Veteran Stories:
Robert Orrick


  • HMCS Athabaskan on which Robert Orrick served during the Korean War.
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"The object is to educate Canadians that, A) there was a Korean War; B) Canadians were there and C) the Canadians did rather well. [...] Each of us did our parts and did it very well but nobody knew about it and that’s why I wrote the book [*]."


[Patrolling the Korean waters]

When we arrived in Pearl Harbor [with the Royal Canadian Navy during the Korean War], we had a number of what we called ordinary seamen under training. and these were very young lads, 17 years old. Now, I’m 18 so they were much younger than me, yeah. They were brand new to the navy, they only had just done their new entry training so they’d only been in the navy maybe three or four months.

And they were all mustered by the captain and told that we were going into a war zone and that war zones are dangerous places and that if any of them wanted to leave the ship, they would not be chastised, it was fine. We were all volunteers in the sense that we volunteered for service. And if they chose they didn’t want to go, that was fine, they could just step forward and they would be returned to Canada and that would be fine.

Of our crew, only one guy did do that and I can’t remember his name because he was a seaman trade, I’m a communications trade and quite a bit different there. But anyways, one guy. So we were told where we were going, we knew what we were going up against and the war had been on long enough at that time so we understood what was it was going to be. Being a communicator, I suppose we were privy to a lot of information that most of the others wouldn’t have been because messages do contain information. Anything coming into the ship would be seen by us. And so we the communicators were quite aware.

Once on the way over, we were sailing by ourselves, so there was nobody else with us, we had lectures I suppose about hygiene and what we should do and how we should treat people and we’re going to a foreign land and there’s certain cultures and things that should be recognized. And I suppose we listened to all of that. I don’t know how much we absorbed but we listened to it and it was the right, proper thing to do. But as time went on, you just sort of rolled with the punches as it were. So we weren’t given any specific things. We were told, and again, in communications, you understood these because you got the messages and the signals, we knew where the targets were, everything was, was on a grid system and we knew and we were in contact by voice or with the aircraft that were around where the aircraft from the ships, aircraft carriers or the American Air Force had, had their Sabre jets up there [the North American F-86 Sabre, a jet fighter aircraft], which they were 22 Canadian Air Force pilots flying with them. So we knew, I say communicators, we knew probably more than, I had some friends on the ship that were in other trades that didn’t know as much as I did because they weren’t privy to it, which that was my trade, that was what I was there to do.

The Korean War was a far different war when it comes to the navy than people will think about war in the Second World War, for example. So the biggest threat I suppose that we had was floating mines. There were moored mines that had been put in by the Russians and the North Koreans but the moored mines would break loose and they became floating mines. We didn’t lose any ships, we almost lost one but we didn’t lose any ships. The Americans lost five ships I think it was and the South Koreans lost several ships through mines so it was a constant watch for the mines. They were not easy to see but we were fortunate to have what we call Sperry Radar, which was a navigational radar, so we could usually pick those up on the radar. And then people on the bridge such as the signalmen, such as I was, and the lookouts and the officers up there would have to keep a close eye for those. Those were when you were close in shore and when we were close in shore, we were normally doing bombardment. We had, as I mentioned earlier, we had targets and so we would shell the targets. And if they started shooting back, we had the luxury of turning around and getting out of the way. We weren’t hemmed in by, by mountains or anything like the poor Army guys, we could move out of the way there.

And only one of our Canadian ships was hit by a shore battery, that was on the east coast, that was the [HMCS] Iroquois. So the shore bombardment was always exciting because it was very exhilarating. You’re at action stations all the time and we would also do in-shore, when I mean in-shore, I mean going in among the many islands. There’s something about 5,000 islands on the west coast of Korea and we would maintain surveillance over several of those but two in particular, Chodo and Sochodo were to be maintained because the North Koreans and the Chinese would attempt to capture those islands because they were radar posts for the U.N. and they also had what was called the guerrillas, and they were called Leopolds, that’s where they operated from. And so the, the communists were very keen on getting a hold of those islands and so we maintained security on those islands by sailing around them slowly to make sure that the gooks as we called them weren’t coming ashore or coming across on the narrow waterway.

In the wintertime, when the ice froze, that was more of a threat then because the enemy’s plan was to use rubber boats and come across with the ice as a bridge as it were. Now, the ice was not the kind of ice we have in the Arctic. It was probably, I don’t know, three or four inches thick, maybe less, but it was a danger to us because when we sailed through it, it breaks up the ice and then the ice would be in small pieces and the danger was that those small pieces of ice would get caught in our, what we called intakes, ships have intakes where you have to take in water and it’s below the waterline. We don’t sink. It’s all very well. And so if we got ice jammed against an intake, we’d be in trouble, we wouldn’t be able to move. So it was a constant threat to us.

We lost our anchor, actually. One time, we were anchored and the ice shifted the ship sufficiently so that we broke the anchor cable and we lost an anchor. We got it back later. But the threat was there because you’re under the guns, the guns that they used were big guns, probably bigger guns than we had. And if you’re sitting stuck in the ice, you’re, as the term is, a sitting duck, you just can’t move. So we had to keep on the move and again, that plus trying to keep these gooks from coming to the islands.

[Memory of the Korean War]

The object is to educate Canadians that, A) there was a Korean War; B) Canadians were there and C) the Canadians did rather well. And being in the Navy, I thought we did exceptionally well and we did. That’s been recorded by others who have said, yes, the Canadian Navy was very good. The Army did exceptionally well too, as did the Air Force. Each of us did our parts and did it very well but nobody knew about it and that’s why I wrote the book [*]. It wasn’t, as you’re probably well aware, unless you’re a John Grisham [a popular American author] or something like that, there’s no money in writing but I wanted to get it on record that we had been there, we being Canadians had been there and we had done reasonably well, quite well. And that the reason for the Korean War was just reason. I’ve been back to Korea a couple of times to look at South Korea today. It’s, well, the country stands about tenth, somewhere in the top ten in the world in its ability and we just have to look around. Look at the electronic, look at the cars, look at the buildings. They are some marvelous, marvelous people. And then look at the North [Korea] and I sat at the demilitarized zone and looked into the North and see, well, who would want that? Nobody. The Gulags are there [referring to the North Korean penal system], the persecution of the people is there, the starvation is there yet they have a military of about a million and a quarter I think the latest figure I have. That’s North Korea. Go south and there is South Korea. The difference and that to me is a justification for having gone to Korea.

[Writing their war stories]

One of the things that I found most distressing was that you could sit around and you could chitchat with guys and you’d say, oh, you remember then, what you did, remember that, you had all kinds of stories, it was flowing, it was great. And then I would say, hey, why don’t you write that for me, put it down. And, oh no, I couldn’t do that. Well, you keep at these guys, you harp at them, you harp at them, you harp at them, come on now, I mean, I know what you did, I saw what you did and I, and this was true of the army guys, too, but there was no Army guys in the book [*]. But trying to get them, I don’t know what it was. They could sit with a beer in their hand and talk for hours about their times and yet, when you ask them to put it on paper or to record it, they just clammed up. So chasing these guys was that, you just went after them and after them and after them. And one guy, when the book was first published and several guys that I’d wanted didn’t have anything in there, they didn’t see the sense of it, I suppose, and then after, one of the guys that was mentioned in the book, he got the book, he sent it to his buddy who was also on the same ship with me and he read it and he said, oh, yeah, I can do that. So he came out and that’s why one, one of the stories was in the second publication. So it took me awhile to get these guys down. Some of them were very quick off the mark, some of them were not. But I did, on and off again, about 12 years working on that book.

* Orrick, Robert. Indelible Memories. Canadian Sailors in Korea. 1950-1955, Richmond (B.C.), CYS Enterprises, 2002.

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