Buried Atrocities

An excerpt from Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific

Were you aware that all the uranium used in the Manhattan Project—the Trinity test and then the two bombs detonated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—was first refined by Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited at Port Hope, Ontario? Did you know that the Americans repealed their ban on Chinese immigration in 1943, four years before Canada did? Has it ever been drawn to your attention that between June and December 1946, that is to say starting ten months after the end of World War Two, Canada deported 3,964 people to Japan, 66 percent of whom were Canadian citizens?

These are the sorts of unsettling facts included in Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific by John Price, a historian at the University of Victoria. Focusing on racism and imperialism and how they are intertwined, the book traces this largely neglected strand of Canadian history from the Vancouver race riots of 1907 through both world wars and the Korean War to this country’s early intervention in Vietnam in the mid 1950s.

The excerpt below concerns the actions of several Canadian soldiers in Korea, and how those actions were dealt with by Canada’s military courts.

It was September 1951. Armistice talks between the warring antagonists had begun, but fighting continued. A UN engineer unit was stationed only two or three hundred metres from Shin Hyun-Chan’s old house, constructing roads and support facilities for the war effort. Shin’s family farmed, growing rice and beans on their land until the war came. The UN troops were living in tents in an adjacent field, and some Korean soldiers were staying in a house nearby. He recalled: “It was the middle of the night; I remember because there was a full moon, and it must have been the eighth month [according to the lunar calendar] and he came into our house and told us to come out. The soldier first asked my father something, but he had no idea what he was talking about because he couldn’t speak the language, so my father called me to help with communication, and that’s when the shooting started … the soldier had this machine gun in his hands, and there must have been about thirty bullets in it … and so we went out, and then he starts shooting.” The soldier was standing in the middle of the courtyard, a common feature of Korean houses of the era. Shin’s younger siblings and mother were in their respective rooms at the time. Shin doesn’t remember much after being shot but he did recall the weapon that was used: “You could see the bullets,” he said, “about thirty bullets that go into the cartridge and you feed it from the bottom.” His only other recollection was that other soldiers came into the courtyard and that he was transported somewhere with his father, Shin Yong-Dok. He was sure the shooter was a Canadian: “The way he was dressed, the uniform and all, was Canadian.”

Shin’s mother, Park Chong-Soon, now eighty-eight and crippled by age and a life of hardship, recalled: “The soldier shot towards the room so that the bullet skinned my ten-year old daughter in the neck. I ran out of the room and looked to see my husband lying down covered with blood on his stomach area. I tried to cover his stomach but others came and said it wasn’t going to do any good. My son was also bleeding … Soldiers came in after my husband and my son got shot, and they took them to the hospital. The next day soldiers came and took me to where my husband was, but by the time I got there he had already died. I then looked for my son but he was transferred to another hospital. So my situation … of course it was horrible.” Park said that she had no photograph to remind her of her husband, that she was left with nothing: “When I came home [from the hospital] they brought my husband’s body back. He was totally stripped, he had nothing on, and he was just wrapped in a blanket. The next day I went to look for my son again, and so the villagers and friends came in and just took him and buried him.”

The younger Shin was hospitalized for twenty-five or twenty-six days, twenty days in a Norwegian field unit at Tuk Kye-Ri and then another five days in a Red Cross hospital in Seoul. Shin found out later that a soldier accused of the crimes was to be court-martialled. He and his sister attended the trial. A translator told him afterwards that the perpetrator had been sentenced to ten years and sent back to Canada: “But we didn’t really know and there was no way to verify it.” Life was not easy for the Shin/Park family after losing their father. They tried to eke out a living from farming but eventually had to sell the farm. In 1956, Shin served an obligatory three years in the military, but his disabilities from the shooting were such that he ended up incapacitated much of the time. After recounting his ordeal, Shin displayed the scars from his wounds, an entry scar on his abdomen and the exit wound on his back, as well as another scar near his elbow.

Shin might have taken his tragic story to his grave had it not been for the fact that a political revolution in 1987–88 finally toppled the corrupt and repressive juntas that had ruled South Korea from 1948 until the end of the 1980s. The flowering of democracy released spirits that had long been repressed. Kim Dong-choon, associate professor of history at Songkonghue University in Seoul, is one of the founding members of the Truth Commission on Civilian Massacres during the Korean War.According to Kim, hundreds of victims of atrocities committed during the war have come forth to tell stories not unlike those of Shin, and in every part of the country, regional advocacy groups for the victims have been established with the assistance of local NGOs. Atrocities were committed by all sides during the war, but after forty years of only hearing allegations of North Korean atrocities during the authoritarian period, the new stories were dramatically changing the portraits of the past in South Korea …

Stories, no matter how truthful, have difficulty becoming ingrained in public memory if they go against dominant interpretations of wars. At best they are integrated into conventional narratives as tragic but isolated inci-dents, perpetrated by soldiers who are considered bad apples. Life goes on. War itself is inhumane, or so the story goes. In South Korea, however, that response does not suffice. The incidents are so numerous and widespread that, as the tragedy of the war is finally brought to light, we find that … the murder of an innocent civilian north of Seoul is only the tip of a large, blood-stained iceberg. The ongoing democratic revolution is melt-ing that iceberg, and, as it disappears, the bloody past is re-emerging and telling a new generation in South Korea different stories, reinforcing a sense of nationhood long denied. It is a past that leads from Korea to Washington and to other capitals, including Ottawa …

On 6 December 1951, Canadian army headquarters in Ottawa announced that John Murray Steeves, a sapper with the 57th Independent Field Squadron of the Royal Canadian Engineers, would be tried for the murder of Shin’s father. Army headquarters had appointed Brigadier A.B. Connelly, commander of the Canadian military mission in Tokyo, as court president, and he arrived in Seoul on 13 December. The court martial began the following day. According to press reports, those who had found Steeves testified that he had appeared incoherent and complained that “a Korean had stolen his watch.” The watch had been recovered, but the two soldiers who produced it and the investi-gating warrant officer were both undergoing psychiatric treatment in Japan. Another witness testified that Steeves had left his bed muttering, “Unless I get my wife back tonight somebody’s going to die.” Steeves had been drunk going to work on 16 September and was even more drunk upon arriving back from work around 4:00 PM, when he was put to bed. He had been as-signed guard duty beginning at 3:00 AM the next morning. Two other sap-pers testified that they had accompanied Steeves into the village where they had taken over an unoccupied house so they could have a party where they “couldn’t bother anybody.” According to Shin’s testimony at the time, three soldiers had visited their home seeking “women and liquor.” … On 16 December, a Canadian army psychiatrist testified that Steeves had a mild form of “repressed hostility” that might cause him to “explode” if intoxicated. Steeves himself testified on 17 December, during his court martial in Seoul, that he could not remember anything about the incident. The following day, the court convicted Steeves of manslaughter and sentenced him to fifteen years in prison. It appeared that the rule of law, a liberal touchstone, was functioning even during a war fifty years ago. Subsequent events, however, fail to sustain that premise.

On 13 June 1952, Canadian Press reported that a Canadian “found guilty of manslaughter in the death of a Korean civilian and sentenced to 15 years in prison ha[d] been freed by the Defence Department.” John Steeves was freed “some time ago,” after Judge Advocate General Brigadier W.A. Lawson ruled that he had been wrongfully convicted at the December court martial, basing his ruling on the law involving “circumstantial evidence.” In other words, Steeves didn’t serve even six months of his fifteen-year sentence. News of this development never reached the Shin family. Was the court martial really that flawed? Was Steeves really innocent? We may never know the answers to those questions. As it turns out, what happened to Shin and his family, and the impunity that the perpetrator received, was not an iso-lated incident. Six months prior to the Shin murder, Glen Blank, Alan Davis, and Donald Gibson of the Princess Patricia Regiment left their camp near the village of Chung Woon Myon. They had just come back from the front for a two-week rest period and had been partying. They came across a farm-house and decided that this was their stop. Inside they found a farmer, sev-eral South Korean soldiers, and two women, one of whom was the sister of one of the soldiers. The Canadian soldiers demanded that the women have sex with them. The women were beaten when they refused, then they were dragged off and raped. The South Korean soldiers tried to intervene but were beaten senseless at gunpoint. On their departure, Glen Blank tossed a grenade into the farmhouse, and, for good measure, the Canadian troops fired their weapons into the building as they left the scene. Local authorities complained and rumours started, attracting the attention of Bill Boss, a Canadian Press correspondent. Ten days after the crimes, Boss had finally pieced the story together and had sent it to his head office. It never arrived. A few months later, MacLean’s revealed what had happened to Boss’s story, written nearly half a year earlier. It had been censored by officials in Tokyo, who forwarded it to Canadian army headquarters, where it languished. To add insult to injury, Boss himself “was subjected to a campaign of vilifica-tion from United Nations public relations officers. He was called ‘subver-sive’ and an abortive attempt was made to oust him from the Korean theatre.” Finally, on 1 August 1951, defence headquarters announced that Blank, Gibson, and Davis would be court-martialled that fall. After a week of trials, military judges found Blank guilty of manslaughter, and Gibson and Davis, of attempted rape. Blank received a sentence of life imprisonment, while Gibson and Davis received two years less a day and eighteen-month terms, respectively. They were shipped home to Canada to serve their sen-tences. Yet, on 8 July 1952, Blank was released, and Gibson and Davis saw their sentences set aside. There were hundreds and perhaps thousands of such violent crimes committed by UN forces. Of the sixty or so Canadian cases that actually came to trial and resulted in convictions, most of those convicted, like Steeves and Blank, were released upon their return to Can-ada. In another example, two soldiers, Vincent Francis Carlisle and Donald James Ferrier, were convicted of raping a Korean woman and sentenced to ten and fifteen years, respectively, in 1951. The court-martial appeal board ordered a new trial for these men on 4 September 1952. The pattern of conviction in Korea and exoneration in Canada casts doubt on the integrity of the military justice system. Indeed, a Canadian military historian recently concluded that the record of remission and release was a travesty of justice and “another example of the institutional racism that seems to have perme-ated the upper echelons of the Department of National Defence.” It is an assertion that, if anything, understates the problem.

Many Canadian soldiers conducted themselves with discipline and integrity while in Korea, and the Korean Veterans Association had to overcome ser-ious impediments to have their sacrifices remembered. Indeed, some of the Canadian soldiers displayed a strong sense of humanity towards the Korean people. For example, Sergeant-Major Maurice Juteau of the Royal 22nd Regiment was distraught at the pitiable conditions he found in a Korean hospital and decided to take matters into his own hands. He organized what became known as the “khaki charities.” Juteau asked his comrades to donate clothes and food that had come from Canada. Not only did sol-diers respond, they also began to donate part of their rations and were able to provide thousands of supplementary meals for Koreans. Such acts of benevolence need to be acknowledged. But they should not be counter-posed to acts of criminal behaviour, as if one offsets the other. The question the historian must answer is why a substantial number of soldiers committed crimes against civilians, and why these acts went unpunished. Today, thanks to the efforts of critical scholarship, we now know that the commission of atrocities is often just an extreme reflection of a broader social problem. A new generation of military historians is today acknow-ledging the problem of racism, but there remains much to be done to under-stand how racism interacts with other -variables to produce some of the most horrific crimes.