11 November 2005

Bruce Winsor's not-so-forgotten war

Despite his insistence that age is catching up with him, Bruce Winsor still carries himself with the bearing of the young man who served in Korea from 1951 to 1952. He is older, to be sure, as are all veterans of the Korean Conflict, but events of a half century ago return with force when Winsor recounts events of over a half century ago.

The son of Salvation Army officers, Bruce Winsor was born November 1926 in Garnish, Newfoundland. For Winsor, being in the army seemed to offer opportunities never dreamed of in Newfoundland. Tommy Ricketts, a boyhood hero, was a distant cousin and while living on Pilley'’s Island, Winsor got to know one of the few Newfoundland veterans of the Boer War. Their stories were fascinating. "“It always seemed important to think bigger,"” Winsor would say later, "about life in general and about the world outside Newfoundland."

In Burin, during the Second World War, the teenaged Winsor tried to volunteer for the army, lying about his age. When the Newfoundland Ranger who handled his enlistment dropped by his house the night before he was scheduled to leave, Winsor'’s parents told the sergeant their son was too young to enlist. There were no repercussions, but the young Winsor decided that at the next opportunity, he would volunteer to become a soldier.

Winsor worked at Argentia when North Korea invaded the south in June 1950. The Canadian government decided to call for volunteers to make up a special army brigade as part of the United Nations force. In August 1950, he made his way to the Canadian Army recruiting centre at Buckmaster'’s Circle in St. John'’s. After completing the medical, personality and other tests, Winsor was enrolled and sent to Camp Shilo, Manitoba for basic training as a driver/radio operator in the artillery.

"There was very little attention to the spit and polish," Winsor recalled. The focus was on getting people ready to go. His memories of basic training are positive, noting that he took whatever came his way from instructors with energy - "“When you want something bad enough, you can do anything."

His batch of volunteers flew from Argentia on an American aircraft to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, then on to Montreal before boarding a train for Manitoba. Winsor recalled with a chuckle that his first flight ever was in a converted bomber with passengers sitting along benches much like in a truck. "“The last thing they did before we got on the plane was give us parachutes,"” he said.

Many of the men he served with were veterans of the Second World War or soldiers from the regular force. Throughout his service, Winsor and the other volunteers from Newfoundland and Labrador were mixed in among other Canadians from across the country. (Left: Gunners of Dog Battery, 2 Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, in action in Korea, 1953)

Winsor and his comrades in Fox Troop, Fox Battery, 2 Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery supported the famous Royal 22nd Regiment throughout his time in Korea. "“None of us spoke French," he said, adding quickly that it didn'’t matter where anyone came from in the country. "“We were all there to do a job."”

"“I had a camera with me the whole time, and took a lot of pictures," Winsor recalled. His comrades jokingly called him Bill Boss, after a well-known photographer of the time. He has no no pictures, though, of the train wreck at Canoe River, British Columbia on 21 November 1950 that killed 17 of his mates, including five from Newfoundland and Labrador. Another 42 were injured. The memories, though, are still vivid. "“Everything in the Army was done alphabetically, so the train cars were loaded from front to back beginning with Dog battery. We were in the back so we felt an awful jolt. The company clerk and his typewriter were tossed around the car."”

The troop train had collided with a civilian passenger train, sending the lead cars of the troop train down a cliff. Four of the killed were never recovered. Winsor could only rely on his Boy Scout First Aid training to help treat the injured. "“Some were horrible"”, he recalled. In the collision, steam from the troop train engine had showered the lead cars, leaving some of the soldiers with severe burns.

25 Canadian Infantry Brigade and Gunner Bruce Winsor arrived in Korea in May 1951.

"“The first thing I remember is the smell,"” Winsor said of arriving off the South Korean port of Pusan. The city was full of refugees that had fled there after the North Korean attack and with a lack of proper sanitation, the stench carried well out to sea. People lived in cardboard shacks, metal culverts and whatever other shelter they could find. Food was scarce and the soldiers considered themselves very lucky to have rations. Winsor'’s second memory though brought a wry smile back to his face: "“The U.S. Army band on the dock played '‘If I knew you were coming, I'’d have baked a cake'’ as we came ashore."”

On the move to the front, burned out tanks along the roadside were a hint of the bitter fighting that had taken place and what lay ahead. Winsor'’s job as a driver/radio operator put him at the front with the infantry, as part of the artillery observation post. "“We had to be right with the infantry so we could support them. “The guns were set a bit farther back but for us, we had to see where the shot was falling on the enemy and make any corrections."”

On his very first action, a night patrol forward of the Canadian lines, Winsor got a taste of the risks he faced. Coming to the top of a ridge with the rest of the patrol, he heard the whiz of a bullet go past his head. The patrol took cover almost instinctively. "“There was a little depression in the ground and I got right down there. When you are under fire, even a tank or jeep track looks like a good place to keep from getting hit."

Looking around, the patrol spotted a lone Korean soldier, who foolishly had given himself away by firing. The infantry soldiers on the patrol captured him and brought him back to Canadian lines.

Later on, another incident proved a reminder of danger that still lingers. Not used to being at the front, a new observation team had driven almost all the way forward to where Winsor'’s group was located. The new arrivals had been spotted by North Koreans who shelled them heavily.

The padre'’s batman - his personal aide - was a metre away from Winsor when he was struck by a large fragment that tore a gapping wound in the man'’s head. With the barrage over, the padre cradled the man in his arms, but there was no helping him. A half century has not erased the incident from Winsor'’s memory. "“You realize that could have been me,"” he said, his voice trailing off and his gaze passing to the window for several moments of silence.

Their service done, the first special force contingents returned to Canada in 1952. Winsor left the Army and operated a photography shop at Argentia, before eventually coming to St. John'’s to work for the Department of Education. He married and raised a family. Each year, he paraded on July 1st and November 11 with his comrades, but for the past two years, poor health has kept him from marching. "“I still go. I drive down to the monument."” He'’d like to go back to Korea, too, something too few of his comrades from Newfoundland and Labrador have been able to do either.

In all, more than 26, 000 Canadians served in Korea between 1950 and 1953. More than 1, 500 were casualties with 516 killed.

Bruce Winsor would do it all again if he had the chance. His time in Korea showed him a rich experience of life, something he says he has taken with him ever since. These days, though he can look back on those days with a simple lesson learned:

"“I appreciate life more."”


Note: This is a revised version of a piece that originally appeared in the Remembrance Day 2003 edition of The Independent. What originally was supposed to be an hour-long interview turned into an afternoon of reminiscences of both good times and some incidents best forgotten.

Bruce Winsor returned to Korea this past summer, but fell and broke his hip during the trip. He currently lives at the Caribou Pavillion, St. John's and continues to recover from the injury and subsequent surgery.