Family Lines

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Tag: Second World War

The Forgotten War

Korean War photos.

Korean War photos. Photo Credit: By All photographs are works of the United States federal government. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed the Forgotten War, the Canadian participation in the Korean War is overshadowed by our efforts in the First and Second World Wars. I barely knew about the Korean War when I was in secondary school. My only connection to it was the names of the men who fought in that conflict being called out at every Remembrance Day ceremony in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. When I moved to South Korea after graduating university in 1997, this all changed.

I was an English teacher for half a year in South Korea. My first post was in Puyo (Bueyo), a rural town about three hours south of Seoul. When I wanted a taste of the big city, I took a bus to Taejon (Daejong), about an hour northeast of my Korean home. In the middle of the trip, the bus passed a war memorial. Huge bronze soldiers hoisted guns into the air on a gravel patch beside the highway. No one on the bus or in Puyo could ever tell me what the monument was for but it brought the Korean War to the forefront of my mind.

Twenty years ago it wasn’t hard to remember a war had been fought all over the peninsula. Sure, South Korea was a bustling place with lots of trade and tourism and great food. But there were signs that it was still on alert, ready for action in case the North decided to attack. There were armed soldiers at train stations, bus stations and sentry points on beaches.

The war between South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) started on June, 25 1950 when the DPRK invaded South Korea. In February of the next year, Canada, as part of a United Nations (UN) force, entered the war. Around 26,791 Canadian military personnel took part in combat as well as observer roles after an armistice was signed in July, 27 1953. The two Korean countries have been in an uneasy ceasefire ever since.

During my teaching stint, I hopped on a bus and took it to Inchon (now Incheon) to visit a fellow English teacher, Niki. In 1997 Inchon was a growing city. In 1950, it was an important port for Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and within striking distance of North Korea. It was also the scene of the Inchon Landings in September 1950 where the UN forces recaptured Seoul and delivered a tremendous wallop to the North Korean Peoples Army (KPA). It was a strategic and crucial victory for South Korea. (UN forces began hitting the KPA from the sea. The Royal Canadian Navy was a part of this attack.)

When this Canadian got off the bus in Inchon forty years later, I didn’t have to contend with shells going off or bullets whizzing by me. There were ROK military all over the place, an obvious sign of lingering tension, but I left that all behind once I left the station. I met up with my friend and we went for a hike in the hills of Inchon. It was New Year’s Day and sunny and bright. The temperature hovered just around zero and it was perfect for a jaunt outside. We walked up and up through a patch of fir trees tree and then waded through tall golden grass. We could see the ocean, the blue Yellow Sea, as we ascended higher into the hills. Soon we were walking along a ridge strewn with broken barbed wire. Along the way were worn concrete bunkers and broken down sentry posts. Were these remnants from the Korean War? Had we stumbled upon history? I’ll never know.

That’s the problem with being a traveller sometimes. With no one around to tell us what we were looking at or signs to guide us, we had no idea if these ramparts were from the war or just part of everyday life on the south side of Korea. I later asked my Korean friends about the military ruins but they didn’t have any answers. Neither did the internet, then and today.

Modern-day Incheon (the spelling was changed in 2000) is the site of an international airport. My husband and I landed there when we went to Korea this past May. The city has exploded in size, both population and square footage, and is the third most populated place in South Korea. I wonder if the remnants of what I had seen so many years ago still exist. The war certainly does although you wouldn’t know it. Seoul is a cosmopolitan city and no different from any other city in the world even though it’s just over 56 km (35 miles) from its enemy. There are no longer soldiers patrolling the train and bus stations because technology (CCTV) can be everywhere at once. That all changed when I went to the DMZ.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

North and South Korea are separated by the demilitarized zone (the DMZ), that’s only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The DMZ acts as a buffer between South and North Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. My husband Jason and I signed up for a DMZ tour and left on a bus one morning to get a glimpse of the other side.

As we headed out to the demilitarized zone, we began to see the markings of a country on guard. The highway skirting the river leading to the Yellow Sea had barbed wire wrapped around the guardrails and every few metres there were covered platforms with soldiers stationed in them. In some of these little houses, I saw the soldiers hunched over their guns pointed out to the water, ready to fire at any moment.

Guard post.

At the DMZ, the tension is high. We’re told when to take photos and not to make any gestures or faces towards the North Korean side. In one of the buildings on the South Korea side, there’s a plaque honouring the Canadians who fought in the Korean War. The bronze marker is one among 15 other United Nations countries that fought alongside South Korea and Canada. Five hundred and sixteen Canadians died in the Korea War, far less than the First and Second Wars. But they still sacrificed their lives for peace.

Plaque at the DMZ.

Plaque at the DMZ.

It’s only writing this blog piece that I learned that the first Canadian infantry unit to take part in the Korean War, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), was trained in Calgary. Another connection to the Forgotten War, this one in Canada. Lest we forget, the Forgotten War.

Remembering our veterans

HMCS Calgary.

HMCS Calgary: Canadian Flower class corvette that was in service in the Second World War. Credit: Museum of Alberta

I’m wary of writing about my memoir writing participants from the Drop-In Centre because they are like you and me. Except these people have been hit a little harder by life and need a helping hand. I’m writing about them now because my writers last week wrote about Remembrance Day and I wanted to share their outlook on the day.

One woman wrote about how Remembrance Day was the only holiday that didn’t need gifts or a large meal, just remembering. She added how glad she is that the poem In Flanders Fields was written by a Canadian, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. She said the sombre yet powerful words can be shared with our U.S. neighbours, not not claimed by them.

Another writer in my class wrote a story about soldiers marching off to war and never coming home. He wrote about how the sacrifice of those in the First World War, Second World War, Korean War and subsequent peacekeeping missions, have made it possible for him to live in a free Canada today.

I looked around at where we were. Our desk was a bulletin board laid on top of a big blue garbage can. It was a makeshift office in a half kitchen, half storage room that smelled of chocolate and disinfectant. The hum of the fridge smoothed out some of the edges cutting in from the DI seniors’ centre: laughing and coughing and blaring TV ads. Despite the invading commotion, there was a peacefulness in our little writing space. Here, we all shared something in common: remembering our veterans.

Note: My memoir writing workshops are organized through This is My City (TMC). TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status. I have been volunteering with TMC for a few years and facilitate four-week, life writing workshops at the Calgary Drop-In Centre and Alpha House.

Mum’s not just a mum

mum, dad and baby.

My parents and I.

I don’t have a first memory of my mother. She’s always been there: picking me up, carrying me, holding my hand and teaching me about life. For the past few months, I’ve been collecting my mother’s stories. Now I’m learning about her life.

You’d think that I’d already know a lot about my mother. Of course I do. She told my sisters and I many stories about growing up in northwestern Ontario on a farm. Her anecdotes are rich with detail and humour and tie her family stories to us, the next generation. My niece and nephew have even created heritage projects in school using their grandmother’s (my mother’s) memoirs about her dad, a Second World War veteran. But it’s different hearing family stories when you’re young compared to when you’re 40.

 

At the age I am now, I have different questions. They lead to different insights. I see the sadness behind some of the funny stories. I understand the context. I hear the love in her voice when she talks about her parents, remembering them through the lens of maturity.

My mother’s memoirs are not close to being being done. I’ve interviewed her up to when she met my father, a quirkier story than I realized. My mother’s story isn’t done either because she has so much more life to live. She continues to be there for my sisters and I. We’ll always be her babies, she always tells us, and there’s nothing she wouldn’t do for us.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mother and every other mother too.

Have a treasured memory of your mom to share – but don’t have the time to write it down?Mother's Day logo.

Talk to me.

Tell me your tale in half an hour, I’ll turn it into a story she’ll keep forever.

$50 (Payment required via Interac e-transfer.)

For more information, contact LeaStorry@ourfamilylines.ca or 403-700-5435.

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