Monday, November 11, 2013

In Conversation With...Harold Patterson

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, November 6, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

* 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War (1950-1953). Harold Patterson served in that war. Earlier this year, The Government of Canada declared July 27 will be recognized annually as “Korean War Veterans Day”. *

Around his neck, Harold Patterson wears the Ambassador of Peace medal he just received from the Korean government. He shakes hands with a representative of Veterans Affairs Canada prior to receiving a Certificate of Recognition from the Canadian government. 

     Sitting in the beautiful country kitchen of his house on King Street in Pugwash, Harold Patterson talks with ease about his service during the Korean War (1950 to 1953). His detailed memories are in sharp contrast to the quiet, sunny autumn day. 
“I’m a combat veteran,” says Harold, who joined the Armed Forces while he was still in high school in Montreal. “I was with the First Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which is an airborne infantry. The first Canadian forces had been over there for a year and the war was still going on so they needed replacements. They decided to take the three First Battalions that were in Canada: the Vandoos [Royal 22nd Regiment], the Royal Canadian Regiment based in Petawawa, and us. All airborne regiments. We were all sent to Korea in October 1951. I came home in December 1952.”
He starts to speak then he stops as if gathering his thoughts on a difficult subject, not pleasant memories. 
“You know when you go over, you’re a young guy and full of pee and vinegar then you get there. You really do say to yourself, ‘What in the hell am I doing here? We’re not fooling around here’,” he says. “But anyway I survived it. We were in very heavy fighting for two periods of time but we made a good account of ourselves. After that period of time, they created what they called third battalions who came over and replaced us. They were there until 1953. It was pretty hard.”
According to Harold, they fought through rice paddies and lowlands that were wet and mucky. 
“We had quite a cold winter and a very bad rainy season the year I was there,” he says. “It rained for 38 days non-stop. The skin on your feet was the colour of that – ” He points to a piece of white paper lying on the kitchen table. “Talk about waterlogged. And when we came out of the line, we were in such a filthy state that they had large tents with hot showers and you walked up to one and you stripped naked. You got deloused coming out and your head shaved. Oh, we were crawling with stuff. They gave you a whole new kit to put on. You went on to rest and recuperation for awhile. Oh, we were a mess.” 
He pauses again. “It was not the best. But you’re young and the discipline is there and you accept it and you do it.”
When he returned to Canada after more than a year of fighting in Korea, Harold admits it was hard to adjust. 
“Parts of it still do stick in your mind. It’s an experience you go through. The army trains you the best they can. If you are a combat soldier, you’re shooting at people and that certainly isn’t something people brought up in Canada adjust to very easily. You have a difficult time with that.”
But the hardest thing, he says, was visiting a family whose son was killed in Korea. 
“That’s a difficult thing to have to go and meet a mother who has a son who hasn’t come home. It tears you apart, really,” Harold says. “You can imagine what it must be like for them because they see you and the last time they saw their son, he was wearing the same uniform. That was a tough one to do.”
As a young man in combat, fighting for his life and for his country, he couldn’t help but consider the point of it all. 
“You often think when you’re fighting in the line, ‘You know, the guy on the other side comes from a home the same as me’ and at times you do say to yourself, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ It is true, you do think that way.”
After he returned home, Harold decided to leave the Armed Forces. 
“The Iron Curtain went up in Europe and we were slated to go to Europe,” he says. “It affected my mother terribly, me being in the Forces, so I took my discharge.”
In those days, bodies were not repatriated so the soldiers who died in Korea are buried in Korea.  According to a Government of Canada website about the Korean War, “516 Canadians died and of these 378 soldiers are buried in the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea. Another 16 soldiers have not been found and 5 sailors were lost at sea. The remaining 117 soldiers are buried in Canada and Japan.”
Harold and his wife, Shirley, retired to Pugwash twenty years ago after living in Montreal and Ottawa. That’s when he became involved with the Royal Canadian Legion’s national poster and literary contests, so this time of year, Harold is busy speaking to students. 
“I don’t speak about shooting and killing,” he says. “I try to talk to the young people in regards to the effects that the war has on people.”
His message has to do with avoiding violence. 
“As they grow up, they should do everything they can do avoid confrontations,” Harold says he tells the students. “Even starting with bullying in school. One thing leads to another and when you get into a fight with someone in schools – the result of the fight isn’t going to do anything for anyone. It’s an exercise in futility. And wars are terrible things.”
For this, he provides a poignant statement. 
“In my regiment alone, we had 127 killed, 280 wounded. Just in our regiment. It really hits you,” Harold admits. “This goes on when you’re there. The first ones that get killed or injured really shake you up. You say ‘This is for real.’ And when we were coming out of the line and went to southern Busan, you see all the white crosses at the military cemetery and it really impacts you. You visually see how many were killed.”
Harold, who turns 82 on November 12, says Remembrance Day is very important to the veterans who served in wars. 
“Many of us on Remembrance Day really do think of buddies who didn’t make it home,” he says. “For the young people especially and the parents of soldiers who did not come home, to have that minute to reflect sincerely about the way they sacrificed their lives to help others and thank these individuals who didn’t come home. The statement that we make: ‘We will remember them’. Yes, we should and we will remember them. Some of them had awfully short lives.”

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