Bill Black still gets letters and cards thanking him and other Canadian veterans for their service in the Korean War.
Quite a few of those notes from South Koreans have arrived lately at the Korea Veterans Association, where Black is president of an Ottawa chapter, as the 70th anniversary of the armistice in that conflict approaches.
More than 26,000 Canadian Armed Forces were deployed to assist South Korea after it was invaded by North Korea in 1950 and 7,000 more followed to help with peacekeeping after the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
Black was part of the peacekeeping contingent. He worked on a navy destroyer assigned to patrol South Korean waters and says it remains an honour to have served.
“We take pride in what we accomplished there, all of our Canadian veterans who served in Korea take pride,” the 89-year-old Canadian veteran says.
“We sort of slap ourselves on the back that we were there to contribute, to aid them.”
Canada lost 516 soldiers in the Korean War, according to figures from the federal government, making it the third deadliest conflict fought by the country.
Black was deployed to South Korea in 1954, about six months after the armistice was signed. The war — which is still technically ongoing — had devastated the country, he recalls.
“It was appalling,” he says, recalling seeing “starving” residents and many whose lives had been completely upended by the conflict.
“We saw the orphans in the streets … I felt very sad.”
Black says he hoped the contribution of U.S.-led troops, including himself, could bring relief to the war-weary country. Decades later, and after making two visits back to the country, he says he’s proud of how far South Korea has come.
The war began after the North Korean army conducted a large-scale offensive operation to gain control of South Korea on the morning of June 25, 1950.
Three days after crossing the 38th parallel — which divided the Korean Peninsula into two countries after the Second World War — the invading army seized control of the South Korean capital of Seoul.
South Korean forces then regrouped and built a defensive line south of the Han River, waiting for the U.S. military and other forces to come to their aid.
In response to the invasion, the United Nations founded a military command, led by the U.S., which included the forces of 15 other countries, including Canada. Five additional countries provided military medical assistance. The command aimed to push the North Koreans, who were backed by the Soviet Union and China, out of the south.
The bloody conflict, which lasted for three years, reduced Korean cities to rubble and took millions of lives, according to some estimates.
Eung Bum Choi, a retired South Korean colonel who now lives in Canada, remembers waking up to loud calls on the streets asking South Korea military personnel, many of whom were on weekend leave, to go back to their units when North Korean forces crossed the border into the south early on a Sunday.
“(North Koreans) secretly prepared for invasion into the south for quite some time,” Choi, now 92, says in an interview at his residence in Mississauga, Ont., where he and his wife live.
“South Korea was very poorly equipped and not prepared for any such all-out war.”
The war entirely altered the course of Choi’s life, he says. He was training to become a teacher, but was enlisted in the army after the invasion — he stayed on in the military even after the fighting ended.
While in the military, Choi says he heard stories of the Kapyong Valley battle during the war when Canadian forces, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, averted a massive attack by thousands of enemy soldiers.
The battle, which took place in April 1951, saw 10 Canadian soldiers killed and 23 wounded, while casualties on the opposing side were far higher, according to the Canadian government.
“Korean people remember how bravely Canadian troops fought against North Korea,” Choi says.
Claude Charland, who was a lieutenant when he was deployed to South Korea from Canada in 1951, says the sacrifices made by the Canadian forces were worth it.
South Korea’s postwar reconstruction efforts transformed the country into an economic and military power in east Asia and around the world, he says.
“They were one of the few countries who have received a lot of support to reconstruct their country and have not misused the funds,” Charland, a retired colonel, says.
Charland, who has returned to Korea three times as part of a South Korean government program inviting foreign veterans to visit, says he volunteered to go to Korea as a young officer despite his mother’s initial opposition.
His platoon was ambushed in his first mission, he says, and five of his fellow soldiers were wounded. But the time served in the country was invaluable, he says.
“My experience in Korea, made me grow from a young man to a much wiser man.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2023.