Snapshots of Canada’s Past: History is more than just words on a screen or from a textbook; this series is a thematic look back at Canadian history through visual imagery.
“Canadian soldiers catch a ride after a lengthy patrol,” (June 1951 by Philip Plastow) [Source]
Did you know that over 26,000 Canadian men and women served in the Korean War and its aftermath? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. The Korean War (1950-1953) is often referred to as “The Forgotten War” not just by Canadians, but by veterans of the conflict at large. The term was originally coined by U.S. News & World Report in 1951 to describe how most people weren’t interested in news regarding Korea.
Today there are many initiatives (like The Memory Project: Korea) dedicated to “remembering” this Forgotten War, but the conflict still doesn’t garner the same sort of attention that others do. This blog is a good example considering that this is my first post on the subject. I plan to explore the Korean War in greater depth in future posts, but first things first: a visual overview.
“A soldier standing at a sign designating the location of the 38th Parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Korea.” [Source: Sidney Fox, Canadian Korean War Vet]
When World War II came to an end so did Japan’s 35 year occupation of Korea. The Soviet Union moved into the North and the United States moved into the South after they agreed to temporarily occupy the peninsula and divide it along the 38th parallel. Negotiations regarding Korean unity fell apart thanks to growing Cold War tensions. As a result, the division between the two sides deepened as protests, uprisings, and massacres began to occur. Two separate elections were held and the North became the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” while the South became the “Republic of Korea.” Unrest and hostilities grew overtime and on June 25, 1950, they boiled over when North Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea, marking the start of the Korean War.
Overview of Canada’s Involvement
So how exactly did we get involved? In response to the outbreak of the war, the UN created a 16-nation coalition (led by the US military) to intervene. Canada was part of this and initially we contributed three destroyers and a Air Force transport squadron. Public pressure led Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent to send Canadian troops to Korea.
The Korean War is often described as one of platoons and not armies. Why? Traditional large land battles were highly difficult given Korea’s rugged terrain of mountains and valleys. Transporting troops, weapons, and vehicles was not exactly easy. The fighting that took place was largely smaller-scale battles centered on strategic hills. This is part of the reason why the war became bogged down in a stalemate. Most of the fighting occurred through patrols and raids of hilltop trenches across No Man’s Land. That being said, Canadians were involved in several important operations and battles including but not limited to: Operation Killer, the Battle of Kapyong; Hills 187, 227, 166, and 355.
Members of 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry pass through on a patrol by Bill Olson, (March 1951). [Source]
Active fighting ceased on July 27, 1953 with the signing of The Korean Armistice Agreement. The Korean Demilitarized Zone to separate the two Koreas was created and prisoners of war were allowed to be returned. However (and this is my favorite fact from the Korean War), no peace treaty was signed and therefore North and South Korea are still technically at war to this day—hence the ongoing skirmishes between the two. In the end, 516 Canadians died and 1,255 were wounded. The names of the fallen were added to the Book of Remembrance in Ottawa.
“Brigadier Jean Allard, Commanding Officer of the Canadian Brigade breaks the news of a truce in the Korean war to Colonel K L Campbell, Commander of the 3rd battalion of the RCRS, 2nd August 1953.” [Fox Photos – Source]
After the armistice many Canadians continued to serve in Korea, however their role switched to supervising the implementation of the armistice aka peacekeeping. Troops patrolled South Korea’s side of the Demilitarized Zone, which stretched to 244km. Their patrol actually includes some of their former battlegrounds like Hill 355. The last Canadian infantry battalion left in April of 1955. During the last two years, only around 40 Canadians remained in Korea; all of which were part of the Medical and Dental Corps. The Canadian Medical Detachment were the last to leave on June 28, 1957.
Soper, Roland, “Canadians in the Korean War,” Korean Veterans Association of Canada Inc. Accessed from: http://www.kvacanada.com/canadians_in_the_korean_war.htm
Herd, Alex. “Korean War,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, March 23, 2007. Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/korean-war/
“Canada Remembers the Korean War” (March 2015) and “10 Quick Facts on… The Korean War” (February 2014), Veterans Affairs Canada, Government of Canada. Accessed from: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/korean-war/koreawar_fact and http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/information-for/educators/quick-facts/korean-war