Was it a time to laugh or a time to weep? Was it an occasion of joy or of sorrow. It was all those things.
It was “The Last Hurrah.”
This week saw the last annual gathering of Canada’s veterans from the Korean war. It was simply time.
They’re mostly in their eighties now. Six decades ago, in the prime of life and fired with a thirst for adventure, they went off to war in a wild place they’d never heard of.
About 27,000 of them fought in the third-bloodiest conflict in Canada‘s history. They battled atop the freezing hills and down in the sweltering valleys for two and a half years. Their forgotten war is as far removed from us as the Riel Rebellion was from the start of the Second World War. Today, the Korean War almost seems like archaeology.
The passing years have cruelly thinned their ranks. There are now only around 11,000 left. Many are in failing health. Local chapters of the Koreans Veterans Association are simply closing down one-by-one as membership shrivels. It was time to say: “Enough.”
This past week in Winnipeg about 500 Korean vets gathered for their one last fling … their final reunion. There were mixed feelings says Mike Czuboka, one of the organizers.
“We’re in the last part of our lives. If you’re in your 80s you realize you’ve maybe got about another ten years ahead of you. You know things are coming to a close.”
For most, this would be their last chance to meet with old comrades from their youth, that they’d fought beside in the greatest adventure of their lives. Hence, The Last Hurrah. Time for a good laugh and a quiet cry.
Curiously, the final curtain falls this year, on the 60th anniversary (last April) of Canada’s first and most famous Korean battle, at Kapyong.
Kapyong veterans were prominent at this final gathering of these aging warriors. The Korean Veterans Association’s current (and last) president is John Bishop.
He was a corporal at Kapyong. Bishop, years later, as a Lieutenant Colonel, became Canada’s military attaché to South Korea, and often visited the battlefield, bragging he could still fit into his old foxhole.
Mike Czuboka, one of the Last Hurrah organizers, hitchhiked a freight train to Winnipeg to enlist and lied about his age to get into the Korean Special Force.
He was at Kapyong, in a small mortar crew that helped save his battalion headquarters from being overrun by attacking Chinese.
Hub Gray, then a young lieutenant, commanded those mortar men and also a heavy machinegun crew at Kapyong.
He led the small force that blocked the attack on the battalion HQ. In later years he wrote a first-hand account of the battle, from the inside looking out..
And Smiley Douglas was also in Winnipeg.
He lost an arm at Kapyong (and was later decorated) when he tried to save his platoon when a grenade tumbled into their midst.
Some local Korean Vet groups in larger centres will still function on their own. And the KVA still operates a great website (http://kvacanada.com) crammed with history, anecdotes and statistics. It’s a great resource. And the Memory Project (http://thememoryproject.com) is now interviewing Korean vets and preserving their stories for a generation that has never heard of our war in Korea.
But, as a national group, it’s over. A page has been quietly turned.
Adding to the bittersweet taste of the moment in Winnipeg this past week, were sad memories of those who could not attend: the 500 young Canadians who died in the Korean hills six decades ago and are buried at the UN cemetery in Pusan.
For the aged veterans who are left, their absent friends will remain forever young.