Just before Christmas, sixty-three years ago this week, the decrepit troopship, USS Private Joe P. Martinez, pulled into Pusan harbor. Canada had come to the war.
The place was a wreck … filthy, smokey, bomb-cratered .. it had been the UN forces’ only toehold and major supply point in this meat-grinder of a conflict. The harbour was full of garbage, debris, filth and the occasional body.
It was a grim time, although General Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant landing at Inchon three months earlier had driven the invading North Koreans out of the South. Ominously however, his forces were now beginning to encounter troops from China.
Into this nightmare-in-the-making, chugs the sad, leaky Martinez. The only thing keeping the water out was the rust, the men said. On board: the newly-minted 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) — 700 strong. All volunteers, these were Canada’s first troops in the Korean War.
At dockside, a US Army band greeted the Canadians with “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake.” Korean school kids greeted them with flags.
December 18, 1950: by February these Canadians would be in combat; by April, fighting for their lives. The Patricia’s were the first. Other units would replace them as the war raged on. By the time it was over two and a half years later, 516 Canadians would be dead. It had been no piece of cake.
Were those deaths worth it? For the families and friends of those slain (total deaths on all sides was over 1 million) the loss is a heartbreaking tragedy. But was the war itself worth it? … that is a different question.
Six decades later, what do we have? During the War, there were atrocities on both sides and South Korea had often been ruled by the Army or by not-exactly-Thomas-Jeffersons. But today, 60 years later, where would any sane person prefer to live?
Life expectancy: In the North 69 years; in the South 80.
Infant mortality: In the North 26 per th; in the South 4 (not a typo).
Gross Domestic Product per capita: North $1,800; South $33,000
This is Seoul today (a smoking ruin six decades ago):
This is a satellite photo showing North Korea at night:
In South, a functioning vibrant democracy .. with a woman president, incidently.
In the North: a Stalinist thug, Kim Jong-un, who rules by firing squads, assassinations and gulags. While North Korean peasants starved, this standard bearer of the working class flew off to schools in Switzerland, and later obtained degrees in physics at — wait for it — Kim Il-sung University (grandpa) and another as an Army officer at — surprise, surprise — the Kim Il-sung Military University. A general at 30, he has never served 30 seconds in combat.
He’s festooned himself with titles, the most concise is “a great person born of heaven.” The most jaw-breaking: “The Highest Incarnation of Revolutionary Comradely Love.”
Here’s the full list titles for the “Great Sun of Life:”
The result of the Korean War was to contain the maniacal lunatic regime of the North, to the North. Today, it’s a land of famine and terror.
In the South: a land of Hyundai and Samsung and international tourism and half the world’s ship-building, and where average income is more than 15 (!) times higher than in the North. And it has democracy.
To fight in defence of South Korea was a noble cause. We Canadians and the sacrifice of those 500 fallen, helped make that possible. Like the Dutch who to this day hold a special place for Canadians in their national memory … so too do the South Koreans who remember, even if Canadians today do not.
When the little Martinez arrived in Pusan 63 years ago this week, only days before Christmas with our troops on board, far from home and family, we were on the right side of history. Something to think about in this season of family and togetherness.