© Christopher Gooding photo
Ralph McKay has many memories to share from his experience in South Kore. Three years ago, he returned to the scene of the war, visiting the grave of one of Springhill's fallen soldiers, Ralph Turnbull.
AMHERST – “And then there was Korea.”
So opened the satire M*A*S*H* in 1970 film, featuring Canadian actor Donald Sutherland in what would become a comedic hit involving the Korean War of the 1950s.
For some Canadians the conflict in Korea was no laughing matter, however, and one local resident was there for a brief time saw action, was injured, and back on the frontlines when the ceasefire that brought about the tense truce between North and South Korea was ordered.
Ralph McKay comes from a family of military men. His father and uncles were WWII veterans, so it was no surprise when the young boy growing up on Junction Road in Springhill joined the militia band at 11 and the service at 17.
“Springhill has always had a very proud military history,” McKay said.
It would be another two years before he would be allowed to go to Korea, when he turned 19 years old, with the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, but when he did it would prove to be a defining moment.
“It was quite a blur,” McKay recalls. “We were under fire from the North Koreans and I think there some Chinese. It was a mortar attack on our position. I was instructed to move back to the vehicles and was getting a 45gallon drum of fuel when a mortar hit. They found me under the barrel.”
McKay suffered a spinal injury that would later require four surgeries but he stayed in the army and continued to serve in Korea up to the end. On the day of the ceasefire, he was in the heat of action.
“I was trying to stay alive,” McKay said.
Positioned on what was then known as hill 355, McKay and his unit were in an awful spot. The allies were shooting over their position at the North Koreans and Chinese, who were pressing forward towards the hill. It was July 1953, and the Armistice Agreement that would bring about the ceasefire – which is still in affect today – was about to be signed.
“We had been hearing about it for days,” McKay said. “I don’t know what the agreement said, but when we were told to move back they told us to take down everything. They didn’t want the North Koreans to reposition themselves if it started again. The North Koreans were preparing to take that hill and they didn’t want us outfitting them if the ceasefire didn’t hold.”
And so ended McKay’s first experience of Korea. His back injury would leave him a corporal for the remainder of his military career which ended in 1972, albeit one of the most interesting careers a corporal could ever have in the military McKay said. He had lost a close friend his age during the conflict and later a Springhill neighbour he would never see again until 2010, when he returned to Korea for the anniversary of the ceasefire.
“Ralph Turnbull lived next door to me on Junction Road. We grew up together on Junction Road. He was 29, and I was 19.”
Turnbull died on Jan. 1, 1954, after the Armistice was signed, in what McKay said was an accident. Already a veteran of the Second World War, Turnbull was a member of the Black Watch at the time of his death and buried at the United Nations Cemetery in Buson. McKay visited his grave during the visit.
The hill McKay was last defending when the ceasefire was called now lies behind the North Korean border but as a delegate during the 60th anniversary he was personally thanked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in South Korea at the time for the G20 summit, for his service and was asked to lay the wreath on behalf of the Commonwealth of Nations.
“I was a very proud soldier when the asked me to lay the wreath for the Commonwealth,” McKay said.
This year in Canada is the Year of the Korean War veteran. Besides returning to South Korea as part of a delegation during the summer, he received a medal and accolades from prominent politicians, the South Korean government and dined with the Governor General at 1 Sussex Drive in Ottawa.
With fewer veterans of WWII with us, McKay says new focus on the Canadian men and women who have served in any conflict – Korea and the war efforts that came after it – is important and a distinction worth remembering.
“People that went to war, any war, deserve to be remembered.”