Dr. Cyr came out; he’d just finished operating on one of these fellows. And you could-, he was just dripping in sweat. You could see, I mean obviously the pressure the guy was under was unbelievable.
Mr. Leonard Wells enlisted in 1948 in the Royal Canadian Navy and served during the Korean War on the HMCS Cayuga patrolling the western part of the Korean coasts at the beginning of the war. The interview also portrays the famous episode of “The Great Impostor” where a so-called “doctor” was caught aboard the Cayuga for being an “impostor”. That episode served as the basis for a film made in the 1960s featuring Tony Curtis.
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[With the Royal Canadian Navy aboard HMCS Cayuga]
We worked with the ROK Navy [Republic of Korea Navy], and they were on small ships, maybe 30 people, or 20, some of them were junks, some of them were powered. And they occupied a lot of the islands behind enemy lines, and they still retain those islands. So our job was to help these people. And we would go in and if we had extra provisions we’d send them ashore because they’d send us a message that they we're running out of provisions or they had no rice left or something. So we’d give them what we could. And the guerrillas were always conducting raids on the mainland. And so they would call us in for gunfire support. And they would go in, maybe 30 guys, and they would raid the mainland and steal whatever they could, green, and anything. And bring it back for themselves. So we were doing a lot of gunfire support doing that. They just called-, they’d usually have a signalman or an operator with them that could speak enough English, that would say okay drop a shell, so and so, or so and so, and we would do that.
They had small walkie-talkies; it was a TBS thing we called it. But they weren’t too-, not like today. They weren’t accurate. You know, half the time they worked, half the time they didn’t work. We also usually had a Korean interpreter that-, usually an officer from that ship, when they were conducting a big operation they would always have one on the ship. So he stood right up there beside the signalmen. So it was relayed on and it worked pretty good.
[Naval gunfire along the enemy coasts]
If somewhere-, I knew the number of shells we expended, but it was well over 10,000 orange shells. And we were shot back at quite a lot of times by small arms fire, small guns that they had. They usually weren’t very accurate. But one time we were at-, there was a peninsula called the Am-gap Peninsula. And we’d been up there lots of times before supplying-, because there was some islands adjacent to that, and we’d send our naval boat, small craft, over with food and maybe some ammunition or whatever we could give them. And we pulled up there this day. Because we’d been warned the day before that the guns had opened fire on another ship, so we were going to destroy those guns. So we pulled in there, dropped the anchor – I don’t know why – and this was on the second trip over, so we had Commander Plomer, was our Captain.
Anyway, we were just sitting there waiting, the ship was-, they were going to take some guerrilla stuff over, and the next thing you know, two shells landed and a great geyser of water came up and everybody got soaked on the quarterdeck. And the next thing you know two more came in beside us. Now we were at anchor, so instead of pulling the anchor up they slipped it. There’s a chain you can knock and-, we let the anchor go. We had to go back and get it a few days later. And we backed out of there. And we’d no sooner moved backwards than right where we were sitting was great shell explosions. If that had hit us probably still been blown up. You know.
Anyway, we got back out of there, and then we called in the air-, the planes from the carriers. And they napalmed the whole hill, they turned on fire. I mean those napalm bombs, when they hit, I mean you just see fire going everywhere. Unbelievable. The heat. But yet, a few days later, it obviously didn’t do any harm, because they were still shooting at people. They had their guns in caves, on rails. So they’d wheel them out, shoot, pull them back in. You couldn’t destroy them.
[Serving with ‘Joseph Cyr’, Ferdinand Demara, also known as ‘The Great Impostor’]
Cyr was... He was an officer [an American impostor who stole the identity of a Canadian Doctor named Joseph Cyr], he was a short, kind of heavy-set guy. Not many officers would come into the mess deck of lower ratings like us, but he would often come down into the communications mess or the seamen’s mess and talk to you. He was a real, nice guy. And like whereas the other officers generally were British, you know, not to associate too much with the lower deck people. But he was not that way. And I had needles from him for-, you’re always getting inoculation for something. And he and his sick bay Tiffy, that was his assistant, […], what was his name. Hodge.
Yeah, anyway, that-, he did... He was sort of what you could call a sloppy guy in a way but a nice guy. And when there was a B-29 [the B-29 Superfortress, an American four-engines heavy bomber] went down on an island not far from where we were patrolling, so we were ordered in-shore to-, and we took-, he was taken ashore by the people on the boat to help the airmen that were hurt. He did that.
But the main guerrilla activity we were on a very big raid one day, and we were giving gunfire support – and I don’t think there was another ship there, except the ROK Navy. And there was a few guys shot up and there were three or four of them brought back to our ship, which is normal. They were badly wounded, and I remember as if it was yesterday. I was sent back out from the bridge for something, and there was three or four stretchers laid out off the Captain’s cabin. And Dr. Cyr came out; he’d just finished operating on one of these fellows. And you could-, he was just dripping in sweat. You could see, I mean obviously the pressure the guy was under was unbelievable. But he was just dripping with sweat, and according to all records he actually saved their lives. He had-, he took a bullet near one guy’s heart out and he did that all from-, I’d think he’d had a little bit of medical knowledge because he worked in the Halifax Hospital in Stadacona before he went over.
And he did pull a Captain’s tooth one night who had a wisdom tooth that was really bothering him something awful. This was before this particular action, but the Captain says I gotta have this tooth out. Cyr went and read a book on dentistry. Next morning, he pulled the Captain’s tooth. And he said that was the best job I ever had done.
So anyway, when Cyr-, when we got the message, it was my-, my friend was a decoder, he was a communications specialist, he decoded the message that Cyr was likely an imposter. The message was taken back to the Captain, and the Captain said I don’t believe it, it’s not possible. So I guess he called Cyr in, and Cyr admitted it. So-, that he was an imposter, that he wasn’t a doctor. So the next time we seen him it was a couple of days later. We were-, I think it was the Ceylon, it was a British cruiser, we pulled alongside the Ceylon, and we sent him over on a stretcher. Because he’d taken drugs, and then he was sent back to Tokyo, I think, and flown back to Canada. And discharged.
[Being sent ashore on a reconnaissance mission]
We were way north of the 38th parallel [separating the Koreas], and we were ordered to drop two men off on an island behind enemy lines to cont ships. So myself as a signalman and Petersen, another naval guy, we were sent off in the morning in the ship to be dropped off on this island. And we were scared to death. They didn’t know for sure if there was anybody on there. We were armed with-, I had a revolver. Which is five shells. I don’t know why five, but it only had five. And he had a Lee-Enfield rifle with one clip of ammunition [the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk.1, a British bolt-action rifle]. That was our total ammunition.
We were taken out, dropped on this island, and we climbed up as high as we could because we had a-, I had a walkie-talkie type thing to communicate. And we were left there all day. Well, we didn’t know-, we didn’t walk around the island, I’ll tell you, we hid as much as we could. And I think we counted half a dozen junks going by, and I don’t know what was relative to that. And the HMCS Cayuga went much further north, did some gunfire support or something, and then picked us up on the way back. That’s probably the most nerve-wracking day we had.
We had my binoculars and we kept an eye between the island and the mainland. Because there was a lot of activity; you didn’t know whether they were... the junks were out there laying mines or-, and they were doing that a lot of the time. So it was sort of a dangerous place to be.