The body parts were scrambled together so badly on the ground after the Korean War battles 83-year-old Vancouver veteran Bill “Newt” Newton experienced that it was hard to tell friend from foe.
Sometimes old soldiers tend to exaggerate when they talk about a war, but this really looked like a butcher shop,” Newton remembers while sipping a cup of coffee on Commercial Drive. “I often wonder how did I get through it? How did I survive?”
Those are good questions considering Newton, a retired sergeant, served as a front-line medic and paratrooper for the better part of the almost 18 months he spent in Korea — between the time he learned advanced medical training in April 1952 through November 1953. During that time Newton served with both the First and Third Battalions of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), as well as with 37 Field Ambulance. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice.
The Korean War, which began June 25, 1950, and continued through July 27, 1953, was the result of an attempted takeover of South Korea by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea, supported by the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. South Korea was supported by a United Nations force led by the U.S. and including Canada and other Commonwealth countries.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada more than 26,000 Canadians served in Korea and of those 516 lost their lives and 1,558 were wounded. Canada entered the war in February 1951, and during the next two years saw heavy action in conflicts such as Kapyong, Hill 355 and Battle of the Hook, named for a crescent-shaped ridge of tactical importance to the Commonwealth because it dominated the approaches to two vital Imjin River crossings.
The “Hook,” in which the PPCLI assisted the Royal Canadian Regiment, was one of the worst battles Newton experienced and among the most personally dangerous. He was in a bunker when he heard an explosion. He ran outside to find a fellow soldier had suffered a direct mortar hit to his legs.
“I used rubber tubing as tourniquets and then strapped his legs together,” says Newton. “The doctor said that if he had lost just a few more drops of blood he would have died.”
Newton’s bravery earned him a bronze oak leaf to adorn his Korea Medal, signifying a mention in dispatches — official reports written by a superior officer describing a soldier’s courage while facing an enemy. Newton’s second mention in dispatches earned him the Coronation Medal.
The medal is one of 11 adorning Newton’s green blazer during a recent Courier interview. He also sports a large gold service medal around his neck in the shape of a star, another honour for his service in Korea.
In photographs available on The Memory Project website, retired Maj-Gen. Herb Pitts sports almost as many medals.
Speaking to the Courier by phone from his home in Victoria, the 84-year-old says without the help of the Canadians he has no doubt the Korean city of Seoul would have been occupied by the invaders.
“Seoul was a real mess and the landscape was devastated,” remembers Pitts. “That country has made remarkable progress.”
Pitts served in Korea as an infantry platoon commander and mortar platoon officer with the First and Third Battalions of the PPCLI, where he gained significant combat experience while supporting the Royal Canadian Regiment when it was attacked by the Chinese during the 1952 Battle of Kowang-san and at Hill 187 in May 1953.
Pitts was nearly killed during the fight for Hill 355 in late 1952 when he headed out on a reconnaissance with three team leaders along a frequently used path to pick up a wiring team and group of Korean porters. During the return trip Pitts stepped out of line to help a soldier who had fallen. He then instructed the corporal with him to continue.
“He took about three steps and there was an ungodly explosion,” Pitts remembers. “He had stepped on a bouncing mine and it took off his entire head, except for his jaw. The man behind him was hit with a piece of shrapnel and as I started to feel around I realized it had gone through his heart. We lost two good men that day.”
Pitts says even after 60 years the Korean people are grateful to Canada for its role in protecting their country.
“It’s much like the Dutch and their gratitude towards the soldiers who liberated Holland during the Second World War.”
Newton says many brave Canadians served in Korea, but in contrast to the honours given to soldiers from the Second World War it took years before the federal government officially recognized its Korean veterans. That’s a shame, says Newton, who notes on Remembrance Day he’ll be the only Korean veteran attending the annual ceremony at the Cenotaph at Victory Square on West Hastings Street. Newton says there are two others in Vancouver still alive, but he’s heard they’re not well enough to attend.
The fact the Canadian government waited 60 years to declare, “The Year of the Korean War Veteran,” means there are few veterans left to celebrate. Korea was long dubbed the “Forgotten War,” because it fell between the Second World and Vietnam wars and, in Canada at least, there was little acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by returning soldiers and those who were killed. Career soldiers didn’t receive medals until they complained while volunteers weren’t recognized for another 30 years.
“I received a medal from the Commonwealth and the U.N., but none from Canada,” says Newton.
He points to the yellow and blue striped ribbon on his chest. “I got this one 43 years later.”
Remembrance Day events in Vancouver:
- Generation to Generation ceremony and cauldron lighting at 8 a.m. at Jack Poole Plaza outside the Vancouver Convention Centre in Coal Harbour.
- Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph at Victory Square on West Hastings Street starting at 10 a.m. with Vancouver Bach Youth Choir, a parade, Last Post and 21-gun salute.
- Cenotaph at Memorial South Park at 10:30 a.m., near the main entrance on East 41st Avenue at Windsor Street.
- Cenotaph at Grandview Park at 10:45 a.m., at Charles St. and Commercial Drive.
- The Japanese Canadian War Memorial at 10:40 a.m., near the Stanley Park Pavilion.
- Vehicles displaying B.C. veteran license plates will enjoy free parking at city meters, EasyPark parkades and surface lots, as well as in park board operated facilities now through Nov. 11.
Taking photos of Remembrance Day memorials or activities in Vancouver? Share them with other Courier readers through Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #vanremembers and go to vancourier.com in the community section to see the results.