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Korea: The Forgotten War Remembered

By Robert Fischer, LGen (ret’d)

On August 7th, 1950, Prime Minister St. Laurent announced that Canada would support the United Nations’ call for ground troops in Korea and begin recruiting for the Canadian Army Special Force (CASF). This meant that Canada’s Craftsmen would soon see action again. Politicians described the operation as a “police action”— the first of many peacekeeping operations that Canada would eventually participate in. The Government’s announcement led to the immediate formation of the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade (25 CIB). By November, an advance party had landed in Pusan (now Busan), South Korea.

Meanwhile, recruiting for the CASF began a few days after the Government announcement and training commenced at home stations nationwide. Arrangements were made to use Fort Lewis, Washington, as the 25 CIB staging camp for embarkation from Seattle and as a training base. Preparation for the ocean voyage to Korea was doubly demanding for RCEME units. They had to assist with overseas shipping of all unit equipment and pack their own special equipment—all in accordance with unfamiliar US procedures. These procedures required that closed vehicles have their batteries removed and crated; engines be preserved and sealed; tools be boxed; windshields crated; superstructure and tarpaulins removed and packed; and that all openings be taped and sealed. Only then could the vehicles be moved some sixty miles to the loading docks. In early April 1951, the brigade’s equipment was finally loaded into six cargo ships and a week later the soldiers of 25 CIB departed Seattle on three US troopships.

RCEME in Pusan

The Brigade landed in Pusan in early May with 1500 vehicles and 2000 tons of supplies, much of it American. The 8,000 service members included 300 Craftsmen who made up first and second-line RCEME units and a support workshop for third-line repairs. The rugged terrain forced wide dispersion between front-line units and more importantly, wide separation between combat and combat support units.

The 191 Canadian Infantry Workshop landed as part of 25 CIB at Pusan. The unit was allocated a muddy compound on the outskirts of Pusan. Within two weeks, they had sorted a mountain of boxes and crates including 120 tons of spare parts. Four days and 300 miles later they arrived in the brigade area just south of Seoul. By the next day, they were set up and ready for work as the brigade went into action for the first time.

By fall of 1951, the battle lines had settled along the 38th parallel where a million and a half men faced each other from hilltop positions and the river valleys below. The face-off would last nearly two years.

RCEME Bravery, Leadership, and Engineering

Throughout the police action, RCEME Craftsmen distinguished themselves by recovering tanks under fire, developing innovative battlefield techniques for repairing and maintaining equipment, and backloading vehicles over long and exceedingly difficult roads. The following three accounts exemplify RCEME acts of bravery, leadership, and engineering innovation under fire.

In the fall of 1951, two Canadian half-track vehicles were temporarily lost in the flood-swollen Imjin River. Under the command of Capt H. E. McLaughlin, the recovery crews of 193 LAD, worked nearly all day in “no man’s land” to retrieve the vehicles. They made four attempts to haul a cable across the fast-flowing river only to have it snag on the bottom. Finally, using a light wire, they pulled the cable across and attached it to one of the half-tracks. At one point, the powerful current swept right over the top of the vehicle as it was slowly hauled out. The crew then successfully repeated the procedure with the second half-track. Capt McLaughlin was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

On 21 May 1952, a dozer tank of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadian) (LdSH(RC)) became stuck while preparing a road. The situation was precarious since the immobilized dozer was in full enemy view. The armoured recovery vehicle (ARV) commanded by Sergeant T. (Trapper) Allen was called forward. Linking up two cables and preparing the dozer for the recovery was slow and dangerous. As the ARV arrived at the site, enemy artillery began to fire on the vehicles. Several times the vehicles were hit, and the crews ordered to take cover. Sergeant Allen refused to take cover until he had finished directing his ARV and its crew to safety after the recovery. He was awarded the Military Medal.

During the fall of 1952, Lieutenant A.C. Leonard served as the RCEME officer with B Squadron LdSH(RC). During extremely heavy shelling of the Canadians’ positions, he was required to recover many damaged tanks from forward positions, often under enemy fire. In one case, he and his recovery crew continued to extricate a bogged tank by daylight even though the tank was exposed. He also developed modifications to increase the fighting efficiency of the tanks. Lt Leonard was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

It's Still a War

It may have been called a “police action”, but it was still a war; death could be unexpected and unpredictable. On the 21st of January 1952, Craftsmen Douglas Nicholson and Ralph Mintz were passengers in a ¾ ton truck on their way to carry out weapon inspections when the driver lost control on an icy patch of road. The vehicle spun around and rolled down an embankment into a minefield. Cfn Mintz and the driver were not seriously injured but Cfn Nicholson died at the scene. 

Nicholson was from Montague, Prince Edward Island. He enlisted in 1939 and after joining the PEI Highlanders, he eventually became a RCEME Armourer. After leaving the Army as a Sergeant in 1945, he returned home where he was employed as a water well driller in eastern PEI for several years. In 1949 he re-enlisted as a RCEME Cfn and later found himself in Korea as a member of 193 LAD. He was in the process of replacing Cpl Mintz when the accident occurred.

Peace negotiations dragged on until the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on 23 July 1953. On 8 November 1954, Headquarters 25 CIB shut down and, except for one infantry battalion and its supporting troops, Canadian units began returning home. By early 1957, all troops were back in Canada except for the 376 Canadians buried at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan (formerly Pusan), including Craftsman Nicholson.

Ralph Mintz recalls the tragic events of January 21, 1952.

View the RCEME Book of Remembrance entries for Nicholson and the four other RCEME members who died in Korea. 

Lest we forget.

Additional Credits

This story relied heavily on Col Murray Johnston’s book Canada’s Craftsmen at 50”, Chapter 7 – Asia, The Korean War.

Special thanks to Carol Nicholson (no relation to Cfn Nicholson) who assisted with the research for this story.

Ralph Mintz video – courtesy of The Highlander Online (Haliburton)

Historical images - Public Domain. Except where noted, digital sources include Library and Archives Canada; DND; The RCEME Journal; “Canadians in the Korean War” online (Harold A. Skaarup); The Canadian Encyclopedia Memory Project; and Historica Canada.   

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