Remembrance Day: Too little too late for Canada's Korean War veterans?

Romeo Daley’s most vivid memories from Canada’s “Forgotten War” still haunt him, whether they are of the exploding hand grenade that almost tore off his right ear or the faces of Korean children left as orphans by the carnage he saw six decades ago.

Federal government designated 2013 as Year of the Korean War Veteran

Romeo Daley, shown at left during his 17 months serving with the Canadian Forces in the Korean War, remembers intense battles fought against waves of Chinese troops at night. (Submitted by Romeo Daley)

Romeo Daley's most vivid memories from Canada's "Forgotten War" still haunt him, whether they are of the exploding hand grenade that almost tore off his right ear or the faces of Korean children left as orphans by the carnage he saw six decades ago.

Daley, now 81 and living in Fort Erie, Ont., was one of more than 26,000 Canadians who volunteered to serve with UN forces during the Korean War, a brutal, bloody conflict that saw an armistice — but no peace treaty — signed on July 27, 1953.

During the three-year "police action," as the Korean War was sometimes called, 516 Canadians died, making it the third-deadliest conflict in the country's history.

Fought half a world away, and sparked by Communist forces crossing from North Korea into South Korea on June 25, 1950, the Korean fight never had the profile of the longer, larger First or Second World Wars.

And to this day, says Daley, Korea is still the forgotten war.

"I talk in a few schools and you would be amazed that the teachers can't even tell you when the Korean War was. So what does that tell you?"

The federal government turned its attention to the conflict this year, designating 2013 as the Year of the Korean War Veteran and every July 27 as Korean War Veterans Day.

But it is coming at a time when there are many fewer of those who actually served in the conflict still alive. In fact, the BBC reported on Friday that the north Wales branch of the British Korean Veterans Association just held its last meeting as there were not enough living servicemen to keep it going.

Forgotten no more

"We hope, at the conclusion of the Year of the Korean War Veteran, these remarkable men and women will feel forgotten no more," Janice Summerby, a media relations adviser for Veterans Affairs Canada, said in an email.

Honouring Korean War veterans

Numerous ceremonies were held across Canada to mark 2013 as the Year of the Korean War Veteran. In Niagara Falls, Ont., on Saturday, Korean War veterans including Romeo Daley were honoured at a ceremony hosted by the Winter Festival of Lights.

Dino Fazio, the festival's executive director, said the festival wanted to incorporate the recognition as part of this year's festival, which will also feature lanterns from the Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival of South Korea.

"We wanted to create an event that could be utilized for the Year of Korea in Canada and at the same time recognize our veterans from the Korean War."

"While there has been recognition previously, with various events and honours commemorating Korean War Veterans, the government of Canada viewed the 60th anniversary of the armistice as an opportunity to enhance recognition."

Sixty years ago, on the other hand, Daley certainly felt forgotten. When he came home in 1952, the only person to meet him at Union Station in Toronto was his mother.

He eventually received a pension, one that's combined with his pension as a retired customs officer and which he says is "very nice." But getting the military pension sorted took quite a while, particularly because there was no Canadian record of him being wounded.

"Some Korea War veterans are financially busted and they can't get anything," he says. "I got out of the army in 1957. It was 2007 before I got a pension. That's how long it took me to argue my case with them."

While he's grateful for the federal attention he and other Korean War veterans are now receiving, he says it still comes "too little, too late."

"It's too late in my life to get the recognition that we should have got. But at least teach the children about it because if you don't, you know what happens if you don't study your history. It'll come back and bite you."

Fighting came in waves

Before Daley went to Korea, he didn't have much sense of its history.

"I didn't even know where it was."

He didn't know much about communism, either, but he was a young man with dreams any young man might have had then, knowing that somewhere a war was raging.

"All that I knew was that there was a nation trying to destroy another nation, and having my father and uncles and brother go through the Second World War, I wanted to do my part."

He turned 19 — the minimum age to serve — while sailing across the Pacific in June of 1951.

A Korean woman asks to pose for a photo with Korean War veteran Romeo Daley on April 24, 2013 in Gapyeong, Republic of Korea. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Daley did two tours, serving 17 months with the second and first battalions of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. Five months were spent in the trenches.

He quickly rattles off the numbers of the hills that identify the biggest battles Canadians saw while he was there: 355, 227, 156, 189, 186. 

From it all, his most vivid memory is the night "a hand grenade exploded right in front of me and just about tore off my right ear and left eye." That led to treatment at a U.S. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a MASH unit.

"They did a wonderful job with plastic surgery. Even my doctor today was amazed at the plastic surgery methods they had in the '50s, which is good."

Now, Daley readily tells stories to children and others of his time in Korea, and has a clear sense of what he'd like other Canadians to know about the war.

"It was the third largest involvement that Canada was involved in since Canada became Canada and it was one of the bloodiest and one of the dirtiest."

The battles were intense and fought at night against Chinese forces that "came in waves," he says.

Orphans in an orphaned war

For Daley, one of the hardest things to see was the Korean children left as orphans.

"If you could picture, three-, four-, five-, six-year-old children, five or six of them together looking after themselves because they had no parent."

Jim McKinny also served in Korea, and the 81-year-old Saskatoon man has his own vivid memories, with the living conditions standing out as the worst.

"We lived in the ground. It was much like the First World War where it was more trench warfare and you dug a hole and you crawled in it and that's where you lived.

"Living that way for 13 months is a long time."

Jim McKinny wanted to serve in Korea because he knew another soldier who was among 17 Canadians killed in a British Columbia train crash while en route to the Korean War in 1950: 'For some stupid reason, I thought I could replace that person.' (Supplied by Jim McKinny)

McKinny, who served with the first regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, says it always surprises him how little is known now about the Korean War.

"I suppose the trouble was it happened so soon after the end of the Second World War, that it wasn't a popular thing to be newsy about."

Both Daley and McKinny have made trips back to South Korea, an experience they say was humbling and an honour.

"You've heard and you've read about what happened over in Holland, and how the Dutch people, what they think of the Canadians? Well, the South Koreans are very similar," says McKinny.

Daley was there last spring on a trip sponsored by the Patriot and Veterans Association of Korea. The Canadian government reimbursed his airfare, something Daley appreciated.

Everywhere the veterans went, Daley says, "schoolchildren came out and brought us gifts and honoured us. They teach them there that if it wasn't for the United Nations in the '50s, their nation wouldn't be what it is today."

For Daley, the toughest part of the trip was a visit to a UN cemetery, where he went looking for the graves of 14 soldiers who had been "very close" to him. He found 13.

"The one that I didn't find was in another part of the cemetery that we just didn't have time to get to. That was very, very, very emotional."

McKinny went back in 1996, and found it a very humbling experience.

Now, he considers the Korean War is not quite as forgotten now as it once was, particularly because some books have been written about it. He sees the attention the federal government drew to the war this year and considers that it's "about time."

"It's too bad it had to take 60 years."


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