Death stalks Land of the Morning Calm

The year 2000 marks the 50th anniversary of the first ever military mission by the United Nations. It occurred during the Korean War, and nearly 30,000 Canadians volunteered for service in what politicians called a “police action” to restore peace in Korea. Here is an excerpt from Deadlock in Korea: Canadians at War, 1950-1953, a newly released book by CARPNews Contributing Editor Ted Barris.

Born in Galt, Ont., Don Hibbs discovered early on in life that he had more talent at the ice rink than in a classroom, and when given the choice in Grade 10, he chose hockey. As a pretty solid defenceman, Hibbs pinballed around the game from Junior A to the Scottish Ice Hockey League and finally in 1948 to a western Ontario Intermediate A league made up of Second World War veterans “who drank a case of beer before the game, not after.” The bottom line was less than satisfying – $35 a week, little chance of a shot at the NHL, and without an education, not much of a future.

By 1950, Don Hibbs was driving taxi for his friend Clad Essig’s Seven-Eleven Cab Company in Galt. In those days and in Hibbs’s economic state, he wasn’t drawing much of a pay-cheque. Whenever hneeded a pair of pants he’d go to the tailor’s in town and charge it on Essig’s account. And if he needed money for a date or room and board at home, Essig would stake him the funds. Hibbs, the school drop-out was living, but living hand to mouth at best. On August 7, 1950, the night Prime Minister St. Laurent announced the Special Force on radio, Hibbs was driving fares around Galt.

“I didn’t have a clue about Korea,” admits Hibbs. “All I knew was, I’d missed out on the Second World War. And I wanted to be a soldier, you know, pulling pins out of grenades with my teeth, like I’d seen in those John Wayne war movies. I knew John Wayne had never been in the war, not a day in his life. But I thought it’d be great to be a real soldier. I wanted to be a hero.”

A few days later, Hibbs the taxi driver was Hibbs the army volunteer, joining up at the Wolseley Barracks in London, Ont. In fact, he arrived after hours and had to scale a wire fence around the encampment to get in. Once he had signed his enlistment papers, Hibbs was taken into a large room where an army officer invited him and about 50 other recruits to swear allegiance to King and country and sit down. Then the officer welcomed them all to their new home – life in the Canadian army.

“I know some of you guys are from the Second World War,” the officer began. “I know some of you have been on the road trying to find work. I know it’s been tough. And I know some of you here have even served a little time in jail. That doesn’t matter. You’re with a new family now. Your new family is the Canadian army. Don’t be afraid, but now that I mention it, all those who have spent time in jail… stand up.”

The entire room of men stood up, except Don Hibbs. “I’d never spent a day in jail in my life,” Hibbs remembers thinking. “Yet there I was, the only guy seated in a room full of criminals!” So he stood up to make it unanimous.

After months of training and a sickening trans-Pacific crossing in an ancient Liberty ship, Pte. Don Hibbs and the rest of his regiment – the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) – arrive in Korea and encounter the realities of the war…

By Feb. 19, 1951, the Patricias were on the move. The PPCLI had joined British, Australian and New Zealand units of the 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade in a general advance against Communist Chinese and North Korean forces fighting rearguard actions south of the 38th parallel. About 11 o’clock in the morning the Canadians left the village of Chuam-ni and moved northward up a valley toward their first objective – Hill 404 (each hill was identified by its height in metres). En route they discovered an entire company of American soldiers that had been ambushed during the night.

“The first thing I saw was a jeep with a guy lying across it,” remembers Hibbs. “He was draped over a machine-gun on the jeep. Empty cartridges were piled up over his ankles in the bottom of the jeep.”

Sometime during the previous day’s action, 65 members of the 1st US Cavalry Division, using jeeps with mounted guns, had chased Chinese soldiers up the valley. The Americans had returned to the mouth of the valley to set up an overnight camp. Most found hollows or dug slit trenches for their sleeping bags and crawled in for the night. But the Chinese crept back down the valley and killed the entire company while it slept.

“They were just slaughtered in their underwear,” recounted another Canadian, “More than half of the bodies were still in sleeping bags, bayoneted to death.”

Another Canadian picked up an American helmet that lay off to the side. And he kept it for the remainder of his stay in Korea, partly because it made a better wash basin than his Canadian issue helmet, but mostly as a reminder never to use a sleeping bag at night. In fact, as the Patricias stopped to take stock and to eat a meal of American C-Rations that midday, Col. Stone ordered that there would be no sleeping bags when troops were in the line and in addition at night soldiers were forbidden to pull parka hoods over their heads to hamper their hearing. The horrible juxtaposition of eating lunch while an entire company of American soldiers lay strewn over the valley floor was too much for Don Hibbs.

“I put my stuff down,” Hibbs recalls, “took out my writing pad and began to write a farewell letter to my mother: “I’m sitting here amongst dead people eating lunch. I saw dead people up in the hills at Miryang, the guerrillas. But these are our own. This is war. It’s the biggest shock of my life…” And I finished by saying, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it. Look at these guys! What chance have we got?”