Posted by: Bob Ringma | June 24, 2011

First POWs

On 19 May 1951, the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group was placed under the operational control of 1 US Corps (known as “I” Corps) to take part in an offensive.  On 25 May, under command of 25 US Division, the brigade advanced with the second battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment on the left and the second battalion of the Van Doos on the right.  It was to be the formation’s first taste of action.  It encountered only light opposition over the next couple of days.  On the 27th they occupied high ground overlooking the 38th parallel.  Nearly thirty miles had been covered in a few days.  Small wonder that, a week earlier, my batman and I had found nothing in several miles of no man’s land.

 

The brigade axis was the Main Service Route (MSR), which paralleled the P’och’on River.  On 28 May I sited the laundry and bath unit on the river, miles north of Uijongbu but still south of the 38th Parallel.   Knowing that I might have to move the MLBU again to keep up with the brigade I went north on another recce to find a site.  On my return, I found my boys standing guard over two Chinese soldiers who looked disconsolate and not very dangerous.  Dressed in running shoes and pieces of uniform, they had one rifle between them.  It was of Russian manufacture and had a multi-grooved bayonet, which could be hinged back under the barrel.  Picking the weapon up, I drew back the bolt to find a bullet still up the spout.

Soviet rifle (NOT the captured weapon)

“Where did these guys come from?” I asked Sergeant Major Reid.  He replied that some Korean civilians had come into our camp, and through sign language, told him that there were enemy soldiers hiding in a nearby hut.  Reid took a Bren gun, a few men with rifles and hand grenades and followed the civilians to the hut.  He received no response when he called for the soldiers to come out so fired a few shots into the building.  That got their attention, and a flag appeared at a window, followed by the two Chinese.  Although they only had the one rifle, they had a good supply of homemade bombs ready for use.  One of our men was dispatched to fetch some MPs off the nearby MSR to take the prisoners away.  Three days later, on 31 May, the MLBU took three more prisoners under similar circumstances.

 

Surprisingly, the two POWs taken on 28 May were the first enemy prisoners taken by the Canadian Brigade in Korea.  It was a red-letter day for our little service unit.  In one sense, this first capture was not surprising, since the brigade had just gone into action a few days before and because the enemy had withdrawn.  What was surprising was that a support unit, a laundry and bath unit at that, was credited with this “first”.  “Strange Battleground”, the Official History of the Canadian Army in Korea, records the event.  There was nothing heroic about the two incidents, but they were unusual.  However, they wouldn’t have happened at all if our unit hadn’t been as far forward as it was in the Brigade area.

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Posted by: Bob Ringma | June 16, 2011

No Man’s Land

 

When the brigade was advancing or attacking, reconnaissance (recce) was almost a daily activity.  One day, during particularly fluid operations, I said to my batman,  “Get some C rations and a bren gun, Bill, we’re going on a recce.”  (The bren is a light machine gun used by Commonwealth forces in WWII and later operations.)  I didn’t have any maps, but I knew north from south and thought I knew the axis of the brigade’s advance north of the Han River.  As we drove along, I should have realized that there was something wrong, because there was no other traffic, coming or going, along the road I had chosen.

 

Finally an American soldier appeared out of hiding near the side of the road and stopped us.  He was a picket for his unit, which was well hidden since he was the only person we saw.  We asked him what was up ahead and he replied, “North Koreans and Chinks.”

“How far?”

“Dunno.”

Since we were looking for water but hadn’t found any yet, we decided to continue, only with a little more caution.  A couple of miles further on, we stopped and looked around; there was still nothing.  At that point, we took the bren gun out of its case and loaded it with a magazine.  Then we moved on.  Once again, we stopped and looked nervously around.  We were on an open stretch of land with no trees or other cover, so it was unlikely that there was any enemy in the area.  But there was no water either.  In the distance we could see hills and figured that that was where the enemy was.

 

We were obviously in the middle of a large stretch of no mans’ land.  Until that moment, my notion of the space between the enemy and our own troops was a World War I scenario of several hundred yards.  It was probable that there were streams in the hills ahead, but I wasn’t going to find out at this time.  I’d wait till our infantry had occupied the area.  When I suggested to Bill that it was time for us to head back the way we came, he quickly agreed.  I later found out that we had been in some other formation’s territory.  Our own brigade was farther west. So much for my skill at dead reckoning.  I would have to do a new recce the next day.

 

Posted by: Bob Ringma | June 12, 2011

Running the MLBU

Before we go any further, it might be helpful for the reader if I explained the basic elements in the running of an MLBU.  First, a location must be found to set the unit up.  The prime requirement is water.  Even though hundreds of gallons an hour is needed to feed the laundry and the showers, a small, fast flowing stream could sometimes provide enough water.  Reasonably level ground was also a requirement.  It was desirable to have the laundry van near the shower tent so that exchange clothing could be quickly laundered and returned to the bath unit.  Both machines needed a water intake and dirty water outlet.  The intakes were upstream and the effluent was discharged downstream through drainage ditches.  The laundry trailer and the bath trailer each had its own power plant and boiler.

Two squad tents were erected for the showers.  One was used as a dressing room and clothing exchange where soiled underwear, pyjamas, shirts and towels could be traded for clean ones.  The adjoining tent was where the 24 showerheads were located.  A parking lot was needed nearby to handle the 2½  ton trucks, which served as troop transports, and other customer’s vehicles.  The bath unit boiler could produce a continuous supply of hot water for showers.  The laundry boiler made enough hot water to wash clothes but, as I learned, it was not hot enough to sterilize medical linen.

 

blanket wash

 

Spare parts were sometimes a problem.  Parts for the laundry were never as critical as those needed for the shower trailers.  Electrodes seemed to burn out quickly.  Thanks to American generosity, I found a source for them.

The day to day running of the MLBU was in the hands of SSgt Reid and the men.  My main functions were not laid out in a Standard Operating Procedure.  Evolved through necessity, they were: locating bath and laundry sites, liaison with the OFP, brigade HQ and brigade units plus scrounging for spare parts.

The boys

 

While conscious of being an officer, I was not trying to behave according to any leadership manual.  I was learning what worked and what didn’t.  I was finding out that I had to accept responsibility and had to delegate chores to get them done. Leadership skills were slowly being acquired through on-the-job-training.

Our awareness of the difference between support troops and the combat arms was one of the things which contributed to our eventual success running the MLBU.  The infantry got the dirty end of the stick, while the support services had a relatively easy time of it.  This was not to say that the support was not needed, for it was, but it told me that everything possible should be done to help the infantry.  For this reason, I made a point of locating the MLBU sections as close to the front lines as possible.  In this I succeeded.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | June 7, 2011

GETTING STARTED

TO WORK

Before leaving Pusan for the forward area, we had a chance to look around the city.  The spirit of entrepreneurship was everywhere.  Hundreds of boys had shoeshine kits.  They knew what they were doing because there was so little pavement underfoot; your boots were dirty again shortly after being shined. Every momma-san took in laundry – and did a good job on it too, without the use of soap.  Bizarre signs were everywhere.  My mind’s eye still sees one that read “Bob Hope Laundry and Photo Studio.”  Girls as young as twelve or thirteen were prostitutes, some of them in organized brothels, others free-lancing on the streets of Pusan.

 

The currency of South Korea is the won.  The only denomination I ever remember seeing was the one thousand won note, worth less than twenty cents at the time.  And if its value made it seem cheap, the banknote itself, printed on poor quality paper, made matters worse.  A forger wouldn’t (and probably didn’t) have a problem running off counterfeit bills.  Because the one thousand won note was the only one used, I have seen a paymaster lugging the bills around in a kitbag.  The only other legal tender for the troops was American scrip, which was printed on decent paper and in a variety of denominations.  US dollars were legally prohibited but were nevertheless in use, particularly for shady transactions.

 

Two weeks after our arrival in Pusan, we moved north to join other formations in the front-line.  It was a slow, wearying journey along the Main Service Route, which was just a two-way dirt road.  Our unit had no radios, so we had no connection with Brigade Headquarters and didn’t know what was happening up ahead.  We were operating in the dark, simply following the convoys ahead of us on the dusty MSR.  When those ahead stopped, we all did.  When they moved, so did we.  Along the way there were red caps, British military police, so we figured that Brit units were mixed in with our own convoys.  This seemed to be confirmed by the frequency of the halts, at which time we pictured an Englishman up ahead saying, “Let’s stop for a brew, chaps.”

 

We had been warned that there were guerillas along the way, so were watchful and a bit apprehensive.  On reaching Taegu, we were directed into a dry streambed for an overnight stop.  We were just settling in when shots rang out.  Pistol drawn, I headed toward the sound of the firing.  There I found our CO on his belly taking cover under a two and half ton truck.  Further reconnaissance found nothing.  A nervous soldier on sentry duty for the first time probably fired the shots.  It would not be the last time that we had a false alarm.  Green troops and live ammunition are a volatile mix.

 

Within a couple of weeks of our arrival in the forward area, our brigade had shaken itself out and was ready to take its place in the line.  The rest of the OFP had set up for business, ready to supply units with spare parts and general stores.  My own sub-unit, the MLBU, was getting ready for its first deployment.  A messenger from Brigade HQ gave me the location of the Patricias, which had preceded the brigade to Korea in November.  I was to go there and offer them showers and clean clothing.  The unit had been on its own for months, so was coping with its own hygiene challenges.  I was told “Thanks, but no thanks.”

 

Han River bath parade

Determined to put my unit to work, the headquarters then told me that two companies of another infantry battalion would parade to my unit, encamped on the bank of the Han River, the next day at 1400 hours.  I sent word back that we were not ready yet and was immediately told, “You’d better be, because your first customers will be there tomorrow afternoon.”  One of our problems was that we didn’t have duckboards and were still having them made.  However, there were to be no more excuses, so I urged SSgt Reid to get ready for the onslaught.  He and the men did, but our first bath parade was to be a slow cumbersome operation.  Two hundred men arrived at the appointed time and stripped off most of their clothes, waiting for their turn in the showers, which could handle twenty-four men at a time.  The line snaked along the riverbank.  Fortunately, it was a warm and sunny day and, in spite of the long wait, there were few complaints.  With that first gut-churner out of the way, we could work at improving our communication with Brigade and with the troops.

Han River 2

Posted by: Bob Ringma | June 1, 2011

Our View Of Koreans

The sorting out of the monstrous pile of stores that accompanied us from Seattle gave us insight into how some aspects of logistics were being handled in Pusan.  I was taken aback to see fellow Canadians cussing and yelling at the Korean labourers working for them.  What really bothered me was that I saw no obvious reason for the abuse and figured the Koreans couldn’t understand it, either.  I presumed that they had picked up the attitude and language from the Americans who had landed earlier.  But, within days, some of our own OFP guys were doing the same, yelling, “Kudda, kudda!” (get out of here !) at the Koreans and were calling them “gooks.”

 

Another slang expression in common use at that time was “Hubba hubba.”  As I recollect, in World War 2 it was uttered to show admiration, especially for a beautiful woman.  Strangely enough, in Korea it was used to tell local labourers to “hurry up” or “get moving.”   I have no idea how use of the saying changed in such an extreme way, and there’s little help to be found in Wikipedia.

 

The vernacular used in dealing with Koreans reflected an attitude on the part of Canadians and Americans that Koreans were part of the problem.  Sad to say, this view persisted until much later, when we came into closer contact with Koreans employed to help us, for example as house boys.  When we got to know them and realized that they were not very different from ourselves, we became protective of them.

 

My own outlook was similar to that of my men.  During my year or so in the country, I gradually gained more respect for the locals, but only if we had a definable relationship.  Once, while I was serving with the OFP near Seoul, our CO told me to get rid of the kids begging for food at the mess tent.  Our softhearted cooks, knowing that we had lots of food and that the children were hungry, didn’t hesitate to feed them.  I attended meal parades for several days with my pistol drawn and mouthing, “Kudda, kudda.”

 

A one-legged boy, about thirteen, was the leader of a band of homeless orphans.  When I chased them away from the mess tent, I watched where they went, and saw them disappear like rats into the crawl space of a building.  That sight gave me a pang of conscience.  I understood the CO wanting his unit lines to be orderly and free of civilians, but I also sympathized with the cooks.  There are situations even today where I wonder where exactly to draw the line between practicality and sentimentality.

In the many years since 1952, with the realization that the people of South Korea were lifting themselves by their own bootstraps and transforming their country into a modern democracy, my attitude changed greatly.  Underlining the success of their accomplishments was the comparison with the total lack of human progress in the dictatorship of North Korea.  To this day it is a backward land, plagued with shortages and hunger, while the Korea south of the 38th parallel continues to prosper and evolve as a democracy.

 

Some years after the end of the war, South Koreans, led by a military committee, started inviting UN veterans to visit their country at the expense of the government.  I was able to participate in the program in 1995, and was truly impressed by what I saw.  Flying over the countryside, I looked down at the dirt roads I had driven over forty-some years earlier.  All had been modernized and paved, while new concrete ribbons fanned out across the land.  Instant cities of high-rise buildings had replaced the earlier hovels.  Plastic green houses, visible from the air, produced strawberries all year round.

 

South Koreans, once downtrodden, now have a sense of self-worth and national destiny.  Universities abound and Korean students study in other countries, including Canada and the USA.  Their country is a leading manufacturer of cars, and not all of them for export.  The Republic of South Korea is a success story because of the war, a war that we helped to win.  By contrast, North Korea, one of the last totalitarian communist states in the world, is a disaster area.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | May 25, 2011

Land of the Morning Calm

At the end of WWII, Canada had the world’s third largest navy.  By 1951, when it was time for 25 Brigade to move to Korea, the navy didn’t have the ships to transport the brigade.  Once again, we were dependent on the Americans, hiring three US Navy troop ships to carry us across the Pacific.  Officers were accommodated nine to a cabin with three-tier bunks.  It was not a luxury cruise, but we were comfortable enough, certainly more so than the men who were bunked four high below decks.

We left Seattle on the USNS Marine Adder on 19 April, and two weeks later found ourselves approaching Korea.  Miles out at sea we sailed into an odoriferous haze, which prepared us for the sights, sounds and smells we would encounter ashore.  Standing on deck, Captain Ev Cole remarked that if the world needed an enema, this is surely where they would insert the tube.   It was a memorable analogy, temporarily forgotten when, as our ship docked in Pusan, a band greeted us with “If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake.”

USNS Marine Adder

Advance parties had set things up for our arrival, so each unit had tents for accommodation and a field kitchen.  Our Ordnance Company was surrounded by barbed wire fences, which would help prevent the theft of stores.  And stores we had in quantities that we couldn’t believe.   There was a huge pile of jumbled packing crates thirty feet high in our compound. Reserve supplies, which should have been shipped to Kure, Japan, had accompanied us to Korea.  These had to be set aside and safeguarded until they could be transshipped to their proper destination.

Although we were eventually to learn that Koreans are a decent, civilized people, on our arrival we felt that we were totally surrounded by beggars and thieves.  They stretched their hands through the barbed wire looking for handouts, and by night a few worked their way through the wire.  Our men on guard duty loosed off a few rounds when the intruders got too bold.  One shot must have winged a thief because the following day a Momma-san came into our camp angrily demanding compensation for her husband’s smashed wristwatch.

While observing the activity around me, I was also subconsciously cataloguing what I was learning and adjusting my philosophy.  What effect were my new experiences having on me as a person?  My brain had started a chapter on “leadership,” into which a few conclusions had trickled and in which a number of questions were being asked.  I studied the officers and NCOs around me for answers.  I opened a whole new section on philosophical comparisons.  Life in Canada was very different from life in Korea.  How did the differences translate in our behaviour?   My mind’s filters created a fog.  I thought that if I could identify my prejudices, the mist might clear a bit.  I could then enjoy this adventure and perhaps emerge at the end of it a better person.  It was worth a try.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | May 18, 2011

Stolen jeep

While the dithering was going on in October and November, it appeared that 25 Brigade would not be going to Korea after all.  Rumours circulated for several months that we might be sent to Europe.  There were mixed feelings about that.  Some had joined the Special Force to fight and felt frustrated.  Others saw a tour in Europe as a blessing.  When the decision was finally made a couple of months later that we were going to war, everything settled down.  A separate Canadian brigade was recruited for service in Europe.

Meanwhile, back in Fort Lewis, I had an involuntary interview with our one star, Brigadier Rockingham.  By getting command of the MLBU I was the first of the Ordnance junior officers to get my own jeep.  To me it was a big deal – that is, until it was stolen.  Like most army vehicles, jeeps had a simple on/off switch instead of an ignition key.  Unless it was immobilized in some way, it could be driven away by anyone.  Like others, if I parked the jeep outside of our unit lines, I removed the rotor from the distributor, to prevent it being “borrowed.”  The problem was that potential thieves carried spare rotors.

For some unexplained reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to call Lieutenant Ringma up on the brigade commander’s carpet.  I really didn’t understand it.  Was I to blame for having my jeep stolen?   On the evening of the theft the vehicle was parked at the North Fort Officers’ Club.  Maybe that was it; perhaps I was presumed guilty of drinking and driving.  If so, I had lots of company.

I was really apprehensive about being “interviewed” by Brigadier Rockingham; I had never even met the man before.  I don’t remember what was said in the one-way conversation, and I do not recall being told what my crime was.  It was all very vague.  I do recall that Rockingham didn’t tear a strip off me.  Perhaps he, too, wondered why I was there.

distributor rotor

The problem was solved as an aftermath to the incident.  Hasps were welded to the jeep hoods, and a good quality padlock made modified vehicles theft proof.  I tucked the experience away in my growing collection of “Things to look our for – the unexpected that can bite you in the ass.”

Posted by: Bob Ringma | May 11, 2011

Fort Lewis and Korea

One wintry day my pal Sid and I donned sheepskin jackets to drive in my open jeep out to the Fort Lewis training area near the town of Yelm.  Because the jackets lacked epaulettes, we fastened two metal pips to each shoulder as rank badges.  A US Army jeep drove slowly past us at one point and its occupants gave us a very snappy salute.  After they passed, my friend and I looked at one another and burst out laughing, “I think they saw two stars on our jackets.” (At least we hoped they did!)  They wouldn’t have made that mistake had they got a better look at our young faces and our straggly, immature moustaches.

The GIs were properly impressed however, when our Governor General visited the Brigade at Fort Lewis.  He was Field Marshal Viscount Alexander of Tunis.  In deference to his wartime rank, his staff car sported five-star plates.  At the time, the Americans had four five-star generals still alive – George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley, but none of them came anywhere near Fort Lewis.  We Canadians were very pleased that our one and only five-star connection had come to see us.

"Look Ma, I'm a leader"

While we were getting our act together stateside, the war was heating up in Korea.  In September, after the enemy had been stopped at the Pusan Perimeter, General MacArthur launched a seaborne assault halfway up the Korean peninsula at Inchon.  The landing, supported by gunfire from three Canadian destroyers, Athabaskan, Cayuga and Sioux, marked Canada’s entry into the war.  The invasion at Inchon was followed by a breakout from the Perimeter.  US forces, supported by the Republic Of Korea army and allied formations, such as the British 29th Brigade and the Turkish Brigade, made a rapid advance up the peninsula to join the forces from Inchon.  The push continued across the 38th parallel and, by October 1950, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang was captured.

General MacArthur was so optimistic about the operations during October that he saw no need for the Canadian brigade.  He suggested that Canada might want to immediately send a smaller force to show the flag.  That resulted in the dispatch to Korea in November of the second battalion of the PPCLI, commanded by Lt. Col. Jim Stone.  It was expected to complete its training by the month of March.  However, in December things started to turn sour for the American-led advance into North Korea. The next counterattack by the North Koreans, assisted this time by the Chinese, took the communist forces all the way back to Seoul by January 1951.

The American field commander, General Walker, now wanted 2 PPCLI in the front line.  Colonel Stone had clear orders from Canada that he was to finish his training first.  The memory of the disaster that befell unprepared Canadian troops in Hong Kong in 1941 was still fresh in Ottawa’s mind.  Stone was able to complete the training of his unit in February, after which it acquitted itself very well, winning the US Presidential Unit Citation for its stand at Kap’yong.  (More about that in a future post.)

Posted by: Bob Ringma | May 2, 2011

Getting Organized

The Brigade consisted of three battalions of infantry plus armour, engineers and all the supporting services.  The infantry units were the second battalions of the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal Twenty-second Regiment.

Because of my corps affiliation, I was a member of the 25 Brigade Ordnance Company, later to be renamed the Ordnance Field Park (OFP).  Our officer establishment consisted of one major as CO, one captain as second in command and four lieutenants.  My fellow lieutenants were assigned responsibility for spare parts and general stores, while I was to command the Mobile Laundry and Bath.  I presume that decision was made because the other functions required some technical skills, while the MLBU didn’t, at least at the officer level.  At twenty-two, I was the youngest and least experienced, the only one without a ribbon on his chest.  However, it instilled in me a determination to do my best and “show them.”

The MLBU was the largest of the OFP’s sub-units.  It was actually an OFP platoon but was known as a Unit.  It had an establishment of forty-eight men and an equal number of vehicles.  Although I was nominally in charge, the de facto leader was Freddy Reid, a Staff Sergeant with WWII experience running an MLBU.  I was also fortunate enough to have a couple of very good sergeants, one of whom, Tony Planinshek, had fought in Italy with the US/Canadian First Special Service Force, the “Devil’s Brigade.”

Since the Canadian Army had no MLBU equipment, we had to purchase it from the Americans, who had been smart enough in 1945/46 to mothball such equipment “just in case.”  We received three van-type laundry units and three 24 – showerhead trailers from the Red River Arsenal in Texas, and were then able to start a training program for our men.

While in the States, we didn’t know what conditions we would face in Korea.  Once there, we found that the large semi-trailers were sometimes difficult to handle on the narrow dirt roads.  The American MLBUs were equipped with smaller, two-trailer laundries, which were easier to maneuver.  We didn’t blame the Americans for selling us the older, larger units, and found that even though they looked clumsy they served us very well.

We were also uncertain about the reliability of the supply chain overseas therefore we took a year’s supply of detergent with us when we shipped out.  Staff Reid insisted on the large quantity.  He looked at me and said with a wink, “You’d be surprised what we got in exchange for soap when we were in France.”

Little did we know that Korean women did not use soap.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | April 24, 2011

Canadian Brigade at Fort Lewis

After the decision was made to field a brigade group in support of the UN operation in Korea, planners at Army Headquarters in Ottawa had to make it happen.  Despite being the second largest country in the world in area, and in spite of having trained hundreds of thousands of troops for service in WWII, there was no training base in Canada large enough to accommodate a brigade of five thousand men.  We looked to our southern neighbour for help.  The Americans, anxious to get other countries into the Korean fray, were happy to make the facilities at Fort Lewis, Washington available to us..

But a training base was not the only thing we needed.  Having disposed of surplus vehicles, weapons and equipment after WWII, we now had to manufacture or buy replacements.  The US had also disposed of wartime hardware, but fortunately kept some in reserve.  They were willing to sell and we to buy.  We also tapped into the American supply chain for rations and other necessities.  It cost Canada $ 2.46 per day per man while we were in the States and $ 10.96 per day in Korea.  It was money well spent.

October of 1950 saw 25 Canadian Infantry Brigade Group, alias the Special Service Force, assembling at Fort Lewis and training for its role overseas. Volunteers were in the majority, although its core came from the Permanent Force.  Some, like me, had been at loose ends or unemployed.  Very few had joined for idealistic reasons, fighting for freedom.  It was soon found that recruiting had been done too hastily.  Some volunteers were found to be unfit for military service for disciplinary reasons (e.g. undisclosed civil convictions), while others had medical problems.  They had to be weeded out, and many were, but the Adjutant General at Army Headquarters, alarmed by the wastage, advocated a greater emphasis on salvage and training.

RCOC at Fort Lewis

25 Brigade plaque at Fort Lewis

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