Frank Smyth in Korea, handing out clothes and toys donated by his family in Toronto.Frank Smyth
Frank Smyth at the George Derby Centre, Burnaby, British Columbia, November 2011.Historica Canada
Frank Smyth's Military Police helmet he wore during his various United Nations peacekeeping tours (1964-1965, 1967, and 1968).Frank Smyth
Frank Smyth with the mayor of a Korean village, 1954.Frank Smyth
"It’s like about five after twelve and they’re supposed to blow the bridge at twelve, and we’re screaming, “Don’t blow, don’t blow!”"
It* would expire about every 90 days, they’d renegotiate it. And like you’d be sitting there and everybody was on what they called high alert, we were all packed, because they would always end at midnight. Now, why this happened, I don’t know, kind of like the witching hour. But there was a number of times that on one occasion, there was a threat that the Chinese were going to cross the line** again and we were right up on the line. And our defense was to pull back across a bridge and form a defensive line, which were already dug and prepared. It’s called, and it was called a “bug out,”*** and you had to get back. Well, being in military police, our job was to be the last vehicle to make sure no one was broke down or left on the road. So my partner and I were the last vehicle and of course, we’re pretty nervous, we’re just pretty young people and you can hear the Chinese have got all their tanks and everything moving, and at night, the sound carries.
And you’re quite close, you’re only like about a half a kilometre, a kilometre away and you can hear all this stuff moving and whatnot and everybody saying, “It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.” And everybody’s heading back. Well, it’s at night, so you can’t use any headlights and by the time they’ve all gone down the road, we’re talking of a whole battalion, a battle group of 1,200 men, all those vehicles, the dust, you can hardly see, it’s like thick fog. And we’re going crazy trying to get back and my buddy, who’s driving, runs off the road. So now, it’s about ten to twelve, and we’re trying to get this vehicle back going and we come roaring down the hill and it’s like about five after twelve and they’re supposed to blow the bridge at twelve, and we’re screaming, “Don’t blow, don’t blow!” But they decided it wasn’t going to happen but otherwise, we’d have been on the wrong side of the river.
And the monsoon season, we used to have to enforce what they called road discipline. The only vehicles allowed on the road were ammunition trucks going to the front and the only ones allowed coming back were ambulances and that type of vehicle coming back. But on the one day we actually stopped, it’s pouring rain, you’re standing in mud that’s just about halfway up your, because the roads are just cut out of the side of hills and it’s like a red gumbo clay, like it’s slippery, like you’re sliding all over that. And the vehicles are just weaving a couple of miles an hour. Well, this three-quarter tonne vehicle came along and there was this African-American driving it, so we said, “Like what the hey are you doing on the road?” because it took a full colonel or brigadier general signature to authorize a vehicle on the road. So he said, “I’m the Good Humor Man.” And we said, “You’re what?” He said, “This is an ice cream truck and I’m going to the 6th US Marine Division,” but he had to come through our lines to get there and he actually had a one star general’s signature to get the ice cream truck up to the troops.
It was a shame to look at the people, the poverty. One of the first jobs I was assigned in Korea, which is a memory that’s stayed with me, is keeping women and children back at rifle point from garbage dumps. Because they were being killed and crushed underneath the trucks as they tried to dump the food in the garbage and they were rushing in to grab it and they were getting trapped under there. So we actually had to hold back the crowds with our rifles. And you think of the hunger and the deprivation. And when you’re like 18 years old, that’s kind of a lasting memory, yeah.
My mother and my sisters and all my family used to send me parcels regularly of children’s clothing and toys. And I used to go down to the villages and play my little Santa Claus routine. But it was kind of nice to see the kids get their little t-shirts and sweaters and just food. We never threw anything away. If we had like rations, maybe you didn’t like lima bean stew, well, so what? Somebody was going to eat that, so you didn’t throw it away. And so we’d take the cans and we’d keep them. I guess technically we weren’t supposed to but…
We used to capture the infiltrators. They would be sending people across to try and infiltrate our area. But we used to have to also enforce a curfew. At sundown to sunrise, no civilians were allowed out on the roads. Because we didn’t know who they were and you can’t tell a North Korean from a South Korean. And we even had the canine, we had people with dogs to track but dogs couldn’t tell the difference either. And people there didn’t have identity. We had our interpreter with us but many of them, there were so many people displaced in the Korean War, you’ve got to remember there was eight million people fled from the north to the south and where did they go, there weren’t, the social services that we have here. Plus there was all the upheaval of the people in the south, so you had virtually millions of people wandering all over the place and begging for food or robbing or trying to steal to feed their families. And we had a lot of trouble with them.
We had the minefields, we had them marked and it was against the law to cut trees in Korea, because there’s a very shortage of wood. And what they used, they used like a little fire in a little pit underneath the floor of their little shanties to heat them or to cook with. Well, they would actually follow the action going on, the artillery would fire a round and it would blow up a tree, and they’d rush in and gather all the wood up. And then the empty shell, the cartridge casing, they would grab it and they would make ashtrays and stuff out of it. I mean, industrious people. And then so they would go into the, they’d see wood in the minefields and of course, they’d go in and of course, boom and we’d have to look after that.
There was the military police that were the independents. They were the divisional and brigade military police. We were the ones attached to the infantry, so we were eating the same food under the same hardships and everything and you pretty well have to do that because there was only five of us. There’s 1,200 of them, there’s only five of us. So they’ve kind of got you outnumbered. And it’s the same with the airborne regiment.^ There was 1,200 men in that battle group and they were in phenomenal physical condition and there was five of us. And in Canada, you don’t carry a gun. So if you’ve got a problem, you’ve got to look after it. And you’d better learn how to talk your way out of a real bad situation. So it’s because you are sharing their lifestyle if you want, you’re undergoing the same hardships, eating the same food, you’re just as tired and everything as they are, that you’re allowed, you can police them easier.
They know what the rules are. Surprising enough, the basic soldier, he’s taught that. He knows what he can do and he knows what he can’t do. Because you’re right with them and you don’t go after the niggly little chicken things. These guys know when they’re screwing up. We’ve had guys come, we’re lining our tents, sleeping, the guy come and say, “Hey, who’s on duty.” “Why?” “Well, I just punched so and so and I know he’s going to turn me in so I thought I’d save you the trip.” So we had our own little tent, that was our little guardroom and we’d say, “Okay, you’re under arrest,” and put him in there until we got it straightened up and then he went on orders parade. And we used to have to escort all the accused.
And they used to call it “Escort Accused” and the fink, whoever was giving the evidence. And we’d line up outside the company commander’s tent or the colonel’s tent and escort and go in and of course, to show that he is in disgrace, he’s not allowed to wear his headdress or his web belt. And so he’s marched in and, “Escort Accused, halt,” and then they’d read out the charge and, “How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?” And if he pleads not guilty, they call evidence, the witnesses or whatever, or it’s a written report. And then he’s sentenced to whatever 10 days extra work and drill or 30 days in the military hoosegow [jail], which was down in Seoul. And that was pretty tough. And they made it that way so that you’d rather do your soldiering at the front than go back to the…
It’s kind of a strange system. But it builds up quite an esprit de corps. I bump into people from Korea that I still know and are still friends with. The sort of friendships are I guess a common bond, you know.
*The Korean War armistice agreement signed 27 July 1953
**Marking the Demilitarized Zone the buffer between North and South Korea running along the 38th Parallel
***Moving out of an area under threat
^Frank Smyth later served with the Canadian Airborne Regiment