Special Report

Job reconnects Sask. man with father killed in Korean War

Exactly 60 years after the end of the Korean War, a man from Saskatchewan is caring for the boys who can never come home, including his father.

Discovers birth mother, lands job at military cemetery

At the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea, Leo G. Demay shows a visitor where his father is buried. (Courtesy Zoé Beaulieu Prpick)

Exactly 60 years after the end of the Korean War, a man from Saskatchewan is in that country caring for the boys who never came home, including his father. 

Leo G. Demay is originally from The Battlefords, but is now a custodian at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery on the the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. The cemetery near the city of Busan, South Korea, is the final resting place for 2,300 UN troops who fought and died in the Korean War. 

A number of Canadians lie under the manicured lawns and blossoming rose and azalea bushes. They are among the 516 Canadians killed in the war.

Demay makes a point of visiting one headstone every day. The marker is low and made of dark marble and bronze. It carries the name Regimbald

Young love blossoms

André Adélard Regimbald, who was 20 years old when he was killed, was a member of the Royal 22nd Regiment, the famed Van Doos.

The inscription on the wall reads: "We engrave your names in our hearts with love. We inscribe your names in our land with appreciation." (Courtesy Zoé Beaulieu Prpick)

The regiment has always been based in Quebec City and it was there that Demay's birth parents met in the early 1950s.

He'd walk her home after baby sitting and those walks became like dates.- Leo G. Demay

"My mother Hélène was baby-sitting his siblings," Demay said. "André was away with army cadets quite often. But they finally met. She was 13 and he was 17. He'd walk her home after baby sitting and those walks became like dates. They were young people. This is how it starts."

Over the next three years, Hélène Sabourin's relationship deepened with Regimbald and by the time he was called away for war service, unknown to both of them, she was pregnant.

He promised to come back to her.

News from overseas

When Regimbald landed in South Korea in September of 1952, the young army private was sent straight from his troopship to defend a hill north of Seoul — Hill 355. He was killed by shrapnel his first night in battle.

Back home in Canada, Sabourin was grieving this news and, at the same time, knew that she was in big trouble.

These were the ultra-conservative Duplessis years in Quebec and unwed mothers were more than frowned upon. Her family was distraught.

There's a quiet beauty at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea. (Courtesy Zoé Beaulieu Prpick)

"I do know that she wanted to have me," said Demay. "She left home and moved to Montreal and picked up work as a cashier. She spent most her time knitting and sewing baby clothes ... She left me pictures of those clothes that are quite touching."

When Demay was born, Sabourin realized that she didn't have the resources to raise a child alone. She approached nuns at a Montreal convent for help, but they convinced her to put her new child up for adoption instead.

Demay was placed with the prosperous family of a francophone psychiatrist in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, the Demays. 

He had a happy childhood, first in The Battlefords and then in Regina, where his adoptive father accepted a new job.

Reconnecting mother and son

In 2006, long after his adoptive father died and adoptive mother was hospitalized with Alzheimer's disease, Demay received a letter from his birth mother in Hull, Quebec. He agreed to meet her, and once there got the whole story of Sabourin and Regimbald's relationship.

Their relationship blossomed and, in time, he developed an intense desire to learn more about his father.

The United Nations Memorial Cemetery is the final resting place for 2,300 UN troops who fought and died in the Korean War. It's situated in the city of Busan. (Courtesy Zoé Beaulieu Prpick)

That led to a pilgrimage to the UN Cemetery in Busan and then a decision to linger a while in Korea. He befriended a member of the cemetery staff, and when that friend became ill with cancer, Demay agreed to replace him in his job "temporarily."

The friend never recovered and Demay was offered the job on a permanent basis. Later, he was promoted to a more senior job.

Together at last

It seemed that now he and his father — a man he'd never met — would be together for a long time. 

Demay says many thoughts go through his mind whenever he visits Regimbald's grave.

He did what he had to. And God bless him.- Leo G. Demay

"I'm 60 years old. Given that his age was 20 when died, he was just a kid. I can't help but think, 'Oh, my god. What parts of life must he have missed?' He did not know my mother was pregnant, that I was to be born," he said. 

"At the same time, I have to look around at Korea today and say what he and these other soldiers here did was the right thing. What they did was free a nation," Demay said. "He did what he had to. And God bless him."

The name of Leo G. Demay's father, André Adélard Regimbald, is inscribed on the wall of fallen soldiers at the cemetery. (Courtesy Zoé Beaulieu Prpick)

With files from Sean Prpick and Zoé Beaulieu Prpick


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