WATSON, Brent Bryon. Far Eastern Tour: The Canadian Infantry in Korea 1950-1953. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. 256p. Resenha de: LeVOS, Ernest. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.
There are certain elements in this book that one finds hard to fault where the author is concerned. It is well researched and well documented with thirty-seven pages of notes; a few notes have additional explanations. Secondary and primary sources are well integrated and the author effectively analyses and explains the diverse experiences of the 25th Canadian Regiment (the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry and the Royal 22e Regiment) in the Korean War that was a sideshow for Canada (p. 96). A significant question that arises from this work is whether the Canadian government and military have learned any lessons from the Korean War. The contributions of the 25th Regiment have been overlooked and their participation in Korea was more than police action or a peacekeeping mission: it was a war.
What did members of this distinguished regiment face? The soldiers were inadequately trained for patrol operations, and were badly in need of Canadian kit and clothing(p. 38). The problems the soldiers faced with the 9mm Sten gun conjure up bad memories of Col. Sam Hughes and the Ross Rifle fiasco during World War I. The soldiers had an inadequate knowledge of all things Korean, from foods, smells, the lack of respect for life, and even language. Consequently, it was natural, like Jacques Cartier of old, to describe the newfound country as God-forsaken. Furthermore, as journalist Pierre Berton has pointed out, soldiers and military administrators were culturally insensitive.
The author also focuses on the nature of group dynamics (p. 68). The 25th Regiment worked alongside the Korean Service Corp (KSC), an esteemed battlefield ally, and the Korean Augmentation Troops, Commonwealth (KATCOM) who were viewed as interlopers at best, and dangerous battlefield liabilities at worst(p. 68). But there were other dangers, such as having to fight a highly capable Chinese enemy that fought and outgunned the Canadian patrols (p. 80). For the most part, Canadian soldiers were unable to conduct successful patrols. They faced a dismal battlefield performance, but despite casualties in the battle of Hill 355, battle exhaustion and self inflicted wounds, Canadian casualties in Korea were extremely light [when] compared with the carnage in the two world wars (p. 108). However, Watson does emphasize the fact that clearly, the fighting in Korea was far more lethal than the euphemism ‘police action’ suggests (p. 111). The injured, unfortunately, received appalling medical treatment. For many, the injuries sustained were very traumatic and deadly.
There were other dangerous challenges the soldiers faced. Diseases such as dysentery and malaria were a serious threat to the soldiers and the 25th Brigade found itself confronting a VD epidemic unparalleled in Canadian military history (p. 133). The author makes a humble admission at this point when he writes that it is difficult for the historian writing nearly five decades after the fact to express in print the fear induced in front line troops by the ever-present threat of contracting hemorrhagic fever (p. 131).
While the first eight chapters will spark rage and sympathy among readers, chapter 9, Forgotten People, was the chapter that caught my attention: the soldiers in the firing line lived like tramps without even the most basic comforts (p. 142). The rations were unappetizing and drinking water was unsafe. There were rats and snakes to contend with, and climatic conditions in the winter and the summer posed a formidable challenge to weapons maintenance (p. 150). Writing paper was a scarce commodity and there was inadequate and unsatisfactory entertainment.
While the Canadian soldiers faced numerous hardships, deprivations and an unhappy experience in Korea, it was the little things such as a turkey dinner for Christmas that made all the difference to lowly combat soldiers (p. 156). What eventually sustained the morale of the soldiers, and in many instances, turned out to be disastrous and fatal, was the love of rum and coke as the last chapter is entitled. Alcohol, a feature of military life, took its toll.
It is unfortunate that a regiment that made significant contributions under adverse conditions would not be greeted with a parade upon their return home, nor receive the concern of their government. It was a government that was more Eurocentric in its policies, with an army that was seriously overextended during the Korean War era (p. 179). Were any lessons learned from the Korean War experience? Perhaps not, if the larger picture is considered and if an individual reads chapter three (From the Great War to the Afghan War: Canada as Soldier) of Andrew Cohen’s book While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World.
Far Eastern Tour is more than a catalogue of pathetic situations encountered by the 25th Canadian Regiment in Korea. It solicits a greater respect and recognition for the Canadian soldiers who fought in the Korean War. While it is possible to criticize the government’s policy makers and military administrators for their insensitivities, I came away from this well-written book with a greater respect for the contributions made by the Canadian Armed Forces.
This book will cater to a small audience such as high school students and university students interested in military history and in those distinguished soldiers who fought for Canada and are still living. There was a typo error on p. 39 (the word should have been mud). That aside, it would be beneficial to readers to view some photographs even wartime illustrations and posters and a map or two could have been included identifying such locations as Hill 355, Kap’yong, and the Jamestown line. For two good maps and sixteen pages of photographs, a reader should consult Ted Barris’ book Deadlock In Korea: Canadians At War, 1950-1953.
Barris, T. (1999). Deadlock in Korea: Canadians at war, 1950-1953. Toronto: Macmillan Canada.
Cohen, A. (2003). While Canada slept: How we lost our place in the world. Toronto: McClelland Stewart.
Ernest LeVos – Grant MacEwan College. Edmonton, Alberta.