot?” Johnson agreed, they soon had pinned down an enemy solider and then a shell struck nearby, burying the Canadians.
“We dug that out and we were fine,” recalls Lalonde. “I said to him, ‘Well, we’re safe now. Two never hit in the same spot.’ Then a second one hit and we were flown out in the morning. I never saw my lance corporal again.”
Lalonde took shrapnel on the left side of his body and for years didn’t know if Johnson had survived or not. Eventually, while at a Veterans Affairs function, he asked someone in charge to look up Johnson, who had indeed survived and had settled in Halifax.
By the time Lalonde tracked down an address and wrote a letter, Johnson had died.
“I was glad to know he had survived, too,” says Lalonde.
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Like Lalonde, Daley was wounded in action, a grenade going off in front of him and nearly taking his right ear off, cutting his eye and sending him into a MASH (mobile army surgical hospital) unit.
“There are some things that I still can’t talk about,” he says.
As part of the Korean Airlift, the return leg often involved the gruesome task of bringing back the injured and killed.
Lightstone, the navigator, remembers the first time he was preparing to fly back from Tokyo, where injured soldiers were taken for treatment at an American military base. A massive ambulance bus pulled up and began loading the wounded while he was in the cockpit mapping out a route for the pilots.
Once the plane was up in altitude, “I wanted to do what a good officer should do and go and cheer the boys up,” he recalls.
“I remember putting on my new officer’s cap, walking from the cockpit into the cabin and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw,” says Lightstone, a Toronto native. “The nurses were scurrying around, taking care of their patients, their uniforms were splattered with blood. I saw one solider with a metal pipe holding his face together. A couple of guys had lost limbs. I don’t think I got two feet into the cabin. I couldn’t take it. I turned around, went back into the cockpit, climbed back into my seat and I don’t think I left it for eight hours. That’s when the movie ended.”
Navigation came with its own challenges.
Much of his work relied on the radar system known as LORAN, which operated on pulses. The Soviet Union would often send out pulses to confuse the Canadian radars, so navigators like Lightstone would have to be particularly exact in their planning to avoid flying in the wrong direction.
The landings for the refuelling stop on Shemya were tricky, too, as the runway made up about a third of the island. In all he logged 1,000 hours of airtime during the Korean War.
“I’ve had a lot of exposure to many different kinds of discussion on what happened, what caused it, what the fallout is from it and so on,” says Lightstone. “The real reason for the war was the Soviet Union wanted to test the will of the Western world to actually fight to stop the spread of communism.”
The Canadians helped accomplish that.
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This July will mark 65 years of stalemate between the two Koreas, after a war in which the South was nearly conquered, then the North was nearly conquered, followed by two years of what was essentially deadlock along what today is the DMZ.
“It wasn’t meant to be a victory,” Lalonde says. “It was meant to get South Korea back to where it belongs, at the 38th parallel.”
A source of frustration for some veterans is that for years the Canadian effort in the war was regarded as a “police action” since it came under the auspices of the United Nations, and the designation impacted access to government benefits. During the 60th anniversary of the armistice, the Canadian government designated 2013 as Year of the Korean War and made every July 27 Korean War Veterans Day.
“It’s the forgotten war,” says Daley, who now shares his experiences with schools and army cadets.
A few years ago, he participated in a panel discussion at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs when someone from the crowd asked him if he was proud of his service and if he would do it again.
“I said,” Daley relays, “‘Some things I did I’m not very proud of but I had to do them. I was there to do a job. Some things I did I am very proud of. Would I do it again? Sir, I’d do it again in a heartbeat so guys like you can sit there and ask that question.”