By David J. Bercuson
Most Canadians probably knew nothing of Korea in the late spring of 1950. The Second World War was five years in the past and the more than a million Canadians who had fought the war were getting married, having children and settling into civilian life. Suddenly on June 25, 1950, war broke out in Korea when the military forces of the Communist north attacked the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and drove the South Korean forces into headlong retreat.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the non-Communist Republic of Korea had both emerged at the end of the Second World War with the collapse of the Japanese Empire. Russian troops occupied North Korea; American troops took control of South Korea, while the 38th parallel was the boundary between the two Koreas. When the Americans and the Russians left, the Communists in the north and the non-communists in the south each set up their own state. A United Nations plan to unite Korea under a single government was never implemented. Instead, the Russians armed the north with tanks, aircraft and military advisors while northern leader Kim Il-sung — with the blessing of both Soviet leader Josef Stalin and newly installed Chinese leader Mao Zedong — prepared to conquer the south with a surprise attack.
The North Korean army quickly seized the capital of South Korea, Seoul, and pushed on towards the southern part of the Korean peninsula. The only part of South Korea to stay in non-communist hands was the southern port city of Pusan and the area around it.
The United Nations decided to fight the North Korean invasion. Led by the United States, the UN Security Council took advantage of the absence of Russian delegates to condemn the invasion and invite UN members to send troops to Korea under the leadership of American General Douglas MacArthur to restore South Korea.
Canadian prime minister Louis St. Laurent was slow to react to the Korean invasion. But some members of his cabinet, especially foreign minister Lester B. Pearson, thought the Communist challenge could not be ignored. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had just been formed to defend Western Europe from Communist aggression. How could the west ignore a Communist effort to take Korea by force?
Under pressure from Pearson and others in the Canadian cabinet and from Washington, London and the UN — not to mention a large number of Canadians — St. Laurent finally decided that Canada would first send three naval vessels to Korea, then an air transport squadron, and finally — in early August — a new Canadian brigade of infantry, some 5,000 soldiers.
The brigade was recruited mainly from veterans of the Second World War and largely armed with British-style weapons, also from the Second World War. It was thought that this would make it easier to create the new brigade from nothing.
The brigade trained at Fort Lewis, Washington, in the United States in the fall and winter of 1950-51. The full brigade, with its own armour and artillery, did not arrive in Korea until the spring of 1951.
Part of the brigade — the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) — from western Canada, departed early, after MacArthur had successfully launched a major counter attack. Canada’s military leaders thought the Patricias might land in Korea after MacArthur had won the war. However, in late November Communist China sent tens of thousands of “volunteers” to join the North Korean forces, and the UN was sent reeling, back down the peninsula. When 2 PPCLI arrived in Korea, the UN was in full retreat and UN military leaders wanted to use the Patricias to help them turn the war around. The Patricias were not yet fully trained and not yet ready for battle. Patricia commander Lieutenant Colonel Jim Stone refused to allow his soldiers to go to the front until he believed they were ready. He got his way and the Patricias did not join battle for another two months. When they did, they took part in a major UN counterattack against the Chinese that pushed the Communist forces back across the 38th parallel.
In April, 1951, the Patricias, together with Australian and American troops, held positions around the village of Kap’yong against another major Chinese attack. Stone’s soldiers were surrounded and greatly outnumbered during the night battle but held their ground and stalled the Chinese. The Patricias were awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation.
The rest of the Canadian brigade arrived shortly after. It joined British, Australian and New Zealand troops to form the 1st Commonwealth Division which fought on the front lines until the war ended with a ceasefire on July 27, 1953. Canada sent almost 27,000 troops to Korea over two and a half years and suffered 1,588 casualties with 516 dead. But South Korea was saved and later bloomed into a prosperous democratic nation.
- Next Instalment: Canada: The Peacekeeping Nation?