At first glance, the scenes at Winnipeg’s Fairmont Hotel were those of a typical reunion. People with nametags were chatting, meeting rooms were set up with coffee and refreshments, and a makeshift bulletin board held messages from old friends looking to reunite. However, a closer look revealed that this event was much more than just an ordinary reunion.
Last week, the Korean Veterans Association of Canada held their final national meeting — “the Last Hurrah.” About 500 veterans who served either during the war (1950–1953) or during the peacekeeping phase (1953–1956) made the trek to Winnipeg for the grand event.
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The veterans had a busy schedule during their four day visit to Winnipeg. There were film screenings, tours to the Manitoba Legislature and CFB Shilo, a meet-and-greet, and a formal banquet, with many dignitaries including Chief of the Defence Staff General Walt Natynczyk.
Korean War veteran Kim Reynolds, who travelled from British Columbia, was overwhelmed by the event. “It’s brought together a lot of guys, I’ve never seen this many together before,” Reynolds said. “It should mean a lot to all of us that we’ve brought it to this stage.”
26,000 Canadians served in the Korean War, which began in 1950 when the Soviet-backed North Korea invaded South Korea. The newly-created United Nations supported South Korea and sent troops from member nations, including Canada. Despite having a weakened military as a result of the Second World War, Canada played a significant role in the war. The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was instrumental in blocking an offensive attack from the Chinese Communist Forces at the Battle of Kapyong. The unit was even awarded a United States Presidential Unit Citation in recognition of “outstanding heroism” and “exceptionally meritorious conduct.”
Yet the legacy of these soldiers, including the 516 who lost their lives, is unknown to many Canadians.
Nicknamed the “Forgotten War,” the events of the Korean War were overshadowed by the two World Wars. For many years, it was ignored by the media and even overlooked by historians. Fortunately, this is beginning to change and the war has received more attention in recent years. One initiative in particular will help the "Forgotten War" become less forgotten.
Staff from The Memory Project were at the reunion to help document the stories that were circulating the rooms. An initiative of The Historica-Dominion Institute, The Memory Project has already collected thousands of stories and photos of World War II veterans, which have been digitized and made available online. “The Last Hurrah” marked the beginning of a new phase to include the Korean War in The Memory Project.
The Memory Project booked interviews with veterans in advance, but found themselves scrambling to accommodate additional appointments. In three days, they conducted interviews with sixty veterans, and will be following up with more in the coming months. Veterans were also encouraged to bring photos, scrapbooks, medals or other mementos, which the Memory Project was able to digitize on-the-spot.
Jenna Misener, Manager of Programming with the Historica-Dominion Institute, says the archival process is one of her favourite parts of The Memory Project. “I get to look through all of the photographs and documents and actual things that the veterans have brought with them,” Misener says. “It’s like going back in time with them and when they’re looking at their photographs and talking through them you can really get a sense of their experience.”
History was in the air at the Fairmont and it is certain that many memories and stories were being rediscovered. Thanks to the work of The Memory Project and the enthusiastic veterans, this reunion doesn’t have to be the last hurrah — the stories and legacies of the Korean War will be preserved and shared with generations to come.