An Ongoing Mission of Remembrance: The Life of Gordon E.G. Brown
Part III: After the War
by Michael Saad
The Korean War weighed heavily on Gordon’s psyche upon his return home in the summer of 1953. The impact on the children, many of whom were orphaned by the fighting, remains an especially painful memory, so much so that it brings him to near tears today. With the countryside and cities ravaged, the kids were left to fend for themselves in the veritable wasteland that had been created by the North Korean invasion. Dirty, unkempt, scared, and starving, the children watched the Canadian soldiers. Many of the men tossed them food, typically chocolate bars and rations, causing the kids to scurry like mice to grab whatever they could. As the same kids appeared day-in and day-out, it became clear to Gordon and the rest of his cohorts that these children had truly lost everything, and the soldiers immediately took them in. Known as the “houseboys” of the Canadian military, the kids were given ‘houseboy’ chores such as washing the troops’ clothes in the river and sweeping up camp. In return, soldiers provided them food and clothing, always from their own personal supplies and often at their own personal inconvenience. Gordon remembers with a chuckle how eager the boys were to please, but also how hard they were on the soldier’s shirts in particular, beating the cloth with rocks in order to stamp out dirt and excess water from the creeks they washed them in. It was painfully obvious to Gordon and the rest of his mates that these children were desperate, unwitting victims of war. Gordon was hit hard by their plight. In his own words, the tragedy of their story hit him “right in the face, and I’ve never forgotten that, or them.”
With his service ending on July 27th, 1953 – the day the formal armistice halted the direct fighting of the Korean War – Gordon was deployed home on the General Freeman ship. He left Korea disillusioned about the war, embittered about humankind’s depravity towards fellow human beings, and thus vowed never to set foot in Korea again. Upon arriving back home, Gordon immediately left the military, having seen the horrors of war and preferring not to make it his life’s work. Instead, he wanted to rekindle his dream of flying and enrolled in aviation training college. Despite the Canadian government’s promises to support its troops post-war, Gordon paid for his schooling on his own, borrowing money from a friend to help pay his way. He received his pilot’s license to fly commercial airplanes in the Northwest Territories, which he did for several years. The war, of course, was never far from his mind – three months after setting foot on Canadian soil as a military veteran, Gordon began a duty that he has not neglected once in the 65 years that have passed since then – that is, regular attendance at a formal ceremony on Remembrance Day. Whatever disengagement he felt from the Canadian government and military, the memory of the 516 Canadian soldiers who didn’t make it home from Korea never left him.
In the 1960s Gordon started a new career working for the Caterpillar (CAT) company, specializing in heavy machinery. Having been groomed with formal business training by the company, who appreciated his hard work ethic, he was appointed Operations Manager for the CAT dealerships in Southern Alberta in 1965. Responsible for all aspects of the company’s business in the region, Gordon made the central location of Lethbridge his home. It was working for CAT that Gordon met his wife Marilyn Baxter-Kirk, who was living in Edmonton as an office services manager for the company, and herself a child of a military family. After what became a long distance courtship, of which Gordon flew himself from the Lethbridge Regional Airport to Edmonton most weekends, Gordon and Marilyn were married February 7th, 1976. Marilyn gave up her management job and moved with Gordon to Lethbridge, soon garnering work for herself with the Lethbridge Real Estate Board as their CEO.
After three decades of building his life trying to put the weight of his war experience behind him, Gordon decided to help start up a Korea War Veterans Association in Lethbridge, becoming a Charter Member in 1983. Expecting there to be only three or four veterans in the Southern Alberta area, comprised of the circle that he knew personally, he was surprised to discover there were twenty-two living in the area who attended the first meeting.[i] Upon starting up the organization an opportunity was presented to him, one that would offer Gordon a chance to go back to Korea, a place he had no inclination to ever go back to.
Beginning in 1975, the Korea Veterans Association in Seoul initiated the Korean Revisit Program, a venture now hosted by the South Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs. The intent of the program is to invite Korea War veterans from any of the 21 UN countries that participated in the liberation of South Korea to visit the country, and assess how it recovered thanks to their service and sacrifice.[ii] Covering the cost of the majority of the flight, and the entirety of the accommodations, meals, and bus tours of the various battle sites, cemeteries, and a tour to the DMZ itself, the Government of South Korea had, and continues to have, a deep heartfelt appreciation for the service people who took part in the UN mission.[iii] For many Korea veterans in Canada, especially by the 1980s, there was a stark feeling that the Korean War was a “forgotten war” and that veterans of the conflict, including those that lost their lives, were virtually unknown to the majority of Canadians, overshadowed by those who served in the much larger-scale World War II, which had ended five years before the smaller-scale Korean campaign started. Worse yet, these same Korea veterans, Gordon included, felt unappreciated by the Canadian government.[iv] As of the early 1980s, no national Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall existed, and no national volunteer service medal was in place for any of the soldiers who served.[v] Any requests at the time to institute such measures with official federal funding had been rebuffed by Government of Canada officials.[vi]
The prospect of return to South Korea was an opportunity that Gordon initially turned down. Marilyn convinced him otherwise, stating that “you’ll be sorry if you don’t go.” Gordon went for 10 days with a large contingent of veterans from around the world. With her children at home, Marilyn was unable to attend, leaving Gordon to travel on his own, uncertain whether his decision to go back was the right one. As soon as he arrived in Seoul, however, he noticed his reception in the country was quite different than the one he received in 1951; this was a developed, industrialized and vibrant South Korea, a far cry from the desperate wasteland of 32 years earlier. Greeted enthusiastically at the airport by government officials and civilians, Gordon was struck by the sincere hospitality of the South Korean people for him and the veterans he was with, a common observation that still holds true for the veterans who continue to take part in the program.[vii] Indeed, even today for Gordon, he still feels that same gratitude with the Korean Community in Lethbridge, who have continued to support and give thanks to the Korea War Veterans of Southern Alberta.
The most difficult aspect for Gordon was returning to the UN Cemetery in Pusan. He had last visited the site in 1953 to say goodbye to the friends he lost, an experience that had caused him to leave the country with a heavy heart. Gordon brought with him several small containers of Canadian soil in his baggage to bring to the graves of each of the soldiers he knew from Korea –friends like D.F. Bradshaw and Earl McIntyre. Knowing that his friends like Donnie and Earl couldn’t go back home to touch Canadian soil, Gordon decided he would bring a bit of Canadian soil back to them. “All those years later, standing at the grave of someone you know, knowing they’re with God, it’s still moving for me,” Gordon recounts, nearly 35 years since his return to Pusan and South Korea. For his friends killed in action in Korea, Gordon still thinks about them every day, and finds solace in going back to the UN Cemetery to have visited them, carrying out that gesture to bring a piece of home to their gravesites.[viii]
The opportunity provided to him by the Korean Revisit Program helped Gordon come to terms with his experiences in the Korean War. The immaculate care at the UN Cemetery in Pusan by the South Korean people continues to be of top quality, and a major, well-received attraction for tourists.[ix] It became clear to Gordon that this was a “new South Korea,” one very much recouped from the chaos of the early 1950s, and one beholden to the UN countries that fought to make it so. Handing out Canadian pins to school-children at a ceremony, Gordon recalls with a smile how each child wore the Maple Leaf flag proudly, while several teachers and parents shook his hand and said “Thank-you for your service to our country.”
Another occurrence on the trip indicated to Gordon just how ingrained the heartfelt appreciation of the South Korean people have for the veterans who served. Having retired from CAT and started his own company, Brown Tractor & Equipment, Gordon had managed to network on the trip with an executive from South Korea’s Daewoo Company, who had a line of forklifts that Gordon considered selling. The executive sent one of his salesmen to meet with Gordon one evening to discuss the machinery. Arriving in a well-pressed, professional suit, the Korean salesman was young, likely born after the war had ended. Speaking in perfect English, the young man chatted with Gordon about the forklifts in a contrite, business-like manner. When the conversation was finished, the Daewoo representative asked why Gordon, a Canadian man in his early 50s, had travelled to Seoul. When Gordon told him about the invite, the young man’s entire demeanor changed, and he instantly shook Gordon’s hand and bowed. Thanking Gordon profusely, he repeated to Gordon that the South Koreans “have never forgotten the service and sacrifice of the Canadian soldiers” and “what Canada did for the South Korean people.”[x] Remembering the conversation almost verbatim today, Gordon’s meeting with the young man was indicative of the entire South Korea welcome, and the attitude the people had for the contributions of the Canadian soldiers of the Korean War. It is that heartfelt recognition that Gordon speaks with great conciliation about today.
Returning from Korea the second time, Gordon rekindled a personal mission to making sure the contributions of Canada’s Korea War veterans were properly acknowledged in society, determined to not let them fade away as part of ‘Canada’s Forgotten War.’In the late 1980s, Gordon decided to lobby in the political realm to ensure Korea War veterans were recognized for their service and sacrifice. Working together with the then-Lethbridge area Member of Parliament Blaine Thacker, and his West Lethbridge MLA John Gogo (himself a Korea veteran), Gordon helped lobby for Korean War soldiers to be acknowledged with a volunteer service medal. After much discussion and debate in Ottawa, Thacker called Gordon one summer afternoon in 1991 to state that the commissioning of the medal had been approved by then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. As then-President of the Korea War Veterans Association, Gordon wanted to ensure that the Veterans of his home chapter were recognized formally and properly. Presenting to the provincial legislature in Edmonton, Gordon and John Gogo were instrumental in bringing the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, Thomas Towers, to Lethbridge, where a formal dinner and ceremony was held at the Top-of-the-Grandstand in Exhibition Park to honour the local veterans, a gesture that certainly was not provided to all Canadian veterans across the country.[xi] With the memories of his fallen friends from Korea in his mind and heart, Gordon was also actively involved in the nationwide effort by Korea War Veterans Associations, the Royal Canadian Legions, and the Korean communities to get a National War Memorial dedicated to the Korean War. Their collective efforts of fundraising and enlisted donations led to the commemoration of the Korean War Memorial Wall in 1996, which still stands today at Meadowvale Cemetery in Brampton, Ontario, with its landmark feature being a 61-meter granite wall, containing 516 bronze placards, each one dedicated to a respective Canadian soldier who was killed in the conflict.
In the 1990s and
2000s, Gordon took on a special commitment to keep the memory of the Korean War
alive. At schools, his central message to students is a truth that has haunted
him since his return from the Korean War, that “when you go through war, the
experience stays with you your whole life.” A member of The Memory Project,
Gordon helped fundraise and organize several trips for high school students to
the Military Museum of the Regiments in Calgary. In recent years, with both
North and South Korea in the news involving a veritable roller-coaster of
events, Gordon continues to speak whenever invited, encouraging teachers and
students alike to explore the contributions of veterans of any combat mission. Living
quietly with his wife Marilyn in Lethbridge, Gordon continues to attend Cadet
functions. Even though the Korea Veterans Association Chinook Unit #53 has been
relegated to Heritage Status in 2016 due to dwindling membership, Gordon is
still active with the Memory Project, slowing down only via limiting the number
of engagements he makes for the community and for schools. For Gordon, who
still considers himself a proud member of the Princess Patricia’s, there
remains an ingrained sense of duty, a purpose to keep him – even now, at 86
years of age – to continue his work of Remembrance. He is one of the last
remaining Korean veterans in the Lethbridge area, and it is for the memory of his
fallen friends, his comrades, and now his fellow Korea War survivors that he
wishes to carry the sacrifice and story of Canada’s involvement in Korea to the
next generation of Canadian youth.
[i] J.W. Schnarr, “Mission Accomplished for Korean War Veterans Unit,” The Lethbridge Herald, July 28, 2016.
[ii] Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, South Korea, Revisit Korea Program, Government of South Korea, 2018. http://english.mpva.go.kr/basic/content/content.asp?sgrp=D01&siteCmsCd=CM0015&topCmsCd=CM0016&cmsCd=CM0017&pnum=1&cnum=0.
[iii] Ibid. The Revisit Korea Program is entering its 43rd year as of the summer of 2018.
[iv] Garry Allison, “Gordon’s Fighting for Korean War Veterans,” The Lethbridge Herald, 1999.
[v] The Queen’s Korea Medal was awarded by the Commonwealth of Great Britain to Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and United Kingdom soldiers who served in the conflict, but no national Canadian medal existed for our own troops at that time.
[vi] CBC News The National Magazine, “A Korea Veteran Remembers ‘Canada’s Forgotten War.” Reporter: Dan Bjarnason, July 27th, 1999. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/a-veteran-remembers-canadas-forgotten-war
[vii] Donna Mills, “War Vets Return to Transformed South Korea,” (U.S. Department of Defense, September, 10, 2010). http://archive.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=60897
[viii] Personal Interview with Mr. Gordon Brown, November 14, 2017.
[ix] Trip Advisor, Imagine Your Korea, http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/ATR/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=264405. Most recent positive customer tourist reviews are from April 2018.
[x] Personal Interview with Mr. Gordon Brown, November 14, 2017.
[xi] CBC News, “A Korea Veteran Remembers,” Bjarnason, July 27, 1999.