Nfld. & Labrador

A gift with Seoul: Korean War vet thrilled with gift of masks to recognize service

While South Korea typically hosts dinners and ceremonies to thank veterans who fought in the Korean War, this year it felt masks were more meaningful. As Adam Walsh writes, one of the veterans to receive a package is Ed Matthews of Heart's Content.

South Korea distributes 35,000 masks to veterans across Canada

Ed Matthews stands on his deck in Heart's Content. He went over to fight in the Korean War in 1952 with the Royal Canadian Regiment's 1st Division. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Sitting on his front lawn, Ed Matthews used a 45-year-old Swiss Army Knife to open a package that arrived at his home in Heart's Content: a box of surgical masks from the government of South Korea. 

 "It's very good," said the war veteran as he took out the individual packs and inspected them. 

The 25 masks that Matthews received are just one part of a much larger gesture: 35,000 of them have been distributed across Canada to veterans of the Korean War. 

They're meant to be a small token of appreciation for service in a war that started 70 years ago. The war ended with an armistice in 1953, and both sides locked in a stalemate at the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula. 

Matthews is one more than 26,000 Canadians who went over to fight in the war. 

"As my father had been in the First World War, I figured I'd go," said Matthews. 

Headed to war

He arrived in the port city of Busan in 1952, with the Royal Canadian Regiment's 1st Battalion, and was quickly sent about 40 kilometres away for guard duty at a camp that held about 170,000 North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war. 

Scariest time in my life.- Ed Matthews

Matthews was at the camp when there was a series of riots by the prisoners. 

"Scariest time in my life," he said. 

"You've got wire on one side and wire on the other. So we traded in our rifle for a 12-gauge shotgun but I never had to use it."

He was also injured while fighting — he took some shrapnel from a mortar round that ended up staying with him long after the war was over. 

Matthews takes a look at a package of medical masks sent to him from the South Korean government. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Sitting in his lawn chair, Matthews casually described a 2002 visit to the doctor. 

The diagnosis was arthritis in his arm that was acting up but Matthews didn't believe it. He knew it was something else.

After a quick check-in with an X-ray technician, Matthews was given another explanation. There was steel stuck in his arm. 

Before heading in for his next appointment with his doctor, Matthews decided to pinpoint the shrapnel so there was no confusion. 

"So I came back and got my stud finder before I went [to] the doctor, and I went over and stuck it on, and it went boom. The surgeon took it out and I had no more arthritis," he said. 

Meaning amid the pandemic 

Over the years, the South Korean government has typically thanked veterans with elaborate ceremonies and dinners. 

But right now, with a global pandemic sweeping the globe, masks seem more meaningful.

Consul General Lee Yun-je stands in front of bags of medical masks before they are sent out from the South Korean consulate in Montreal. (Submitted by Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Montreal)

"The senior citizens are very vulnerable during this pandemic,"  said Lee Yun-je, South Korea's consul general in Montreal.

Lee said that by sending something necessary during this difficult time, his country wanted to show a gesture of thanks to Canadian veterans. 

"The Korean War is sometimes called the forgotten war. But we never forget you. We remember you. We continue to remember you and we continue to honour your service and sacrifice to defend our country," he said. 

On a mostly sunny summer day in Heart's Content, that gesture and its message were well received.

"I appreciate it, really. I could have gone out and bought masks, but I appreciate this a lot more," he said. 

Matthews turns 89 Wednesday, which is Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as Canada Day across the country. 

He has a message of his own for people on how to survive turbulent times. 

"Go with the flow," he said with a grin. 

In total, 35,000 face masks were sent out in bags like this to Korean War veterans across Canada. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He works primarily for the St. John's Morning Show, and contributes to television and digital programming.

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