HMCS Haida. Mr. Barber served on this ship during the Korean War.Bill Hembroff
"We quite often encountered bodies floating in the Sea of Japan or in the Han Estuary, that area, which is quite gruesome to see."
A typical day basically was to travel up and down the Han Peninsula or the Sea of Japan, again, looking for this type of stuff. We quite often encountered bodies floating in the Sea of Japan or in the Han Estuary, that area, which is quite gruesome to see. But in essence, our main focus was to be part of the task force, the United States task force [of United Nations ships patrolling off Korea], our captain was one of the senior members of it. And we quite often just sailed back and forth, we did plane guard duties with both the British and the American carriers. We did go ashore on the odd time to do our small arms training as well as to inspect certain areas of islands, to make sure again that there was no buildup of troops, etc.
So the typical day would be to get up, of course, if you weren’t on duty, you’d be getting up roughly about 6:30 in the morning, getting washed and cleaned up and breakfast and then go about your daily duties of what you were called upon to do, basically communication skills and training and also communicate with other ships in the fleet and you know, basically get ready for another patrol somewhere. So, that’s what our, our, mostly our duties took care of. But we always had people fairly closed up to action stations. We never were completely at action stations except on about four or five occasions, I did go and get the ships logs from March in Ottawa and I noticed that we were being chased by aircraft almost every day. We were sent out at sea to be part of the, get into the arms of the United Nations fleet for our own protection. So the MiGs [enemy fighter aircraft] were quite the, I’d say the Russian[-made] planes, which was the Chinese and North Korean planes, were very close by and quite often we’d have to weigh anchor and get the heck out of there and sometimes we’d have to leave it there and have somebody go get the anchor. But, we had to get out of there in order for our own protection. So it wasn’t unusual for us to close up to action stations during the day sometime.
The other thing was to go up and sit under, in the Han Estuary, under the communist guns and, as an observation, to ensure that there were again as I said before, there was no buildup. So that was quite scary because you’re looking up at them, and they’re looking down at you, and you’re just hoping that they know that there’s a ceasefire in effect [with 27 July 1953 armistice] because if not, you’re a sitting duck. And a lot of people, a lot of our fellows, were quite anxious, anxiety, myself included, and a lot of guys got religion at that particular point. They didn’t realize how dangerous it was, but that was part of it. You had to go up there and stick your nose out and hope that, you know, there was no build-up and no aggressive action taken by the North Koreans because of our presence there.
Well, again, they were close by because of […] jet, and where the North Korean capital was, and also there was airstrips just along by the demarcation line at the 38th Parallel. Yet, they quite often flew over or flew near us, we would spot them and immediately raise steam to get out of there. They did buzz us once or twice but they didn’t actually fire anything, they just let us know they thought that we were encroaching upon their land, their part of the peninsula. But still, you couldn’t take a chance on it, you never knew, as we found out with the sinking of the South Korean vessel a few years ago* and of course, with the bombardment of Yeonpyeong,** which was the island we were near back in 1954. So you never took a chance, once that thing happened, we were up and we were gone. Of course, it was also that type of communist flight was counteracted by U.S. and the British pilots who would fly off their carriers to escort them back to where they were supposed to be. But you know, we couldn’t take that chance aboard the Haida, you had to get out of the way.
Well, that’s the nightmare that I have quite often, even when I’m aboard ship I’ll see it. I think for instance there was I think, because of where the fighting was, in that area, it was not surprising that there’d be a body or two floating around. Now, but also, there was fishermen in the area so, what these, these bloated bodies, you’ve got to remember that the seawater, salt water bleaches people’s clothes and quite often, they would either be laying there bloated, about three or four times their normal size in weight. And of course, the stuff would be torn apart. Now, the only way that you could actually retrieve the body was to poke it with something pointy like a sword, or a bayonet of a gun, and then the body would deflate and then they would just take it aboard the cutter. Now, I never had the unenviable task of doing that, that was done by other people. But I can recall seeing those bodies and I can recall them telling me that the only way they could do that, to get them aboard ship. And when we would turn them over to the local authority, be it a, I forget what they would call them, chief of the island or mayor of the island, or whatever, we would turn them over to them because we weren’t quite sure if they were like a local citizen that passed away, or that drowned, or if it was actually a body of an enemy soldier.
And that was not unusual because there was only about a kilometre or two between North and South Korea in the Han River and quite often, the North Koreans would try to swim across to get to South Korea or they would dig tunnels, and try to get through. And so it wasn’t unusual for, to see floating bodies there, from attempted escape into South Korea. So that was the rather gruesome part of it, it never appealed to me. Whenever I saw that kind of stuff, I still have nightmares about it, but it was just terrible.
* Republic of Korea ship Cheonan, sunk on 26 March 2010
** By North Korean forces on 23 November 2010