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War Was Something We "Just Did"

In the Korean War, I felt lucky to be going at someone else's expense. Adventure and curiosity. How would it feel to be shot at? What was an artillery barrage like? Would there be hand-to-hand fighting? We all expected to survive.
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Ever since Canadian soldiers first saw action in Afghanistan in 2002, respect and appreciation for our military has grown across the country.

In the past, such recognition has usually been confined to Nov. 11, Armistice or Remembrance Day. Yet admiration, even affection, for our soldiers has spread to the everyday -- witness the re-naming parts of Highway 401 as the Highway of Heroes, marking the route those killed in Afghanistan take when their bodies are flown into Trenton for transportation to Toronto and to hometowns beyond.

It's something of a cliché to say that reverence for our military is unmatched since the days of World War Two, but I'd argue the feeling the country exudes today, was absent in WWII.

In WWII, it seemed everyone of military age was in uniform. It was the thing to do. No big deal, no fuss when someone "joined up."

I was of that wartime generation who couldn't wait to go to war. Like many teenagers, I feared the war might end before I was old enough to enlist.

Most Canadians today weren't alive when WWII was fought. I was 12 years old when the war started, and a sub-lieutenant in the Fleet Air Arm when it ended. At age 17 I joined the navy (the army took boys at age 18), went overseas, caught the last year of the war, but was never shot at.

Unfulfilled, I later joined the army and served as a platoon commander with the Princess Pats in Korea, as well as a battalion intelligence officer, and then flew with U.S. Mosquitos (6147 Squadron), marking Chinese targets with coloured smoke for U.S. strike aircraft to bomb.

During Korea, the Canadian public -- and media and politicians -- didn't give a hoot about the military. Few soldiers expected otherwise. Soldiers used to joke: "I didn't expect anything when I joined the army and that's exactly what I got -- nothing."

It's often forgotten (if it was ever known) that in WWII young men joined the military because it was inconceivable that they wouldn't. Many of their fathers and uncles had served in WWI. Now it was their turn.

There was a sense of adventure, mixed with patriotism. Germany, again! Most kids had played war games in the between-wars period, and most were curious about the real thing. Everyone knew war was dangerous, but youths felt invulnerable. If anyone was to be killed, it'd be someone else.

In the Korean War, I felt lucky to be going at someone else's expense. Adventure and curiosity. How would it feel to be shot at? What was an artillery barrage like? Would there be hand-to-hand fighting? All the stuff we saw in movies, read in books, were told by veterans. We all expected to survive.

Many who enlisted for Korea had missed out on WWII -- or had served in "the war," and were dissatisfied with civvy life.

A saying at the time was that those who enlisted were "too lazy to work, too timid to steal." No soldier I knew ever expected the country -- citizens back home -- to either understand or care about them. Or show gratitude or appreciation. We were soldiers for our own reasons, not for any expectations that we were serving the country's interests.

Soldiers were wryly amused when the Vancouver Sun published the same story about Korea, on the same page, every day for a week -- and didn't get one complaint. When troopships left for Korea, there was no fanfare; likewise, there was none when troopships returned a year later.

Casualties were noted in small type deep in the paper. Even in the post-war era of peacekeeping, casualties were fill-in items. Not like today, when casualties occurred in Afghanistan, it's a lead news item and the nation takes note.

Canada had over 60,000 killed in WWI, over 40,000 in WWII, over 500 in Korea. Those who served in Korea resented (and still resent) it being called by some "a police action."

Some 40,000 Americans were killed in Korean fighting, and maybe a million South Koreans. It was a terrible war -- and a strange one: When the Second Battalion Princess Pats were the first Canadian unit to fight in Korea, it was a fluid, mobile WWII-type of action. By the time I was there, it was WWI trench warfare, with mostly patrols in the no-man's-land valley, being shelled and periodically attacked by the Chinese. A defensive war, and unsatisfying.

Most WWII and Korean veterans -- whose numbers are fading fast -- never experienced the appreciation today's soldiers get. Most feel that such respect is long overdue, and welcome it for those who came after.

After WWII everyone seemed to be a veteran. Nothing special. Canada was generous with veteran grants and provided free education. I went to university, thanks to veteran grants, and also got $60 a month to live on.

I didn't feel entitled to anything, but was thankful to get something. I suspect my feelings were pretty typical. It was only later that I realized with shame that Canadian Indians who had served with me, many of whom were better soldiers than I, got few veteran benefits on discharge.

But that's another story for another day.

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