"This was a civil war and Seoul, being only 40 kilometers south of the 38th parallel, it was all occupied four times; we forget that."
I’ll put it this way: I was very, very fortunate that my family allowed me a lot of freedom academically. I’m good in academics, but you know, of course I had a hell of a lot else to do and at one stage of the game I had taken two years of pre-med and I realised it was much more… it would be much more fun causing them rather than curing them, so I dropped the pre-med, wrote the exams for RMC [The Royal Military College of Canada] and I intended to be an engineer.
Two years of engineering… the first two years, in those days, were common to everybody… everybody took the same thing; chemistry, physics, math, English, French […] the whole… everything… the mixture of both, and then you specialised in your third year.
I rapidly found out that engineering, and especially calculus, was not my forte, so I switched to history and I’ve never regretted a minute of it. So I went from pre-med to engineering to history.
That was just about in the middle of my first year and as a body, all us cadets said, whoopee-ding, down with the books; let’s get going. And the commandant lined us up on the parade square and he said, Gentlemen, you’ll be the last persons to join the army. We’ll scrape everything… get back to your books. And mumble, mumble, mumble, but we did.
And I flew ‘CP’ all the way over till it landed in Tokyo, and this would be just two… well, actually it would be a week before the war ended – I’m vague on the numbers there – but this would be July of 1953, and of course, we had to do the usual song and dance administratively, or Kyoto and a few of the other at the […]
And by the time I got over to Korea, no problem, the war was still on, and an hour and a half later when I landed in Pusan (now Busan, South Korea) the war was over.
Well, remember, I went over as an individual; they were coming out of the lines; the day I arrived they were just coming and pulling… they just filled in their trenches, filled in their… They dug holes where they’d parked their tanks, and were moving back into a compound where we started to put up tents and get settled.
So there was a relief, but also… I didn’t see any elation, shall we say. No whoopee-do waving of the flag or so on; the job was over, okay fine. Now what are we going to do now?
And I walked into the middle of that and as a result, did I hear any… were there any bangs there? Sure I did, but that was largely men firing off their weapons and getting rid of it. But as far as any incoming stuff, no, I never did.
But what was the difference watching the soldiers - and the officers did a lot of it themselves too, as so they should – but the tents went up, the kitchens were dug in, prepared. We were given two Quonset huts [a semicircular prefabricated structure], so we said okay fine, one of the Quonset huts is for the men’s mess, the other one is for the […] stores. We got another one later and that was for the men’s canteen. The officers and senior NCOs were given two large tents.
My CO [Commanding Officer] looked at me – it was Colonel Bill Ellis [the Commanding Officer of The Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) (2nd Armoured Regiment)], a thorough going gentleman – he said, well, when you came over on that ship from Kyoto, do you remember running into any engineers? I says yeah, an American engineer and he and I became good friends. He said, I’ve got a case and a half of Scotch – here’s a truck; go get some plywood.
I hadn’t the faintest idea where this guy was. I took off what we called the MSR – the Main Supply Route – looking around frantically for something that said ‘engineer’. Finally found it, drove in; I said, does anybody know Bill So-and-So – I won’t name his name. Oh, he said, yes no problem, he’s right over there, Sir.
Drove over, I says, hi Lolly. He says, what have you got there? I said I’ve got a case and a half of Scotch. I’ve got an inspecting General coming in here in two days and I haven’t got a drop.
Swop. And what do you want? Plywood. Done. So we went in for a quiet little snort; by the time I came out I had a two and a half ton truck loaded with plywood, enough to set up a bar and fix up our tent so that it looked proper. Did the same thing for the sergeants and had enough left over for a chapel.
I thought I’d gone back to the mid-eighteenth century. People were carrying the most horrendous bundles on their backs […] we found out later was a damn good rig to have. But they were walking… very few horses – using their cattle, but not bullocks… they were straight cattle […] ; living in thatched cottages, because that’s the rest of it.
You see, something that I really didn’t appreciate until I got home and then finished off my degree at Queen’s [Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario], you fight a war for two reasons: either to get something or to keep something, and that’s it. But a civil war is not… you destroy, because that’s… you’re furious, so when you go and you try to obliterate your enemies, rather than… okay, damage them, but not wipe them out completely.
This was a civil war and Seoul, being only 40 kilometers south of the 38th parallel, it was all occupied four times; we forget that. And when I left in 1954, in a huge pound of the area there had been refugees, and they were parked under tarps and little pieces of cardboard. I mean, it was hard scrabbling… very similar to what Haiti was after the blitz [referring to the earthquake in 2010], and what Syria’s going through [referring to the Syrian civil war that started in March 2011].
I went back again [in South Korea] three… five years ago, rather. It was a total, total change in every sense possible.