Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The coldest front in the Cold War

Robert Peacock wears his beret in the yard of his North Saanich home. Globe and Mail photograph by Geoff Howe.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 30, 2010

VICTORIA

Robert Peacock returned from war in 1953 to be greeted by a neighbour, an educated businessman.

“Where have you been?” the fellow asked.

“Over in Korea,” Mr. Peacock replied.

“You haven’t become a missionary, have you?”

“No, there’s the Korean War. I was in that.”

“Oh,” said the man. “Oh. I heard something about that.”

They call it the Forgotten War when they call it a war at all. Harry Truman referred to it as a “police action,” a designation that led veterans to describe it as “an awful tough beat in an awful tough neighbourhood.”

Sixty years ago this month, troops from North Korea invaded the south. Seoul was overrun within hours. The United Nations responded with a force under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur of the United States. In the coming weeks, Canada dispatched three destroyers and an air-force squadron. Ground troops arrived later.

When war broke out, Mr. Peacock immediately tried to sign up with the special service force. The officer cadet at Royal Roads Military College, outside Victoria, was told to wait until graduation, assured the war would last for some time in spite of newspaper reports suggesting the shooting would be over before Christmas.

He graduated in June, 1952, aged 23, got his commission, and by early August was in Korea, a lieutenant in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry ready for duty as a platoon commander.

His strongest memories are of the people — both Canadian and Korean.

“The Koreans are tough. Independent. Strong willed. Nationalistic. They gave no quarter. they asked for none. They’re tough. Always a joy to be with.”

He was impressed, too, by the good humour and the work ethic of Canadian soldiers.

Though he later trained as a parachutist in the Canadian Arctic, he was never as chilled as during the winters on that rocky peninsula. It was the coldest front in the Cold War.

“When the wind came off the Siberian Plain and whistled down, my god, I don’t think there’s any clothing in the world that can stop that,” he said.

“Korea was the coldest place I’ve ever been. Also the hottest.”

War, he says, is 90 per cent waiting and 10 per cent hell.

He had one close call.

He was riding in the right front passenger seat of a jeep along a dirt road on which the order had been given not to drive more than 5 miles per hour so as not to raise a dust cloud and give away position.

His driver obeyed the order. There was no dust plume as they returned from a reconnaissance from a forward observation post. An enemy artillery gunner timed a slow-moving target in the distance.

A 120-mm shell exploded right in front of the vehicle.

“The jeep took the shrapnel, pretty well all of it. Driver was pretty badly shaken. Sergeant took some.”

The platoon commander took some windshield glass in the left arm. He and the sergeant asked not to be put on the wounded list lest family back home think the wounds more serious.

For years afterwards, the sergeant kidded the lieutenant about trying to get him killed. Donald Ardelian, who spent 33 years with the Princess Pats before becoming a business professor in Kelowna, died last week on his 78th birthday.

As the war became a deadly stalemate, interest back home waned. Editors at the Vancouver Sun wondered whether anyone read the dispatches from the front. One day in 1952, assistant managing editor Hymie Koshevoy ordered placed on the front page a wire story under the same headline: REDS BLASTED FROM VITAL KOREAN KNOB. The same story with the same headline ran the next day and the day after that.
No readers complained and the wire service did not notice the repetition. On the Sun’s 50-man staff, reported Time Magazine, which ran a brief article on the stunt, only a single reporter quizzed management about the repeating item.

Though men died to protect it, Korea had fallen from the public’s agenda.

Mr. Peacock retired as a colonel in 1992 after 33 years of service. He had four tours of duty in West Germany, became a vice-commandant at Royal Roads, spent a year peacekeeping in Indochina with the International Control Commission. He spent time in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, in Saigon before its fall, and, most remarkably, in Hanoi at the apex of the Vietnam War. He recalls celebrating the Queen’s birthday with other foreign observers when an American air raid sent the Eastern Bloc attendees scurrying for a bomb shelter while the British, French and Canadians continued to drink toasts to her Majesty’s health.

After retiring from the Ontario civil service and returning to Victoria, Mr. Peacock wrote “Kim-chi, Asahi and Rum,” a memoir of his time in Korea published 16 years ago. It offers a rare, on-the-ground account of the conflict.

Every year, around Remembrance Day, he speaks to local students about his experiences, the high schoolers only a few years younger than when he first saw action.

He’s more gentle in describing his war to elementary students. “Other people aren’t as lucky as we are,” he tells them. “We have to go help them sometime.”

He brings along his mess tin and his military cutlery. Just like camping, the kids say.

Sort of, he replies.

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