April 10, 2010
The first time John Burstall went to Korea he rode overnight in the windowless cattle car of a train that was attacked several times by Chinese and North Korean forces as it carried Canadian troops to the front lines of a major international war.
But when he returns there this week, he and several dozen other Canadian veterans will be whisked around in stylish high-speed trains and fêted by the South Korean government as part of 60th-anniversary ceremonies commemorating the beginning of the conflict on the still-divided Asian peninsula.
"I'm expecting a much more comfortable trip this time around," the 78-year-old quipped from his home in Berthier sur Mer, a half-hour drive east of Quebec City. "At least no one will be shooting at us."
Forty-two Canadian vets and some of their spouses - 62 people in total - are set to meet tomorrow at the Vancouver airport.
From there, they will fly to South Korea where they will spend the next week with an international contingent of former soldiers from the 16 countries that served in the United Nations coalition during the 1950-53 war and/or the UN peacekeeping mission from 1953-55.
Among the many activities planned are a wreath-laying ceremony in Seoul, a visit to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Pusan (now known as Busan), and a visit to the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone - or DMZ - where the still-in-force ceasefire between North and South Korea was signed on July 27, 1953.
"They'll be busy," said Paul Rochon, a Korean veteran and retired UN observer who organizes these so-called "revisit" trips on behalf of the Korea Veterans Association of Canada. "They won't have a minute to spare."
The South Korean government is paying all group travel costs from Vancouver and back.
The group is by far the biggest of the nine that will head to South Korea this year to help commemorate the beginning of the war, said Rochon, who fought in Korea for eight months and was wounded before the military discovered he was only 17 - he was shipped home and jailed for a month.
Many vets are making the journey because the Canadian government has no similar commemorations planned here.
"(The Department of National Defence) has told us they don't want to recognize the beginning of the war - just the end, which would be 2013," Rochon said from his home in London, Ont.
That poses a problem, he added, because "maybe 10,000" of the 26,000 Canadians who served in Korea are still alive - and most are in their 80s.
"The rate of those passing away is just incredible now," said Rochon. "By 2013, we won't have 1,000 left."
A spokesperson for DND and the Canadian Forces, which supports Veterans Affairs Canada in commemorative efforts for certain military events and victories, responded in an email that it "does not celebrate or commemorate the beginnings of wars. DND will continue to support VAC in commemorative events such as the upcoming 65th anniversary of the end of World War II."
For its part, the VAC website encourages Canadians to this year celebrate the 55th anniversary of the 1955 Korean War Armistice, which ratified the ceasefire signed two years earlier.
No treaty has ever been signed to officially end the war between the two nations, which remain on hostile terms - a situation underscored by the sinking last month of a South Korean warship in disputed waters after an on-board explosion that is still being investigated.
Veterans Affairs Canada did finance a pilgrimage of 40 veterans to Korea in 2003. And former VAC Minister Greg Thompson attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Canadian Korean War Memorial in Naechon in 2008.
However, most Korean War ceremonies in Canada are organized by the KVA'S 50 chapters across the country or are held at a Korean War monument in Brampton, Ont., that was paid for by the local chapter.
For most Korean veterans, the lack of public recognition here at home for their efforts overseas is nothing new. In fact, the conflict is often referred to as the Forgotten War.
"You have to consider the context," said Steve Harris, chief historian of the Directorate of History and Heritage at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa.
"(The Korean War) started just a few years after the end of the Second World War, a war in which we devoted every resource (and) fought to win for our very survival.
"The Korean War was a limited war. The country's whole focus wasn't on it; we didn't mobilize the whole army to fight it. It was more a test of the will and the ability of the UN to act."
The conflict was initially a civil war that started on June 25, 1950, when more than 100,000 Russian-backed communist soldiers from North Korea invaded the south - and were later defeated by an American-led UN coalition army. It escalated into an international war when the Chinese crossed into North Korea and attacked UN forces in October.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, the opposing forces fought several bloody battles, often at close quarters.
When it was over, 6 million Koreans had been killed, as had 500,000 Chinese soldiers and 54,000 American troops, who made up the bulk of the UN force.
Canadian casualties numbered 1,558, including 516 killed. Most of those battlefield deaths occurred at places like the Sami-chon Valley, Hills 187, 227, 166, 113, 159, 355, and The Hook.
"People liked to call it a UN police mission but I can tell you it was a real war," said André Therrien, an 83-year-old veteran who will be leaving his home near Rimouski this morning to make the trip to Korea.
A Montreal-born-and-raised infantry platoon commander with D Company, 2nd Battalion of the Quebec City-based Royal 22nd Regiment - the legendary Van Doos - Therrien was a member of the first group of Canadian soldiers that was sent to Korea.
Fighting was at its fiercest when the 1,000-man force landed in May, 1951.
"It was a hell of a place," recalled Therrien. "There was destruction and refugees everywhere."
Because the UN held complete air supremacy, he said the Chinese hid during the day and attacked at night, usually with full-scale infantry assaults and artillery barrages.
In addition to defending their positions, which were usually slit trenches on the sides of arid, sparsely-vegetated hills, Therrien said, the Canadians carried out many dangerous reconnaissance missions to try and anticipate - and in some cases defuse - planned enemy attacks.
He was the recipient of one of only 33 Military Crosses awarded in Korea. According to his battlefield citation, he led his troops "on some of the most daring raids into enemy territory (coming) under fire repeatedly and in close contact with the enemy on at least three occasions (and demonstrating) a determination and personal courage which inspired his men to outstanding accomplishments."
"I was lucky because I was never wounded," Therrien said. "But I lost a few men."
He added that he plans to pay his respects to those fallen comrades at the UN cemetery this week.
"That's why I'm so pleased to be going," said Therrien, who stayed in the military after Korea and eventually retired as a lieutenant-colonel in the 1980s. For his part, Burstall counts himself lucky to have made it home alive from the Korean War.
Just a day or two after the cattle- car train journey, he was seriously wounded by so-called friendly fire during a pitched nighttime battle on a hillside.
Shot in both the stomach and the chest, he was treated in a MASH hospital before being evacuated to Seoul, then Tokyo.
After two months of convalescence, he returned to Korea and rejoined his platoon on the front lines. However, he was not involved in any more fighting during the last eight months of his deployment.
The scion of a once-powerful Quebec lumber family and the grandson of two famous Canadians and Boer War veterans - Maj.-Gen. Sir Henry Burstall and Maj.-Gen. Sir Eugène Fiset - Burstall said he was underwhelmed by the reception the troops received on their return home to Quebec City.
"When we left, there was some fanfare and we paraded through the city," he recalled. "But when we got back, we were taken to the drill hall (which burned down two years ago) and dispersed. We went home to our families and that was it."
Burstall, who stayed in the military and, like Therrien, retired as a lieutenant colonel in the 1980s, said the lack of official recognition didn't bother him then.
In recent years, however, the many public ceremonies and celebrations to commemorate everything from the Second World War to peacekeeping missions in places like the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan have made him feel that the efforts of the soldiers who fought and died in Korea never got their just due - and that adds to the importance of this week's trip.
"I'm really looking forward to it," said Burstall. "I doubt I'll recognize anything or know many people. But it'll be fun to chat with other the other vets from Canada, the U.S., Korea and other places. It'll be a nostalgic moment for all of us."
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Above article provided courtesy of the Korean War Veteran, email@example.com