Canadian navy excelled at train busting’
Thursday, Nov 07, 2013 06:00 am
Four medals, a photograph of a young man in a sailor’s uniform, and a mysterious certificate inducting the crew of the Canadian Tribal-class destroyer HMCS Athabaskan into the “Train Busters Club” are all that’s left to connect Canmore accountant George Robinson – and Outlook reporter Tanya Foubert’s grandfather – to the Korean War in this, the Year of the Korean War Veteran.
Veterans Affairs Canada declared 2013 the Year of the Korean War Veteran in January as a move to recognize the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire that ended the war on July 27, 1953.
It is also a way to honour the role more than 26,000 Canadians played in defending South Korea. During the five years of war on the Korean peninsula, 516 Canadians were killed and 1,558 were wounded.
“It is our duty today to pay tribute to more than 26,000 Canadian men and women in uniform who came to the aid of South Koreans during the Korean War, and in particular the 516 Canadians who gave their lives in service to defend the values of peace and freedom on the Korean peninsula,” Steven Blaney, Veterans Affairs minister, stated in a press release dated Jan. 8.
Robinson, who died in 1998 and is buried in the Field of Honour in the Canmore cemetery, served with the Royal Canadian Navy for 12 years from 1949 to 1961, including a five-year stint aboard HMCS Athabaskan in Korean waters from 1950 to 1954. He enlisted with the RCN at the age of 17, after lying about his age, saying he was 18.
He was aboard Athabaskan when it destroyed two North Korean military supply trains.
The Train Busters Club was an exclusive club that Andrew Burtch, post-1945 historian with the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, said recognized excellence in gunnery.
“It was an informal competition between ships in the UN forces as a way to demonstrate excellence in gunnery because a train may seem like a big target, but it is a fast moving target and it is not always exposed,” Burtch said.
“Often, north Koreans and Chinese would travel at night. You could hear the train and you’d fire a star shell and hopefully you’d hit it and hopefully you’d destroy all of the train as well as all of the supplies. So it was a challenge to hit a fairly small, fast moving target in terms of gunnery, and destroy it. Ships in the UN forces got fairly good at it and Athabaskan entered the club.”
HMCS Crusader, a Crescent-class destroyer larger than the Tribal class, held the Canadian record with eight trains destroyed, including taking out a north- and south-bound train at the same time.
“It was a way to disrupt logistics and demonstrate excellence in gunnery and it was recognized by the UN naval forces,” Burtch said.
Following the end of the war in the Pacific with Japan’s capitulation in September 1945, the USSR took control of North Korea, while the U.S. held South Korea. Each helped the regions recover and establish working governments, pending reunification talks.
That legacy left a democratic government in the south – the Republic of Korea – and a communist regime in the north – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The 38th parallel became the border between north and south.
Reunification agreements following 1948 failed and North Korea began cross-border skirmishes and raids, which turned into all-out war on June 25, 1950 when they invaded South Korea.
The United Nations Security Council, including Canada, declared North Korea an aggressor and pledged military support to the Republic of Korea in the south.
Canada’s first commitment was to send three warships, the Tribal-class destroyers HMCS Athabaskan, Cayuga and Sioux. The three ships left the west coast of Canada and arrived in Korea on July 30, 1950.
Tribal-class destroyers HMCS Huron and HMCS Nootka arrived in Korean waters in 1951, followed by Haida and Iroquois in 1952. The Crescent-class destroyer HMCS Crusader reached Korea in 1952, as well.
Not all of those ships were part of the UN naval forces at one time. Typically, only three ships were in theatre at one time.
The Athabaskan is often used as the case study for Canada’s naval operations in Korea as it was the longest serving Canadian ship, at 31 months.
In December, 1951, the Athabaskan received the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, the only Canadian ship honoured, for its role in UN naval operations, including support of the Inchon landing, operations along the coast and landing raiding parties.
The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, meanwhile, received the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for its role at the battle of Kapyong, where the 2nd battalion of the PPCLI held off a massive Chinese attack, keeping the Chinese army from breaking through to Seoul.
Given their size at 115 metres, the Canadian destroyers played an important role in the UN naval force, fulfilling a number of roles.
Routine operations for Athabaskan included control of shipping along the east and west coasts, bombarding Chinese and North Korean gun emplacements and other shore-based targets, detonating mines and protecting larger ships such as air craft carriers. Athabaskan and other Canadian destroyers also provided support to Republic of Korea naval commandoes.
“(Canadian destroyers) were integrated with American ships, British ships and carriers. As destroyers they had enough firepower. They could disrupt shipping, but be small enough to navigate the difficult waters along the coast. They were well integrated with the U.S. and British forces,” Burtch said.
Like a tank crew, the crew of a destroyer is comprised of many specialists all working together as a team to reach a common objective.
“You have to have a very disciplined crew that is multi-talented and able to carry out multiple tasks during very trying circumstances in co-operation with other ships,” said Burtch.
“In awe, people come into the museum from different trades and different times, and the folks that served there were real specialists and this is a ship that was filled with specialists working in teams as one team,” Burtch said. “The nature of the conflict was such that the role of the RCN was to contribute to UN naval superiority. They were there to control the seas around Korea and North Korea.”
And, while the Korean War has often been described as the “forgotten war” given the relatively low numbers of Canadian men and women who served, compared to the First and Second World Wars, Burtch said the Korean War was never forgotten by people, like Robinson, who served there, and their families.
“It never really was a forgotten war, certainly not for the servicemen and their families. It didn’t perhaps have the same cachet as the Second World War with its totalizing enemies and final victories. The tale of the Cold War with its negotiated end is not as satisfying, but for the crews who served there and went through that it was meaningful,” Burtch said.
“It’s important to remember the sacrifices and the hardships they went through because veterans who did serve there are fewer and fewer. They’ve never been forgotten by the people who were there, but there’s fewer and fewer people, so it is important for us to carry on the history and have an understanding what the Canadians lived through and experienced.”