First Canadian casualties in Korean War

By Ted Barris

It has been nearly 50 years since North Korea and the United Nations signed an armistice in the Korean War. No formal peace was ever reached. Canada became involved in the war soon after it began in June 1950. On Feb. 22, 1951, members of Canada's Special Force, the first wave of nearly 30,000 Canadian volunteers to fight in the Korean War, suffered their first casualties of the war. At the time, Don Hibbs was a private with the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Korea.

This article is part of a new occasional series organized by the Globe and Mail.com and the Dominion Institute to commemorate significant events in Canada's military history, and to honour living Canadian veterans for their service and sacrifice.

Going to war seemed like living out a Hollywood movie fantasy. In August 1950, when Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent announced that Canada would send 5,000 ground troops into South Korea, it was a clarion call for Don Hibbs. He'd just turned 20. He'd dropped out of high school. He had few job prospects, except driving fares for a cab company in Galt, Ont. This call for army volunteers suddenly resonated.

"I didn't have a clue about Korea," Hibbs said. "All I knew was, I'd missed out on the Second World War. 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 thought it'd be great to be a real soldier. I wanted to be a hero."

After four months of parade drills, vaccinations, forced marches, target practice with First World War rifles and endless guard duty, Hibbs and the rest of the PPCLI were loaded aboard a Liberty ship bound for South Korea. The crossing nearly killed Hibbs - he got so seasick he lost 30 pounds - but just before Christmas 1950, Hibbs and about 1,000 PPCLI troops disembarked at Pusan. "It seemed such a primitive place, like life in the Ozarks or something," Hibbs said. "There were no lights, no laughter, no people."

By this time, UN forces under U.S. General Douglas MacArthur had pushed Communist forces back into North Korea and all the way up the peninsula to the Yallu River, the Chinese border. This drew the Communist Chinese army into the war and by early 1951, Chinese troops had forced MacArthur to retreat back to the 38th Parallel where the war had begun.

Through January, the PPCLI moved closer to the frontlines into the Miryang valley, where the Canadians acclimatized themselves to the countryside. They conducted manoeuvres with live ammunition and even chased Communist guerillas into the hills. Then, a first casualty.

During a training session in February, someone accidentally activated a Chinese anti-personnel mine. The next moment, Jim Wood, the regimental sergeant major, threw himself on the exploding device to protect his comrades. "I was part of the burial detail," Hibbs said. "On the day we brought Wood's body to the UN cemetery in Pusan, there was just this big empty field. There were only three graves in it - one of a British soldier already buried, a second for Wood and a third unoccupied." Later that month, on February 22, PPCLI "C" Company, sustained the battalion's first battle casualties when it lost four men in an attack on Hill 444. If these episodes hadn't deflated his John Wayne movie fantasy, what Don Hibbs experienced later that spring certainly did.

Just before midnight on April 22, 1951, more than 200,000 Chinese and North Korean soldiers began a massive assault on UN troops in the Kapyong valley. During the offensive, designed to break through UN lines and overrun the South Korean capitol of Seoul, most of the UN defenders fell back - the South Koreans, the Americans, the British, even the Australians.

But in the face of 6,000 Chinese attackers on their hill, the 700 Canadians held their ground for three days. "There was so much confusion," Hibbs recalled, "so much firing and the smell of weapons...the dust, the dirt and the fear...I believed that maybe we weren't going to be there tomorrow...that we might go down fighting. In the end, we didn't go down. The Chinese finally abandoned the attack. The front held. Seoul was saved."

While Hibbs survived the Kapyong siege, 33 of his comrades did not. Two weeks later, the entire 2nd Battalion of the PPCLI was assembled behind the lines. A VIP helicopter arrived and Gen. James Van Fleet emerged. The new commander of the Eight US Army inspected the troops and read out the U.S. Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation to the Canadian battalion, the only Canadian unit ever to be so honoured.

Two years ago, a 71-year-old Don Hibbs returned to Sergeant Major Jim Wood's grave in Pusan to pay his respects. By the time the ceasefire was finally signed, on July 27, 1953 (North and South Korea are still technically at war), there were 378 Canadians buried there. In all, 516 Canadians died in the Korean War.

While Don Hibbs quickly learned the Korean War was no Hollywood movie, he never understood Canadians' apathy for his war. "I remember coming back to the local [Royal Canadian] Legion hall," he said, "and a young man stood up wanting to know why 'Korea 1950-53' was stamped on the cenotaph. Why is this allowed to happen?"

In order to combat systematic forgetfulness, Don Hibbs now volunteers his time with the Memory Project, the Dominion Institute's national educational programme that brings veterans into classrooms to share their experiences with youth.

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