This Week in History


“The Forgotten War”: Canadians in Korea, 1950-53

For the week of Monday July 25, 2011

On July 27, 1953, the guns fell silent. With the signing of the armistice, a war that had raged for three years and cost hundreds of Canadian soldiers’ lives was over.

That was how it ended. But how did it begin? It was five years earlier, at the end of yet another conflict—the Second World War—that the seeds of the Korean War were sown. Occupied by Japan from 1910 until the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the Korean peninsula was split along the 38th parallel into two occupation zones, the South in the United States’ sphere of influence, and the North in the Soviet Union’s. Each superpower installed in its territory a government adhering to its parent superpower’s political views in the Cold War.

Gunners of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment fire a Vickers machine gun
© Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-184254

On June 25 1950, North Korean soldiers poured into the South, aiming to reunify Korea under communist rule. Fearful that its defeat would cause a wave of communist takeovers in other countries, a “domino effect,” the United States vowed to protect South Korea. When sanctioned by a Security Council resolution, 16 members of the United Nations committed forces to the war, Canada among them.

Over 26,000 Canadians served in the war, and eight Royal Canadian Navy destroyers were sent to the theatre to operate under UN command. Despite the challenges of inadequate training and obsolete equipment, they distinguished themselves in combat. Prior to the arrival of Canadian troops, the UN forces were able to drive the North Koreans out of the South but, when they advanced past the 38th parallel into communist territory in October 1950, China intervened. After six tense months of offensive and counter-offensive, by July 1951 the war had stalemated near the original 38th parallel border.

The HMCS Haida on patrol in Korean waters
© Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-151995

While both sides continued to engage in smaller combat operations until the war’s end, Canada’s foreign minister worked to moderate American policy, hoping to prevent the escalation of the war to a global scale and achieve peace through negotiation in what became known as “quiet diplomacy.” That man, Lester B. Pearson, was elected prime minister in 1963, and was designated a national historic person in 1974. The participation of Canadians in the Korean War was, in 2000, designated an event of national historic significance.

For further information about Canada’s role in the war, visit the Korean War Canadian Encyclopedia page, and read the Canada and the Korean War story from the This Week in History archives. Also from our vaults is a story that focuses on a golden moment in Lester B. Pearson’s career: Canadian wins Nobel Peace Prize.

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