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
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
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
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?
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