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Victoria-area Korean War vets cheer end of battle for recognition
When, after 60 years of prodding, the first national Korean War Veterans Day is celebrated July 27, Fred MacDonald will be thinking of his brother.
Bruce MacDonald was among 516 Canadian soldiers who didn’t come home from the war. He was a machine gunner, killed by the enemy while defending a hill from the Chinese during the Battle of Kapyong, as recounted in John Melady’s quintessential book Korea: Canada’s Forgotten War.
MacDonald had only been in Korea for about a month.
“He got killed April 25, ’51. He had only left Seattle at the end of March,” said Fred MacDonald, who lives in Langford. “Hardly gives you time to look around and see what’s going on. Not very nice.”
Last month Minister of Veterans Affairs Steven Blaney, Sen. Yonah Martin and Saskatchewan MP Blaine Calkins announced the adoption of Bill S-213, which created Korean War Veterans Day, to be celebrated annually on July 27, the day the war ended.
It’s been a long struggle to gain recognition for the veterans of a war largely ignored at the time and to this day, MacDonald said.
“It seems like forever we’ve been trying something, and nothing’s happened.”
The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953. It was a conflict between Republic of Korea (South Korea), supported by the United Nations, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), supported by China and the Soviet Union.
In the war, which was initially regarded as a police action, 26,000 Canadians participated.
MacDonald’s friend, Gary W. Hall, who grew up in Victoria, joined in Feb. 1951. Hall was inspired by the stories his own brother brought back from his time with the Air Force in the Second World War.
“When I finished Grade 10, I joined up. I was 17,” Hall said. “At that age your parents had to sign and my mother signed, but my father wouldn’t because he said one son was enough. But eventually he came around.”
Fred MacDonald joined the army in 1950 in Peterborough, Ont. and was assigned to artillery. He was stationed in Victoria and shipped out to the war in 1952. He worked in brigade headquarters there and managed to keep away from the front lines, unlike his brother.
After Bruce’s death, their mother received his outstanding pay and the Silver Cross in his honour, but nothing more.
“I tried to get recognition for him. No way. (The government) wouldn’t even give me a letter saying ‘thanks,’” Fred said. “That’s what makes me mad, too.”
When the soldiers returned at the end of the war, or after a one-year rotation, many people didn’t even realize Canada was taking part in the conflict, MacDonald said. “Nobody knew we went, nobody knew we came home, the government didn’t recognize us.”
With the day of honour now in place, MacDonald and Hall agreed Martin, who was born in Korea, is largely responsible for helping Korean War vets get the recognition they deserve.
“If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have any recognition right now at all,” MacDonald said. “She’s the one that’s done it all.”
In a press release, Martin wrote, “I owe my life to all those who served and sacrificed in the Korean War. The passage of this bill is one more way of ensuring that future generations remember and honour the sacrifices made by our Canadian veterans.”
Even with the struggles for recognition, the two local veterans believe what they accomplished in Korea was worth the sacrifice. To this day, Koreans are extremely appreciative of what the soldiers did 60 years ago.
“It’s akin to the Dutch about the Canadians during the Second World War. Maybe even more so,” Hall said. “Very appreciative.”
MacDonald is returning to Korea with other veterans for a visit in November, his third time returning to the country since the war. He will be there for Remembrance Day, which is the intention of the trip.
Hall hasn’t returned, but is on the wait list for the November trip, should anyone not be able to make it.
As of yet, no celebration is planned for the Greater Victoria area.