When Pat Patterson came home from Korea, some of his friends wondered where he’d been because they hadn’t seen him for a while.
Patterson had been gone almost two years serving in a conflict often referred to as “the forgotten war.”
It was both the first major conflict of post Second World War superpower muscle flexing and residual fallout from Japan’s defeat in 1945 that ended the Japanese empire’s 35-year rule over the Korean peninsula, leaving the victors to divide Korea, politically and ideologically, north from south along the 38th parallel.
When war broke out between the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (north) and the Republic of Korea (south) on June 25, 1950, barely five years after the end of the biggest conflict in human history, the world had little appetite for renewed bloody conflict.
After three years and millions more military and civilian lives lost as opposing sides battled to a stalemate, a cessation of hostilities was signed July 27, 1953 and troops from 17 United Nations countries that fought the war against North Korea, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, started returning to their homelands, including Canadians, many of whom made their way by train across the country to get home.
“On the way home two or three guys would get off the train and there would be hardly anyone other than their family to greet them,” Patterson said. “In Manitoba I saw one guy get off the train and there wasn’t a single person there to meet him. There was no welcome home, no Highway of Heroes or anything around that time.”
Patterson was part of a five-man M4-A2 Sherman tank crew with Charlie Squadron of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse armoured regiment. He was the gun loader and radio operator, a volunteer and just 21 when the unit shipped over to Korea. There’s a lot he remembers, good and bad, about “the forgotten war.”
After mobilizing from Borden, Ont., for training in Fort Lewis, Wash., they arrived in Puson (Buson since 2000), South Korea in late April 1951.
“The story about the smell of Puson? You could smell it before you got there,” Patterson said. “There was a huge refugee camp there and there must have been a million people living under scraps of wood, chunks of tin, canvas, anything. There was no sewage for them. It was just a dreadful mess and an eye-opener when you think of what those people were going through.”
Patterson’s unit had trained on M10 self-propelled guns. They only got their tanks upon arriving in Korea. The heavier armour was needed to counter Soviet-made T-34 tanks used by forces supporting North Korea.
The Lord Strathcona’s Horse moved north to the battle zone by train, pulled by coal-burning steam locomotives. The troops slept on the open flat cars with their equipment.
“There must be 20 or 30 tunnels on the way up there, so by the time we got up there we were all black,” Patterson said.
One of their early tasks was to patrol around a dam and reservoir in Chorwon County. Patterson’s tank hit a mine on one of those patrols.
“They would come down at night and lay mines,” Patterson said. “We lost our tank to a mine. It was powerful enough that it took the centre suspension right off – it tossed it about 100 yards – it warped the hull so you couldn’t traverse the gun, so we were out of the picture for a while. Most of us were bleeding from our ears and nose from the concussion.”
Patterson’s ears were damaged in that incident, but it took years to get hearing aids from Veterans Affairs since none of his crew’s injuries were documented from the incident after it happened.
In September 1951 the unit was moved to the Imjin front where they joined up with the Commonwealth Division and U.S. divisions.
Patterson’s replacement tank was hit on Hill 222 during those operations.
“We took a hit there,” he said. “Our driver was wounded and our gunner went haywire – right off his rocker.”
It was nightfall before the casualties could be moved off the hill and replacement crew brought in.
Soon after they moved from there to Hill 187 to support the Royal Canadian Regiment.
“We had a pretty soft touch there because we must have been the farthest away from [hill] 166, which was Chinese held and aside from a few mortars and some shelling …,” Patterson said and paused to pull out a black and white snapshot of their position depicting a barren, grey blasted moonscape. “It had been covered with trees when we got there and that’s the result of shell fire.”
Whatever timber was left was used to shore up trenches and bunkers on the hill. Digging in was backbreaking hard labour.
“And we didn’t do it well either because we had no idea how long we’d be there, but we stayed the whole rest of the war on that line of hills,” he said.
Over time Patterson and his crew were moved closer to Chinese held positions one the front line, including Hill 355, located about 40 km north of Seoul, which was occupied primarily by U.S. troops.
“That was a real mean place to be,” he said. “It was called Little Gibraltar. I didn’t know it at the time.”
Between attacks and patrols, life on the line went on. The men took some of the timbers they’d salvaged and used them to dam up a small stream to make a swimming hole. There were no showers or bathing facilities.
“I don’t think I recall having a shower the whole time I was up there,” Patterson said.
The fall and winter was bitterly cold and Canadians, sent over with summer gear for an anticipated short conflict, hadn’t received winter supplies, so they cut ponchos out of blankets and improvised to make life as comfortable as possible.
“We got one beer a day when we were in the line,” Patterson said. “They’d come up with a case of beer. They’d bring two dozen out and we only had 20 guys, so those four were saved up until the next case came until we could drink more than one beer a day.”
They made toilet seats for their latrines by cutting holes out of the wooden Asahi beer cases. A mortar round from a British mortar battery fell short one night and blew up their latrine.
The last move they made was to a position called “the Hook” – the brigade front located about 4.6 km away from their previous position and the site of a major battle between Chinese and U.N. forces in May 1953 just two months before the end of hostilities.
“I don’t know how long we were on the Hook until we were withdrawn. We were replaced by B Squadron because we had been there [on the front] a year at this time,” Patterson said. “I don’t know what happened to me. One day I went into the orderly room and volunteered to stay for another year.”
Patterson was reassigned to B Squadron, but spent most of his time as a radio operator behind the front line in the battalion’s tactical headquarters with occasional trips to the front to relieve radio operators on leave.
“Nothing particularly happened. It was just the regular harassing fire that came in, “ Patterson said. “No matter what hill you were on, you got that.”
Patterson stayed until late 1952 when he caught malaria. He was flown back to Canada in December 1952 after spending some time recovering in Japan.
“I was certainly an unpopular war here in Canada,” Patterson said.
“People didn’t even know what was going on, as a matter of fact. When I came back home people said, ‘Where you been. I haven’t seen you around.’ They had no idea.”
Patterson retired from the military in 1976.
Of the roughly 26,000 Canadians who served in Korea, 516 lost their lives there.
2013 is the Year of the Korean War Veteran, celebrated July 27, on the 60th anniversary of end of hostilities. North and South Korea are still technically at war.
The average age of Korean War veterans is 83.
Patterson is currently the director of weapons exhibits at Vancouver Island Military Museum.