Korean Vets: Death By Cocktail

There was something downright mysterious happening to our Korean War veterans.

They were dying younger or getting serious illnesses at higher rates than the rest of the population.

And during the war itself, of the 516 Canadians who died in Korea, most  were killed in combat. But eerily, 24 are listed as having “died of disease.”

It seemed as if  some kind of Korean War curse was at work. It baffled the vets and their families and almost everyone who studied it. Their lobby group, the Korean Veterans Association, tried to get Veterans Affairs in Ottawa to investigate … no one ever said “No” exactly, but nothing ever seemed to happen.

“No kidding!” you say. “Ottawa bureaucrats did nothing? Oh, how could this be?“

But hang on. This story goes down a different road.

Korea was a dreadful place to fight a war. It was bitterly damp and unbearably cold, or else crushingly hot with drenching downpours; topped off by a string of skin ailments such as ringworm. All of this was exacerbated by fighting in a primitive countryside enhanced by generations of human waste.

The Korean countryside was wild primitive, unsanitary ... and unhealthy

Col. Jim Stone, commanding officer of Canada’s first troops in Korea (2PPCLI),  himself came down with some mysterious ailment (perhaps smallpox) that he caught in an abandoned farm a month before leading his men into battle at Kapyong.

Soldiers have told me of going into action for weeks at a time, with only a blanket for protection. Stone forbad his men to use sleeping bags for fear they’d be trapped and unable to get free in time, if attacked. So they lived and slept in holes in the ground, protected by just that blanket.

One Kapyong veteran told me “soon we became sort of a brown colour. Like dirt.“

After the war, suspicions arose among vets that there was something nasty about the Korean countryside that was linked to the failing health of many veterans. The KVA found that veterans from other countries, such as the US and the UK, were encountering similar ailments.

Then one ingenious Korean vet, Leslie Peate of Ottawa, discovered that Australia had done not one study into all this, but three; involving that country’s Monash University.

 (As a quick aside, Monash U. is named after Sir John Monash, the remarkable Australian commander during World War 1 and one of the rare bright lights among the military brass on our side . Monash was also Jewish and his reaching high command tells us something pleasing about the open, free-wheeling nature of  Australian society.)

Peate described all this in an article,  “A Noxious Cocktail“ for Esprit de Corps magazine in 1997. He found that Aussie investigators (at Monash and elsewhere) discovered there were 40 toxic chemicals troops had been exposed to and sixteen diseases to which the soldiers had no natural immunity, including one nicknamed “The Manchurian Bug”, which had a mortality rate of  41 per cent per among American soldiers. Particularly treacherous, it could lie dormant for years before taking its toll.

Malaria, thought to be something mostly U.S. Marines and GIs got in the South Pacific, took on a new life and became a real problem in Korea. The wide use of Paludrin in Korea, Peate writes, was not as effective a treatment as supposed. And worse … it could lead to such ailments as ulcers and hair loss. And long before Rachael Carson sounded the alarm, DDT to control vermin was widely used to spray bunkers, vehicles and weapons and even sprayed from the air.

Peate quotes an afflicted British veteran as saying all this added up to a “cocktail of contamination.”

Peate writes that in the late 90s, the KVA surveyed its members:

“ … ten per cent of the veterans died within the last two years, 59 per cent suffer from arthritis, 40 per cent from nervous disorders, 39 per cent from heart problems,25 per cent have allergies and 24 per cent each report respiratory ailments, skin afflictions and, surprisingly, malaria. Seventeen per cent report that they suffer from cancer.”

He quotes an Australian investigator: if an army “wanted to choose a country in the early 50s that would expose their troops to the greatest heath risks, Korea would
have headed the list.”

So far; so bad; but this is a good news tale, not one of bureaucratic boneheads.

Canada’s Veterans Affairs made no further studies  … “Aha!” you say … but wait for it. Instead,  in 2007 Canada simply accepted Australian evidence. Ottawa decided that Korean service was a legitimate cause of certain ailments which include eight forms of cancer and respiratory diseases. These, and  certain circulatory ailments, may be eligible for pensions on that basis.

Adjudicators were instructed to give such veterans “the benefit of doubt,” based on Australia’s groundwork.

So, remarkably, the decent thing was done; thanks to common sense in Ottawa, and to untiring persistence by Canadian veterans. And especially, also, to the dogged footwork by those enlightened Australians.

It’s due largely to them that  the bar bill for those “cocktails of contamination” is finally being paid.


About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at: danbjarnason@gmail.com
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