Veteran Stories:
Charles H. Belzile

Army

  • Lieutenant-general (ret.) Charles-Henri Belzile, August 2011.

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"A few of our men were captured. There was always a little scheme to go retrieve them, escort them and go the centre of the demilitarized zone."

Transcript

As of that moment, I was there for a year in various roles (with The Queen’s Own Rifle, in the theatre of operations in Korea, 1954-1955). First as a platoon commander, with my platoon on the line. At that moment, the battalions were completely deployed, and we deployed a company in the same sector to observe the demilitarized zone (established the day after the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953) with telescopes to watch the Chinese, who were also looking at us with telescopes.

From time to time, there were fire fights. A few of our men were captured. There was always a little scheme to go retrieve them, escort them and go the centre of the demilitarized zone. And we did patrols. We went everywhere. The Chinese did the same thing on their side. When we were the company on duty on the line, we actually guarded the front of a battalion. We would never have been able to stop a massive attack, but the others were in the back and we cleaned up. We rebuilt the fields of fire, grenade launchers, those kinds of things. We continued training to maintain our highest level. And naturally, with four companies of infantrymen, there was turnover almost every week. So we would be on the line for a week, and then we would go to the back and then we would do cleaning work, minesweeping in many locations. Some mines were identified and others were not. That’s what gave us injuries; we never knew where they were. We would be sweeping a field and we wouldn’t know if there were any mines there until we carried out a very detailed inspection. They weren’t necessarily left there by Canadians either. That was always a little bit of the game. Eventually, that’s mostly what we did.

About three weeks of training and one week per month on the watch line. We did a lot of mobile patrols. So there could be two or three mobile patrols that we would send close to the centre to listen; to listening posts, that kind of thing. And then, eventually, they were trained to report absolutely everything, whether it was a similar patrol on the Chinese side. At that time, in front of us, it wasn’t the North Koreans, it was the Chinese. So when you saw them somewhere, you constantly reported what they were doing on the network. They might have been doing some minesweeping like us on their side. From time to time, we went to the centre line. And they would go to the centre line, too and we would meet. It was a tense moment and there were several occasions when gun shots were fired. And finally, an officer in charge decided to end it. And then eventually, people would start to separate again. It made us a bit more nervous, but the longer you did it, the less you had a problem with it. You became more carefree.

From time to time, a Canadian would go too far and would be seized (taken prisoner by the Chinese soldiers). Everything went through the United Nations. We would be designated as the unit to go and retrieve them. I remember retrieving a young man from the Black Watch (The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada) who had been captured. During the cease-fire, he was captured, but that doesn’t mean that they would let him go just in time… So, they arrived with a military escort and we arrived with a military escort. We met at the line and we exchanged our men and then we left by doing a U-turn. We went back and so did they. So the poor soldier was pretty nervous at that moment.

When he arrived back at his unit, he would be yelled at because he had done something wrong, because he had gone too far. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and he got caught. You never knew what the other guy was going to do because when you’re on the line or on a totally armed patrol and the guns are loaded… It’s not like the back, like training or launching grenades, or things like that. When you’re not… when you have the chance to go sleep in a tent and your gun is beside you, you disarm it. Otherwise accidents happen or we could shoot each other.

It’s a bit hard because it’s us who lived it. It’s our battalion who stayed alone in the brigade (the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade). The brigade in (19)54 was designated to come back. That’s the reason we didn’t convert our guns. We were designated to come back except for one battalion who was going to take the same control system, but at the front of the Canadian brigade. I use that as one of best examples of leadership that I had ever seen.

People became a bit jaded and of course, winter in Korea where we were was very hard, it was very cold and very hard. And when you’re carrying out a monotonous task, you’re just on watch, or that kind of thing, it affects your mind. Of course, you received correspondence from Canada. You wrote to your wife, if you had one or your girlfriend, if you weren’t married. You received things like that. People started saying, started hearing that the brigade was going back to Canada. But when it did return to Canada in (19)54, it was just the brigade except for one battalion with (…). At the least, the medical support and communications, those kinds of things, had to stay behind.

The point that I made about leadership is that the commander, who was a veteran from the Second (World) War, got us together on a sort of hill, a saddle if you will. The troop was sitting around him, he was in the middle. He explained why it was only us who would be staying; because we were the only battalion who was able to hold the front of the brigade. He was really convincing. At then at the end of his little speech, the men got up and applauded.

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